Scottsboro: A Novel
(Ellen Feldman, 2008, London, Picador)
I noticed three copies of this in the basement so picked it up. I was grabbed by Lionel Shriver’s quote on the front cover: ‘A fine novel… Anyone who wants to appreciate the scale of the miracle that a black man has been elected president of the United States should sit down with Scottsboro‘.
Set in Alabama in 1931, the novel is fired with racism, sexist, anti-Semitism, yet bizarrely a sense of hope.
Nine young black men, some mere boys, are accused of viciously attacking two white girls. The girls are coerced by a gang of white men to accuse the youths of rape, in order to satisfy their own bloodlust. In 1930s Alabama, a lynching felt like justice for those affected by the Depression and oppression: those who were already poor. The novel reveals the prejudices of race, class and gender: poor whites still believe they are better than all black people; men are always better than women.
Feldman’s female protagonist, a journalist, searches for the truth behind the victims of the Scottsboro case. She visits the young men in prison; they are interred in a jail deemed uninhabitable for whites. She visits the two white girls, both poor but one more bitter about it than the other. Their ‘white trash’ background, their lack of education, the need for them to work in mills from a young age, the dreadful wages, turning to prostitution to make up for the shortfall. But even white trash is a privilege if you are a black man. Scottsboro reveals the extent to which whites can benefit from black suffering.
Sometimes the prisoners are forgotten by the press. They report the stories, the trials and the changing witness testimonies, but the names, backgrounds and families of the accused are regularly forgotten. Feldman makes us ask: what is a real victim?
Nowadays, we are used to celebrity trials. The O.J. Simpson trial of the 90s was huge. Netflix is capitalising on stories of framed men through Making A Murderer and The Staircase (the latter of which I was watching incidentally while reading Scottsboro). In the days of Black Lives Matter and citizens’ questioning stop-and-search and racial profiling, Scottsboro makes me think about how things have changed, and how they have not.
weechewie’s suggested further reading: Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric, 2014, UK, Penguin; Bell Hooks, Feminist theory: from margin to center, 2000, London, Pluto.