A few days ago I read a really good literary hub article by Tyrese L. Coleman called ‘Reading Jane Eyre while black.’ The article pretty much analysed the text from a black feminist standpoint by arguing that although ‘Jane Eyre,’ is a classic novel, it does not empower black women and to make matters worse, it is racist and condescending towards black women. The article really tripped me up because it made me confront truths I did not want to face with most of the texts I’ve read and loved written by white women- these women were not writing for me. These women were writing for their time and demographic.
Although context helps us understand why a writer thought a certain way or decided to write a certain piece, it does not excuse the words of an author, it only explains them. I think black people are allowed to hate the subtle racism in an old text and simultaneously acknowledge that it is a classic if they want to. For instance, I think Shakespare (assuming he wrote all his stuff) is undeniably the greatest writer ever and almost every phrase we use today evolved from Shakesperean literature. However, that does not excuse the fact that he played into racist stereotypes in plays such as ‘The Tempest,’ where the beast who lives on the Island has babariac mannerisms to mirror what Shakespare possibly thought of black men. To me, ‘Jane Eyre,’ is a classic because the numerous themes in the novel from religion, depression, isolation and love, flow into each other and connect seamlessly to create a well thought out and detailed plot. However, the novel is racist towards black women for reasons stated in the literary hub article, (which I linked to the bottom of this write up). In addition, ‘Wide Sargasso Sea,’ by Jean Rhys tells the story of the mixed-race protagonist in ‘Jane Eyre,’ (called Bertha), through a more compassionate lens. Rhys cleverly implies that Bertha is misunderstood and Bronte unfairly painted a mad and sexually irrepressible image of her.
I am not blaming Charlotte Bronte for misunderstanding and disregarding black women- I have learnt not to expect much from white writers and context shows she was simply a product of her time. However, like I said earlier, context explains but it is no excuse. Literature transcends time regardless of whether authors are mindful of that or not and black people are not expected to forgive, forget or excuse racism displayed in texts simply because they were written by white people in the 1900s or earlier. We are allowed to critique classics, we are even allowed to dislike classics if they are not for us. We shouldn’t feel ‘extra,’ or overly sensitive for calling out things that make us feel uncomfortable.
Due to the negative images or complete erasure of black people in many western classics, I think we need to make a conscious effort to read literature or classics by black writers. focusing solely on western literature is limiting one’s reading experience. Reading African literature not only teaches you about various African cultures from different perspectives, it also helps to break down feelings of internalised racism and misogynoir. For instance, a black girl who only grew up reading work by white feminist writers, such as the Bronte sisters or Jane Austen will possibly have little to no grasp of intersectionality and may not be aware that there is a movement out there, which centres her own experiences.
The article which inspired this post : http://lithub.com/reading-jane-eyre-while-black/