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Stop giving bigots platforms at Bowdoin

October 4, 2019

This piece represents the opinion of the author .
Emma Sorkin

Two weeks ago, at an on-campus event highlighting the authors Richard Ford and John Banville, President Clayton Rose introduced Ford, saying that “he has been awarded too many prizes to count.” While Ford’s resume boasts impressive prizes including the Pulitzer, it hides a part of his character that Rose chose not to highlight. To be brief, it’s easiest to simply say Richard Ford is a racist.

A 2017 article in The Guardian titled “Richard Ford should swallow his pride over Colson Whitehead’s bad review” gives ample evidence.

In 2001, Colson Whitehead, an African American writer, reviewed Ford’s “A Multitude of Sins” in the New York Times. His review asserts that Ford’s characters in the collection are “nearly indistinguishable” and writes that “if I were an epidemiologist, I’d say that some sort of spiritual epidemic has started to afflict white upper-middle-class professionals.”

Two years later, Ford met Whitehead at a party and spat in his face.

While it’s hard to think of a decent person who does such a thing to a critic, this form of behavior is not unusual for Ford. After Alice Hoffman similarly gave Ford a bad review, he took one of her novels, shot it with a gun and then mailed it to her.

And although I personally feel that racism is explicit in the exchange with Whitehead, little doubt is left after thinking critically about the reaction, his past (and present) comments and even his writing.

Ford’s reaction to Hoffman is one that at least levels some type of revenge on an equal (albeit a deranged type of revenge): You give my book a bad review, I shoot your book in my backyard and mail it to you.

In the other case, Ford’s reaction was to simply spit on a black man.

As the essayist Rebecca Solnit put it, “that’s just a white creep spitting on a black man.”

An even further appalling part of this story is that in 2017 Ford wrote in Esquire that he still believes it was the right reaction. Whitehead’s exchange with Ford is one of a string of racist interactions and remarks the author has hidden in the resume President Rose spoke of. The fact that Ford once told the Kenyon Review that the relationship he has to his characters is “master to slave.” He added that, “sometimes I hear them at night singing over in their cabins.”

The event two weeks ago left me sitting half-way around the world and staring at the Facebook livestream and fuming, as I sat and watched this bigoted man receive so much power at my school. This is not the first time Ford has been given a platform at Bowdoin (in fact, he taught here once), but it should be the last.

Bowdoin needs to do a better job at vetting its candidates for lectures, fellowships (I’m looking at you Arthur Brooks and the McKeen Center) and every other position at the college. We especially should not be giving up valuable positions of power to racists. It’s a waste of—not to mention an insult to—students’ time and education.

Mitchel Jurasek is a member of the Class of 2021.


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  1. Class of 2018 says:

    Richard Ford grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, the town where civil rights activist Medgar Evers was killed not far from his front door by a white supremacist, where Freedom Riders faced so much violence—from gun threats to bus burnings—that they could never reach New Orleans for demonstration. It doesn’t surprise me that Ford, coming of age in that time, would be contemptuous enough of black people to spit on a black man. It does surprise me that The College would ignore the impact of what Ford’s presence means to all students and faculty of color who could imagine being the subject of his hate. Now, before I read one more comment about Bowdoin needing more conservative scholars, let’s be clear that for conservative thinkers to merit Bowdoin’s attention, their conservatism must reject racism. No making excuses for slave-owning ancestors, Trump, or other outwardly racist bigots. This is not hard.

  2. Young Old Bear says:

    I don’t think you’ve adequately defended your characterization of Richard Ford as a bigot, specifically, a racist. You say that “racism is explicit” in Ford’s spitting in Colson Whitehead’s face. How so? Did he call Whitehead a racial slur or accompany the show of disrespect with any racist insinuation? The better explanation is that Richard Ford is a jerk, but surely Bowdoin should not de-platform speakers who are jerks. We do, after all, want some novelists to speak at Bowdoin.

    • Class 2009 says:

      Yeah, have to agree with YOB here: being an ass doesn’t make you a racist, and conflating the two delegitimizes the term. Let’s reserve “racist” for those who deserve it, lest it lose its meaning.

    • Class of 2010 says:

      Would Ford spit in a white man’s face, or mail a violent threat to him, over bad reviews? He hasn’t done it so far, and those are not the only two bad reviews he’s received. I shudder to think what would count as “racist” in your eyes.

      Go jump in a lake, “young old bear.”

    • Bear with Common Sense says:

      If Ford didn’t know that spitting on a black man for that would elicit concerns that he is racially prejudiced, then he has no business coming to Bowdoin. If he didn’t know that likening his characters to slaves he owns is uncouth, he is far too out of touch with modern American society to speak at Bowdoin.

    • Class 2009 says:

      @Class of 2010

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Alice Hoffman white?

      So to answer your question: would Ford mail a violent threat to a white person? Yes, in fact, he did. You might have read about it in the article on which we’re commenting.

      (Come on in that lake, the water’s fine!)

    • Class of 2014 says:

      Alice Hoffman is a white woman.

    • Class of 2014 says:

      @Bear with Common Sense

      Alice Hoffman has publicly shared the personal telephone number of one of her critics, Roberta Silman, on her Twitter page and proceeded to encourage her followers to personally contact Silman to give her grief over being a “snarky critic.” To me, this proliferation of personal information holds far more potential to create future harm than a single (albeit nasty and insolent) act like Ford’s does. By sheer happenstance, Silman is a first-generation Jew in America. If Hoffman were to potentially visit the College, should her platform be denied as well, given that she clearly acted reprehensibly in her blatant display of Antisemitism?

  3. Young Old Bear says:

    Seeing as Alice Hoffman is white, that incident doesn’t count toward the “racist” charge. Would Ford spit in a white man’s face? I don’t see why not—he seems cantankerous. And oh—racism should make you shudder! The Colson Whitehead incident is more reminiscent of old-school literary feuds than bigotry.

    • Bear with Common Sense says:

      I really hope you’re not white because I’m exasperated by the white people deciding what is or isn’t racist. If up to them, no white person would be racist! Go ahead and share as many false equivalencies as you like and dismiss everyone’s attempts to enlighten you because it doesn’t meet your criteria for racism. Young Old Bear, there is an age limit to ignorance so please open your mind to a perspective other than your own.

  4. ELLIE says:

    I started reading a Richard Ford book a few nights ago and noticed a racist undertone. It seemed weird so I googled tonight to find out if I’m the first to pick up on this. It’s sad to learn about these events.

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