Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On race and racelessness

I just finished reading an article in which the only person assigned a race was the African-American flight attendant whose name was the only one not remembered, "it was something like Gazelle."

I'm immediately drawn back to graduate school and a Toni Morrison article and her challenging novel Paradise, where one of the opening lines is "They shot the white girl first." It's compelling to try to track the characters and determine which girl was white, but simultaneously almost impossible to track the characters to determine which girl was white. At the end, one question stood: does her race matter?

Why is race so important in character development? What does establishing a character's race tell us that helps us to better understand the character and/or author's purpose and/or theme?

Why was the personal essayist who was writing about meeting strangers in airports to gather and share people's stories so compelled to identify the African-American flight attendant's race in the story? Why couldn't she just be the female flight attendant, like Chad was the male attendant? Why was her name forgotten, yet Chad's remembered? Why and how did her name become similar to "gazelle?" Did her height and skin color and the modifier "stunning" make her exotic? Was her name so ethnic that it could be anything? Was her race identified to add imagery, color to the text? Why did her race matter?

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