Jodi Picoult Explores Racial Injustice In “Small Great Things”

Published in 2016

Kudos to Jodi Picoult for taking on America’s most entrenched injustice. and helping readers discover in themselves how he or she may perpetuate racial injustice. Small Great Things is sheer bravery by a white American writer.

This novel bravely goes where few white writers would venture without the risk of their white privilege bleeding through the narrative, or of committing cultural appropriation. Jodi tells us readers that is exactly why the original idea and partially written manuscript were put aside for more than a decade.

Before Picoult decides to take up the gauntlet, she joins a white privilege workshop to delve into her own prejudices, she gathers to herself men and women from the black community who speak the hard truth to her and help her understand her role in perpetuating injustice. She interviews reformed white supremacists. Picoult dives deep to show how racial injustice is sustained by a thousand small cuts a day, carried out by whites who are often clueless to their own complicity.

Small Great Things explores how racial privilege, even more than outright discrimination, pervades white consciousness.  A person may think “I’m color blind,” or “race makes no difference to me”. However, Picoult’s book reminds us it is easy to think that when you are a beneficiary of the culture’s every advantage.

Yet, Picoult also shows how “minorities” can play into perpetuating the injustice by remaining silent to hold on to tenuous advantages they may have and that are working to help them accomplish goals like owning a home and sending their child to college. The main character, Ruth Jefferson, demonstrates how that works.

Picoult shows in the character of Kennedy, Ruth’s public defender when Ruth, a respected labor and delivery nurse, is accused of killing the baby of a white supremacist couple. Prior to their son’s death, they demanded that Ruth, an African-American, be forbidden to touch their child (Davis). Ruth is removed from the family’s service after Davis is born. She is mystified. As one of the most capable nurses, she can’t imagine why they do not want her to help care for their son. Then she observes the tattoos on the father’s arm and head, and she realizes he is a white supremacist. As the story advances, Baby Davis is discovered to have an inherited disorder that contributes to his death.

By following the developing relationship between Ruth and Kennedy, Picoult takes  readers with her on the discovery of white privilege, peeling it back layer by layer until finally Kennedy is seeing it in herself. We also follow Ruth’s discovery that she has blinded herself to racial assumptions that arise regularly in her peers. Ruth’s determination to discuss the role of racial hatred in her case — a strategy strongly opposed by Kennedy — is a result of finally understanding her complicity in the persistence of racial discrimination by remaining silent.

The story of Turk Bauer and his wife Brittany, both white supremacists, brings to light the complexity of racial hatred. We learn the circumstances that led to Turk’s induction into the Aryan Nation. We  go to events where racial hatred is cultivated, taught to youngsters, and how it is organized across the nation. Inside Turk’s head, we see how he is influenced by fear and anger in his particular life circumstances. We witness Turk’s the awful suffering from the loss of his child. We see his humanity even when his beliefs and actions are despicable to us. Jodi is showing that racial relationships in America are complex and nuanced.

Critics have reviewed the novel’s sometimes cardboard stereotypes and slow action, but really, Picoult took on a monumental task as she worked through her own racial biases and white privilege, inviting her fans to do the same within themselves. This is how hard it is. Picoult is a skilled writer. We can give her a little slack if at times the characters may lack realism or the plot slows here and there. She took on America’s deepest wound, most entrenched injustice, and one that is still festering in the hearts of us all.  We must get at it in ourselves until we can live a free nation. Picoult offers us her experience as one way we might get there.

MORE RESOURCES FOR READERS:

Watch Frontline: Documenting Hate which aired on August 10. It is a documentary of the white supremacists at Charlottesville, VA uprising over confederate monuments. It was so much more, of course. This ProPublica investigation helps us learn about how a permissive environment ushered  hate groups into the American mainstream.

Read Jon Meacham’s book “The Soul of America, the Battle for Our Better Angels”.  In the Introduction, Meacham compares Strom Thurman’s Dixiecrats to Trump’s nationalist movement.

Extremism, racism, nativism, and isolationism, driven by fear of the unknown, tend to spike in periods of economic and social stress — a period like our own. Meacham, p. 4 of Introduction.

 

 

 

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Tragedy of Children’s Rights

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Tragedy of Children’s Rights from Ben Franklin to Lionel Tate

Hidden in Plain Sight (2008 Princeton University Press) written by Barbara Bennett Woodhouse examines past and evolving perspectives on the human rights of children. Written for both students of law and the general American public, this book offers a solid methodology for how to think about the rights of children through the science of human development. It frames the rights of children by grounding them in basic human rights values of privacy, agency, equality, individual dignity, and protections.

Barbara Bennett Woodhouse is the L.Q.C. Lamar Professor of Law, and director of the Child Rights Project at Emory University. She is also the Donald H. Levin Chair Emeritus in Family Law at the University of Florida.

Woodhouse presents the stories of historical figures familiar to Americans (Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather, Frederick Douglas, and Ben Franklin) as well as children she has known in her work as a legal representative, a law professor, and a witnessing advocate for children and families.

As the reader follows these lives, learning new insights about familiar Americans, the author describes her own journey to understanding of the problems and solutions society faces in adjudicating the rights of children in numerous situations such as living in child intolerant times, slavery, abandonment, violence, and juvenile justice institutions.

As I read each chapter, Woodhouse gave me ways to think about each child or teenager, how she thought about it and has since changed her mind or confirmed her understanding. The basic premise is that children’s rights in the U.S. are tragically wanting for just policies and deeper understanding of the ecology of child development as we understand it today. Woodhouse compares America’s policies and legal record on children’s rights to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).  It is the most rapidly ratified human rights convention in the history of United Nations, yet the U.S. has not joined the international community for fear that the rights of children might infringe on parents’ individual rights and undermine adult authority and control.

Woodhouse argues that the contemporary cult of individualism often contributes to harsh sentencing of children who have committed crimes and are held responsible for their actions by courts of law without due consideration of children’s developmental ability to understand the ramifications of their actions.

Hidden in Plain Sight asks readers to consider our American values in the light of the human rights of children. She evokes the language of the U.N. Special Session for Children:

A world made fit for children is a world fit for everyone.

With little personal foundation in legal study, this book read well for me as an unfolding argument by an experienced legal expert, a mother, and a legal guardian of children. I highly recommend this book to everyone who is concerned with the protection of children, and citizens who worry about the future we adults are creating for the children in our lives and around the world.

RELATED ISSUE: Juliana vs. U.S. – Children’s Constitutional Lawsuit.

Their complaint asserts that, through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.