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What White Writers Should Know About Telling Black Stories

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We often live in different communities and socialize in separate circles, and yet when it’s time to write our novels, a few daring souls attempt to cross the racial divide. As a Black writer, I must say it’s sometimes awkward at best.

The publishing industry has been vocal in recent years about wanting diverse books that reflect the world we live in. This has sparked a lot of discussion in writing communities, including this one. I’m often curious: Do these writers want to include Black characters because it will make them more marketable or do they see this as a moral act, a way to do the right thing? Is this really the story they want to tell?

Several white writers have asked me to review excerpts of their novels that feature Black characters. They approach me well-intentioned but also apprehensive about getting it right. They fear doing something stupid (read: racist) on the page and that’s a valid concern. Mistakes have been made in literature, television, and film. (Note that this was an intentional use of passive voice to avoid outing the guilty.)

When I review the work of white writers, I often find common missteps regarding Black characters. The prevailing wisdom for anyone writing characters outside of their own experience is to research and do your homework. While due diligence is always important, there are other basics that often get missed.

Slang and broken English should not be the dialogue default for Black characters.

I’ve read too many novel manuscripts in which Black characters are speaking Ebonics and using poor grammar. I cringe because it’s often offensive caricature. Black people are not a monolith and our language patterns are as diverse as we are.

When you try to emulate language that’s embedded in a culture you don’t know or understand, it’s tricky to pull that off in a way that isn’t seen as demeaning and derogatory. Now, just to confuse everyone, I want to share an example from the award-winning memoir Heavy, by Kiese Laymon, a Black author and English professor at the University of Mississippi who breaks those rules, because he can. In this passage, he describes bantering with his eighth-grade classmate in Catholic school:

La Thon cut up his pink grapefruit with his greasy, dull butter knife. “These white folk know we here on discount,” he told me, “but they don’t even know.”

“You right,” I told him. “These white folk don’t even know that you an ol’ grapefruit-by-the-pound-eating-ass n****. Give me some grapefruit. Don’t be parsimonious with it, either.”

In that passage, Laymon and his friend are intentionally practicing their vocabulary words (parsimonious) in a way that’s relevant and connected for them culturally. If you’re not Black and that’s not your experience, don’t try that on the page.

The primary purpose for Black characters should not be to support white protagonists.

We often see Black characters in novels playing the role of the sassy sidekick or best friend. As marginalized people, we consider ourselves “the mainstream” and want to be centered in stories. We shouldn’t be relegated to holding the white protagonist’s hand and shepherding her through her crisis.

You may have heard of the Magical Negro trope in which the wise, sometimes other-worldly Black person enters the white character’s life just at the moment he needs counsel and transformation. What does your Black character get out of this relationship? What is his motivation or story goal?  Or is he merely there as a narrative device to facilitate the growth of a white character?

Give Black characters interior lives.

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They should have full lives and agency, brimming with depth and complexity. We should know them as intimately as any other character.

Do these Black characters have families? Do they love and grieve and dream? Make them fully human and alive with expectation and possibility.

In another great work from Mississippi, Jesmyn Ward brings us Sing, Unburied, Sing, a novel that won the National Book Award. In this scene, we see the heart of Leonie, a daughter sitting at her dying mother’s bedside.

Her hair is so threadbare, I can see her scalp: pale and blue-veined, hollowed and dimpled, imperfect as a potter’s bowl.

“You full grown now,” she says.

I sit, cross my arms. It makes my breasts stick out a little. I remember the horror of them coming in, budding like little rocks, when I was ten. How those fleshy knots felt like a betrayal. Like someone had lied to me about what life would be. Like Mama hadn’t told me that I would grow up. Grow into her body. Grow into her.

Throughout this novel, we get to know Leonie as an imperfect woman, a flawed daughter making her own mistakes as a mother. It’s refreshing to see a working-class Black woman and her son in the Deep South at the center of such a compelling narrative.

If the inclusion of Black characters is an add-on afterthought, leave them out.

Let’s stop window-dressing. There’s so much hand-wringing over showcasing people of different races and ethnic backgrounds in advertisements and on websites. Many of these efforts ring false. As writers, we’re not a restaurant doing food plating where it’s important to add green garnish along with brightly colored items for visual variety.

Don’t try to fill book quotas by adding people of color. The lack of emotional depth in your characters will be obvious and more problematic than having an all-white cast.

Before you create fictitious Black people, get to know real ones.

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I won’t belabor this one. Just expand your circle.

Amplify the voices of Black authors who are telling their own stories.

This is really important. I know there’s a sincere desire to ensure that all stories get told and that diverse voices are heard. Black writers are giving us some of the most dynamic and significant stories of our time right now. Buy and read their books. Check them out at the library. Recommend them to your friends and promote those works on social media. When you’re asked to speak at an event or serve on a literary panel, suggest Black authors for those opportunities. This is how we work together to diversify the canon.

Have you included Black characters in your books? If so, what challenges have you encountered and how did you work through them? Which novels written by Black authors do you recommend? Let’s hear from you!

About Nancy Johnson [4]

Nancy Johnson [5] writes at the intersection of race and class. Her debut novel, THE KINDEST LIE, is forthcoming in 2021 from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. This is the story of an unlikely connection between a black woman searching for the son she never knew and a poor, 11-year-old white boy who finds himself adrift in a dying Indiana factory town. THE KINDEST LIE was named runner-up for the 2018 James Jones First Novel Fellowship Award. Nancy’s work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine and has received support from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, Tin House Summer Novel Workshop, and Kimbilio Fiction. As a television journalist, Nancy received Emmy nominations and multiple writing and reporting awards from the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. When Nancy’s not writing, you can often find her exploring bookstores, festivals, and restaurants in her hometown of Chicago. Nancy is represented by Danielle Bukowski at Sterling Lord Literistic.