Edward P. Jones, "Bad Neighbors"

The good neighbors don’t like the new people who move in on the block.

(from The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008)

Grace Bennington appeared to be the matriarch; she might have been fifty, but, with her broad weight and her gray hair, it was difficult for anyone to be certain. On a good day, her Eighth Street neighbors might have said forty or forty-five, but on a bad day seventy-five would not have seemed unfair. Only one thing was certain–she had known hard work, and it showed in face and body.

This is as interesting and complicated a study of race and class as you will find in fiction that isn’t boring. That Jones is slow to introduce race is very telling; it’s a sort of psych experiment on the reader. Well, what race did you think these people were? What about the other people? Why did you think that? It’s complicated, as it should be. Beautiful, too.
For some reason you can read this story on a blog.

3 thoughts on “Edward P. Jones, "Bad Neighbors"

  1. Ian

    I was first introduced to Jones through this story—this is the one where at the end the girl returns to her apartment and slips into bed with her fiancé or boyfriend or husband. Anyway, I found the ambiguity of race and the surprising attraction most cleverly done.

  2. Anonymous

    I just happened on this blog and feel compelled to point out the subtle racism inherent in both Patrick Rapa’s and Ian’s comments. The racism present in both of these comments is rather complex and I’ll do my best to explain myself fully but succinctly.

    I don’t believe Patrick or Ian are racist in the stereotypical way, in that they dislike an entire race of people or dislike people solely based on their skin color. Both Patrick and Ian probably have a black friend or two and may have voted for Obama.

    But their comments reflect an attitude of white superiority (though they may not in fact be white). On a basic level, they are applying a double standard to Jones’ work: Black fictional characters must be explicitly black, while the race of white characters can be left unstated.

    Patrick’s and Ian’s comments about the racial ambiguity of Jones’ characters, then, speaks more to their skewed mindset and not Jones’ work. They both assume that every character is white. If a character is not white, it must be explicitly stated.

    Their assumptions are further complicated by their lack of understanding of black American culture (i.e. their inability to “see” black people as anything more than people with black or brown skin). That the characters in Jones’ stories are culturally black would be apparent to most people familiar with black culture.

    Furthermore, the fact is that the race of the characters in “Good Nieghbors” isn’t relevant until the end, when a white character threatens to rape one of the “good neighbors.” It is, after all, white people who make black people black. In a world without white peole, a world like the one present in most of Jones’ story, race is not as central as, say, class. Writers of color are sometimes criticized for being too didactic. Yet, when they follow the story’s natural path, they are critisized for “avoiding” or “omitting” race. I received such comments on my stories. Jones is simply writing this story as it needs to be written. He is not performing “a sort of psych experiment,” as Patrick states. Rather, Patrick’s subtle racism makes reading black literature “a sort of psych” experiment. Patrick’s questions (“Well, what race did you think these people were? What about the other people? Why did you think that?”) are not the questions of the story; they are his questions about black people in general.

    Lastly, the racism I am describing is quite commonplace today. In fact, in my experience it’s much more commonplace than explicit racism (i.e. “I hate niggers). Both Patrick and Ian will likely be defensive upon reading my post. But they shouldn’t be. I’ve gone through pains to make my post not come off as an attack. It’s much more productive for one to understand his or her biases than to pretend that he or she is not biased at all.


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