Black is Black?
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       Hello Ladies (and of course any gentlemen), I would like to pose a question that stops me from starting a writing project that I am particularly interested in. Ever since I can remember I have been interested in the plight of the African American people and their ongoing battle for freedom and equality. I would like to write a novel about a family embroiled in this lifestyle and to that end I would like your opinion on the question I ask myself -- could I do justice to such an undertaking given the fact I am a white Australian. In other words does colour matter?

I would be interested to hear your ideas.

  • I haven't read all the responses to this post, Dianne, so I do not know whether I'm repeating something someone else has said. I hope that I am not. :-) I was intrigued, however, that the question has become not one of what drives story or what does a good story demand but a question of race and whether the color of the writer matters.  This turn in the discussion is not surprising, however, given the complex and complicated subject matter, the emotions that this topic stirs up, and the political undercurrents that may propel it. (I think color matters most when people claim that it does not.)

    What you propose is a concept story rather than a story driven by character. Concept stories tend to fall flat unless they can be reshaped into character stories with well-rounded characters. In addition, there's a reason that most aspiring writers have heard the adage, "Write what you know." If fiction indeed replicates truth more than fact, then the writer must be connected enough to her characters to develop what they think, say, and do into scenes that ring true to life. So, the question would be do you know what you propose to write about? If so, how intimately do you know the subject? 

    To me, you have the potential for a much more compelling story if you explore through some pre-writing exercises why you want to write about the "plight of the African-American people and their ongoing battle for freedom and equality." What about this group's issues draw you to the subject?  Are you motivated to make some political statement? If so, is a novel the best way to make that statement? Do you have close friends who are black and troubled? If so, do you know enough black people to know some who are not so troubled? I am curious about what drives you because, as an Australian, you have in your own country the Aborigine people who have some social concerns that are similar to those of African Americans: , and they, too, are of African descent (  In fact, most "third-world" cultures touched by colonialism have similar issues regarding reactions to oppression and poverty. Or is it something about the U.S.A.'s slavery history, perhaps, that interest you?

    I hope that I am conveying to you what I have learned about the need for a writer to write first what she knows. So, I ask, "What if your story were driven not by a concept but by a character? And what if that character were not black but a white Australian woman instead who had perhaps married into a family of African-American people, a woman who grappled with how to relate better to her husband's family and how to understand the issues her husband faced and her children would face, especially if one of her children looked "white" and the other looked "black"? What if the story were about her journey to a better understanding of these matters or never understanding anything except the need to get up and do what had to be done? What if the story had black characters but was not specifically about "the plight of African Americans" but about the "plight" of Americans struggling to be equal and free?  

    After all, don't African Americans have among them fiction writers who have already addressed the plight of African Americans quite well from a black perspective? (To name some of those writers: Charles Chestnut, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston [although she wrote more of black life], Richard Wright, Anne Petry, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Pearl Cleage, Sapphire, Bernice McFadden, Attica Locke) I hope I have not misunderstood what you want to write about. You said you want to write a novel about "a family embroiled in this lifestyle," which implies that you want to write from the perspective of a black person, although I'm not sure what you mean by "lifestyle." What is the African-American lifestyle?

    A story written from the perspective of a character with a background similar to your own would have more opportunities to resonate with authenticity and to explore the higher stakes of cooperation between not the "colors" but the cultures.  But even in this approach you still have the matter of what do you know and who do you know and to whom would your book speak? Do you have the kind of life experience that has exposed you to black people and their multiple cultures beyond Western stereotypes?

    In any event, good luck with your writing. If you're thinking about such things, you must write something. :-)

    These are my ideas on your question.

  • Here here. Real life is messy, complicated, tender, awful. Drama for drama is wrong. It has to be about real, untidy, human people who are influenced or even knocked over by their place and time.
  • Anyone can write a story about anyone.

    However, imagine for a moment that you had a personal struggle, a failing relationship with a child, an abusive spouse, or the heartache of dealing with a parent dying of AIDS. Now imagine that someone asked to write your story. What would you want them to know, to understand? If they made your very straight parent gay (for sales), turned your artistic and rebellious child into a drug addict, or made your husband a drunkard and a cheat - all the stereotypes associated with those issues, how would you feel?

    I think that anyone can write a story about anyone and anything. However, misappropriation of culture and stereotypes are death to those being referred to in the story. Just remember that.

  • I'm for you for the most part but some stories require the issue of color and race. It depends on the story.

  • Hi Dera,

    I noticed in a couple of the comments people had commented on the significance of colour (black or otherwise) when writing a story. The point I was making is when are we going to move past colour? To keep making colour significant is to perpetuate divisions.

  • Hi Nissi,

    What Black debate are you speaking of? You can certainly write a book about humanity but it depends on how you form the book.

  •  I believe that creativity and perspective are colourless. Yes our experiences do largely shape our views and opinions but writing and art are a means of breaking out of the norm and  creating a world entirely the way we want to.

    I grew tired of the 'Black' debate and as a Black British/ African female I decided my first book would be about being a human. If being black happened to creep into the subject then so be it but I think we have to move past seeing colour.

    You can check out my book 'Finding Me' here.

  • I would agree with this. For me, the scariest character to write in this novel has been a Guy named Alprentice Carter c. 1968. Alprentice was murdered i think the following year in a shoot out with a rival black militant group, US, at the UCLA black student union. He was 26. He'd been the head of the Slausin area gang before that, the "Mayor of the Ghetto."

    The FBI did a real number on the Panthers. We will never know what they would have been without the interference of COINTELPRO, which did all Hoover could to incite violence among and between the then-burgeoning militant groups.

    Now, obviously, Alprentice, as an ex-gang member, was no angel. But it is largely because of him that Los Angeles was one of the few cities that did not go up in flames after Martin Luther King was murdered. Bunchy, (his nickname) drove the city all night calming things down. He died at very young. He's not here to speak for himself. Very little has been written about him. I could find only a little bit, some photos, a snip of video. About the only reference I've found to him from an eye-witness was a teenaged Panther who emulated his sense of style, which the kid described as very pimp-chic. I have felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to this man, knowing i might be his only representation in fiction, a responsibility to let his voice through, (though I am not a man, an ex-gang member, pimp chic, a militant, a child of the 60's revolutions, or Black.) I think he was all of these things, even at the mercy of all of these things at times, but clearly from his actions the night MLK died, he was a whole lot more, and might have become a whole lot more and I've tried to write him that way.

    I have not been able to vet his section with any ex-panthers, but I have heaved a sigh of relief that my readers so far have expressed amazement that I could find his voice. This may be the only memorium he gets. I want it honest, and I want it to honor what he did and what he was and what he might have been.

    Which reminds me, speaking of keeping stories within the Black community, who is going to write of the Black Panthers in light of what's come out about J. Edgar's machinations behind the scenes? The closest I've seen are autobiographies and Hardball, a novel by another white, Jewish lady, Sara Paretsky, writing about Chicago's South Side gangs during MLK's summer there.(based on her experiences working on the South Side that summer.) If ever there was a story that needs to be told, its the Panthers. Now. while some of the participants are still alive. For example, That shootout was complicated, but was at least marginally over who would receive a faculty position in African-American studies at UCLA. This stuff needs to be looked at and untangled. Somebody run with it.
  • I'll take those three cents and put them in the bank. :) Research is key, but like you said, you've got to see your characters as just people living life.  And you're also right in that one of the greatest compliments you can get is someone telling you that your characters sound genuine if they are different from who YOU are as a person. Writing the opposite gender is just as hard as writing another race or culture.

  • It's taking me a while to think this through and weigh in...and in the end, all I can do is draw on my own, here goes... I try to understand my characters as the people they are, (I try to) listen to, understand, and reflect their truth. No doubt, it's easier to do that (with empathy and insight) if their culture is my culture. I am black, female and Caribbean (and other things, of course); so I tend to write from that space. But my first book (The Boy from Willow Bend) was a about a boy, and my second book (Dancing Nude in the Moonlight) featured an adult male and a female character from a different Caribbean culture. What I tried to do was make them authentic. And so far (knock on wood) I haven't been accused of failing in that regard; in fact I've had men ask me how did I know (which to me is the highest compliment because I fully expected them to say this is a female-version of a man, men don't really think or act like that, or something like that). With my latest book Oh Gad! the greatest challenge was the black female character born in the Caribbean who was returning home from the USA as an adult (because, I think, she would have had cultural experiences vastly different from my own) while the white male Caribbean characters (and there were a couple of those) flowed a bit more naturally because they were more familiar to me though separated by race and economic class, that kind of thing. With the female, I had to find a point of connection, a point where I understood and could relate to her. I'm saying all of that to say that I think if you can find your way to the heart of the character, come at her/him from the inside out, you can write that character. I think, in addition to research (which is very important) if you take the time to know the character, know her truth and as someone said not filter it through your truth, you can write it. Then the question becomes, should you. There is a danger of condescending to (and intentionally or not, appropriating the culture...there is a very real sense that stories about so called minority cultures as told by the so called dominant culture do seem to be given more currency both in Hollywood and in the world of publishing, so the resentment of this pattern is understandable because ideally we want to tell our own stories...this applies to Caribbean stories as well) but if irrespective of those dangers, it's a story you feel compelled to tell, then I think you've got to do it. I would suggest that if you do, you not think of it in terms of the plight of African Americans or of them being embroiled in a particular lifestyle, first think of them just as people experiencing life. As you no doubt know, Characters are first of all people with unique experiences and perspectives; and one of the fears especially when the character is written by someone outside that culture (or race) is that what you end up with is a broad caricature or stereotype at best (with, in the case of many African American stories, a white saviour thrown in for good measure) and then the very people whose story you're trying to tell will feel condescended to. That's my three cents.