by: Alex Stubenbort
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”-H.P. Lovecraft
Every October, my colleagues within my school’s ELA department and I love to freak the kids out during our month long Horror unit. We typically start by reading Poe in the dark and stressing along the way that an untrustworthy narrator is the best type of narrator. Kids seem to latch onto the idea that we are celebrating the darkest, most unstable corners of the human psyche. I think it has something to do with teenage angst. However, after four years of approaching the material in a meaningful yet frustratingly familiar fashion, something new came to light.
This past week, while I drove home following middle school girls’ basketball practice, I listened intently to an NPR featured report on the life and legacy of an author that we were then studying in class, HP Lovecraft. Preparing myself to take mental notes while plotting how I could somehow incorporate this broadcast into tomorrow’s lesson, I was taken aback by the following words: “HP Lovecraft was racist. Like really, REALLY racist.” Instantly, I was forced to come to grips with how little I knew about the man who, hours beforehand, I was telling my students was “an American treasure”!
“Stop the tape!” I thought. “Destroy the evidence and never speak of it again!”
I mean, my students genuinely enjoyed his “The Outsider”. In fact, a few of them LITERALLY gasped in horror to discover that the short story’s narrator was himself the monster all along! Do you know how hard it is to get a group of teenagers to have as reflexive of a reaction as a GASP?! By all measures, this lesson is a yearly hit. Surely, I can’t, in good faith, drop this truth bomb onto what was one of the best reactions to a piece of literature that I will have all year.
And yet… I had to break it to them. With defeat written clearly across my face, I addressed my class. Handing them a written copy of the NPR program, I told them to read quietly. When it was clear that my students had finished their task, I gave them a chance to jot down their thoughts and get ready for a Socratic Seminar on the topic. Preparing myself for the verbal tongue lashing that I was about to receive from my students for bringing this biggot and his work into their lives, I approached my class with my proverbial tail between my legs.
As I opened the floor for initial statements, a usually silent young lady (in this case I do believe that it’s significant to point out that she is black) raised her hand and said the following: “HP Lovecraft was a racist. Now he’s dead. His work lives on, and you want to know what I think we should do with it? To me, it’s simple. I’m gonna make that jerk roll over in his grave by reading his work and liking it! Why should my enjoyment of the written word be jeopardized by his ignorance?”
The class was silent. We collectively chewed on what was just said. Until it was clear: she was right. History is full of imperfect people. In fact, that’s all there is. That is not to say that HP Lovecraft’s racism is any less disgusting or any more forgivable; but it is the responsibility of the living to sift through the ashes of those that came before us to find what is still culturally salvageable and worthwhile. What this young lady was capable of understanding while I stood sheepishly by was that we can learn a lot about life from those that we stand fundamentally against. In our day and age of knee jerk political polarity, a young lady shook me out of my misconceptions of black and white to see the beauty that can only exist when living in the grey.