Can a 21st-century literary work change the way we imagine justice? On black swans and the literature of hope

In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.

By Jamil Zainaldin

We are accustomed to witnessing cataclysmic events of all kinds. These include not only the facts of shocking violence in the news, but natural catastrophes, too. For Hollywood, world-ending calamities are good for business. Though the mind reels, the ebb and flow of life motors on.

"Black swan" refers to a random event, impossible to predict, whose impact changes things forever. Photo: Counterthink by Lew Short

“Black swan” refers to a random event, impossible to predict, whose impact changes things forever. Photo: Counterthink by Lew Short

Some years ago a finance professor and former Wall Street trader offered another lens for assessing the comings and goings of our human story. Nassim Nicholas Taleb used the phrase “black swan” to describe those random events impossible to predict whose impact changes things forever.

The idea takes its name from a reported 17th-century adventurer’s discovery of black swans in Australia (where in fact they live). At that time, English ornithologists classified all swans as “white” because only white swans were known by Englishmen to exist. The new discovery changed everything, including definitions. Black swans are not only shocks to the system; they may become the system’s undoing.

The creation of the Internet and personal computer are the notable black swan events of our time. Arriving out of the blue, and in time with a tweet, the “digital revolution” has changed everything. The modern phenomenon of flight, on the other hand, is not a black swan. Though the miracle of wing and lift has changed much about the world, flying nevertheless has been an ageless dream.

With her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe changed forever how Americans view slavery.

With her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe changed forever how Americans view slavery.

Can cultural events be black swans? Harriet Beecher Stowe, moved by a powerful vision she received during church communion, penned Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 (after appearing first as a newspaper serial). Her book, America’s first best-seller, brought to life the reports of runaway slaves and bounty hunters, and the evil of slave masters like Simon Legree, at whose hands the kind, majestic, and Christian slave Uncle Tom will die.

“So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” Lincoln reportedly said on meeting Stowe for the first time in the White House. Indeed, it was the wife of a New England clergyman whose book exploded the slavery debate, casting it out from the decorum of House and Senate debate and into the nation’s drawing rooms.

“The pen is mightier than the sword,” Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the novelist once wrote. The “soul power” of literature to remake our world cannot be underestimated, and most of all in this day of STEM-dominated learning. Is it possible that a 21st-century literary work might also prompt another powerful change in the way we imagine justice, or goodness, or fairness, or race? With the cresting engagement around To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, it is tempting to say that we may be experiencing such a possibility; through an unanticipated discovery of a new narrative surrounding the saintly Atticus, something no one could have predicted, we see what was there all along, but concealed from view.

Harper Lee's new novel could be a "black swan." Photo: Donald Uhrbrock / Time Life Pictures / Getty

Harper Lee’s new novel could be a “black swan.” Photo: Donald Uhrbrock / Time Life Pictures / Getty

The mind-game posed by these two books, by the same author (as best we know), written at about the same time (as best we know) was an event totally unforeseeable and mind-altering, two of the requirements of black swan theory. Does it matter that Atticus is a fictional figure? Oprah once called To Kill a Mockingbird “our national novel.” If what we believe about the provenance of Harper Lee’s “new” novel is confirmed, do not these two halves make a new kind of inseparable “whole truth” about race in American history and culture?

America has always lived in a sort of dualism when it comes to race. What some see, others do not. “Invisible man” is the way the great black writer Ralph Ellison put it in his 1953 prize-winning novel of the same name; “behind the veil” is the terminology W. E. B. Du Bois employed to describe the double-life of black American experience (Du Bois lived and worked in Georgia for a time). What we know depends on who does the seeing. Will one of history’s strangest of endings for a one-book wonder become our best hope yet for an in-breaking of vision?

From the day humankind first learned to communicate, we may rest assured that the topic was a story — and not far behind was the cave drawing that preserved it for posterity. Whatever else may come from a 21st-century publishing trick that took everyone by surprise, it is a reminder that the human heart expressed through literature has great power to reveal and, in time, even help reconcile differences. If the true strength of a democracy lies ultimately in the full participation of all its citizens, then literature is a boon to our nation’s vibrancy.

Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

1 reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?