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 reviewed another book for NYJB called Forest Gate by Peter Akinti, a black man, whose book came out before Pigeon English that was written by a white man. Both books relate to urban life in a rough London government housing estate. Both books are from the main viewpoint of African immigrants and their transition into British society, both books have characters that end up with a similar fate. Both books have been well received and critically acclaimed.

    While I enjoyed reading both books, I gave both books roughly the same rating in another forum because what it tells me is that it doesn't matter who writes a story--black, white, red, green--that if the subject matter and characters come from X background they will meet Y fate. It's a theme that's been drummed into books, etc. so many times that it's hard not to be prejudicial when you see yet another book with a similar storyline. This is what depresses me because it tells people that if you write about this subject, there can't be any glimmer of hope. It has to stay tragic in order to convey its message.

    I'm not trying to dismiss or ignore the hardships we face as a race. I just prefer to read more literature from African POVs that inspire hope or can show that it IS possible to triumph over adversity regardless of your situation. It's not impossible, and it's not something that only happens in fairy tales.

    As far as black writers who can't find a traditional publisher--but not wanting to self-publish--it is not impossible to get published. And when you say "traditional" publisher, do you mean the major NYC conglomorates?  Hell, it's hard for ANYONE to get a break in there, that's why small and indie publishers are so important. WE take the risks the "big dawgs" don't, and for every NYT best-seller, the author will admit that sometimes pure LUCK takes a part. Not just when it comes to getting published but getting exposure. Don't believe me? Here's an interesting article by J. A. Konrath. ;-)

    It takes time. It takes perseverance. It takes belief in oneself. If you can't get a break. Make it yourself.  

    There are options. If none of the options feel right for you. Create your own. You may be onto something big. But if you give up, you'll never get a break.

  • "I definitely don't think you, as a white woman, should be writing about people of African descent."

    Hmm, that's kind of a strong statement coming from a writer. I am intrigued with the Renaissance period; maybe someday I will write about it; maybe I will have a black character, maybe not. I wouldn't want anyone telling me I shouldn't be writing about early century Europeans because I am black. A writer's passion is from the heart.

  • Zetta, it is true that some black writers write about worlds or experiences other than their own. But I have heard more than one black writer who has been asked why is this main character white or to change it to black by a publisher/editor. Why is it perfectly okay for white writers to write black stories but not vice versa?  Of course that should not stop anyone, especially with all the options, but I'm just saying this is a reality.

    I am reading Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. She is white writing about the Tutsi and Hutu conflict in Rwanda, and the main character is a adolescent Tutsi boy. It is great writing and characterization. I think this book, a new release,  is going to get quite a buzz. As always, I ask myself, would this book get the buzz it gets or do as well if a black/African writer had written it? I still wrestle with that because I agree with Miss Queenly that so many of our stories are underexposed. Even with all the options we now have, I know a great many black writers who want a traditional publisher and do not want to self-publish or digital publish. Some of them are fabulous writers who have put in the hard work, but can't get a break. 

  • I heard a great quote today, I think from somewhere in She Writers. "Forget about write what you know, write what you want to know. I agree with Zetta for the most part in that one most research and write with sensitivity. One thing I would ask myself, if I were to attempt to write about a culture/ethnicity different from my own, and in instances such as this, is what is my motive? If you can answer examine that question with sincerity and it is other than jumping on the bandwagon of whites writing about the black experience for fame and profit (I'm going to leave The Help alone--- whites have been writing about us since Uncle Tom's Cabin) or for some high-minded attitude of "Now this is how you do it!" Dianne, I sense you are sincere in your desire in your post and other posts you have written and you evidently feel a kinship with African Americans. I say write your story. As writers we all free strongly about one topic or cause or another, and nobody or nothing should stop us from exploring that itch. For you not to do it would be denying a part of yourself.

  • It is possible for a person of one culture to write aboaut another. However, research is key! You must be willing to believe what you are told about a person's experienceand try to filter it through your own 'truth'. Being African-American is not a lifestyle, it is what is. How people choose to respond to that is 'their' lifestyle. Your success rests in your willingness to research and learn.

  • Miss Queenly, I am concerned about your statement that you cannot afford to self-publish.  Yes, you're definitely missing something.  It is possible to publish a Kindle version of your manuscript without spending a cent, and believe it or not, Kindle e-books can bring in thousands of dollars in royalties.  I have a book just out about self-publishing that can walk you through the steps, but as a shortcut, you can read about 9 options on an old blog post of mine at  If you're really interested in self-publishing, drop me a private note at [email protected] and I'll send you a ARC copy of my book so you can read it for free.


  • The only problem is is that there is not enough of "us" out there writing "our" stories. Or if they are, they are compounding on certain stereotypes that frankly don't do us any favors.

    Frankly, I'm tired of all the "angry black" stories, ghetto stories, oppressive stories about "us." While I don't argue that may be the reality of SOME black people, it's not the reality for all of us. I can't tell you how many people from the Soul Patrol have tried to say I'm not "black enough."

    Would Waiting to Exhale be any different if it were written from a white woman's POV?  No, in my opinion. All types of women can appreciate the story. Same with The Joy Luck Club.

    IMO, it's not a matter of our stories being "filtered and appropriated by white people" when many of us is more wrapped up in "reality" TV, rap music, and the like and have either no knowledge or appreciation of what their ancestors or own parents have/had to endure.

    I began writing stories years ago because I wanted characters to reflect me and the people I know, and like you've said, more of us need to write "our" stories and appreciate the variety of "our" stories. 

    IMO, the real problem is when people--of any color--rely upon stereotypes to tell a story regardless of POV. Stereotypes cheapen the author, the reader, and the people the stereotype is based.

  • I wouldn't change Rina's dialogue because to do so would be unauthentic to the era you are writing about. Unless Rina had the rare opportunity to get an education as a slave or as a free woman, her voice needs to be authentic to her. Now, in order to make things clear for the reader, you may not want to use the full dialect but maybe select words and phrases and use them consistently so that the reader can pick up 1) the dialect and 2) what is being said.

  • Hello all,

    I have a similar dilemma; maybe you can answer both at once.  I'm writing a novel based on the story of Laura M. Towne and her founding of the Penn School (later, Penn Center) on St. Helena Island.  While the bulk of the book is written from the deep third-person POV of Laura, the white abolitionist, there is also a former slave woman, who in real llife became one of Laura's closest friends.  Occasionally Rina steps in to comment on "de foolishness of dese white folk."

    I've been trying to keep her Gullah language as true to the grammar and vocabulary as I can, but an editor recently demanded I change all dialogue with the former slaves. She says that they must be presented as speaking "simple, but correct English" because any attempt at what she calls dialect will be offensive to black readers.

    What do you think? I'm hoping black readers will be drawn to the book because of this year's 150th anniversary of the Penn Center

  • Hi Dianne,

    People of non-African descent have been writing stories about people of African descent for ages. The same can be said vice versa about people of African descent writing from another racial/cultural POV.

    Last year I did a book review for New York Journal of Books for Pigeon English. It was written by a white Brit through the POV of a young black schoolboy. While the story was very convincing, I didn't like the ending because it seemed too stereotypical in that it compounded the idea that people in a certain situation always meet the same type of end no matter what they do. That bothered me so much that I posed a topic for discussion in this group, “Can’t Black Folks Be Happy?”

    I guess the only thing I can say is that if you do write from a POV and culture that is vastly different from your own that you do it with great sensitivity to your subject and not compound stereotypes. Dig deeper, do research, do whatever you can to make it authentic.

    BTW, we're going to publish a book in March, an interracial erotic romance, that was written by a white woman whose main protagonist (an Australian) falls in love with an Aboriginal man. It addresses racial issues. The book was accepted by our editor at the time who is Hispanic, it was edited by me, an African-American, and proofread by a white woman. We all enjoyed it. However, when I tried to get a few authors to read an early copy for an endorsement, one of them (an African-American woman who writes in the same genre) was deeply offended, and the other, a white woman in an interracial marriage, couldn't finish the book because of the explicit content. Regardless of this, we're proud of the book and can't wait until The Guided Tour releases.

    You can't please everybody. And if you consider the controversy caused by Katherine Stockett's The Help, you'll see what I mean.

    Good luck! :)