Yesterday, in the throes of NaNoWriMo procrastination, I was scrolling through my twitter feed and saw this:
— Jason Cantrell (@CantrellJason) November 4, 2014
Ms. Montgomery is black, and she says she’ll probably never write a black main character. I’d read her post in the bleary wee hours of the morning and then gone to bed, pondering it. Pondering it because it made me feel more worried than I already was about a black character in the novel I’m currently writing for NaNoWriMo.
This morning I thought I’d try to tackle this subject here on my own blog as a way to have a conversation with myself and with you.
My understanding of her reasons for not wanting to write a black main character in her own fiction are:
- She feels as though it’s required of her, simply because she herself is black. She feels the weight of this invisible pressure leaning on her, exerting unwanted influence. And for her, that’s exactly what it is: unwanted.
- Because she is black shouldn’t mean she is obligated to write black main characters in her fiction, any more than I’m obligated to write white main characters into my stories (and the only way I could be any whiter is if I were a redhead with freckles, catching on fire after more than twenty minutes of direct sunlight).
- Basically, after acknowledging the context of writing and reading race in fiction, she states that a writer should be able to write whatever she goddamn well pleases (I agree).
- But then she seems to take a step back from that, and says she doesn’t want the responsibility of writing a black main character, only to fuck it up and then have to deal with the harsh judgements which would inevitably be leveled at her writing about how correct/appropriate/authentic/whatever her character’s blackness would be. Which, yeah, I can see how that would suck gigantic sweaty donkey balls.
- Ultimately, she wants to be known as a writer, not a black writer, not a woman writer, not a black woman writer. Being a white male, I’ll never know what this feels like. I’ll never be known as a white male writer, I’ll only ever be known as a writer.
Reading her post was thought-provoking and disquieting. For fiction writers of any race, portraying different races than that of the author is highly charged. What most white people don’t realize is that for people of color, writing characters their own race can be a gauntlet of scorn and criticism that has nothing to do with how good the story is, or even how good the character is aside from the baggage readers brought to story of their own. Ultimately, she doesn’t feel up to the task, just yet. And I get that.
At least, I think I do.
Her writing a black main character is far more fraught with peril than me writing a black main character.
What does this mean for me as a white male?
My mistakes can be dismissed as ignorance or entitlement due to my privilege. No matter what I do or how well I do it, I get a pass, whether I wanted it or asked for it or not. I have cultural momentum in the same way that I’m hurtling through space at great speed because I’m standing on planet Earth but don’t feel it.
Writers should be able to write whatever characters they damn well please. Easy for me to say, but whatever. All writers have a responsibility to be as true to their characters as possible, to write as well as they can. Why else would we be here, doing this? And that’s no less true for the privileged.
I realize that my work may not be held up to the strictest judgment, that it’s possible I’ll be able to “get away with” more, even though that’s not my intention. It’s a side effect of my reality. I know, poor me, right? You may think I don’t have the right to even be unhappy about that, and perhaps you’re right.
My black character
In my novel, the other main character is a black man (the protagonist is a white woman). This is a point of view character, the only other point of view character besides the protagonist (at least, for now).
Why is he black?
Because when I first created him and pictured him in my mind’s eye, he was black.
That’s all. Simple as that.
If I changed him now, if I made him white but otherwise left him as is, I’d be doing it out of fear, instead of being true to the character. He’s not black because I’m trying to “say something” here. I didn’t think I had to have a black character, that the Diversity in Fantasy Task Force told me I didn’t make my quota of political correctness for the month.
He was “born” black in my head when I conceived the character for the story, and I’m going to write him as well as I can. I don’t want this to be presumptuous and entitled, but maybe I don’t have a choice about that. Maybe I can’t escape that fate. I don’t know. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. But from where I’m standing, “do” is the braver choice than “don’t.”
Could I cut him from the story entirely?
I suppose I could, and if I could, then that means he wasn’t essential to the story in the first place, and therefore as a character he doesn’t deserve to “live.”
OH, GOD, I KILLED THE BLACK GUY BEFORE THE STORY EVEN STARTS.
But I’m not going to do that. He is essential to the story. So much so, I had earlier considered him for the protagonist. But if I did make him the protagonist, that would put my story back into a too familiar mold. I didn’t want to do the typical male hero gets the magic doodad and saves the girl and saves the world at the same time bullshit.
There’s black, then there’s ‘fantasy black’
In fantasy, we’re always dealing with race, except traditionally those races have been Men (by which we mean white men, of course), Elves & Dwarves, and Orcs (which some criticize as being an analogue for various and sundry brown people). In recent films, black people are in fantasy movies, but they’re divorced from modern racial politics. In the Thor movies, the charismatic Idris Elba plays Heimdall, the guardian of the gate between Asgard and other worlds. He’s black, but it doesn’t matter that he’s black. He’s fantasy black. In the recent Percy Jackson movies, some of the demigod characters are portrayed by black actors but again, they’re fantasy black. Their blackness is outside of modern racial politics, even though these characters interact in that world when they’re not at Camp Halfblood. We’re just not shown that. In the Harry Potter books and films, we have quite the multiracial cast, but the only “races” which matter in the wizarding world are wizards and muggles. It’s the M-word (Mudblood), instead of the N-word that makes blood boil. The darker-skinned wizards and muggles of Harry Potter are fantasy black.
What’s interesting about the character in my story in light of black vs. fantasy black, is that he’s both.
He begins the story in the “real” world in which you and I live: filled with racial tension, politics, and hate. He’s used to dealing with it. He’s been dealing with it his whole life. He’s tired of feeling like he’s being held back from better things: that’s one of his main inner motivations as a character. But as the story progresses, he spends more time in the fantasy world, sort of another dimension or plane of existence. Amongst the menagerie of strange creatures in a strange land, his blackness becomes fantasy black. Eventually there will be a romance with the protagonist, who is white. In the “real” world these two would face a world of obstacles and hurt from people both well-intentioned and malicious. In the fantasy world, they’re free from that, but of course they have an entirely different set of concerns.
Welcome to the sausage factory
Sausage is great, as long as you don’t have to see it being made.
This is fantasy sausage. It has unicorn meat and pixie dust and goblin blood in it.
I’m taking something of a risk in posting this. I could be revealing myself as being colossally more ignorant than even I thought I was, and not even know it. But you know what? Fuck it. If that’s true, then I’ll learn something and be better for it. The world can only stomach so much more Fantasy for White Males. The winds of change are blowing, thank the gods.
The great thing about fantasy is that all different kinds of people love it, because everyone wants to escape reality from time to time. What better way to do that than a novel (or, better yet, a series of them) that transports you to another world. For these fantasies to be appealing, ultimately you can’t take your problems with you into the fantasy world. You have to check them at the portal, leave them behind.
I think it’s important to talk about stuff like this, even if it gets a little bloody, even if you have to see the sausage being made. Fantasy, as a literature, goes where its writers and readers take it.
Who am I to write a black main character?
I’m a writer.
That’s what writers do: they create characters who are not themselves, and who are not you. They get you to care about these characters, and then, as Stephen King says, they let the monsters loose on them.
This could be a potentially heated discussion, but I think it’s one worth having. Tell me what you think about this in the comments. Am I being a complete fucking idiot? Do you have these concerns, also, or different ones?