Are white writers getting race right in their characters?

Earlier this week, I got involved in a conversation on social media with other fiction writers about race and fictional characters. The conversation was started by a white woman who had written a screen play about an African American Viet Nam vet in the Jim Crow South. Her play was getting great response from black theatre companies, but one comment she had gotten back stuck in her craw: “Nothing about this man sounds black.”  She had posted it to the group of writers to get their take on it.

Many of the reactions from other writers focused on the speech of the man, which I agree is a huge part of a character. Cadence, intonation, vernacular – all critical to developing the voice of your character regardless of their race. But I wondered whether speech was really what the original commenter meant. I though maybe he said “not sounding black” as meaning something deeper about how the person moved through the world.

So, I poked a little. Like I do.

I started a new thread and asked the group how they went about developing characters that were of a different race/ethnicity. At the writing of this post, most of the answers say something about not seeing race (being color blind). I even got a “some of my best friends are black” or two.  And so, I am rebelling. Emphatically. In fact, this post may smack of a rant.

If you are a writer and you try to be color blind to your characters, you are doing them a disservice.

If I were a male writer and I wanted to write a female character and intended to stay blind to the fact that she was a woman, wouldn’t that character lack the depth that comes with the female experience? And doesn’t that experience shape nearly everything about a woman’s life? I know it does mine.

Us white folks, we don’t think about our race often. But People of Color live their race in every business transaction, every job interview, every walk down the street they take. To ignore that and contend you’ve got a well-developed character is laughable. To use the example above, that writer is writing a male character and naming it Sharon. If you’re not intention about including race as part of your character development, you’ve written a white character, given him a name you think sounds black and probably thrown in some Black Urban Vernacular for good (bad?) measure.

We can do better.

As writers, we have an obligation to be part of contemporary social discourse. One of the ways we can contribute to the national conversation on race is to…well…talk about it. Be radical. Be brave. Consider that there are others who have a drastically different experience than we have and we can’t presume to understand it until we admit we don’t.

~D

 

Message in a Bottle

I was fortunate to attend the Midwest Literary Walk yesterday in Chelsea, Michigan. There were some amazing authors there but the one touched me most was Edward Hirsch. Not only because he read from his latest book, Gabriel, A Poem, an elegy to his son, but also because he talked about a question that has been bopping around in my head lately. When it concerns art, what matters more: Intent or impact?

I was talking to a young writer last week about racism and it led to that question. He held that the artist’s intent was all that mattered. That as artists, we produce our art to express ourselves. We don’t create for the masses, we create for ourselves. In one way, I totally agree with him. When I am writing, I have to write the story that I need to write at that time, masses be damned. I’m writing it because it is a story that needs to be told, not to please someone else. If I have done the best work I was capable of at that moment, my work is done.

But, there are people whose motivation to write is to sell books. Are they less artists than someone who writes because they have been deeply touched by life in some way and feel the need to express it? And, would anyone really ever go through the editing process if they weren’t writing for someone else to read? We’d just stuff it in a drawer somewhere if its only purpose was to express our feelings and spare ourselves the pain of seeing it marked up by an editor!

The other problem I have with his stance is particularly true for writing. I’ll let artists in the other media weigh in on whether it is true for other art forms. And that brings us to what Edward Hirsch said yesterday. I paraphrase: Poetry is like a message in a bottle. You create it, then toss it out to sea. But it’s not until someone finds it and opens the bottle that life is breathed into it. Writing requires a vessel – the reader – to reach its full potential. Like the message in the bottle, it’s written in hopes that someone, ANYONE will find it and set it free.

PS: A friend just reminded me that Edward Hirsch was paraphrasing himself! Here’s the reference:

“A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense too are under way: they are making toward something.”

Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew by Josh Felstiner (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 115.

 

~D