“You Know Willie” by Theodore R. Cogswell – Classics of Science Fiction

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Group Read 72: The Best Science Fiction Stories of 1957

“You Know Willie” by Theodore R. Cogswell #05 of 20 (Read)

I was disappointed that “You Know Willie” is not science fiction. It’s a story about racism that uses fantasy to make a surprise ending. The story isn’t bad. Both Merril and Asimov/Greenberg included it in their anthologies covering 1957. I remember the racism of the 1950s, and it horrified me as a kid, and I’m white. I remember visiting Mississippi in 1960 and being frightened by the violent emotions of the racists. Such people were sadly all too common. So, I can understand why this story was written. In fact, its fantasy depends on a similar thought I had as a kid.

Back then I wondered what racists would do if they woke up one morning looking like the people they hated. At the time I thought it would cure them of their racist beliefs. Later, when I was a bit older, I wondered if that would be true. Back then I felt if a baby from a fundamentalist protestant family was switched at birth with a baby of a fundamentalist Muslim family, they would grow up to be whatever religion their parents believed.

People seldom break free of their upbringing. That’s why it is important to teach Critical Race Theory. I can remember specific lessons I had as a kid that helped me avoid becoming a racist. I’m not sure a story like “You Know Willie” would have helped. I do remember reading books about race in my late teens, ones that would be banned from classrooms today, that did enlighten me.

I’m sure stories like “You Know Willie” would have made good people feel better about themselves when they read it back in the 1950s, but I don’t think it would have altered the thinking of bad people. I’m sure Cogswell was well-intended when he wrote this story, but he should have aimed higher.

Would racists have a come-to-Jesus moment if they suddenly turned the color of the people they hated? We don’t get to find that out in “You Know Willie.” This story goes for the easy win and doesn’t explore anything deeper. Willie experiences a kind inverse Golden Rule — have others do unto you what you have done to others. We saw the surprise ending coming from a long way off.

For this story to be truly memorable, we needed Willie to have lived long enough to see how a change in color would have affected his thinking. For me, the story brings up the ugliness of racism only to play it for a laugh. I didn’t like that.

James Wallace Harris, 3/23/24

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