When Are You Going To Write About Black People?
On the Responsibility of Writers, White and Black, to Write the Other
My debut novel is out today. Centered on a fictional riot in contemporary Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, it’s told from the perspectives of characters of various ages, genders, economic classes, sexualities, and, most notably, races. I’m a straight white man, and when I began to tell people about my novel, reactions tended to fall across the spectrum from “What have you gotten yourself into?” to “Who do you think you are?”
This was just about the same time as Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival in which she mocked how sensitive some readers were about cultural appropriation. After seeing reactions to mere descriptions of my novel, what struck me most about the argument over Shriver’s speech was not either side’s case—one side warning genuinely about co-opting minorities’ voices, the other side stressing the importance of empathy outside one’s own perspective—but just how inadequate the tradition of white authors writing across races is.
The explanation of this inadequacy tends to go something like this: “From Herman Melville to Harriet Beecher Stowe to Mark Twain to William Faulkner to Harper Lee, the grand American narrative of race was always tackled by white writers, writers who created and inhabited black characters as they would any other.” But then, in 1967, William Styron went too far when he impersonated Nat Turner in the Confessions of Nat Turner. Critics reacted harshly, and “By the early 1990s, the idea of cultural ownership had metastasized into a fully articulated code of conduct, loosely gathered under the umbrella of political correctness,” where authors were frightened into exclusively documenting their own experiences.
I took most of the above paragraph from Tanner Colby’s 2010 essay in Slate, ideas that he primarily credits to Stanley Crouch. But what that argument is missing is the importance of perspective: of whether a novel is written from inside the mind of a Black character, be it in the first person or close third. Patriarchs and matriarchs of American literature might have “created” Black characters, but they did not “inhabit” them. Melville, a hero of mine, included harpooners from around the world in Moby Dick, and he granted them moments of vivid humanity, but he mainly presented them as the savage other. Stowe characterized Tom in a melodramatic style typical of the mid-19th century sentimental novel, and was more concerned with action and good versus evil than subtleties of Tom’s character. (I’d contend that one reason “Uncle Tom” has become such a pejorative—and a mischaracterization of Stowe’s character—is because the reader does not have ample access to his nuanced thoughts and feelings.) Twain’s Jim and Lee’s Tom Robinson are depicted through the eyes of children. And though Faulkner does offer more insight than the others into the psychology of his Black characters, he tends to avoid narrating from their perspectives, as well. One of the most vexing questions a reader has after finishing The Sound and the Fury, for example, is why doesn’t Dilsey’s point of view warrant a chapter of its own? The theme running among these grand works that “created and inhabited black characters” is that they did not fully inhabit them. For the most part, these authors gave Black characters speech and action but not thought.
With Styron, Colby and Crouch are on firmer ground. Styron’s Confessions was not only poorly timed to its zeitgeist—published into a world of Black Power and then, soon after, political assassinations and riots across American cities—but it also presented a white author writing a Black character from a first-person perspective. Styron impersonated a historical figure: an enslaved man, a character no white author has the right to claim as his own. After an initially positive critical reception, the novel was pilloried in the book William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. Though a few of the “ten Black writers” noted that Styron had the right to impersonate Turner and made it a point to criticize his execution as particularly racially ignorant, the feeling that a white writer’s attempt at inhabiting a Black mind is capable of arousing such rancor has been enough to keep most authors, since, at bay.
In 1987, Tom Wolfe wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities, a novel Colby cites (along with Richard Price’s unimpeachable Clockers) as moving white writers back in what he sees as the direction of successfully writing about race. On the contrary, Bonfire is a perfect example of a novel that suffers because its white author is unwilling to write from a Black first- or close third-person point of view. All three perspectives from which a reader experiences Wolfe’s dystopic vision of race and class in 1980s New York are those of white professional men. Wolfe doesn’t extend the empathy necessary to inhabit any of the Black or female voices the novel relies on for its emotional impact.
We now live in a time when this type of cross-cultural empathy is especially necessary (frankly, it always was), and I’m hopeful that the anxiety of our current political moment will catalyze new works that take on this challenge. The Black Lives Matter movement has been galvanized by a series of videos of police shootings of Black men, just as President Trump has been elected with vocal support by white nationalist and extremist groups under the banner of the Alt-Right. Black Lives Matter and the Alt Right cannot be divided in fiction, with Black authors telling one story and white authors telling the other. For one thing, that would be missing the greater narrative of how, for better or worse, one is connected to the other. For another, race is only one component in our intersectional culture. Many white novelists have far more in common with the average member of Black Lives Matter than the average “Deplorable Jane” on Twitter. Race must not be the great, uncrossable line in the sand.
Furthermore, white people aren’t doing Black people any favors by asking their opinions and approval every time we want to know how to feel about a political movement. Towards the end of 2016, Slate published a conversation among four influential Black journalists who agreed that they did not want to be asked to represent people of color in this manner. As Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote, she is tired of white people who contact her every time “they have discovered some ‘new’ thing about race or race/class/gender and want to know what to think. The most recent one was something about black women voting.” Jamelle Bouie agreed: “I am often asked for my advice or guidance on how to achieve racial healing, as if I have or have evinced any particular expertise. To borrow from Tressie, once you have attained some level of visibility as a black writer, there are people who think you become a kind of MLK surrogate.” The implication here is that it is white America’s job to think through the complexity of racial issues for itself, and when a novelist believes a Black voice is warranted to tell his or her side of a story, it is important for that novelist, no matter his or her race, to research, interview, talk, think, and then write that voice as an exercise in empathy, as well as in art and entertainment.
Happily, a trickle of wonderful white novelists over the past decade has taken on the challenge of inhabiting Black characters with a goal of better understanding and expressing their experience and, in so doing, better telling the stories that feel necessary in this moment. The last ten years have produced standout works likes Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound (2008), Belle Boggs’s Mattaponi Queen (2010), Stephen O’Connor’s Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemmings (2016), C.E. Morgan’s Sport of Kings (2016), and Thomas Mullen’s Darktown (2016).
Not surprisingly, the novels that succeed most are the ones that most explicitly confront racial tension. Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemmings helped me understand the complexities of racial violence as well as any non-fiction book I’ve read in years. O’Connor is able to blur the lines of his narrative between, on one hand, telling the story of Jefferson’s relationship with and rape of Hemmings, and, on the other, weaving in myriad interconnected stories from academic, anachronistic, and philosophical viewpoints. Jefferson’s relationship with Hemmings is now inseparable from our preconceived notions of it, so O’Connor re-contextualizes that relationship for the reader, intentionally complicating it by creating Hemmings’ perspective. His project is to help the reader better contemplate today’s United States by inventing two very different people who were present at the time of its founding, and it would have been impossible to do so if he didn’t enter into Hemmings’ mind.
Similarly thrilling in Darktown is the way Mullen enriches a crime procedural with the history of discrimination in the South in order to create ancestral depth in his characters. After devouring Darktown, a reader is left wondering how authors have written crime fiction without putting race at its core. The novel grapples with a legacy of racism as thoroughly as it does an individual crime and is equally rewarding as drama and political analysis. Likewise, Boggs, Jordan, and Morgan—on smaller (Boggs) and larger (Jordan and Morgan) canvasses—treat their Black characters with respect, depicting race as a practical obstacle as well as a source of pride and shame in their characters’ lives. Like Mullen, they make the reader care about their characters so passionately that the reader finishes these books with a more nuanced understanding of the world.
Black novelists have had a difficult time breaking free from a different literary history: the presumption that if they did not write novels that demanded empathy for Black torment, there was no need to take them seriously. As Tracey M. Lewis-Giggetts explained in the Guardian, “It’s commonly believed that ‘good’ writing by black authors is birthed from oppression, and marginalization is viewed as a key marker for black literature. This implies a direct link between the authenticity of the literature and the sociological and political perspectives of African Americans.” Lewis-Giggetts’s claim is borne out by awards as well as reputations: the only five Black novelists to win the National Book Award for adult fiction—Ralph Ellison for Invisible Man in 1952, Charles Johnson for Middle Passage in 1990, Jesymn Ward for Salvage the Bones in 2012, The Good Lord Bird by James McBride in 2013, and Colson Whitehead for The Underground Railroad in 2016—all won for novels depicting suffering caused by racism.
One way Black American authors have negotiated the expectation that the only path to prominence is to write about Black suffering has been, when wanting to address other issues, to write from the perspective of white characters: from Styron’s friend, James Baldwin, who wrote his masterpiece, Giovanni’s Room, about a white man living in France with other white men; to Victor LaValle, whose wonderful Devil in Silver is narrated by a white laborer. Both Baldwin and LaValle write exquisitely about Black suffering, but in Giovanni’s Room and The Devil in Silver, the reader feels they want to focus so much on other issues—for Baldwin, sexuality; for LaValle, mental illness—that writing through the minds of white characters might be a way to, for one novel at least, avoid the need to foreground issues of race. These are still political novels; they’re just not focused on Black politics.
Toni Morrison, however, like many Black authors who are less prominent than she is, is happy to balance the scales in the face of all the white writers who don’t write Black-perspective characters. She bristled when asked by Bill Moyers when she would get around to writing about white people. “If I can say, ‘When are you going to write about Black people?’ to a white writer—if that’s a legitimate question to a white writer—then it is a legitimate question to me; I just don’t think that it is…” she said in a later interview to Charlie Rose. “I couldn’t ask that of any writer.”
Morrison is right. It’s no one’s place to tell a writer what to write. But I’m happy to turn Morrison’s rhetorical question around and start encouraging the empathy necessary to think through other’s perspectives. No single novelist should be expected to do anything specific. Morrison should continue to write her novels, which are some of my favorite. But it’d be nice if some more writers were trying. Who better than Paul Beatty, for example, to write from a Trump supporter’s perspective? Or Edward P. Jones from Trump’s, itself. Or Jonathan Franzen in the mind of a member of BLM.
Franzen actually addressed this very issue in July 2016 interview with Isaac Chotiner: “I write about characters, and I have to love the character to write about the character. If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person—a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person, things that are real stark differences between people—I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily even want, to write fully from the inside of a person.” I’m a great admirer of Franzen’s novels, so I wouldn’t doubt what he says works for him, but I’m certain he has written well about characters with professions of people he hasn’t loved, possibly with sexual proclivities of people he hasn’t loved, certainly with backgrounds, motivations, and psychologies of people he hasn’t loved. It’s time for race to no longer be seen, especially by some of our greatest writers and thinkers, as an unbridgeable, nearly unthinkable gap. There is too much to be said about race right now, and too many inhibitions holding back those of all races who might have something to say.
Brian Platzer’s new novel, Bed-Stuy is Burning, is available now from Atria.