The Wisdom Of Father Brown - G.K. Chesterton

I've only read one Father Brown short story before this, and was very much enjoying the others. And then I had to come abruptly into the racism in the story The God of the Gongs. If it hadn't been for that story I could have rated this a lot higher, rather than sitting and pondering the casual racism of the time - 1910 for this collection. The one story almost made me want to rate the whole as a one star - but to be fair, that's based on that one story, and how angry it made me. (I've been waffling between two and three stars for this, and it's completely hinging on my reaction to that one story.)

As an aside I should mention that it's not that I'm not used to racism in stories from this time, sadly. In fact I often wonder if, when some schools/parents raise issues about teaching Huckleberry Finn if the teachers shouldn't have students read some of the era's stories with overt and casual racism that have characters much less well developed than Jim. As much as I dislike it, I don't think we should refrain from making it clear that these thoughts/attitudes/stereotypes were in a lot of the literature. There are a a few authors I still enjoy despite their racism - Lovecraft for instance - but that doesn't mean I don't stop and cringe every time it comes up, even if I expect it. I just can't overlook this, even with the (poor) excuse of "that's the way everyone wrote/thought." When no, not everyone did. So there's the struggle - you can't exactly avoid it, but you - well, I - certainly can't enjoy it.

While several of the other stories have Italian or French characters that are stereotypical, the black characters of The God of the Gongs are much, much worse. It's not just the repeated use of the word nigger (or the fact that one character's name is Nigger Ned) - it's the way all the black characters are described.

(72% in) "...He was buttoned and buckled up to his bursting eyeballs in the most brilliant fashion. A tall black hat was tilted on his broad black head - a hat of the sort that the French wit has compared to eight mirrors. But somehow the black man was like the black hat. He also was black, and yet his glossy skin flung back the light at eight angles or more. It is needless to say that he wore white spats and a white slip inside his waistcoat. The red flower stood up in his button hole aggressively, as if it had suddenly grown there. And in the way he carried his cane in one hand and his cigar in the other there was a certain attitude - an attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices: something innocent and insolent - the cake walk.

"Sometimes," said Flambeau, looking after him, "I'm not surprised that they lynch them." "

If you can't understand why, after reading the quote, there were numerous things there that pissed me off - well, I can't help you. Besides the stereotypes in the description of dress there's the concept that you can wear clothes and walk in a way which supposedly everyone reads as insolent. And the line about lynching - just, no. Sorry, can't deal with the illogic and unfairness of this portrayal.

It doesn't make it any better that Father Brown is given a speech or two which I'm going to assume is supposed to preach tolerance:

(76% in) "...I dare say he has some Italians with him, but our amiable friends are not Italians. They are octoroons and African half-bloods of various shades, but I fear we English think all foreigners are much the same so long as they are dark and dirty. Also," he added, with a smile, "I fear the English decline to draw any fine distinction between the moral character produced by my religion and that which blooms out of Voodoo."

I get the attempted message here - but after the previous quote, plus more I've not quoted, it's not enough. The ugliness of "everyone thinks this way" blots out any message of tolerance. Especially when the end of the story has to do with all blacks in the UK being under suspicion of the law and the public because of the murders by a group. Trying to preach tolerance in this context makes Chesterton seem smug, self-satisfied and completely unaware of how much stronger the stereotypes are than the platitudes.

I enjoy the way Chesterton writes, but I'm not totally sold on the character of Brown (I got tired of the repeated descriptions of how "child-like" he is). Still if anything keeps me from finishing the rest of Chesterton (I have several more ebooks) it will be the bad impressions of this one story. It's going to take me a while to get those images out of my head.