Since they were contemporaries, I sometimes wonder if Sinclair Lewis and Norman Rockwell hated each other. Lewis dealt so unmercifully with the American ideals that Rockwell glorified.
Kingsblood Royal is Lewis’ satire of race relations in middle America, circa WW II. The hypocrites, the climbers, the bigots and bullies. The same stock company of actors we meet in all his novels. Neil Kingsblood, the protagonist, is an up-and-coming white banker who finds out that he’s descended from a Revolutionary War-era explorer, a black man, named Xavier Pic. The news destroys him, or so I predict it will 20 pages from the end of the book, which is where I am now.
Last night, I asked some friends of mine, ages 54-65, whether they know any white people who’d be terribly upset by such a discovery. They do, indeed. Many. Two of my friends have red hair and one is blonde, a very Anglo-Arian sample of humanity, but I was surprised, just the same.
Maybe if I felt more affiliated with some group, any group, or oppressed by another, I’d better understand why people get so inflamed about heritage issues. I’m certainly aware of what people appear to be and I’m certainly most at ease among people who are most “like me,” but I’m far less conscious of ethnicity than I am of friendliness or intelligence.
Or am I kidding myself? Hmm. Does the fact that I immediately notice a person’s race, gender, apparent age and health make me a superficialist? Is it wrong that, as soon as a person gets close enough for me to engage my other senses, I’m trying to hear his mind and sniff his airspace? Does he meet my eye? How’s his handshake? Teeth? Sense of humor? Hygiene?
And don’t we all do this?
But hold on … While skin color may not be a disqualifier that I acknowledge, isn’t it true that I’m prejudiced in other ways? What gives me the idea that my prejudices are any nobler than the next guy’s?