In 2015, Roxane Gay—bestselling author, New York Times contributing op-ed writer, associate professor of creative writing at Purdue, and all around it-girl of the Twitterati—was bestowed PEN’s “Freedom to Write Award.” It was a strange decision. Earlier that year, Gay had written a piece adopting the slogan, “Je ne suis pas Charlie”—throwing in her lot with those who equivocated on the tragedy befalling Charlie Hebdo, whose surviving staff members PEN awarded its Freedom of Expression Courage prize that May. She explained her resistance to holding up the metaphorical banner of “Je suis Charlie” as part of an effort not to jump to conclusions, not to join in groupthink, to avoid having knee-jerk reactions just because everyone else was vulnerable to them. “The older (and hopefully wiser) I get, the more I want to pause. I want to take the time to think through how I feel and why I feel,” Gay wrote. “I don’t want to feign expertise on matters I know nothing about for the purpose of offering someone else my immediate reaction for their consumption.”
All of which made it odd to see Gay race to the pages of The New York Times this week with an opinion piece about a television show whose premise had only been announced days earlier—a reaction that, by the laws of physics, almost couldn’t be more immediate and knee-jerk if she tried. In the process, she revealed something important about who gets the benefit of her doubt. I’ll give you one hint: It’s not Jews.
On July 19th, HBO announced that Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will develop an alternate history series, Confederate, in which the Civil War ends in stalemate. Not even a week later, Gay wrote: “My exhaustion with the idea of ‘Confederate’ is multiplied by the realization that this show is the brainchild of two white men who oversee a show that has few people of color to speak of and where sexual violence is often gratuitous and treated as no big deal.” Placing Confederate squarely within the context of rising racial tensions in the United States, which can make it seem like “some people are still living in the antebellum era,” Gay divines that the series will be “slavery fan fiction” and that Benioff and Weiss are somehow insensitive towards, or even worse, sickly enthralled by American slavery. “I shudder to imagine the enslaved black body in their creative hands,” she says.
Twice in her piece Gay casually declares, as though it’s fact, that the Jewish Benioff and Weiss are white. “This show is the brainchild of two white men.” “Mr. Benioff and Mr. Weiss are indeed white.” A 2016 novel Gay dismisses at the outset of the piece, Underground Airlines, an alternate history in which slavery still exists in four states, is also written by a Jewish author. Would Gay have the same problem if Benioff and Weiss were two Mexicans? Two gay women? Two Muslim writers? No. And so her argument really is that two Jews couldn’t possibly have purchase on the story of the otherworldly, history-changing torture of a whole people—which, coming 70 years after the Holocaust, is a rather stunning thing to believe. What it does, quite simply, is erase the experience of Jewish suffering from public discourse.
In passing, Gay acknowledges that two black television writers—Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman—“are also attached to the project.” In a recent interview with New York Magazine, the couple had some words for critics like Gay, so willing to pass judgment on the series sight unseen. “I wish their concern had been reserved to the night of the premiere,” Nichelle states. Asked about the concern that the show “could end up as almost pornography or wish-fulfillment for white supremacists and the alt-right,” Malcolm Spellman replied, “The shit is alive and real today. I think people have got to stop pretending that slavery was something that happened and went away. The shit is affecting people in the present day.”
As long as I’m here, I might also note that an entire genre of alternate history—indeed, perhaps the largest genre of alternate history—envisages a world where the Nazis were victorious. No one ever accused Noel Coward’s Peace in our Time or Robert Harris’ Fatherland of being anti-Semitic or insensitive to Jewish concerns. I feel stupid having to make so obvious a point, but countless great works of art have been created by individuals depicting characters and legacies alien to them—alien, at least, by the standards of things like race, gender or sexuality. The entire genius of art can be summed up in the declaration by the Roman playwright Terence: “I consider nothing that is human alien to me.”
It is this cosmopolitan spirt that allowed Hanif Kureishi, a heterosexual of Pakistani descent, to depict a gay, ex-fascist street punk (played by another heterosexual, Daniel Day Lewis) in the wonderful film My Beautiful Launderette. It is the same openness to the world which enabled Kazuo Ishiguro, a Japanese man, to write the Booker Prize-winning novel, The Remains of the Day, set in the manor house of an English lord during World War II. This obsession with artistic bloodline, a sort of jus sanguinis for culture, could not be more misplaced in a 21st century, liberal, pluralistic, open society. Although perhaps the deepening of this obsession is one reason America is starting to no longer feel like that place.