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.