John Gorenfeld has a thorough and rather delightfully arch vivisection of the racist memoir (via Alternet) that most recently fooled the New York Times (and a bunch of other people) called Love and Consequences (book cover picture here, image from here). Gorenfeld writes that once the memoir was revealed as a fake, the publisher pretty effectively pulled all the copies, but he managed to get his hands on a copy somehow. He provides a chapter-by-chapter account of some of the more egregiously racist tropes in the manuscript. Allegedly written by Margaret B. Jones, it was actually the work Margaret Seltzer, raised in a middle-class white home in suburban Los Angeles. From Gorenfeld’s analysis of chapter three, ‘Start from Scratch’:
“1982. Margaret ticks off L.A. highways as she’s driven to her new home in the vicinity of Slauson and Central avenues, but the journey sounds more Mapquest than memory. Then, with the arrival of Margaret’s new caretaker, Big Mom, the narrative detours from N.W.A.’s Greatest Hits territory into the world of Aunt Jemima fantasies. It doesn’t take an African-American Studies major to get bad vibes from the stereotypical treatment of the saintly mammy. Big Mom has no interests of her own; she wears an austere white dress on the book cover, calls everyone “child,” and asks the Lord: “I know you don’t give me more than I can handle, but please, sweet Jesus, help me with these youngstas.”
Everyone else speaks in what Times critic Michiko Kakutani called “colorful, streetwise argot”: nigga this, you’ze a punk-ass that. Kakutani also called the book “humane and deeply affecting.”
By now, even on the book’s own terms, it’s barely working as a memoir, in which someone thinks about their life. Instead it’s like a doll’s house of African-Americans, displayed for us in supposedly authentic glory.”
After going through several more chapters like this, then Gorenfeld writes, “Sad to say, it just gets worse.” Finally, he offers this cogent analysis drawing on the world of participatory fan fiction:
“In the world of Internet fan fiction — in which amateur fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other shows imagine new adventures, they have a derisive term, the “Mary Sue Story,” for wish-fulfillment that crosses the line. That’s when a certain kind of fan breaks the rules and makes herself the hero, fascinating everyone, saving the world.
This story, about a white girl who makes black people happy by escaping from their ghetto, is a Mary Sue story about race. And people ought to be upset that it passed for realism.” [emphasis added]
There are lots of things one could say about what this latest episode of a supposedly true memoir that turned out to be fiction says about our culture, but I want to focus on where Gorenfeld ends: with this notion of a “Mary Sue story about race.” First of all, the notion of a “Mary Sue story” is one that seems predicated on a particular construction of white femininity, less the usual trope about helplessness, instead, it is one that is more like Florence Nightingale or Joan of Arc or Scarlett O’Hara, the white woman who “makes herself the hero, fascinating everyone, saving the world.” Second, the way that the crudest sort of racist stereotypes in this putative memoir got read as authentic by critics at the New York Times speaks to the power of the white racial frame as the predominant lens through which elite whites (such as those at the Times) try to make sense of ‘race.’ And, third, while Gorenfeld doesn’t pick up on this, there are powerful connections in the text he quotes between race and gender. Not only is the text steeped in racist stereotypes, it also trades on a particular form of gendered racism in which white women are heroic figures, Black men are configured as ‘dangerous gangstas’ and Black women as long-suffering maternal figures. That Seltzer, aka Jones, wrote such a story should surprise no one; that she was able to sell it to an agent, a publisher and the New York Times speaks to the depths of whites’ racial illiteracy.