Is It OK for a White to Write about Black or Brown Characters?
I can just imagine Toni Morrison’s reaction to a white presuming to write black. As a long-time fan of Tony Hillerman, I remember feeling shocked on learning that he was no more Navaho than me. And now I’m reading Highwire Moon by Susan Straight, who apparently wasn’t born into a family like her Mexican and Native characters. And I’m happy to see Sherman Alexie, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks and Dan Brown sitting alphabetically together on my shelf, along with some dead white men.
The question of a white writing black hit me nearly a year ago when I was working on an assignment for an online fiction course from GrubStreet. Nathan Oates had asked us to write a story in which a character returns to a place and encounters someone unexpected. I wrote “Axe and Blaze” about a woman going to a deserted house that had been in her family since before the Civil War, and she encounters a man whose ancestors had been slaves owned by her ancestors.
I followed the assignment, calling for no more than 800 words, and my story came in at 799 words (before a few edits yesterday). It had been filed away, untouched for 9 months. Not revised and not forgotten either. The man’s grandmother appears without a spoken line in the next to last paragraph. “She wished for something to show where their people were buried between oak trees now in the park.” I’ve been haunted by the notion that for this story to move out of its embryonic state, the grandmother needs to tell stories handed down about slavery and Jim Crow, tell about lynchings and crowded prisons. I don’t know how to write those experiences.
On the other hand, my novel, Eve’s Story, is set on the banks of the Nile at the time of a devastating drought 70,000 years ago. In it, Adam and Eve struggle to survive almost alone after leaving Eden. A small number of real people survived that drought, and I wrote with as much realism as I could imagine about a very early prehistoric man and woman. My African-origin Adam and Eve are black, and I wrote with confidence because my characters pre-date the African American experience and pre-date African cultures. I wrote with an awareness that my characters are laying the foundation of human experience that will evolve into cultures spread across the globe: African, Pacific Islands, Middle Eastern, Asian, European, and Native American.
I see my Eve character as my great-great-great . . . great grandmother. Her black skin contains the DNA potential for my blue-eyed British ancestors.
The draft of “Axe and Blaze” appears on this site under A Story.
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