Writing Race in America
I regularly have lunch with a colleague. He’s a writer, too. We meet on Tuesdays or Fridays, when neither of us teaches, and our meals include Guinness and sometimes Scotch and always lively conversation. He’s white and built thick, has a shaved head and a goatee, and for several years he’s been writing a series of short stories based on some of our conversations. He calls them Black Guy Bald Guy—without a comma indicating two different characters. Maybe it’s two characters or maybe it’s just a reiterative description of a single character.
Many of the stories begin with, “Black Guy is black. Bald Guy is bald,” and many are just dialogues between the two, playful and surprising, surprising because they complicate how readers are meant to understand race. Black Guy is biracial and worldly, the child of a French father. Bald Guy is never identified as white, but he comes from a town divided by metaphorical railroad tracks, and we understand that his worldview is the product of a segregated, working-class environment.
At a recent lunch, my colleague confessed that writing “Black Guy Bald Guy” had originally felt risky to him. It turns out that our lunches, when he was first writing the stories and we would discuss the work, were a way for him to ask a sort of permission to create the black character. Issues of cultural appropriation and fear of offending undergirded his apprehensions. But at heart, he did not trust that he knew race well enough to write about it well. He felt that writing race was the province of members of the minority group whose race was being represented on the page.
That struck me as odd—it always has when I’ve heard such things. But I recognized that mine was a minority position (pun intended). If the scholarship on cultural appropriation, the brouhaha about Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, and the general “write what you know” vibe of creative-writing workshops are to be believed, then no, it’s not the place of white people to write the Other, particularly black people. This seems to be the consensus—even now, in 2014, 400 years into our mixed-race experiment on these North American shores.
I think about my students. My white students wear baggy jeans and oversized athletics jerseys and, to a person, are better versed in the ways and means of contemporary culture than I am. Because pop culture is so black-inflected now, they know quite a lot that I, a black man, don’t know. So why shouldn’t they write stories featuring black characters? Shouldn’t I encourage them to? But the sad fact is that very few of my white students have been willing to write anything other than white characters.
Not so for my black, Latino, and American Indian students. While characters of their own race tend to be central in their stories, they don’t typically shy away from writing characters of other races, particularly white characters. So this is more than a race issue; it’s a white issue.
Understandably, white students fear offending people of color. But we teachers are also afraid. Some of us discourage our white students from taking the risk of writing black characters. It’s a way to sidestep the contention, raised voices, hurt feelings, and discomfort that sometimes result when we talk about race.
That is a failure of pedagogy. Aspiring writers need to learn how to create characters, which requires understanding people in all their complexity. Whether the character is, as James Baldwin put it, making love or breaking bread, she’s doing it with the impulse to satisfy a hunger and longing that all of us share and that make us all equally human.
The specific details of characters’ actions may differ, but details can be learned or thoughtfully imagined. The emotions that provoke or result from those actions, however, are universal. When a black person, or character, experiences love, she feels the same joy that a white person does, even if she experiences it in a different setting. When she suffers grief, her grief feels the same as a white person’s grief, no matter the cause.
The character is human before she is black or white, Latino or whatever. And in our cultural context in the United States, most of us are American before we are black, white, red, or brown. In fact, it is the peculiar case of our Americanness—with our history of slavery and genocide, Jim Crow and inequality—that forces upon us the necessity of blackness, whiteness, redness, and brownness.
What we adults so easily and conveniently forget, and what our students—as mostly young people with little experience—generally don’t understand, is that race is a social construction. Very few Americans are born of singular ethnic bloodlines, much less racial ones. Yet we cling to the notion that we are some one thing—black or white, red or brown.
I once dated a white woman, a forensic scientist from Tyler, Tex., which is East Texas, which is to say, backwoods Louisiana. We never acknowledged our relationship to her family, fearing that they wouldn’t know what to do with it, in the best-case scenario, and, in the worst, might react terribly. Once at a professional conference, she took a genetics test that some merchant was hawking and, to her surprise, discovered that she is of at least 9 percent African descent. (She was excited to flaunt this to her family.) She is in no way exceptional in this matter, particularly as a Southerner.
As Americans, we are products of a world where black and white have mixed for centuries, to the point that blackness and whiteness (and, with time, redness and brownness) can now be regarded as notions that are biologically meaningless. It takes an effort of willful self-delusion to maintain that I am “black” in any historical sense of the term when my mother is a French Jew, my birth father is African, and I’ve lived in France, England, and Brazil as well as small-town Texas. I am “black,” whatever that means, by choice. However, I am American by definition.
Toni Morrison has observed that “the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture.” She goes on to say that “a criticism that needs to insist that literature is not only ‘universal’ but also ‘race-free’ risks lobotomizing that literature, and diminishes both the art and the artist.”
That is true in creative-writing workshops as well. So we teachers shouldn’t allow our students to avoid the difficult subject of race. On the contrary, it is the writer’s duty to write race—to fill our manuscripts with characters as varied and complex as the people who make up the world around us—whether race is our primary subject or not. At the very least, we should not pretend that it doesn’t exist.
For race is the American subject. Contrary to what many assert about us living in a postracial society, we live in a fully racial one. Now more than at any time in our history, we seem willing to acknowledge the “many strands” of which America is woven, as Ralph Ellison wrote. As teachers of writing committed to the liberal-arts principle of helping students become good citizens who lead rich and meaningful lives, we have the duty to encourage our classes, too, to acknowledge those many strands.
Our culture depends on it. Writers have enormous power to shape society, which in turn influences our attitudes and perceptions. Take the case of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Today the character Nigger Jim makes us cringe. But in the 1880s and 90s, so prevalent and popular were “dialect” stories and poems featuring “yah-suh”-ing Toms, mammies, and pickaninnies that Twain’s self-abnegating Jim was regarded as a sympathetic, fully human black character by comparison. I’m not raising anew the call for banning the book; in fact, I teach it. But I teach it as a product of its historical moment, and in this, it is useful and instructive.
Twain’s writer’s eye saw African-Americans as fellow human beings, people who hungered, loved, and grieved just as he did. If you don’t believe that, read Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s smart and daring book, Was Huck Black? In exploring the real-world antecedents for Huck, she uncovers Twain’s evolving understanding of the African-Americans who affected his own life. Just as Twain didn’t merely see a pickaninny in his real-life experiences with the title character of his 1874 essay “Sociable Jimmy” (whom Fisher Fishkin identifies as central to his imagining of the character Huck), in Jim he was clearly attempting to create a more complex representation of a black person.
The problem was Twain’s constricted understanding of the complexities of race; he was, despite himself, a product of his historical context. Consequently, despite Twain’s best efforts, Jim still wears a minstrel mask. However, rather than condemn Twain, we should recognize that, although he was clearly influenced by the thinking of his era, he had the vision to see past those limitations—however minimally, to our 21st-century standards—and the courage to attempt to write race more honestly than his peers did.
This becomes all the more apparent when we compare Twain with his contemporary Joel Chandler Harris, who had equally noble motives in writing his Uncle Remus stories. Harris didn’t set out to write stories that belittled his subject. On the contrary, he intended Uncle Remus to be an icon for the ages, the very picture of African-American dignity, which was to say, an exemplar of the black person who knew and accepted his “place.”
Regrettably, for several generations, Remus was iconic in just that way, as those of us old enough to remember the 1946 Disney movie Song of the South can attest. Unlike Twain, Harris remained stuck in an antebellum mind-set. He could not see the actual Reconstruction-era world around him—a world in which blacks left the farm and went to school and ran for office. He remained stuck in the worldview of his youth, a view in which whites couldn’t imagine blacks as fully human and, consequently, as their equals.
Twain, whose personal history was similar to Harris’s (both grew up in the antebellum South, in families that owned slaves), did accept the changes taking place around him. Even if his vision was limited, he understood enough about human complexity to recognize that what he’d imagined blacks to be when he had been a boy was irreconcilable with the black people he was encountering after Emancipation, as an adult. And Twain had the courage to attempt to address this in his work.
In that light, Nigger Jim—whatever our 2014 sensibilities perceive his flaws to be—remains revolutionary for what he was in 1884. He was not Uncle Remus.
Jim in fact paved the way for the Moderns, who were also intrigued by what it meant to be “black.” Jim set the stage for Gertrude Stein’s character Melanctha, for popular black characters created by Vachel Lindsay and Eugene O’Neill, and for DuBose Heyward’s and George and Ira Gershwin’s iconic Porgy and Bess.
We would never have had the character Jim were it not for Twain’s daring to write race.
In a broader sense, Jim anticipated Picasso’s and the Cubists’ attraction to African masks and anticipated the worldwide love of ragtime and jazz. Like those musical forms, Jim became an ambassador to the world for distinctly American artistic production. As a historical document, Huck Finn is important, and the book is important because of Jim.
But we would never have had Jim were it not for a person who dared to write race—which is to say, had not a white person dared to defy popular convention by attempting to rewrite race.
William Faulkner is another writer who influenced our culture’s perceptions of race in profound ways. For all his faults when it comes to his representations of race, I much prefer Faulkner’s articulations of a fully realized and wholly racialized South than the tepid nostalgia of magazines like Oxford American, which bills itself as the “Southern Magazine of Good Writing.” That magazine’s smug self-regard is Southern only in that its vision of the South feels terribly antiquated—not cultured but monocultural; not “retro,” just retrogressive.
The magazine’s idea of racial content seems to be whites gazing at blacks and black culture. Combing the pages of Oxford American is like walking through a liberal white Southerner’s home, the walls of which are decorated with framed sepia prints of poor blacks (typically either the very old or the very young), sitting on the porches of their shotgun shacks and staring blankly into the camera lens. That distanced gaze is as close to writing the fully racialized South as the magazine seems capable of achieving. As for confronting the complexity of race, Oxford American seems to have no interest in it.
Writing of Oxford American makes me appreciate my “Black Guy Bald Guy” friend all the more for his courage to face race head-on. He also writes wonderful nonfiction. One of his essays that I’m particularly fond of, about his home region of southern Illinois, is called “Naming Negro Lick.” A “lick” was a synonym for a creek back in the day, and the ones around his hometown were predictably named “Bear,” “Elm,” and “Apple”—and, not so predictably, “Nigger Lick.” Before the Civil War, that was also the name of the township that abutted it. The essay explores the history of his childhood geography, but even more so his conflicted attachment to that history and geography.
I was thinking about his essay as I was thinking about Twain for this essay. I found myself imagining Twain, sitting in the light of an oil lamp at his desk, knowing that he was writing more than merely a children’s adventure story, more than just a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I imagined him knowing that he was, like my friend, exploring the conflicted history of his childhood geography, and that he recognized himself to be doing something different, something risky, but that he had to do it anyway, because he couldn’t stomach reading one more Remus story.
In that light, I forgive him for allowing Jim to miss his stop at Cairo and never get off the raft, allowing Jim to let himself drift even farther into the Deep South with the little white boy instead of striking out toward freedom. (I confess: I feel a little Tom-ish for this admission.) But to imagine it that way, a writer deliberately taking such a risk, gives me hope, not just for American writing, but for America itself.
Originally published in The Chronicle Review section of The Chronicle of Higher Education on March 10, 2014. David Wright is an American writer and a full professor of English at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The two links—for the series Black Guy Bald Guy and for the essay “Naming Negro Lick”—are mine. All fifteen published installments of Black Guy Bald Guy are available earlier in the blog section of this website.