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.
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.