Monday, February 27, 2017

Dorothy Hughes: The Expendable Man

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I can't remember exactly how this book got on my list, because I rarely read mysteries, but really, it's such a great, important read. Like so many things lately, it's one of those books that, even though it was written in 1963 and takes place in the 1940s or 1950s, could take place today. (This happened to me recently at the OCMA exhibit about the Black Panthers with a map of discriminatory bank loans that mapped almost exactly to current poor, black neighborhoods, and when I saw "I Am Not Your Negro."

What it is: Dorothy Hughes was a mystery writer who started writing mysteries in her 40s. The story is superficially obvious: guy gets conned by sketchy girl, girl dies, cops decide guy did it and [won't spoil the ending]. But the terror comes with the part Hughes doesn't reveal right away, and that white readers won't pick up right away (I didn't): guy is a patsy because he is black. And, as I keep reminding myself to keep in mind: one of the privileges of whiteness is the ability to be innocent in the face of police. Being white means every encounter with the police is not a potential life and death situation. Being white means teaching your kids to respect the police as benevolent authority figures, not as menacing, potentially lethal actors who can strip you of your very humanity.

Why you should read it: First, it's a great read, even if, like me, you're just not that into mysteries. But the humanity and the cruelty in Dr Hugh Densmore's story almost brought me to tears. Dr Densmore could be any person of color today standing in for the white man that the police don't want to or can't find. He could be any of the innocent men on death row that Bryan Stevenson advocates for. The police in the book may be more honestly vocal about their racism than the police that we deal with (at least in California) now, but the way they act in the book doesn't seem too far off.

My "aha" moment: The first fifty or so pages of the book flow along a little oddly- strange things happen to Dr Densmore, but they could happen to anyone. He's jumpy and a little nervous, but maybe he's just in a rush. He picks up a teenage girl and spends hours in the car regretting it. Maybe he thinks it's just not seemly? How could I have missed it that he's jumpy because he's black? Because I'm white. Because whiteness comes with the privilege of invisibility. Later, when the police are closing in, Dr Densmore spends much of his time in Arizona trying to find places which are either safe because they're in public, so his enemies won't feel comfortable assaulting him, or safe for him to eat at (there aren't any Jim Crow laws, but he knows that he isn't really safe in most establishments), or safe because no one will see him. His body is literally not safe. He cannot be invisible. The giant shiny white Cadillac he has borrowed from his mother is the story's metaphor for sticking out, but really, it is his skin. 

Rating: Library, but tell your friends, especially those who don't/won't read nonfiction. This is hard-hitting. 

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