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The white, slave characters are idealized...

Farnham's wife is white. Would you say she's idealized? How about the son? I think Farnham comes to the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger conclusion they're not worth saving. (I think: it's been several years since I've read it)

... the dominant black society is not given very much respect. All we know about them, really, is that they keep slaves. The cultural trappings that we look to in our own country's history that counterbalance the crime of slavery (music, art, great philosophical thinking, the idealism of the American Revolution) are non-existant.

Not quite. We know they have made tremendous scientific and technological advances: and we know from Heinlein's other work what respect he reserves for that. Just exactly how much of their music, art and great philosophical thinking would a slave get exposed to? Isn't Farnham pretty much the viewpoint character?

Anyway, one might argue that knowing they keep slaves is all one needs to know. Heinlein had strong words to say on slavery in some of his other novels, notably Citizen of the Galaxy and Time Enough For Love: that the right of the slave to revolt to protect the sanctity of his family and his freedom, is unassailable.

Heinlein includes a black time-traveller who is portrayed sympathetically but ultimately decides to join the slave-holding society, tactily approving of slavery.

Sure, the servant guy, or whatever his original role was. Joe? That could be an indictment of Joe - all those blacks are alike! No loyalty! - or it could be a rueful acknowledgement that Joe has a better deal here, in this far-future society. And of course, he does have a better deal. Why would he go back?

When you break the book down, it's black people against white people, bad against good.

It is, but it doesn't break down as cleanly as that. The white people weren't all good: Farnham's wife also joined the society. There was weakness and corruption on both sides. And sad but true: with the way our own society treats him, even stalwart Joe (the not-bad black character) is better off in that future society.
[More recently, Spike Lee's character throws a trash can thru the window in the climactic scene of Do the Right Thing, an act that is structurally in that plot to Joe's act in this plot. Where is it laid down that the "good" black man's loyalties must lie with the "good" white man?]

No, I think none of the structural arguments about the book hold any water. Not that I'm saying it's a great work: it's not. But it is not "racist" in any simple way. (Beyond a certain 1950s-era language.) There's no coherent racist message in there, aside from the assertion that a black-dominated slave-owning society is capable of every bit as much evil as was perpetrated by the historical white-dominated slave-owning society.

However, the book is a very unpleasant read. Very confrontational, very "dirty" in some sense. The systematic evil of the (fictional) black-dominated slave-owning society is hard to take, and the blatant breakdown along racial lines is brutal. Historically accurate, when you look at our own slave-owning history: but brutal. It outrages.

But one assumes this is exactly the effect Heinlein was going for. He had a fifty-year writing career in which with nearly every word he asserts that it's a man's brain and actions that make him who he is, not any accident of birth (passing over the extremely lamentable Fifth Column). That has to count for something in the interpretation of this work.

I don't know. For myself, it always seemed to me that people project onto this work. Certainly, it's a difficult subject. It's very, very difficult to portray racist thought and action without giving people the impression that the portrayer is racist. I think that's the mistake consistently made by people about this work; they experience the outrage inspired by the events/portrayals, and direct those emotions somewhere.

But what does this hypothetical reader say in their mind, when they go to direct those emotions? Do they say, "Black men and women are not like this, need not be like this! No black-dominated society would ever do such things!" Ok: but the rejoinder is, "Why not? White-dominated societies have done exactly those things, documented in historical detail." And suddenly the novel is not an assertion of racial superiority, but a distasteful assertion of racial equality - both races are just as bad. The only acceptable solution is to abandon both societies, and establish a "freehold".

I wish Steven Barnes had amplified his thoughts on this book, as a black man and a professional sf writer working sort of within the "legacy" of the field that Heinlein helped define. If he had, it may show me some holes in my thinking (as a white man and amateur reader and fan, and sometime Heinlein apologist ;-). But right now (and for years) it seems to me that calling Farnham's Freehold a "racist" work is a combination of projection and denial - an inability to recognize classical literary devices (satire, in its technical sense) when encountered in this strange setting, an sf novel, and when the subject matter is so difficult and arouses such strong feelings.

Just my 3 cents!

Regards,

Jim
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