Saturday, August 31, 2013

#15: The Store

Picture it: America, Post-Civil War. The slaves have been freed, the south has been reconstructed, and freedom is ringing throughout the land. Right? Well, not exactly. Someone with a sense of humor might have titled this book "Now, do you get it?" as  means of completely summing up why slavery only freed the slaves on paper and why the United States absolutely needed The Civil Rights Act to be written and passed. It also gives us 20th century readers a startling look back at what it meant to be a free Black man or woman in the south after the war and some much needed insight on what institutional racism is and how it can completely shape a person's destiny no matter how hard they try to overcome it. It is worth noting that this book provided no heroes or easy solutions and honestly, no hope. In short, it was pretty much exactly the opposite of The Help. (which is a good thing)

Yes, this unassuming little book, The Store by T.S. Stribling did all of that. And it was also a really gripping story.

Where to start? There are so many themes covered in this novel. An entire university course could easily be developed about the post-reconstruction era American south just using this one novel as a guide. You have the optimistic notion of the honesty of men in a free market system, you have the prevailing concept of women as property, you have the expectation of Black people as being naturally subservient beings, you have the harsh reality of what a mother will do to protect her child, you have a pretty pitch-perfect example of a "Tragic Mulatto," and a clear picture of the danger involved in a Black person becoming educated, ambitious, or even just judicious.

Can you imagine living in a world where being clever could get you assaulted? And if that happened, can you imagine having no legal recourse or police protection to prevent it from happening again? The entire world tht T.S. Stribling painted for us was one with no safety, no protection, no justice, and frankly not a shred of dignity. For any of Stribling's contemporary readers who might not have easily related to the injustices faced by the Black and Mulatto characters, a neatly packaged example is given to us in the form of Colonel Vaiden (of the now defunct Confederate army and current leader of a KKK chapter) being conned out of his fortune by his white business partner, Handback. The details of the con aren't as important as the fact that, in the end, Vaiden is screwed because there were no laws on the books to prevent Handback from doing what he did. Vaiden's only option (at least in his mind) is to plot out an illegal means of revenge which he does overtime and brilliantly so. But as Vaiden's power grows, he becomes a more and more detestable person. Is Stribling advocating against seeking illegal revenge because it will destroy you? Is he a pacifist AND an in-activist? "Here is how bad everything is but don't try to do anything about it because fighting back will taint you." Funny enough, that was more or less the reality for many of these characters so perhaps he was just speaking true to the time period. Speak up for yourself and you will get smacked down. Again, this book provided no easy solutions to the problems it presented.

I am curious to know how bad of a soul Vaiden is in the first book of this trilogy (this is book #2). We do find out some ugly (but common to the time) truths about his sexual liasons both past and present that lead me to believe Vaiden has never been a good guy and his oppressive and manipulative behavior in this book is how he has always been, in good economic times and bad ones.

The cast of characters in this book is ginormous. The character who intrigued me the most was Toussaint because I never did decide whether or not the author liked him or approved of him. Toussaint is a second generation child of plantation rape. As such, his skin and appearance is very nearly like that of a white man. His ambitious and well-meaning mulatto mother has made the tragic mistake of raising a willful and proud race-less young man in a very volatile town. There is not one single thing about Toussaint's appearance or demeanor that makes him well-suited to live in the American south. You know he is doomed from the start, just like his historical namesake. Even as you are hoping for him to escape to the north, his ideas about whiteness and Blackness are so screwed up by his mother's upbringing that he is destined to be miserable and living a lie wherever he goes. He is a dangerous groom for either a Black or a white bride, north or south. In another time and another place, he would just be another stereotypical asshole Uncle Tom, but Toussaint was so much more than that. He wasn't a young Black man who hated Black people. He was a young Black man who genuinely believed that he deserved to be white while still being completely aware of the fact that he was not actually white. The book forces us to ask ourselves, what is "whiteness" and how does one "earn" it? In this story, whiteness is the absense of the knowledge of having any "other" in you. So as long as Toussaint's mother is there, he will always know he isn't white. But what made him feel he "deserved" to be that anyway? He saw "whiteness" as a status symbol and something that he had earned by being smart, handsome, good, and any other adjective he would never apply to a Black person. He even looked down on his mother even though he loved her.

Toussaint evolves as the story goes along. The author does an excellent job of letting time and circumstance shape and reshape all of his characters' personalities and opinions, making everyone feel very full of blood and life. How Toussaint ends up is very different from how he began, and his story line alone makes the book worth reading. I am going to try to recommend this book to as many people as possible. It is just a great starting point for so many discussions on the politics of race.

No comments: