Saturday, January 28, 2012

Is Jane Austen Only for White People?

Have you ever noticed how there are VERY FEW Jane Austen literary or film adaptations featuring people of color? (except for the Jane Austen Book Club movie in which one of the members was half Latina and a few others I list below). Have you ever noticed that in contemporary fiction only white main characters compare their lives to those of Jane Austen's characters? (Full Disclosure: I don't read THAT much modern day adult fiction so I could be totally wrong). The message seems to be Only White People Read Jane Austen. Is this true in your opinion? I know I'm generalizing here but this is something that has been bothering me for awhile. I want to discuss the topic of Jane Austen and I even attempt to talk about classics but mostly I throw out questions because I want some answers :)

My mother owns the book Emma by Jane Austen but she never read it. When my mom invites friends over to her house they never discuss 'classics' that they have read. In fact they rarely discuss books. She is not part of a book club. My mother has always told me that she loved to read as a kid and she still reads today but not as voraciously as I do. I work at a hair salon and some clients talk about books but rarely do they discuss the classics, if they do, Jane Austen never comes up. And yet this is an author BELOVED by millions of white women in America. White characters talk about her work in books, on TV, in the movies. But nary a peep from people of color. I don't think I've ever heard/read Alice Walker, Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou discuss her works as some of their favorites. Why do we not have Austen fever?

Do we not care about the woes of unmarried young women who think they have no prospects? Actually I think Jane Austen could eerily reflect certain truths of today as we face more and more Black women bemoaning 'where have all the good Black men gone?' , a problem not entirely alien to Jane Austen's characters. Granted they are not looking for Black men, but they are looking for good men, and love, in their own time without familial pressure to get married. I would guess that this is a scenario familiar to many Black women in their 30s (a bit older than Austen's characters but not by much). Personally I really liked all the Jane Austen books I have to read and I'm not even a romantic (or maybe that means I secretly am...), I think they are witty and provide great portraits of a specific time in history while remaining fun and still easy to relate to the present.

Is it because we are simply not interested in life in the 18th century in the English countryside for the upper middle class? Do teachers think students of color will not care so they attempt to 'cater' to the few of us they have in a class (or the majority-depending) by not teaching one of Austen's books? Most Americans take British literature and I know one English teacher at my school teaches Pride & Prejudice but most do not. I get the picture that it is like that in many schools across the nation. I think if one of Jane Austen's books is taught, it would be at a majority white school. I think teachers give us (students of color) too little in credit in thinking we can relate to these books. Maybe guys won't (that is a whole 'nother argument I do not want to get into at the moment) but I think most girls, regardless of ethnic background will if not adore, at least *like* Jane Austen. Most white teenage book bloggers I know LOVE Jane Austen as do my white friends. They love the books and movies. My Black and Latino friends do not read Jane Austen and have no interest because they think she's boring. Why do they think she's boring but my white friends do not? I do think it is in part race-based but I'm trying to understand why. Teachers may say that they want to pick books that we youth of color can relate to, and I applaud that effort. I really do. But I also think they need to push us and force us to go outside of our comfort zones. Perhaps by starting with books that we can easily relate to and then expanding our horizons by giving us a challenge, forcing us to relate to a book that at face value seems so far from our world. I say 'we' but I suppose I really mean working class youth of color but really I think it does apply to all youth of color because even 'privileged' teens of color resist reading Jane Austen. I read Jane Austen because I have always attended majority white schools and everyone always babbled on and on about her. Plus Jane Austen was always mentioned as a 'classic' author and I wanted (want) to be well read. But I have some friends who also attended majority white schools and they did not feel the desire I did to read these books that everyone always talked about.

Most girls seem to begin reading Jane Austen around 6th or 7th grade, often because of their mothers but not always. Regardless it seems that most white girls I know are mysteriously drawn to Jane Austen at this age and yet Black/Latina/Asian/Native American girls are not. Yes the dialogue can be a bit tricky at first or seem silly but I think if we (as in readers) could encourage more and more youth of color (especially girls) to pick up an Austen, perhaps they would be inspired to read more Austen and other classics. Perhaps they would learn that they should be able to be with someone who challenges them intellectually and emotionally as Mr. Darcy is with Elizabeth. Or that it's ok to believe in the chivarly of Captain Wentworth and envy his treatment of Anne. They can appreciate that love can be funny a la Elinor and Edward (Sense and Sensibility is actually the funniest Austen in my opinion and I think it would be a good intro to Austen. But I have not read Northanger Abbey yet so that could win the prize of 'funniest Austen'). Maybe they will realize that they have been as blind as Emma to their own Mr. Knightley (or that they should stop being instigators/matchmakers for all their friends unless asked!). Of course thanks to Fanny Price and Edmund they could also realize that they do not need to be drop-dead gorgeous or willing to sacrifice their morals in order to find love. And I could go on and on but ultimately I think it's important that Jane Austen be brought into more classrooms or youth centers, etc. If you have a book club for youth of color, challenge them with an Austen. I guarantee at least one of them will like it. Then pop in the movie adaptation and compare, bring treats, make it fun.

Please share your thoughts/recommendations. Do you teach Jane Austen to your students? Are you a person of color who loves Jane Austen? Do you hate Jane Austen? Why or why not?

I fully intend on rereading every single Austen before college because I'm sure I will inevitably run into quite a few classmates who love her work and I want to appreciate the books even more...

ETA 1/29 @SarahRettger shared some links with me by Ta-Nehisi Coates who writes for The Atlantic. I loved this one about the connection the author draws between Jane Austen and hip-hop. Who woulda thunk? Also check out this post that makes comparisons between the 18th century British gentry and the 19th century slave owners

Here's My List of Media with main characters of color that mention Jane Austen & co.

Worst Impressions by K. L. Brady (YA)-Pride & Prejudice adaptation

Such a Girl by Karen V. Siplin-Persuasion adaptation

Sass and Serendipity by Jennifer Ziegler (YA)-Sense & Sensibility adaptation

Bride and Prejudice (film)

I Have Found It/Kandukondain Kandukondain (film)-Sense & Sensibility adaptation

The Jane Austen Book Club (film-one character of color)

Aisha (film)-Emma adaptation