The 7th episode of the HBO series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency resolved some mysteries and revealed a couple new or unresolved ones. As usual, I attempt here not to spoil the plot. Instead, I will focus on one of the themes for the episode—and, indeed, for the series as a whole.
In the author’s diary for this week’s episode, Alexander McCall Smith talks about the healing power of love that he sees as part of Botswana’s national character. I have already talked a bit about my ambivalence about love as a weapon of justice. But this time my focus is a little different: Who has the capacity to love. No, actually: Who has the right to love?
When this series first began, I kept hearing one question. Is it possible, people wondered, for a White man—a White, British man—to write sensitively and respectfully about a Black African woman?
Some people said, out-and-out, no. Others doubted. Others left the question open, but still were angered that a White male voice should be privileged over the voices of native Black Africans generally and Black Botswanans specifically—especially Black Botswanan female authors. It appeared to me than many people expressed these opinions without ever having read any of the No. 1 books, or seen any of the episodes of the TV program.
I understand the consternation. I once did a video presentation of films that used Black folks as backdrops—in movies about Black people and experiences. (No use cataloging the films I used as examples. Just begin with Glory and Mississippi Burning and Out of Africa and free associate from there.) I have very definite and strongly felt opinions about White and other folks’ appropriation of the creative, artistic and other cultural products of Black and other POC. The White kid on the subway wearing waist-length locs and a Bob Marley t-shirt smiling hopefully at me gets barely a smirk from me in return… Everything but the burden. Yes. I get it.
I cringe when White folks say of their former Black “help” that these people were “like part of the family.” I am annoyed at young White hipsters traveling the globe and “connecting” during their vacation or year-off with black and brown and yellow and red people with whom they come into contact. I chuckle at Madonna’s infatuation with multiculti skin art and rankle at her infatuation with multiculti “orphans.”
Yes. I really get it.
Yet. Is it possible for a White person to truly feel love and respect for a culture not his or her own? How would that look, exactly? How would we discern that from any of the (I think) inauthentic examples I mentioned above?
It seems from the bonus material for No. 1 that Alexander McCall Smith feels love for the people of Botswana he has met, and continues to have a relationship with people and institutions in that country. Do I get to disallow his love, or say that it is not love?
When JLB first tells Precious that he loves her, she responds “I am very glad.” Not the reply he was looking/hoping for. But perhaps that is how I can respond to the professed “love” of cultural outsiders: I am glad that you love me; I, however, do not necessarily love you. And if that is what you were looking for by telling me of your love, then your love is not true.
But if love heals, then am I doing myself a disservice by not opening my mind to the possibility of seconding that emotion? Do I remain stuck in the past, unable to move forward in some sort of racial reconciliation? What prize to I get if I hold the cultural line, not letting any White (or other non-Black) folks in, belittling their attempts to connect and relate, being on the watch-out for the racial betrayal I know is just around the corner?
I have asked many questions, yet I do not have many answers. But so far, at least, the White film and decision makers connected with The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency have not felt the need to inject themselves into the story. We have not seen the appearance of the White British nurse with the heart of gold or the ambitious and naive young White American Peace Corps worker. It is difficult for me to imagine the restraint that this must entail. Surely some cable executive somewhere has said, “This is really great stuff…but, er, I think we need to create a character that people can relate to”—and that character, of course, would need to be White. But so far, we have not had to be subjected to this random White character to appease the (White) audiences. I thank the people connected with the series for that.
I don’t know if it is “love” or not. But I love it. And am very glad to have it.
***My previous posts about The No. 1 ladies’ Detective Agency can be found here.***