A new audiobook is being feverishly promoted by Amazon’s bottomless wallet, a familiar classic with an unexpected twist. It’s the iconic Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, yet the artwork and accompanying promotional materials reveal that this young Oliver is black.
It’s the latest instance of a seemingly insatiable desire to replace white characters from classic tales with black figures. Even Anne Boleyn (of King Henry VIII fame) was not immune to diversification. In any event, something seems different about this attempt in particular. It’s not merely a snippet of culture that is being stolen and trampled for political reasons, when the reverse would never be permitted.
Oliver Twist was a fictionalized account of a true story—that of poor white kids, struggling to survive, with few real opportunities to better their condition. It presents a truth that some seek to bury. Modern academia, with the help of popular media, paints a picture in which poor white people did not and do not exist.
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As the academic and cultural elites would tell it, history is a tale of oppression, and the Haves and Have-Nots are readily discernible, for they can be recognized on racial grounds. Thus, white children have a myriad of opportunities and are reducible to their race alone as a descriptor of their personhood.
Simply, the person is reduced to “a white child,” devoid of the details; the truths that underlie his own pains and sorrows are submerged beneath his “whiteness.” Whatever his battles may be, he is simply a white child, who is therefore more advantaged than some other racial groups. It is this judgment that denies him human dignity, a dignity which can only come from the acknowledgment that each man is created in the image and likeness of God and that no life is without suffering.
The tale of Oliver Twist speaks of an orphan, raised from birth in an orphanage that notoriously didn’t provide enough food. He turned to a life of petty crime to survive after escaping the workhouse; he falls from one ugly context to the next. While a fictional account, it was the lived experience of many. A great number of children would suffer health difficulties on account of their malnourishment. The modern world’s picture of “intergenerational poverty” doesn’t conjure up images like this, but it should.
Children, yes, white children, if we can utter those words, died as chimney sweeps. Some British orphans were sent to Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, separated from their siblings and forced to take part in what we would now describe as hard labor.
Oliver Twist is a classic story that reminds us of a very real time, using a fictional individual account. Any culture requires reminders of where it has been. It requires tales of what we have endured and how much responsibility we bear to those who built the stable societies that we now inhabit.
In the midst of attempts to deny historical difficulties faced by white children, it becomes even easier to overlook the challenges faced by them now. It is now that they face the added hindrance of denial. In Dickens’ world, nobody denied that Oliver and his friends were hungry or without likely societal advancement.
Yet today, a scholarship or grant for “underserved communities” or to “remediate intergenerational poverty” does not apply to the white child who suffers from abuse, whose parents are separated, who lives in the forgotten trailer parks of America, or who has fallen victim to the largely white epidemics of opioid and meth addiction.
Where is the help for these despairing communities, or for the children who are born into them? Who is eager to tell their stories and to ensure that these children are “represented” in the popular culture and the moral imagination?
Those children on their Ramen diets aren’t the benefactors of a privilege that in some way alleviates their burdens, as if whiteness were an entry card into the middle class. They are the forgotten, and they are the people that we are allowed and even encouraged (if not yet required) to forget. When they grow up, they will make up the biggest suicide demographic, which is a strange statistic for alleged oppressors.
The secular rewritings of what hardship looks like and who it affects even creep into Christian and Catholic attempts at charity, at least unofficially, because the culture that surrounds us seeps into our hearts when we’re inattentive. We begin to see through the lens of the world that we are immersed in. It is then that we presume that a young white mother is less in need than her black counterpart, when that may not be true.
Research out of England shows that “white working-class boys” have the lowest rates of university participation of any group. At least part of that is because universities, especially prestigious ones, don’t want them. Such institutions are focusing on “increasing diversity,” which doesn’t seem to encompass whites from lower income brackets.
Another part of the puzzle is that the working class have to work instead of going to a university. White working-class young men make up the bulk of military service members. It’s their way out of the environment in which they were raised, assuming they return alive and without crippling physical or psychological damage. This is their reality. Who shall tell their stories?
Growing up in northern England, in a post-industrial city analogous to America’s rust belt, I saw that public housing units were and remain places where life is tough, and where many struggle to provide for food. Parents regularly skip meals so that their children can eat reliably, and the phrase “heat or eat” is part of the common vernacular (one must choose between heating or food). Their stories are almost never told.
Of course, it scarcely needs mentioning that poverty impacts every racial group. The loudest advocates for “compassion” and for “justice” seem to want to hide the poverty of one group in particular. Why? There is an effort to ensure that those people have no cultural references at all that they can identify with. It’s important that people see the struggles throughout the past by people similar to themselves, that they see struggles overcome, and that they be seen by others.
Who benefits from this “recasting” of Oliver Twist? Not the real and white poor children of today, who are among those who deserve to be the beneficiaries of the kindness the original telling of Oliver Twist once inspired.
No one is well served by undoing the facts of history. Adherence to truth is doctrinal. It is adherence to Christ. A world built on the erasure of a people and their true sufferings is an ominous and ungodly one, even if they make convenient scapegoats.
No single group is responsible for all that ails man. The truth is harder than that: it is that malevolence runs through the heart of each of us, and that every life is touched by suffering, battles, and tragedy. Through it all, every child is a child of God, and his plight deserves the dignity of recognition.
The good news of the Gospel is that the fullness of truth leads to the fullness of liberation in Christ. He commanded us to love our neighbor, even when our culture tells us to save our love for someone else. He said that we can expect to find Him and love Him when we look for Him in the least, the little ones, the ones most discounted. And, contrary to the commandments of academia and media, we serve Him in protecting the poor little ones—including the poor little ones who are white.
[Image Credit: Amazon]