A Writer Who's Black AND Deep

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Remember when I let you know about a tornado that blew through my area? Well, a week after that, we had ANOTHER tornado. Having so much time inside the house—because I’m scared to go outside most days, even if there ISN’T a tornado warning—means I can write on my novel, but it’s a slow-going thing, as I’ve said before.

Let me keep it real: lately, I’ve been worried about how to write about race in my novel and how to do that with emotional depth, too. I’m not bringing up a new subject; so many African American writers and writers of other “raced” cultural groups have this problem.

Sidebar: I’ve learned that White folks don’t think they have a race, and only colored people do. Have you ever said, “White” in a gathering of White folks? They jump like you have accused them of something, or started talking about their mamas.

I’m not just pulling this opinion out of the sky. Try opening any White person’s novel. Are any of the White characters identified by race, unless they come into contact with a non-White person? No, of course not. That’s because it’s ASSUMED that every person in a novel–or poem, or memoir–is White unless it is otherwise noted. White is the default race. Toni Morrison talks about this White default  in her brilliant book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

This White racial default means when you write a novel depicting your own cultural group’s vernacular, folkways, and political challenges, and that group is not White, then you are writing a “racial” text, not a “universal text.” Meaning, White readers might not want to read your book because they think they might not “get” your reality. That’s why whenever you see Jennifer Lopez in a mainstream movie, she plays a white woman and usually, her parents are conveniently dead.

So today, two things happened that brought this issue home. First,  I was on Facebook and two FB friends of mine were discussing Rand Paul, a Tea Partier who just won the Kentucky Senate Republican Nomination. In case you haven’t heard, Rand Paul is not in agreement with Civil Rights Act protections of Black people (among others) from discrimination.

Or, as I like to say—and I’m so glad it’s become a trend—Rand Paul, a Tea Bagger, is not in agreement with Civil Rights Act protections. I try not to be naughty on the blog, but in this case, I can’t help myself.

There was a comment thread on my Facebook page and one FB friend who was Whitewas defending Rand Paul from the charges of racism just because he did not want to reaffirm the Civil Rights Act.

But then, the Black FB friend came around and—quite movingly—explained that, if you are a Black person, and especially a Black southerner, there are underlying feelings of pain associated with an American South that did not have the protections of the Civil Rights Act.

I don’t want to lose my mojo, so I won’t go into detail about what my novel-in-progress is about, but I’m a Black southerner, so you do the math. And one reason it’s taken me so long to really hit a stride with this novel is that my Black FB friend was right. There is pain associated with being a Black southerner, even one who was born after the Civil Rights Act was signed. (Like I was.)

And even if I present Black southern characters who miraculously avoided the lynching of a member of their family, still, they’ve got ancestors who were slaves, they’ve got past legal and defacto segregation in the town—all the way down to the cemeteries and the funeral homes. So how I navigate all that?

The second thing that happened today is that I was reading the New York Times today, about the latest revival of August Wilson’s Fences (with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in that cute picture above) and there was a quote by a past director of the play, Lou Bellamy. He asks (about Wilson), “Where else is there a writer who allows black people to go deep and still stay black?”

This quote hit me to the core, because his words speak to another assumption:  you can’t be both Black and emotionally deep. As a Black writer, I’m constantly confronting the notion I have to choose between the two. That’s rather jacked, in my opinion.

I remember when I went to see Wilson’s Jitney on Broadway with my friend Heidi Durrow (whose husband had generously bought my ticket). Russell Hornsby was in it, along with a host of fabulous well-known actors. I’m sorry I can’t name any of them, because Russell was so fine and so on fire that night, I couldn’t focus on anybody else but him.

In the theater, I looked around and I saw a very racially mixed crowd, and the theater was packed, too. There were racial references in the play, references I thought only the other Black folks and I would get, and there were “Black vernacular” flourishes as well.

These Wilsonian moments were ones that I recognized out of my own childhood, when I would sit next to my uncles as they talked and drank beer at family gatherings. The beer drinking stopped after they all found the Lord and got saved, but the talking did not, thank goodness. These storytelling men, along with my mother (their sister) taught me how to be a writer.

I was shocked that, because of Wilson’s emotional craft, the white folks in the theater would laugh in the right places just like the Black folks did. And I thought, “I want to be able to do this in my own work.”

Yes, my Blog-readers, in answer to what I know you are thinking, it IS harder to be a Black writer than a White writer, if you are a Black writer wanting to write about your own folks. You’ve got to write a great piece of literature AND you have to make sure that you don’t turn off White readers. Because when you write literary fiction–not a book titled, Mama, My Baby Daddy Sells Crack and My Other Baby Daddy Does, Too–White readers are assumed to be your audience. (Yet another assumption!) So you have to find a way to translate your cultural reality to your readers and not spoonfeed them, either.

That’s “the Black tax” we all speak about in the African American community, but as my New York friends can say, “Hey, yo.” I think that means, it’s just like that and get over it.

I could whine about how hard it is for me to be Black, but that’s not going to get this novel written any faster. And plus, I’ve got reasonably great skin like most Black women. I think the skin is really reparations for slavery, since we’re not going to get any, like, actual money for that.

So, I’m going to commune with the ancestors. I’m going to read all of August Wilson to help me out with this Black And Deep issue. I’ve already read five of his plays, but not the whole ten. Even though he is a playwright, still I think I can learn something about capturing and holding a multi-racial audience while delivering painful, emotional, and honest truths that intersect with race. I’m hoping the spirit of Bruh Wilson will guide me as I keep traveling through this novel, trying to figure things out.

6 thoughts on “A Writer Who's Black AND Deep

  1. Great post. Reginald Shepard (Orpheus in the Bronx) talks about how race is a construction, but white is the default race while Black is the marked construction. I think you brought up some very real issues that Black writers go through, how there is wave a mediocrity that hits the shelves everyday, yet, Black writers are held to a highers standard, that must in someway transcend their race. Well, that is what white critics would perhaps say. In the end, I think you have to write the novel that you can be proud of and know that you remain true to the nature of your writing…

    I just read an evaluation that a student gave me in my class that said I brought in too much diversity (we had three black writers and two white writers) in my reading series and in the classroom as well. Mind you, they had never had a person of color read there since Lassie was a puppy.

    We are dealing with serious issues here.

    I am southern, and I know that pain you talk about. It is real and maybe that is what make southern Black writers so damn cool….

  2. As you write the novel, write from the inside of your heart and be honest. Nothing else matters except the language.


  3. Interesting to note, however, how jarring it was, even as a black writer, to read Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and then see the television movie (the rare case where the book based on the movie was better, because Neil Gaiman wrote both) and see that one of the characters was black. Gaimain, far as I recall, never explicitly said the character was black, but did hint at it, if I remember correctly. Why should it make a difference? And yet, it did, in some way.

  4. Thank you for your keen perspectives and comic relief. It has made me consider the pain felt by Black New Yorkers–integrated public life–who are born just before the Civil Rights Act was signed. Hmmm, perhaps Black pain is an equal opportunity emotion for Black Folk who reside in America. But then again, ‘hey yo’ what else is up?

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