If Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were right when they wrote, in the musical South Pacific, that you’ve “got to be taught…to hate all the people your relatives hate,” then part of the path to a more equitable and tolerant society involves “unlearning” what you’ve been taught as a child. In Mark Twain & Me: Unlearning Racism, theatre professor, performer, and Shakespeare expert Calvin Pritner examines how unlearning happened in his own case, and in the case of American literary icon Mark Twain.
Building on the fact that he and Twain both were born in the midwest a century apart, Pritner, who performed as Twain in a one-man show, explores the experiences and influences that moved both men toward a more enlightened understanding of how race permeates American culture.
This is not an academic treatise, but a conversation and self-examination that illustrates that unlearning racism is ongoing, and takes time, experience, research, and self-reflection. At a moment when racial tensions in America are high, and the call for white people to “do the work” has gained increasing attention, Pritner provides a description of what such work might look like in practice. “Old white guys like me,” he writes, “have a chance to make a difference by analyzing and reporting how we taught ourselves to change. In fact, it is crucial that we do so.”
Mark Twain & Me: Unlearning Racism stands as a gentle but urgent encouragement to readers to explore their own relationship to race in this country.
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