White Writer, Black Characters

IMG_7101Some time ago, I received a challenge on Instagram about my use of images of African Americans. After watching an episode of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s show, “Finding Your Roots”, I had triple exposed photos of a quilt I’m working on (from the “Middle Passage” series) with a TV screen capture of an enslaved woman near a river in Louisiana. The result was haunting and satisfying enough that I wanted to share a few of the variations, and did. Undoubtedly, copyright violations. But were they acts of cultural appropriation?


Through both quilting and photo collages, I have been letting my imagination range in service of writing a piece of historic fiction set in South Carolina in the eighteenth century. As an intensely visual person, working with photos and cloth often comes more readily than writing a historical scene, particularly one with dialogue.

But whether in cloth, photography, or text, when is the use of an African American image or topic by a white artist an act of cultural appropriation? And if it is, how do you tell? Can a white audience/creator ever be the judge? Do the artist/writer’s intentions matter? And if a work offends even one African American, should I defend it?

Initially, I did defend the images. ‘Exploration in service of understanding. American history/my history. Blah, blah.’ But then, after following tags like #whitefragility on twitter and reading articles with titles along the lines of, “why I won’t discuss race with my white friends anymore”, I sent a private apology and deleted them.

But now I’m posting them again. Have I learned nothing? I am not sure about any of this.

[Just to explore the idea that my results would be ‘truer’ using topics closer to my own ancestry, I layered the same quilt image with a TV screen-capture of Irish gangsters from ‘Peaky Blinders’. The results were more compelling, but I don’t think it was the Irish connection that made them so].

I am a firm believer in genetic memory. Just so you know.

In the foreword to her book, “The Logbooks — Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory”, journalist Anne Farrow describes a conversation with a black friend who challenged her choice of topic. Her friend said, “‘When white people take up black stuff, there’s always a reason. There’s always something there.'” My sister refers to that ‘something’ as “hinky”.

So, am I entitled to the topic of slavery? Is there any way to get it right? I like to think I’m self-aware, without major amounts of hinkiness lurking. The only thing I can come up with is this: I don’t want to spend this much time with fictional material closer to my own suffering — and maybe so much so, that I’d rather leap across three centuries and a tricky racial divide. Okay, but is that ‘hinky’?

‘The research I’ve done about slavery has made me a better citizen’ is something I have asserted from time to time. And indeed, if healing the wound of racism requires acknowledging the complexity and horror of our history, then shouldn’t all of us white people be learning a little? And maybe even, a lot? You cannot read about the transatlantic slave trade and the practices of enslavers and be unmoved or unchanged. And, if you follow the news, you cannot learn about this historic stuff and think, “glad that’s over”.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s intense and informative article, “The Case for Reparations“, he asserted that the fact that one’s white ancestors were not here during the 250 years of slavery in no way makes us exempt. And why would we be, when we dwell in white privilege? For purposes of white privilege, it doesn’t matter when our grandparents arrived. It only matters that they were white. Even if they were shabby, uneducated, Catholic, Irish. Still white.

Watching Ken Burns’ “Civil War” series for the third time, I hear Shelby Foote‘s words with new ears. He said something like, ‘oh, sure we’ve had other important conflicts in our history like the Revolutionary War, but you cannot understand the American psyche unless you understand the Civil War.’

[Case in point: how can you understand the rise of the Tea Party without understanding the Civil War? And Trump? Clearly, his hat should read (I didn’t think of this): “Make America White Again”.  As if it ever was].

Around the time the controversy about the novel ‘The Help’ erupted, I watched a documentary about the making of the film “Nat Turner”. The movie was based on William Styron’s novel, “The Confessions of Nat Turner“. Most of the interviewees harshly criticized Styron and the movie because they diminished a hero in African American history, especially, but not exclusively, by making him lust after a white woman.

Lots to learn and note from the documentary, but since I was busy writing scenes of another slave rebellion (The Stono Uprising, SC, 1739) and wringing my hands about ‘getting it right’, my take away came from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who voiced a contrary view. He said something like, “if others have a different version of Turner, let them write their own novel.”

Pondering all of this, I found an an article on the site “The Root” entitled, “White Writer/Black Characters: Bad Idea?” by Desmond-Harris. After establishing that no writing pleases every audience, she asked, does that mean you should abandon your interest in making black women your protagonists?  She continued:

“No way,” says Marita Golden, author of a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, including Skin Deep: Black Women and White Women Write About Race. “White people, because of the emotional legacy as well as the historical and political legacy of racism, often feel that they do not have access to the black soul and the black spirit,” she told me, “but I think writers have the right to write about anything.” In fact, she said, “I really feel that white people should write about black characters.” …

So here’s a start. Develop relationships that will allow you to become confident that you can begin to speak to that experience, because you know African-American women as individuals. “Usually, white people who write meaningful books with black characters, they do have black people in their lives who they know deeply and respect,” said Golden. To be clear, that’s “as friends, not as research. Serious, meaningful, complete friendships with black people.”

I wonder about jinxing my writing efforts with such a public discussion, but this is where I am. Where I dwell. (I like Saskia claiming the word, ‘dwelling’ — there’s a lot to that word. And it seems like it resonates with ‘remembering’ (Liz) and  ‘flourishing’ (Peggy)).

This might be a selfish post dressed up as risk taking, but there’s so little cloth in my hands these days and the business of creating one page after another is so solitary that the urge to connect here with where I dwell wins out over cautionary superstition!

To be clear: I am not looking for permission or rigid definitions. I am curious. What do others think about cultural appropriation, the uses of the imagination, artistic subject matter, genetic memory? What about this business of facing suffering straight on vs. from the side?

14 thoughts on “White Writer, Black Characters

  1. Maggie

    I would love to share this post on my friend Rhinold’s FB site but don’t have the perms – but my account seems messed up on WP – I have 3 different accounts I think… ANYWAY Rhinold Ponder (activiist lawyer, artist, mensch, African American, and friend). He’s on LinkedIn. I know he’d love to read this post and I think you two would enjoy discussing these issues. I am a distracted and I feel ill-educated on the topic, yet a “life long learner”. I simply whole-heartedly and whole-mindedly commend your huge steps into this territory. These are the issues of our times and pathways to everyone’s contintued freedom. Let me know if you need more information to get in touch with Rhinold.

    1. deemallon

      And by the way, I am a distracted life-long learner too. Part of the impulse in posting today is the recognition, in fact, that I am a work in progress!

      1. Maggie

        yes! and you also get your thoughts, analysis, writing and art work out here to be contemplated, appreciated and you make a difference. If I can connect people who might possibly share some awareness, further some conversation – that always feels like I am helping to make a positive difference too! Hope that happens.

  2. grace

    who do you write this book For? as in who do you imagine reading it?
    visualizing that might be worthwhile.
    then imagining a conversation with those readers….and you say above, “my circle is
    pretty white”….i would write it, as you are compelled to do and then take it
    outside your circle, read it to Others, asking them.

    1. deemallon

      I would like people who enjoy a good story to read it. People who like contemporary fiction. People interested in historic fiction. And people interested in knowing more about slavery. A general audience with some specifics. Certain select others are reading sections now and I am almost ready to extend that circle out.

      And, even tho I answered your question “who”, I will think more about that.

  3. Liz

    This is such a challenging post … in the best way. It made me think … it made me uncomfortable … it made me question my own assumptions.

    So, to take this into a (slightly) less charged arena: can women write authentically from the viewpoint of men … and likewise, can men write from a woman’s point of view? And here one of the quotes above rings true: if you truly know and love someone of the opposite gender, if you listen to their stories and appreciate their struggles, then maybe the answer is yes. But there will always be those who doubt, on both sides.

    Which is to say … what you are writing will never be universally approved. What of it? Some of the greatest literature is the subject of ongoing debate. Arguably, by making us look and consider and question our own assumptions, that is indeed what’s great about it.

    Which is a very long-winded way of saying: keep going!

    1. deemallon

      You’re right to point to the challenge of voicing the opposite gender as a similar (but different) problem. I don’t know about you, but when I read a novel with a female protagonist that’s written by a man, a part of my brain is off to the side somewhere taking constant meter readings, asking things like, “are there glaring omissions? are there assumptions that don’t fit, is there stuff here that seems like something a man would think about being a woman?”…

      Two recent examples from last year’s reading list. One was a superb story by Colm Toibin, “Nora Webster” — I actually felt like the writer could have pulled his character’s thoughts and perspectives right out of my chest and mind… it was almost weird how much I felt like I was spending time with myself (and given that the characters are Irish and it takes place in Ireland, I also wondered how much of that had to do with the mechanics of ethnicity). That doesn’t happen often, but clearly in the Toibin’s case, crossing gender lines was not a problem. The other book was one of the Isabel Dalhousie novels by Alexander McCall Smith. His main character was a mother who several times in the story sat by her sleeping child and thought, “oh look at what I’ve made”. It just lept off the page as something a guy would think a woman would feel. Maybe other women think this. I don’t know, but I never did, as much as I loved looking at my boys sleep…. and it’s funny that his black female protagonist (as well as her secretary) in his much better series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, seemed much more credible and dimensional. So in his case, he did better when he crossed divides of gender AND race.

      anyway, thanks for chiming in….


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