Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Martha Southgate/THE FALL OF ROME

The Fall of Rome, by Martha Southgate follows the complex relationship between three characters at an exclusive boys’ school in Connecticut. Jerome Washington, the school’s only Latin teacher and only black teacher is a reserved, complex character. He keeps to himself and his views about society and race are so conservative that I couldn’t help thinking about Clarence Thomas as I read. As the faculty’s only minority, he is called upon to help recruit a more diverse student body, and he does so out of loyalty to the school, but he is clearly uncomfortable in this role. He is not an advocate of anything that resembles affirmative action, and his attitude toward the tiny number of minority students in the school nears contempt. He’s worked hard to get to the respected position he holds and is loathe to see anyone that he views as undeserving getting special treatment. One gets the impression that he’d prefer that the color of his skin would go unnoticed and he appears to resent the young black students who embrace popular black music and culture – as if it reflects negatively on him.

Jana Hansen is a new teacher who has left an urban public school to join the faculty. Middle aged, white and recently divorced, she finds Jerome Washington enigmatic and attractive. Unlike Mr. Washington, she is anxious to help bring a more diverse blend of students to the school.

Rashid is new to the school. A black student from Brooklyn, Rashid has worked hard to gain entrance and earn a scholarship to an elite school as his older brother did before him, but Rashid’s brother is tragically killed just prior to Rashid’s enrollment, and his family is shell shocked. His parents don’t want to call attention to the tragedy and the assumptions people might make about it and they don’t tell the faculty about the senseless killing of their son. Lost in their own grief, they are unable to provide Rashid with emotional support and Rashid is left alone in a challenging academic environment, struggling to keep up and dealing with the loss of his brother in isolation. Rashid finds some companionship in his roommate, who is also black, but who hails from a wealthy, accomplished family and is academically and socially comfortable in the upscale prep school.

Mr. Washington lost a brother too and on the surface, would appear to be an ideal mentor for Rashid; however, Jerome Washington views the death of his brother during the commission of a crime as a source of shame and this emotion extends out to the black scholarship students who he cannot seem to view without painting them with the same brush with which he viewed his brother.

“After I returned east and took up my duties at Chelsea, I put Isaiah’s death out of my mind. I never think about it anymore. That is as my mother would have it. That is, I’ve come to believe, how it should be. I can’t bring him back. I couldn’t save him. Neither could she. Why he couldn’t fight harder to save himself, I will never know. That was why I feared Jana’s faith in young Mr. Bryson might be misplaced, save for his talent as a runner. As the season wore on, it was becoming more and more apparent that he was the kind of athlete a coach might see once in a lifetime. He had almost no awareness of his gift, which made it even more impressive. While I was not wholly in agreement with Jana about his chances, I thought we should work to save him if only to encourage that ability. It would only wither and die at some squalid city school. And if, by some happy chance, Jana was right about the rest, that his work could be brought along…well, so much the better. I guess I should say, too, that though I thought it unwise to indicate so, I was somewhat impressed by the way he confronted me about calling on him in class. I had been overlooking him, simply out of my belief that he would not be with us long. I also felt it particularly important that our Negro students realize that the world would give them no quarter. Why should I?”

The intersection of these characters leads ultimately to disgrace and shame for one of them and salvation for another. Martha Southgate is a gifted writer and this novel is an important one. It illustrates how deeply our issues with race go. It’s complex and the issues are not black and white, but extend into shades of gray that reflect generational and socio-economic differences between and within our races. This is a must read for anyone hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the evolving complexities of race in America.

1 comment:

pgee said...

I just started reading this and I am fascinated with Mr. Washington's character and his development. You give a great overview of the novel, but I'm interested in your analysis of the book or I suppose, what you think of the issues that are raised in the book.