Exploring Racial Harmony: Teaching “The Cay” in 2020

While it’s currently corona-stalled and banished to on-line only, I have been in a new arena the past eight months – the classroom. I once, beginning 38 years ago, intended to teach English and coach basketball. The whirling dervish called life took me in some different directions, and now I’ve landed back where I began. I’m teaching Creative Writing to sixth graders, and I assisted a lifelong coach with the same middle school’s boys’ team and coached the junior varsity, two reasons blog posts have been flowing like mud in the same time frame.

The classroom work has been interesting and I have varying levels of writing talent among the 180 students – some quite accomplished. To teach the value of reading to writers, to be able to point out some excellent author technique, and for a break from the growing mountain of papers to be graded, I thought it would be fun to read a book with them. I chose The Cay, by Theodore Taylor.

The CayIf you’re not familiar, The Cay is set in Dutch-held Curacao during World War II. A Caribbean Island just north of Venezuela, at the top of South America, the area is a target for German submarines because neighboring Isle Aruba’s oil refinery has begun producing and shipping aviation fuel for use by the Allied Forces. Taylor’s lead sets the tone for the book aptly: LIKE SILENT, HUNGRY SHARKS that swim in the darkness of sea, the German submarines arrived in the middle of the night.

Young Phillip Enright, 11-year-old son of an American petroleum engineer, has to leave the island with his foolishly-squeamish mother, who longs for the safety of eastern Virginia. Of course, their ship is torpedoed and Phillip ends up on a raft with Timothy, an old, black man (portrayed by James Earl Jones in the TV movie), and the ship’s cook’s pet, Stew Cat. Making matters worse, Phillip is hit in the head by a timber during the ship’s demise, and after a couple of days on the raft he goes blind.

“It makes no sense to dislike an entire race of people.” – Timothy, of The Cay

Adding to the tension between the two characters is Phillip’s ignorance and attitude about blacks, purely a mirror of his mother’s beliefs, which he doesn’t actually understand. The book is narrated by Phillip. He thinks of Timothy initially as a “big, ugly Negro.” Timothy is a West Indie native, and calls Phillip “Young Boss” in his native accent. When they land on their cay, a small island that is part of the unnavigable-by-ship Devil’s Mouth, Timothy sets about making plans for their rescue and keeping them alive in his pleasant way. Phillip refuses to help with chores he is able to do, thus tension eventually comes to a head until Timothy smacks Phillip for a particularly disrespectful outburst. After that the two become fast friends. Timothy teaches Phillip how to be self-sufficient: to catch rainwater, to fish, to bare-hand lobster, and to climb trees for coconuts, in case his stay on the isle outdistances 70-plus-year-old Timothy’s life. They even talk about race. Timothy tells Phillip it makes no sense to dislike an entire race of people, and that people of all colors are the same on the inside. Ultimately, Phillip respects and loves Timothy, and as he matures he realizes everything Timothy did to save his life… both before he dies protecting Phillip during a hurricane and after.

Lantern ThumbMudboundThe theme of my second novel, The Lost Lantern, is also about racial harmony. More so than The Cay, to achieve my goal, harsh examples of racism, and racists, had to be depicted. It grates on the soul and sensibility… but it was realistic. It is certainly authentic to South Carolina in the ’60s and ’80s, where and when The Lost Lantern takes place. The Lost Lantern is more closely related to Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound than Taylor’s young adult effort (released in 1969) as Lantern’s black and white friends team together to overcome tall racial odds.

When asked by students about reading my books, I have told them that they must be 17, that the books would be “R or NC-17 rated,” if there were such distinctions for novels. Less than ten percent of my students are black, but many, white and black, initially found The Cay to be racist. One young man (privately) found the term Negro offensive to the point of tears. In his mind it was the N-word, not the commonly-used, proper term of the World War II era. Still, I was sensitive to his point. He said he didn’t like the way the kids “were looking at him.”  Like the protagonist Phillip Enright, most of the students are just beginning to reach maturity. If they were looking, they were watching for his reactions.

I believe that had my junior high English class read The Cay in the late ’70s instead of Romeo and Juliet, it would have been uncomfortable. Race then could still be volatile. In today’s world, I never felt the students looked at each other as black, yellow, mixed, white, brown. The friendships I’ve observed seem colorblind. Ultimately, nearly all of the students enjoyed the book because it was about friendship, love, respect and loss. Time marches on, worldwide problems obviously change, but for some, hopefully a small minority, maybe race relations stay the same.

© 2020