I just read an essay by Katie Naum at the Electric Lit website called The New ‘Fahrenheit 451’ Movie Fails to Reckon with Bradbury’s Racism.
First of all, I had no idea HBO had remade the film adaptation of Bradbury’s classic novel (I have seen the 1966 film version, and of course I’ve read the novel a number of times). Secondly, Ms. Naum and I seem to have read very different novels titled Fahrenheit 451 and authored by Ray Bradbury.
Here’s what I mean, quoting from Naum’s essay:
I still have that same copy of Fahrenheit 451 — a trade paperback edition printed circa 1993, whose creased cover and flammable pages are already yellowed and crumbling. I reread it prior to watching the new film version, starring Michael B. Jordan as protagonist Guy Montag, and Michael Shannon as his boss — and ultimately, the bad guy — Captain Beatty. The novel was largely as I remembered it, until I got to the end. At the back of the book, there are a few pages Bradbury wrote decades later, in 1979, where he gets into what he thinks the real threat to literature is. I’d forgotten that reading this coda as a child always left me feeling uncomfortable, in a way I couldn’t fully interpret yet.
He is angry at a “solemn young Vassar lady” who asked whether he might write more female characters. He is angry at other readers who disapprove of how he wrote “the blacks” in one of his stories. He is angry at “the Irish,” “the Chicano intellectuals,” at “every minority” that has some perspective on his stories at variance with his. In his own words, every last one of them “feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse…. Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the libraries closed forever.”
Sorry for the lengthy quote, but I wanted to provide enough specific information to convey the issue at hand.
I don’t remember racist themes from Fahrenheit 451 or any of the other Bradbury novels and short stories I’ve consumed over the years, but then, it’s been a long time since I’ve read any of his works, and the memory fades after a while. Also, being white, old, male, and a bunch of other “non-progressive” things, I probably wasn’t reading with that sort of thing in mind (though no doubt, when I read that novel again some day, I’ll certainly be looking for what Ms. Naum says).
But, again, this was 1950 and 1951. And in the time these stories were written, they were powerful. Heck, to cause this lengthy of a blog, they still are. So thanks for all the thought-provoking and entertaining tales Mr. Bradbury. You’ll be sorely missed. And just so you know, if you were that old white guy on that rocket ship–I’d let you stay too.
I found an article at the National Coalition Against Censorship titled Censorship and The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury written way back in 1998 and quoting an eighth-grade teacher. She had been teaching from The Martian Chronicles and one of the chapters was about a racist character calling African-American characters “the N-word,” except the book actually uses the word.
An African-American parent of one of her students objected to the teacher reading that word out loud rather than substituting “the N-word” as I’m doing here. The parent went through a lengthy complaint process and eventually had the book removed from the curriculum (it was advanced to the 10th grade level).
I did discover the following quote on Wikiquote which was taken from a 1996 Playboy interview with Bradbury:
Science fiction offers the chance to pretend to look the other way while teaching. Science fiction is also a great way to pretend you are writing about the future when in reality you are attacking the recent past and the present. You can criticize communists, racists, fascists or any other clear and present danger, and they can’t imagine you are writing about them. (emph. mine)
Apparently, Bradbury didn’t see himself as a racist.
Ray Bradbury was a product of his times, just as we all are. He was born on August 22, 1920, and by 1950 when The Martian Chronicles was published, or 1953 when Fahrenheit 451 was published, perhaps his views on race weren’t as enlightened as we’d expect of him if he were alive today (He died in 2012 at the age of 91).
Last September, I wrote a small essay called The Night They Burned “The Cat in the Hat,” which was my fictional retort to the complaint of Cambridgeport Elementary School librarian Liz Phipps Soerio that Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) was a racist.
Of course, Ms. Soerio was really complaining because First Lady Melania Trump had donated a number of books to her school including some written by Dr. Seuss. It was more (from my point of view) her taking a shot at Trump rather than Seuss, but it’s a related issue.
Many of the classic authors we read in school (or we read because they write well and we enjoy their stories) were not or are not perfect people. Some are breathtakingly imperfect.
My parents were really big John Wayne fans. Several years ago when my Dad was still alive, I visited them, and every night we watched a different John Wayne film (I think it was “John Wayne week” on one of the cable channels). But John Wayne said some terribly racist things. In fact, Wayne’s actual views compared to what Bradbury or Geisel have been accused of make them look absolutely pristine.
There’s an airport in Orange County, California named after Wayne, but two years ago California lawmakers rejected a proposal to create “John Wayne Day” because of what he had said in that 1971 Playboy interview (Playboy was apparently good at getting celebrities to talk about their real views).
I’m not nearly the fan of Wayne that my parents were, and I don’t go out of my way to watch his films, but I probably wouldn’t refuse to see one because of his opinions (Fun fact: As an undergrad, I took a number of film classes including one on the American Western, and many of the movies I watched featured John Wayne). I still read my granddaughter Dr. Seuss books including “The Cat in the Hat,” and truth be told, I will one day re-read one or more of Bradbury’s speculative fiction novels.
I can understand if, as a matter of principle, some may choose to boycott Bradbury’s books (and any other forms of entertainment based on them). Some, like the school librarian I mentioned above, may boycott Dr. Seuss books (although after she made her infamous statements, news and social media pundits found quite a number of photos of her reading and promoting Dr. Seuss books to her students), or John Wayne films (which probably aren’t very popular with anyone who is much younger than I am).
That’s fine, although it’s my understanding that Geisel modified his views over the years, and the opinions he held during World War Two vastly changed in subsequent years. Although I doubt Wayne’s viewpoints ever modified with time, for all Bradbury may have been guilty of, as far as I can tell, not a lot of people noticed racist content in his works or took it as terribly threatening.
Naum ends her essay with:
To commit fully to Bradbury’s views on intellectual freedom is to accept an exclusionary stance that doesn’t play nicely with what few social justice-oriented moments the movie does include.
Imagine, instead, a retelling that amplifies voices forgotten by the Western canon Bradbury championed. Imagine a story of a dystopian society where a person of color encountered the words of their ancestors for the first time — literature that has frequently been suppressed in real life — and found something that spoke to them personally. Imagine Khandi Alexander’s character telling us why Toni Morrison spoke to her so deeply that she committed every word to heart. Imagine Montag actually reading the words of Richard Wright and Frederick Douglass, and finding out for himself why they made white people angry. In this retelling, more readers and more voices don’t water down literature to an insipid norm. They bring it to life — bursting with powerful ideas from all different perspectives, and all the more revolutionary because of it. What an incendiary story that would be.
I don’t disagree with this particular view, and I do believe in leveling the playing field so that everyone who wants to, has the opportunity to have their voices heard by being published (and the blogosphere and indy publishing makes that incredibly easy, though garnering a wider audience might be difficult). However that doesn’t mean throwing away Ray Bradbury for the sake of bringing in and consuming the writing of a wider variety of perspectives.
A couple of months ago, I wrote Am I Wasting My Time Trying to Become a Published Science Fiction/Fantasy Author?. I’ve been reading the opinions of a number of conservative and religious science fiction authors which state that in order to promote diversity and inclusiveness, their works and their presence at a number of science fiction conventions have been opposed, sometimes rather forcefully. Assuming that’s true and I have no reason not to believe it, this is a terrifying trend.
To me, inclusiveness doesn’t mean accepting only some voices while rejecting others you disagree with. I’m not advocating for a bunch of Neo-Nazi skinheads or pedophiles getting published as speculative fiction authors, and certainly wouldn’t support them expressing their views publicly, especially at what are called “family friendly” conventions. However, I do think there’s room for Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and other religious authors. I think there’s room for male authors, straight authors, white authors, old authors who are trying to get published (hint, hint), bald authors, overweight authors, and otherwise not-perfect people as authors. That is, imperfect or unacceptable according to someone’s highly specific standards, be it the speculative fiction publishing industry, a collection of science fiction “cons,” the entertainment industry in general, or anything else.
If Ms. Naum wants to write a speculative fiction novel about a dystopian society “where a person of color encountered the words of their ancestors for the first time,” or “actually reading the words of Richard Wright and Frederick Douglass, and finding out for himself why they made white people angry,” she is certainly free to do so. I might even read it (a few months back, I did read and reviewed A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, since I do enjoy a variety of opinions).
If you want to make the world a better place, I don’t think you’re going to do it by censorship, exclusion, or bullying. I do think people can change for the better when everyone is allowed the opportunity to exchange ideas and explain why they believe what they believe. Education, as opposed to censorship, is a good thing.
It doesn’t mean we’ll agree 100% of the time, but we might find out that instead of liberals, or conservatives, or religious people, or atheists, or whoever, or whatever being really horrible monsters who must be vilified, demonized, hated, and rejected from society, they and we are merely human beings and actually have a lot in common.
We’ll never know until we stop playing “us vs. them” games and start communicating, particularly in a way that doesn’t immediately alienate our desired audience. That audience is everyone.