Racism in “Pigeons in the Grass”: You can learn from mistakes

Racism in “Pigeons in the Grass”: You can learn from mistakes

A Wolfgang Koeppen novel is supposed to be read for high school, despite racist passages. But their reproduction is not suitable for anti-racist education.

American jeep drives through Munich in the post-war period

Communicating the past is important, but should be contemporary: Munich City 1946 Photo: Alexander Wittmann/ SZPhoto

High school graduates at vocational high schools in Baden-Württemberg should read Wolfgang Koeppen’s novel “Tauben im Gras” for the 2024 high school diploma. read as required reading. Due to the racism in this novel, the Ulm German teacher Jasmin Blunt has started a petition against this requirement.

The Ministry of Education in Stuttgart has so far reacted defensively. Apparently there is no reason to worry because teachers have been sufficiently trained in further training and can use the novel as an opportunity to talk about racism in class.

The question of whether the novel is suitable for school reading at all is not seriously asked. In order to answer them, however, completely different questions would have to be asked, namely, firstly, what is meant when Koeppens speaks of racism novel is spokenand secondly, with what aim literature should actually be read in school and what consequences this has for the selection of texts.

Regarding the first question: attitudes and world views that deny people their equality and humanity are expressed in racist language. Correspondingly, racism appears in Koeppen’s novel when feelings and phantasms from white to black characters are described.

reproduction of racism

They are not simply told, but put together using a montage technique, with the effect that a very condensed portrait of the characters and their imaginary world emerges.

The racist attitudes of the characters should certainly be critically presented through this escalation in the novel. However, when the novel works in the mode of condensation for its criticism of racism, then it reproduces racism (and sexism) in a concentrated form. That makes him very violent.

There are sometimes disturbing passages, for example when it comes to the character Carla, who lustfully dreams of being raped: “In the sixth week, Carla couldn’t stand it any longer. She dreamed of N*****. […] Black arms grabbed her: like snakes they came out of the cellars”. – There are passages that one actually no longer wants to quote or should quote, but obviously have to quote again in their drastic manner in view of the insistence on the part of those responsible.

The narrative instance itself does not find any anti-racist language when it describes black characters – although they are said to be among the “positive” ones. In view of the attempt to criticize racism, this racism seems to be unwanted. Nonetheless, central black figures are primarily determined by physicality, sexuality and animality.

When the novel uses the whole arsenal of exotic and primitivist stereotypes of modernity, speaks of “loin strength” or “animality”, then it shows above all how deeply rooted racist ideas are in the 1950s – and how difficult it is to create a non-racist one to find non-violent language to talk about racism.

Impact must be critically reflected

A literary reading is always twofold: an analytical, distancing one and an aesthetic one, which follows the effects of a text – even if they are then critically reflected upon. Aesthetic effects are still there and cannot simply be excluded. To formulate it in a non-violent language without reproducing it is a great challenge, also in university teaching.

If people in our society now say that they feel hurt by the language of the novel, they may have experiences of discrimination that will be actualized when reading the novel. Not taking this seriously means not taking their experiences seriously and privileging other life experiences and learning biographies when choosing the required reading: those in which discrimination does not play a role.

This contradicts the principle of equal opportunities and accepts that students who have experienced discrimination first have to work through their hurtful, perhaps traumatic experiences or repress them before they can deal with the text analytically.

Apart from that, it may not be desirable for students without experience of discrimination to be confronted with racism in this way.

On the second question: What should students actually be taught in literature lessons when historical texts are read?

A literary canon must be inclusive

Literature has no intrinsic value. And our view of literature is not fixed either. On the contrary, as our society changes, so does our view of cultural heritage and memory.

Like the current restitution debate, literature is not exempt from this process. If literature is to be a positive point of reference – for everyone – because it can impart knowledge and experiences from other times, then we have to choose accordingly in view of the current changes and not least in view of the diversity and plurality of our society.

We have to consider what we can and must do to ensure that our literary canon is inclusive and not exclusive from a historical perspective. In view of the world situation, the decision to keep the rubble and post-war literature in the required reading is certainly the right one.

But it doesn’t necessarily have to be Koeppen’s novel. And yes, racism also belongs as a topic in schools and in German and literature classes. However, if learning happens primarily through models, then it makes more sense to choose texts that negotiate racism in non-racist language. Then the learning path would also be shorter.

Furthermore, I wonder why we don’t thank Jasmine Blunt. Apparently, when selecting the text, nobody noticed how controversial Koeppen’s criticism of racism must be discussed from today’s perspective. Apparently, those who – like me – belong to the white majority society without any experience of discrimination, even after the many Black Lives Matter protests in Germany in 2020, still do not have enough sensitivity and experience to notice it on their own.

The author is a professor of modern German literature at the University of Tübingen

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