BEING BLACK IN AN ALL WHITE TOWN

by Laurel S. Peterson

Thank you MotiveMeansOpportunity and Kait Carson for hosting me. I’m honored to be here.

shadow-notes-cover-compressedI’m white. Let’s start there. But my first mystery novel, Shadow Notes, contains a black police chief from New Orleans who has moved north after Hurricane Katrina to work in a small Connecticut town. In some quarters of the literary community, I would be criticized sharply for writing a character outside my race. If you’re curious about the controversy, you can read about what happened when Lionel Shriver said writers should be able to write about anyone they choose. I’ve included the link at the bottom of this post.

I understand the criticism from a woman’s point of view, rather than a racial one; that is, in most of the novels I read growing up men portrayed what they thought a woman would think and act like. In that context, it’s clear why some might be tired of inaccurate representations of female or black or many other kinds of experience—and why it would feel as though white writers were taking ownership of experience that was not theirs to claim.

So why write a black man—and why put him in a position of otherness? One of the amazing things about being a writer is that it gives me a chance to imagine myself in bodies and minds not my own. Even now, as I write this, I’m sure I’m making mistakes. But I want to understand. I want to be involved in that conversation. I want to push myself outside of what’s comfortable because compassion demands it of me. Choosing to write a black man means I have to try to understand how a black man might feel and respond when negotiating his place in a new community, in a position of power, with a new woman and her family. How do those feelings compare with what he left in New Orleans? What does he miss? What does he love? What does he desire? Where are the commonalities and where the divergences? This is not representative of how every black man feels. No one thing is representative of how every black man feels, in the same way that my white characters don’t represent how every white person feels.

In her powerful book Citizen, Claudia Rankine talks about someone cutting in line in front of her at the drugstore. When the cashier tells him Rankine was next, he says, “Oh my God, I didn’t see you,” which seemed to mean, I didn’t see you because you are black and we don’t see blackness in our culture. In a New York Times arts section interview with Teyonah Parris titled “A Fight for Visibility for all Shades of Black,” the opening paragraph reads in part: “Do you know what every dark-skin girl thinks when she sees only light-skin girls in magazines? …They think their dark skin has made them invisible.”

We’ve come off a summer filled with violence against the black community—or maybe I should say yet more violence against the black community, since making someone invisible is a form of that violence. My students of color tell me how “other” they feel. I believe it’s critical for all human beings to have voice, and to feel that their voices and their needs matter in our global and local communities.

So maybe I wrote a black character to help me see. Maybe I wrote a black character because black people are part of our community, and the novel wouldn’t be representative without their presence and voices. Maybe I wrote a black character so that the I-Thou divide might disappear a little more in me. I hope I did a reasonable job. I hope to do a better job next time because I will have listened for longer. And I would hope that any author would try to represent compassionately and accurately whatever experience she feels is important in her story.

www.utechristinphotography.com
http://www.utechristinphotography.com

I would love to hear what you think a writer’s responsibility is in representing those who are not like him or her—in race, in gender, in sexuality. Thanks for joining me in the conversation.

SHADOW NOTES
by Laurel S. Peterson

Clara Montague’s mother Constance never liked—or listened—to her but now they have to get along or they will both end up dead. Clara suspects she and her mother share intuitive powers, but Constance always denied it. When Clara was twenty, she dreamed her father would have a heart attack. Constance claimed she was hysterical. Then he died.

Furious, Clara leaves for fifteen years, but when she dreams Constance is in danger, she returns home. Then, Constance’s therapist is murdered and Constance is arrested.

Starting to explore her mother’s past, Clara discovers books on trauma, and then there’s a second murder. Can Clara find the connection between the murders and her mother’s past that will save her mother and finally heal their relationship?

Laurel Peterson is on Twitter: @laurelwriter49; on Facebook and LinkedIn; and at www.laurelpeterson.com.

Her book, Shadow Notes, is available at Barking Rain Press: http://barkingrainpress.org/shadow-notes/ or at Amazon:  https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Notes-Montague-Mystery-Mysteries/dp/1941295452.

Lionel Shriver controversy:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/books/lionel-shriver-cultural-appropriation-brisbane-writers-festival.html?_r=0

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18 thoughts on “BEING BLACK IN AN ALL WHITE TOWN

  1. Laurel, this is such a powerful and important piece. When we first discussed you guesting on MMO, the range of blog suggestions you made fascinated me. And I Googled you. When I learned you were white, I wanted to know more about your choice.

    I recently read the Sisters in Crime diversity study. The literary prejudices astounded and saddened me. Understanding the culture and the nuances of characters and honestly writing them is a responsibility of the author. It’s important that the character NOT be a caricature. Writers have been doing that for ages. I’m female, but I write male characters. I’m “anglo” but I write about South Florida, and so my books contain Latin characters. Until we can write the population without encountering prejudice, or raised eyebrows can we honestly claim diversity in our writing?

    It’s an interesting topic. Thank you for sharing it with us, and for being brave enough to write outside the lines. Someday I hope we can all do that as a matter of course. Is that also your goal?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks again for having me here, Kait. Adrienne Rich said that the personal was political. So from that standpoint, I guess my goal is that everyone feel empowered to write as honestly as they can about whatever is eating them at their core. If that happens to be about race, then do it. If it’s about religion or sexuality, then do it. I also have two gay characters in the novel, one of whom has HIV. I was a young woman in the 90s, and that epidemic was so horrifying. I was outside it, but I don’t want people to forget, and (especially in this moment) I am deeply saddened by the condemnatory tone of public discourse. So yes, I hope for a less reactive, more thoughtful discussion.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Interesting points, Laurel. I look forward to reading your book! 🙂 There’s been a lot of talk about what writers “should” be writing, but really I think that the bottom line is with readers. As a reader (and I’m white too), I want characters that reflect the rich, diverse world I live in and who don’t resort to lazy stereotypes.

    I recently put down a book unfinished from a writer I have always LOVED after the second time an Asian character was referred to as “inscrutable” or “hard to read.” I had gagged through the first few uses of “exotic” because I had so much respect for the writer, but, sadly, the poor characterization was too much. Why read a book where the author can’t be bothered to create real-feeling characters? Or, not the case with that book but with many others on the market, who ignores the presence of minorities?

    When I pick up a book from an author I’ve never read before, I don’t usually think much about the author. I don’t care about the background of the author as much as I care about the characters that she writes. But you’ve got to expect that authors of certain backgrounds will bring different insight into the worlds they write, for sure. Would I pick up a novel about an astronaut because it was written by a writer who used to be an astronaut? For sure, though I would probably be curious about one written by a non-astronaut too–I’d just expect the non-astronaut to do research and put more care into their characterizations. Sadly, a lot of minority perspectives are missing from the pool of authors that I see.

    Readers are going gravitate towards writers who get it right. Writers can write what they want–but they shouldn’t expect readers to refrain from criticism or stop reading if they feel the characters aren’t portrayed right or that the portrayal doesn’t bring something different to the table. I haven’t read Shriver’s latest book, but the criticism I saw was, among other things, that the sole black character has dementia and was led around on a leash by wealthy white people. And, as a reader with a vast choice of things to read and only a certain amount of time to do it in, I’ll probably skip that book. I’ve read stories with wealthy white people and scarce minority characters before. I’ll save my time for something more interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. HI Beth: Thanks for stopping by and for sharing such good insights. One of the other articles I read on this suggested that the problem wasn’t that people couldn’t write what they wanted, but that white writers wanted writers of color to approve of what they were doing. I thought that was an interesting insight, and I think it reflects what you’re talking about above. We have to be willing to take the criticism–whether we think we’ve gotten it right or not. And engaging in that dialogue is part of growing as people and as writers. I really appreciate your comments.
    Laurel

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder if there isn’t a difference between wanting writers of color to approve of what one is writing and being respectful of another culture. While it’s a generalization, obviously not every person of color thinks the same, yet there are cultural differences. If I’d written about being a feminist from a white woman’s pov (referencing my comment below,) assuming it was essentially the same for a person of color, I would have been far off the mark. I think it’s important to not look for approval per se, but to look for authenticity, honesty and respectfulness. An interesting point to explore; there are probably some fine lines. Mary

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Laurel, your subject is an important one. I don’t think writing about characters of a culture other than our own is a form of cultural appropriation – yet, it could, and in some cases has, become that. I believe each of us who does it has an extra responsibility to be sure we’re reporting/writing about/being respectful of another’s culture without usurping it.

    I have been working on a mystery with a white, female protagonist and a female, African-American main character. It was inspired by a client who had an event happen to her that forms the basis of my story line. I have had a deep and abiding concern about racism and white privilege and have been a social justice volunteer for a long time. I’ve concluded that white people need to help white people ‘get it’, help our fellow white citizens see their white privilege (which is often invisible to them/me) and perhaps, after that, see the institutionalized racism. I think good fiction can help in that regard. The story came to me powerfully, and linked up with a few things that occurred in my own life, drawing me to it organically. I was asked in a critique group if it didn’t take a lot of balls [I corrected: ovaries] to write a character of another race. I can only say [1] I feel compelled to write this story; [2] I will ask several people of color to read and critique it; [3] I will abide by comments of #2; and [4] a creative, talented young black woman – a brilliant writer among other things – said she thought the book a good idea and would be good for black readers too. The latter surprised me immensely. Her one suggestion: not to write from inside an African-American person’s head (which means I’ll be doing some revising.) Her parents, both exceptionally creative, artistic and wise, think it’s a valuable story.

    Laurel, hopefully, these comments support and encourage you. I look forward to reading Shadow Notes but not until I’ve finished my wip so I won’t be subconsciously influenced. Ironically, my backstory is set in a fictional town in southern Louisiana. Wishing you all the best,

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks, Mary. Your story sounds wonderful–rich and interesting. And I wish you lots of luck with it, and kudos on being so careful with your beta readers. I think that feedback is so useful. I’m so glad you stopped by.
    Laurel

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  6. Great post, Laurel. These comments have the makings of a good novel–CONTROVERSY! I read the NY Times’ article on Lionel Shriver. In my opinion it reeked of political correctness, something which I deeply despise. Don’t hurt poor Johnny or Suzy’s feelings by writing about them, or painting their picture…WAH! Are people really that sensitive? Don’t keep score. Everyone gets a trophy. We are ALL winners! B.S.!
    Write what you want, but do your best to get it right! There is NO excuse for sloppiness or lack of research. That said, EVERYTHING and EVERYBODY is fair game, or should be. For a culture or a people to whine about someone from the outside portraying them or their ways is ludicrous. BUT, get it right.
    I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, worked two jobs (for my father, without pay) from age ten until I graduated from high school at seventeen. I grew up hard, verbally and physically abused. Poor me. Then I joined the Marines when I turned eighteen (my parents wouldn’t sign the age waiver). I fought in Vietnam alongside Blacks, Hispanics, and other Whites. We had a saying: “We all wear the same green and bleed the same red.” We had each other’s backs, no matter our skin color.
    Okay, rant over. Again, what a very interesting post. Please come visit us again, Laurel! 🙂
    –Michael

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Michael. I think we all face challenges in our lives, as you point out. You were given a lot of grit, it sounds like, that helped you through. I don’t think everyone comes to life with the same abilities, and I don’t think that when a person starts off at a disadvantage that it’s always possible to overcome. Non-white Race is a huge disadvantage in our culture. I hear that in the stories my students and colleagues tell me. And Claudia Rankine’s book is a pretty stunning eye-opener if you’re at all interested.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Many people were shocked when they discovered Tony Hillerman was not a native American, though he wrote about them in his mystery novels. I don’t think that detracted from their success, and people still read and enjoy them.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I am a big believer in white writers writing about people of color in their books–IF they bother to meet with people of color and learn about them from them. Their lives are very different from those of most white writers, and imagination and empathy will only take you so far and then drop you flat.

    As far as the comment about political correctness, the term I prefer to use in its place is “not being an asshole.”

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Funny. Yes, that, too, right? To go back to a comment I made earlier though, I think we may not always know when we are. Even if I do my research and talk to people, I’m never going to get it all right. I’m human. So I have to be able to acknowledge when I’ve messed up, and commit to trying to do better next time. Thanks for your comments!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is a nice rowdy bunch. I loathe political correctness. It sucks the life out of life and it masks ill will. It masks and distorts the guts of life. Novels that have power tap into a real vein of the subconscious. That requires being frank. How open you are can reflect how hard the harpoon hit and how deeply. This post and discussion is timely. The subject of racism is as timely as the USA.
    My husband is Sioux and Black and I’m about as lily white as they come. He’s also dyslexic. He also has some of the best people skills of anyone I have ever met. He has managed to keep me in line for years and that is not an easy thing, trust me. He says he’d rather deal with an overtly racist person than one who conceals his/her feelings. We have the same problems other couples have and in addition we have nothing in common. When he drives my car (he hates my driving, sound familiar) he listens to classical music. It’s my car. When I ride in his truck we listen to blues. He has trouble reading because of dyslexia and he married a writer. He would be glad white writers are trying to write about black characters. Some writers in this discussion already have. Think “Of Blood and Brothers” and it was not politically correct, but it was deeply moving. I was an abused child and I wrote a book about it that was “riveting and revolting” according to the review of the above referenced writer. Since he was beaten as a kid he could see it from the inside out. He wrote the truth. Not some politically correct crap. There is a difference between caring and avoiding the truth. Since not all the population can be deported, we will all have to learn to live with each other in some way. I applaud this discussion and the post. Go to it! Laurel, you might like to have Dennis Moore, book reviewer at East County Magazine in California as a contact. He is a friend, a black male, and a fighter in the trenches of prevalent racism in the West. It isn’t confined to the South by any means. Google him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, MJ, for the contact and for the passionate reply. I agree that political correctness doesn’t do the job, but maybe it’s because it doesn’t go far enough. Or because it’s an attempt to legislate something that perhaps should be moral. We need to start somewhere, and while being PC doesn’t finish the job, maybe it gives us a place to start. ? Thanks for coming by!!

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