The subject of diversity in writing came up in a discussion among friends and the question arose -- who can write what? Can men write real female characters? Can a woman writer really claim to know a man’s perspective? Can whites write about blacks or other minorities with honesty and vice versa? I understand that this, along with what’s called “multiculturalism,” has become a hot-button topic in some circles, though it’s one I dealt with often during my life as a black writer in television.
My second novel, BLOOD PRESSURE, has a white female character who's writing a book about Zora Neale Hurston confronted with that issue:
“The book’s about love and the creative process, how alike they are, how one can feed the other, but also kill it. It’s about art and life, but also about death, of a relationship and a dream. It’s from her point of view, because you need to see events through her eyes to understand them.”
“I heard that you’re working on a third draft -- do you think your problems have anything to do with being white and trying to get into the head of a black woman? Especially one of a different era?”
Her interrogator was a young black woman in jeans and a dashiki, a clipboard filled with notes in her hand. She’d obviously come prepared, probably as part of some college paper she was writing or a magazine article. Lori had fielded that question since she began the book, started it by asking herself the same thing.
“I wish it was that simple. If writers had to be limited to characters who are the same gender, race, age or anything else as themselves, we’d lose a lot of popular literature starting with several of Zora’s own novels written from a male or a white perspective.”
Her answer was so well honed, repeated time and again, in person and print that she wondered why anyone who’d done their homework would ask the question. Surely her reply had made it through the grapevine by now.
”No, my problem’s less with Zora, more with love. I’m having a crisis of faith in love, as I think she may have had at that point in her life. Zora found her way through it, I’m just having trouble following her lead.”
“To a new romance?” There was laughter.
“To a new book, but I think you do have to feel passion to write about it. How does the Cher song go? Do You Believe in Life After Love? I’m not sure I know. When I do, maybe I’ll understand Zora better...”
I’m with Lori, which I’m sure comes as no surprise. I say if we can only write from what we are, a lot of straight white males in Hollywood who've been writing black sitcoms and soap operas are going to be out of a job come Monday. Writers learn from research or experience, and either can be acquired by anyone. I’ve never been a thousand-year-old Moorish vampire, yet my agent and editor have convinced me that I’ve created a plausible one in my first novel, BITE MARKS: A Vampire Testament.
My only complaint has ever been the generally held belief in Hollywood that straight white men can write anything for or about anyone, while minorities are almost always channeled into writing what we are, as if we couldn't possibly understand the minds of anyone but ourselves. In the early nineties I often gauged whether or not I wanted a job by how soon I was asked, "Can you write rap?" -- as if only a black writer could hold the secret to that magical rhythm, like a cereal box leprechaun protecting his Lucky Charms...as if that was all I could be expected to write and their only reason to hire me.
I spent most of my early life on Air Force bases and Catholic schools, in France or the South. As a black man raised in a mostly white middle class world, like our president, I grew up with and around white people, only occasionally others, and took them all for granted. It was wonderfully demystifying. My parents maintained a sense of identity in us, in that I always knew there was more difference in us than just skin color, and that we had a history of our own, even if it wasn't always defined.
As I left that limited world to live in black suburbs in Ohio and Queens, most of the adjustment I had to make wasn't racial as much as across class lines, struggling to understand shifting value systems as I moved from suburban middle class to urban working class neighborhoods.
I had to learn -- not to "be" black -- but that were many ways to "be black" and that I was one of many black kids like me, not from “the 'hood,” whose parents had been raised to leave home and to rise as high as they could. Over the course of her adult life, my mother completed her college degree and taught, my father left the military at the rank of major after 20 years to complete college, get his MBA degree at Columbia, and go on to a successful business career. I worked in television after graduating college, and again found myself "surrounded by white people" at work in seventies and eighties New York, but with a difference -- this time there were others as well.
I’d grown tired of having blacks and whites at home and my high school in Queens tell me I wasn't “really” black because I was "articulate" and liked rock and roll. In the work world of my first job, on a “multicultural” kids’ TV show called ”Vegetable Soup,” I met actors, writers, and producers of all races who were also considered outsiders, people who let me be who I was -- once I’d figured out who that was. I became increasingly aware of the way the world worked and politicized, grew my hair into African twists through the eighties to make it clear who I was when I walked in the room, no matter what I sounded like.
There was the occasional black friend or co-worker who'd grown up in all black neighborhoods in New York who had more difficulty with being in a "white" world than I did, and whites who "didn’t know" how to talk to me. I found that black people who’d never spent time around white people had the same misconceptions as white people who'd never spent time with blacks. Both viewed each other with either extreme suspicion or attraction, and each imbued the other with a kind of magical mystique, whether positive or negative.
Because of my upbringing, I feel that I see the positive and negative in all members of any race, and bring that to my writing. Because of the work I did in kids' TV, I’m extremely conscious of the power of images, and try to stay aware of what I’m saying as I build and balance characters. If a writer’s depicting a fully realized world with a wide range of characters, he or she shouldn’t be judged on any one character as their idea of a particular race, gender or other group.
The characters in my first and second novels are of many races, genders and inclinations, good and bad, as is the population of the city I live in. I tried my best not to represent them as what they are, but who they are, which I think is the ultimate responsibility of any writer. In the best writing, I don't think characters should “transcend” race (a condescending phrase in common use, more than a little patriarchal, as if it should be a compliment to tell me, "You're not like the rest of them...") but that their character, personality and actions should be made more important or memorable than their race.
In suspense, I don't think of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter as representing whites, though I know he is white. In horror, I don't think of Clive Barker's Daniel Robitaille in Candyman as a bad black man, though his race is essential to his story. Both are fearsome figures, who happen to be white or black, neither personifies his race. Their ethnic identity isn’t ignored, but who they are as individuals, as well-drawn characters, is the thing we remember.
If a writer does a good job of fully representing an individual of any race they've done a great job. If they create a shallow stereotype, positive or negative, (one more cookie cutter black computer kid genius in a wheelchair, or wise beyond her years teen hooker with a sassy street attitude and I will puke) they should not write about those people. They don't know them.
Ultimately, writers can always fool themselves into thinking that they’re doing a better job than they are. In that case, your readers will tell you if you’ve failed. I'm not talking knee-jerk censorship over a “controversial” character from someone who’s never read the book, but signed the petition to ban it, I'm talking about sincere critique.
I can only hope that when they do, we can listen, and do better the next time.