“The Prince of Tides” and Hurt Feelings

I was gathering up some books to donate to Goodwill the other day and I came across “Prince of Tides” by Pat Conroy.  It was made into a film back in the 1990s and I was so taken with the love affair between a white football coach (Tom) and his sister’s Jewish NY psychiatrist (Susan), that I bought the book.  I based my purchase on the movie’s assorted images of them laughing, exchanging smiles and connecting en route to falling in love.  There’s one scene where Susan’s sitting on Tom’s lap cradled in his arms next to a lit fireplace.  It’s a tender, romantic image.

I excitedly purchased the book about a week after seeing this film starring Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte.  I couldn’t wait to revisit their romance.  What I didn’t anticipate was I’d be subjected to a lot of racism before our reunion would take place.

The novel chronicles Tom’s youth in the South.  There’s a scene in the book where he and his two siblings, Savannah and Luke, are conversing about a Black boy (Benji) scheduled to integrate their high school.  Tom refers to Benji as a “n***er.”  His sister takes issue with this slur.  Tom says what’s wrong with calling Benji “n***er” and he and Savannah verbally spar. Tom tells Luke that their sister started the fight because all he did was call a Benji “n***er.”

When Benji shows up at school white boys continuously call him “n***er” and taunt him with racist threats.  He plays football for the school and when he’s on the field white crowds chant, “n***er, n***er, n***er.” Voices also threaten to kill the “n***er” and others chimed in with “n***er,” “n***er” fucking “ni***er.”

It was jarring to hear whites spew racist venom but it was particularly crushing to hear Tom refer to Blacks as “n***ers” because I looked forward to being reunited with him and Susan. Too many unendurable slurs stood between them and me.  I never did finish the book.  It was too bruising.  If I had subjected myself to all of the racism leading up to the love story, I would have been too injured to appreciate spending time with Tom and Susan.  Besides, I no longer liked Tom.

Variations of this experience have played-out throughout my life.  What must it feel like to be part of a group that is largely shielded from being the target of jolting racist venom?

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