Join Prism Book Alliance® as Edmond Manning goes Outside the Margins today.
So, it happened again in our community.
Readers got upset by language an author used in a book. On Facebook, on blogs, and on Goodreads, we renew the conversation on race, and words, and intent, and how much effort was made to understand the person of color’s perspective.
We need to have these conversations.
They’re difficult. I get that.
When the topic is this personal, and it feels accusatory, it’s hard not to make an opening statement like, “Fuck you, and here’s why…” And yet the dialog can heal us, help us grow more understanding. We need this. Yes, it sometimes hurts. We are all imperfect communicators. We get heated. Rude. Some people choose to withdraw from the conversation because they’re tired of all the ‘ow’s’ they are accumulating while articulating points.
Good for them, taking care of themselves that way.
Good for those who stick around, engaging.
We need to honor each other for daring to converse openly. Conversation about race and sensitivity is something we need, again and again.
When I was doing edits on my first book, King Perry, a character showed up in my imagination and introduced himself as the Butterfly King. He was a strong black man who grew up in New York and had equally strong feelings on the matter of race. In the initial conversations I had with this character, I imagined my saying to him:
“Honestly, I’m not sure I’m a good enough writer to portray a strong black man from New York City.”
He replied (in my head, of course). “You’re not. But I will help you. I will guide you. You will read books about the African-American experience. You will study the impact of growing up in a racist society. You will research black populations’ migration to New York and the challenges. You will grow your sensitivity.”
I was nervous.
My king books are about honoring different kinds of beautiful men. What if I screwed up and offended someone because I’m white, and I don’t understand, even though I’m trying my best? What if I used a term or a stereotype that made a reader say, “Ow. Fucking ow!”? Putting additional hurt into the world was the exact opposite of my intention, but I could do so easily, writing a story where I lack personal life experiences.
Good intentions matter, but intentions are not enough.
I think a writer has to make a commitment to wonder about their characters. Wonder. Spend time considering the possibilities of their background, their upbringing, their flaws and their truly stellar qualities. This wondering includes the writer self-analyzing for any leftover racist crap that’s still floating around inside, like flotsam and jetsam. Let me make this an I-statement. I need to take a hard look at my thought process and discern—best I can—if there’s any racist crap influencing my perspective. If yes, I must investigate it and interact with it until it dissolves.
Yet, wondering and self-analysis are not enough.
I ask questions. Ponder what I’ve learned.
I grow my sensitivity for words, events, feelings, perspectives, and the wide range of attitudes a person of color may experience dozens of times each day.
I ask for feedback from trusted advisors.
Is that enough?
There’s no automatic guarantee I won’t hurt someone, offend someone, reveal some racist thought process or blind spot within myself. To write is to expose yourself.
One of the biggest leaps I took in my book, The Butterfly King, was when this strong black man gave his perspective on Rosa Parks. As a white man, how dare I attempt to interpret this important historical event through an African-American’s eyes?
I dare because I’m a writer. This is what we do.
Did I do okay?
Ultimately, it’s up to readers to decide that. I can point to my research. I can point to my beta readers and editors, and the opinions I asked for on Facebook. I can say, “Look, I asked three black men and all three said it was okay.” Bah. Those three don’t represent every black man. And hey, maybe they just weren’t offended while others definitely will be.
In the excerpt below, you decide if I overstepped as a writer, attempting to represent a black man’s point of view. The story is told in first person narration by Vin Vanbly. The man he intends to honor this weekend is Terrance Altham. Over the course of their time together, they argue and debate the nature of power—who has it, and who doesn’t.
I say, “Well, maybe you should take a page from Ms. Rosa Parks and get tired of sitting at the back of the bus. Maybe you should fight this—”
“Why is it,” his words slice through mine, a knife in butter, “whenever a white person wants to inspire a black person to action they name Ms. Parks? Why?”
He laughs and rubs his big hands over his face. “Do you think we have never heard of our patron saint, Ms. Rosa Parks?”
“She was brave,” I say weakly.
In a letter three months ago, he confessed to me his rage at white Americans’ shallow grasp of complex historical events. I plan on using this to get a rise out of him.
“Yes,” he says, rising to his full height in the dark. “Oh yes. Nothing bad about Ms. Parks. But you don’t even have your facts right. She refused to give up her seat in the middle of the bus to a white person. You take such pride in throwing out her name, but you don’t even bother to remember the fucking details. Middle seats were for whites once the bus got crowded. She refused to move. Moving beyond your raw ignorance of the recent past, you think, maybe—just maybe—there were other black people in the South who got tired of this bus bullshit long before Rosa Parks?”
I can see more than his dim outline, but not much. He’s quivering, head to toe. He’s pissed.
Terrance’s voice vibrates in the dark. “Hundreds. Thousands. Thousands of black women tired of riding in the Coloreds Only section. They were sick to their stomachs because they knew they were better than the ignorant fucks sitting ahead of them. They didn’t lack self-esteem or think to themselves, ‘Gosh I wish I had courage.’ They didn’t have power and they knew it. What they did have was daughters they didn’t want raped. They had sons they didn’t want hanged from a tree, you little piece of shit.”
He’s worked up into a lather.
“You call it black history and don’t you see how that distances us, acting like this was our private moment, when in fact, you were there. You were there. It’s our history. Our fucking history together.”
Oh, man, I pushed him too far again. Is this too much? Is he…did I fuck this up? I thought the best way to prepare him for sleep was to expel whatever furious energy remains inside, to get out the rage and fear. But this…this…
Terrance takes a few steps closer toward me, his fingertips brushing the scarred table tops. “The reason white people know Rosa Parks is because somebody didn’t beat the shit out of her. You’re pleased with your white selves for only arresting her, not beating her head in with a tire iron. This is a myth you can live with: the patient, proud Negro and the whites who reacted poorly but not too poorly. They were outraged but they respected her. I call bullshit on your white myth.”
He stalks the long row, walking toward me, away from me, giving his speech to a thousand listening books.
“Of course she was brave. Lots of people were brave to live day-to-day in those times. But Rosa Parks didn’t care if you killed her because she had reached her finality. When you treat people without the respect and honor they are due…”
He looks around the room, as if noticing his location for the first time. We stay quiet for a moment, this fight already ramping down.
In a shaking voice, Terrance says, “Thousands of black men and women would have done what she did, but they had kids to protect. Family. If you love people, you can’t have power. Loving people makes you vulnerable. You can’t act in the world without exposing them.”
This is clearly not about Rosa Parks anymore.
He pulls out the nearest chair. He lowers himself into it, gingerly, as if every part of him is sore. Terrance puts his hands over his face.
There’s one place in this passage where I cringe—feeling I could have displayed better sensitivity as a white writer regarding race. For readers, hell, there could be five places—six—in this passage alone.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that when we, as writers, choose to write about people different from ourselves, we open ourselves to feedback. We must. We must engage in the conversation. To minimize negative feedback, we wonder, we research, we ask questions, we invite beta readers to guide us. If we choose to write whatever the hell we want, we do so at our own—and others’—peril.
Women will be criticized for how they portray gay men. Gay men will be criticized for how they portray straight men. Young writers will be criticized for how they portray older people, non-police officers will be criticized for their shallow characterizations of cops, and so on. I know a writer whose day job is a veterinarian. In one of his books, he made a main character a vet. Imagine his surprise to read a Goodreads review itemizing all the things he “got wrong” as an animal doctor, and the review ending with “This person should have done better research.” He was a vet!
Some days, it might feel like you just can’t win.
A writer might say, “Well, I try to understand all my characters, why should one get any special preferential treatment?”
Because when you risk more—risk further—you must do more work to understand the potential impact.
And then, when the book is published, for all its glory and all its faults, you listen to the feedback, see if there’s anything that can help you grow, and say, “thank you for your perspective.”
About Edmond ManningEdmond Manning is the author of King Perry, King Mai, The Butterfly King andFilthy Acquisitions. He spends a great deal of time standing in front of the fridge with the door open, wondering why it’s not stocked with more luncheon meats and cheese.
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