I have been fortunate enough to sneak in some for pleasure reading this semester and my book choices have me thinking about fiction and social movements. This topic is not a new one. For example, Larry Isaac (Department of Sociology at Vanderbilt University) writes about narrative cascades in the labor movement. He notes that authors for and against worker rights battled on paper – each using the dramatic form of the novel to win the hearts and minds of the reading public. The books that I read, however, are more subtle in their message and perhaps their purpose and utility. In Fiction and Social Movements Part 1, I consider novels as a teaching tool.
The first book I read was The Help by Kathryn Stockett. The setting for her novel is Jackson, Mississippi, where a delightful set of protagonists (and an equally set of awful antagonists) live and work. The book itself is a well written and engaging. I found it difficult to put down since I just had to know what happened next. What kept me thinking after I finished the last page, however, was the crafty way the Stockett made her readers consider the complexities of gender and race and how the intersection between the two shapes human relationships and the emergence of social movements. While the novel is set in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement does not drive the plot. Instead, the characters and their interactions with one another do. I do not want to spoil any part of the experience for readers, but I will say that Stockett masterfully uses narrative to capture how messy relationships are, particularly when skin color effectively determines the contours of the relationship.
Since the semester was well under way, I gave students in my Collective Action and Social Movements course an opportunity to read and write about the book for extra credit. The American Civil Rights Movement is our case study for the semester and I wondered if students could apply course concepts to their reading of the book. Most of the students made one of the following points. First, collective challenges start small. When you operate in circumstances in which you control so little, rebellion happens in small ways – backtalk, work stoppages, and sometimes a very special chocolate pie. Second, lodging a challenge (especially within your own community) is complicated. Sometimes, you genuinely care about those folks you want change. Even if you do not harbor warm and fuzzy feelings of particular individuals, it is still hard to throw them under the proverbial bus because of the local power they wield. Third, rebellion grows – sometimes slowly – but, nonetheless, it grows and eventually permeates a community. Finally, it takes a community to change a community. The strength of one, regardless of the cause, cannot carry the day.
So, are novels a useful teaching tool? It depends on how you evaluate them. I do not know if any of these students will perform better on their final next week as a result of reading and writing about The Help. I do believe, however, that these students will probably have a better understanding of the obstacles to organizing in tight knit communities. Who knows, perhaps they will even think about their pleasure reading a bit differently – now that would be something.
Part 2: The Hunger Games!