Sherlock Holmes is Unexpectedly Progressive on Interracial Marriage

One of my favorite things about owning a Kindle has been the freedom it gives me to take various Very Old Books from Project Gutenberg or Google Books and carry them around with me. Instead of raising my class level, this has mostly been a way for me to discover very strange vintage erotica (terms for genitalia from an era other than your own are inevitably hilarious) and read pulp fiction.

In attempt to class myself up, I recently pulled The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes off of Project Gutenberg so that I’d have something to read during the break. In it, I discovered a Holmes story with which I was completely unfamiliar: “The Adventure of the Yellow Face.”

In it, a distraught husband comes to Holmes trying to find out why his wife has been hanging out at the next door cottage at 3 in the morning and then not telling him about it. (This is acknowledged by pretty much everyone as a valid cause for worry.) Holmes thinks that she’s hiding her lunatic first husband from Atlanta upstairs, Jane Eyre style. Happily for everyone, Holmes is wrong on pretty much every count.

Instead, it turns out that while hanging out in Hotlanta, the woman married a black man and had a child with him. The person hiding in the attic is the woman’s mixed-race daughter. Understandably, she thinks that having a secret mixed-race kid might not go over super well with him, given that it’s Victorian England and these things are Frowned Upon. What happens next is d’aw worthy.

“…when [Munro’s] answer came it was one of which I love to think. He lifted the little child, kissed her, and then, still carrying her, he held his other hand out to his wife and turned towards the door.”

The story is kind of crazy on multiple levels: the husband basically seems to adopt the kid, the woman’s interracial marriage is treated as not particularly troublesome outside of what other people think of it, and Watson (with whom the reader is presumably supposed to identify) is happy to see that the family winds up all together. That is some progressive short storying!

The story isn’t perfect, of course—the fact that the woman’s first husband is African American is seen as detracting from his otherwise intelligent-looking features, and the daughter is darker skinned than her father because (according to the characters) that’s what happens in mixed-race kids. So, not great! But given that a) positive views of mixed race marriage/kids are rare in literature, particularly of the classic sort and b) it was Victorian England, I’m going to give them a pass?

I do not understand why this is not taught in high school English classes when kids are doing books like Huck Finn (or whatever other book the teacher picks as the Race Book). It’s an unexpected view of race given the time period, and raises uncomfortable questions about how our own time period looks at race in fiction and in personal relationships.

Three Things I Hope To Never Cover in Lecture Again

I am in an entirely in-major courseload this semester. This has led me to the startling realization that there are basically three things that will be mentioned in every single class I ever set foot in during the course of my career here. If I could never have them discussed again, that would be awesome.

  1. Frat hazing: I get it. American culture is hard to pull rituals–particularly age-cohort coming-of-age rituals–from, and you want to pull from your students’ culture in order to make things Relevant. But I swear to Christ, if we talk about fraternity initiation one more time, I’m going to throw a DVD of Animal House at your Google Image picture of frat boys getting their homoerotic on. I have had this used in literally every single class that I am enrolled in this semester with the exception of my archaeology course–and that’s because wooden paddles don’t hold up in grave goods. Please find a new example. (I suggest the Masons. Everybody loves the Masons!)
  2. The “gender is not sex” lecture: I did in fact just have this in my archaeology class, so we’re 3 for 4 (and I’m pretty sure we’re batting 100% in my previous classes). It’s not that this isn’t a good thing to drive home. It is! It’s awesome! But if you’re not going to go into any more depth than this, this is a 101 topic that doesn’t need to be brought up again. It should be taken as a given that your students already know this, particularly if you’re not going to go in depth with this topic beyond that statement. Stick it in one of the required major classes, address it there, and go into it in more depth any other time it is mentioned. It does not need to be a full lecture every single time.
  3. Hijras: Hijras are interesting! They were particularly interesting when I covered them in 101. They have gotten less interesting as they have become the example for third genders in every class I’ve had since. Instead, talk about Native American third genders or invite students to talk about the modern American trans movement. If you’re going to try to relate coming-of-age rituals to the American context by using frat boys, then you have to relate gender issues to that context, too. Stick up some Youtube clips from Buck Angel! It’ll be a novel change of pace.