I learned of the book Small Great Things from a black woman perusing a local Barnes & Noble a couple of years ago. She was holding it, planning to buy it because of the good things she’d heard. Other readers she spoke with seemed impressed by the author’s ability to discuss black hair even though she—a white woman—likely had no personal experience with the idea. I forgot about this conversation until I noticed the paperback in Target a few weeks ago. While I had my doubts about the book—writing race and racism isn’t any easy thing—I was now curious enough to give it a chance. It didn’t take long for me to realize that, for me, this wasn’t just a book about a black nurse facing discrimination, but a prime example of the reasons black readers are often skeptical of black stories penned by white authors.
I had my doubts about Jodi Picoult’s ability to write a black character’s experience of race. Being black in this country is a unique existence best understood through experience. It isn’t really something you can observe and truly comprehend. It is even more difficult now because racism, in many ways, has transformed from the obvious to the obscure. Sure, there are those who have no problem placing their prejudice and hate on display, but for the most part, it is unacceptable to do so. Still, some people are unable to hide their discomfort when a black man is walking behind them on a sidewalk or their fear when suddenly there’s a black person in their neighborhood they haven’t seen before. So it felt strange that the author would set her story in 2015 and focus the plot on Ruth’s encounter with a white supremacist family. There’s certainly enough racist behavior in the “progressive” white characters around her. Had that been the main focus, maybe the story could have offered a truer, more unsettling view of what it feels like to be black in America.
Very early in the story, it started to feel like the author was trying to prove something to her readers. She rattled off moments of obvious discrimination, mentions of black hair, colorism, and pressures to succeed and assimilate like she was checking off a list instead of trying to write an experience. Usually these elements didn’t make sense, they didn’t really add anything to the story. She essentially made Ruth a composite; she collected as many racial incidents as she could into this one character that was so weighed down by it, she was completely unrecognizable to me.
To make matters worse, it seemed that Ruth was supposed to be having some sort of racial epiphany—finally seeing her world as it really was. The problem is, the author seemed to forget that Ruth was black and had been all her life. She forgot that Ruth was the daughter of a black maid who still worked for a rich white family. Now, it is certainly possible for a black person to focus so hard on succeeding, on trying to fit in that she’d ignore some of the language and behavior of her white friends. However, it doesn’t make sense for this same black person to encounter a white supremacist family, have her boss respond oddly to the family’s request, suddenly be shaken out of the fantasy she created for herself and be shocked to see what the world looked like when she opened her eyes. Remember, she’s been black all of her life. And if it is also true that this woman is often followed around stores and has security check her shopping bag after leaving the register and purchasing her items, there is no way she could have been completely oblivious to her blackness all this time. It just doesn’t make any sense.
There are other elements of this story that don’t sit right with me. The plot takes strange turns. Why does Ruth’s son end up having some sort of racial epiphany himself on the same day Ruth encounters the white supremacist family? How does Ruth end up on trial for murder? Ultimately, I left the book confused. What did the author think she was doing by writing this book this way? Luckily for me, there was an author’s note in the back of the book. She made it clear who her audience was:
I was writing to my own community—white people—who can very easily point to a neo-Nazi skinhead and say he’s racist…but who can’t recognize racism in themselves.
She does offer her white readers a model for their own epiphanies about race—Kennedy, the public defender. However, when she pairs Kennedy with Ruth, the composite black woman, she really only offers her white readers an out. Her readers may not be the type to clutch their purse or make offhanded comments about a black boy’s success. They likely wouldn’t follow a black person around the store. They might, however, call the police when they see a black man going for a walk in their neighborhood. They might even say he “looks suspicious.” They may even assume that a group of black kids congregating outside are “up to no good” before they see them do anything wrong. The white people she wrote into this story may still be distant enough from her white readers that they can exclaim with full confidence that they are not racist. Then when they step away from this book and see a black boy get killed by police, they’ll still say “he should’ve complied.”