How to write black characters, when it means something


Hi there.

So I read an article today with the very provocative title of “How to write Black characters (when you are not Black)”. Naturally, as a black man myself (by all the definitions I know of), and an aspiring author, I was intrigued.

[Edit]: I just realized by re-reading the article that the author may very well not be black. Which adds a whole new layer of bizarre to the experience. My main gripe remains unchanged, but I edited my response accordingly. My apologies.

Very reductive TL;DR: If you’re going to put a skin color on your character and not have it serve any purpose in your story, then you might as well spare yourself a lot of pain and not mention it at all. Books are not TV. You have that freedom at least.

So let’s get down to it, shall we?

Keep this quote in mind because this specifically is what I’m ranting about, and I’ll keep getting back to it:

[…]how do you write black characters?  The good news is, it’s pretty easy: 1. Write a character. 2. Make ‘em black.

And then the article goes on to list Hollywood racial stereotypes that the author believes the above piece of advice will eradicate.

At this point, I believe some context is in order. You see, this article is talking about Fantasy and Sci-Fi books. Very out-of-this-world, imaginative stuff.

What does “Black Character” mean for the author?

Two possibilities:

  1. A character whose skin hue is somewhere between ebony and caramel, burned Sienna being a fair middle ground. That’s our general bracket for “black”, isn’t it?
  2. A character who belongs to an ethnic group of African descent.

First, a logical approach.

I’ve read many times that a good book should only add things because they are useful. So let’s assume you’re writing a fantasy piece and you decide to make one of your races “black” (to keep in line with that very tantalising article).

Here is one very contrived example:

“Two friends, one black and one white, get shipwrecked, naked, on a desert tropical island. They spend the first day walking up and down the white beach, scanning the horizon for survivors, and trying to salvage the few pieces of flotsam that the waves push ashore. That night, the white guy has a hard time finding sleep on the beach because he’s covered in sunburn that chafe horribly against the wet sand. The black guy, being unscathed by the rigors of the sun, takes off for the nearby forest to find anything that could ease his friend’s pain.” 

In case it needs spelling out (never know), I’m making use of one of the genetic particularities of black complexion.

It makes sense for the denizen of the Seven Cities to be mostly dark-skinned. Raraku is a desert, and these people have been living there for a few thousand years now. According to biology, it clicks. And we readers like things that make sense.

We expect humans from ice cold wastelands to be generally pale with light eyes, and humans from sand hot wastelands to be dark-skinned and dark-eyed. We may be wrong. Call it a trope. If you as an author want to turn that expectation around however, you had better prepare some hefty world-building.

So, the “advice” seems to imply that you should write your character in a colour-blind mode, and then, decide which skin tone you want to associate with it. In other words, your character’s skin tone has (or should have) no bearing on the story. You might as well have chosen blue or green or elf or alien.

But that doesn’t really work, does it?

If race or ethnicity were but an afterthought, adding it in the mix after the fact would be contrived, and serve no purpose but enforcing some sort of artificial skin tone diversity program. If that were the case, there would be no need for a “how-to” in the first place, would there? In a skin-tone Russian roulette scenario, everything goes, right?

Wrong! There are some combinations the author doesn’t want anymore. That’s the whole point! Stop victimizing racial minorities in your book… if you’re white.

If you were to read

How to write a green character:

Write a character like you normally do; make ’em green.

you would find it utterly stupid. Because green has no particular meaning.

Unfortunately, if your intent is to write a “black” character correctly (as is postulated in the article), you’ve already made a decision before you even begin to flesh your character out. That decision will influence the backstory, the physical appearance, the speech mannerisms, social dynamics and so forth. It is not something you would choose after the fact. So, the advice really should have been:

figure out what being black (or any other “exotic” hue) means for your character/race, then use it to write your character.

but what I read is

Write what you know, what you are familiar with (a white character); then slap a random complexion on top, in this case, black.

Why?

Moving on to a more philosophical approach.

Next piece of context: the author writes on behalf of African Americans (or whatever the politically correct term is nowadays, hard to keep track). That puts the word “black” into a different perspective, doesn’t it?

I understand what the author is aspiring to, generally. With your eyes closed, and the right social conditions, it should be difficult to tell someone’s ethnicity right away, theoretically.

What I take issue with is the usage of the word “Black”.

Semantics, you say? Well, you may be right, but humour me for a while, will you? After all, we are wielders of words, are we not? Are we not supposed to be exacting as to how they are used? (lemme do ma thang! :-p )

When someone presents: “How to write a black character”, and aims to “teach” others what they should or should not do, then that person had better be standing on solid ground.

Here is a shocker: Over 90% (and I’m being generous here) of Black people are not African Americans. But they’re black.

I’m black. I have no slave ancestors. I know nothing of thug life, but what I’ve seen on TV. I know nothing of the sassy black woman, our women have their own peculiarities. We are not a minority in Africa, quite far from it actually. I know nothing of the black sidekick with the ghetto comebacks. Our ghettos look nothing like downtown <some city in the US>. Police doesn’t have the same meaning for me. Every black kid I know speaks at least 2 African languages and either English of French. I could go on and on.

African American culture is not my culture. I have my own.

African American history is not my history. I have my own.

But I’m black. Can’t go blacker. My country is the birthplace of Voodoo (fun fact: the old name for my country is Danhomey, literally “The Snake’s Lair”). How’s that for material? Priceless!

And guess what? I can only talk for my small country (about 6 million souls). There’s a whole world of Black people out there, with values and principles and culture and history you’ve never even heard of.

We go back thousands of years and have a lot we hold dear. Our dress code, our dances, our languages, our traditions make us who we are.

And there comes this author wanting you, white writer, to push all that diversity into the gutter, and not make use of it to enrich your stories? Because… for this American lady (and that’s an intentional misnomer: America goes from Alaska to Chile, but I digress) it is inconsequential.

I beg to differ!

 

Let me be clear here.

I am not questioning the stereotypes exposed in the article. They definitely exist.

My issue is very specific. I believe that saying :

Write a character, make ’em black

is The. Worst. Advice. Ever. And I’m saying this as a black man.

So back to that question: How to write a black character?

The point the author attempts to make is:

Treat your black character the way you would any of your others–with careful thought, care, and complexity–and you’ll be fine.

You’ll be fine??

‘Ware what may befall you if you fail to tow the line!

Can you feel her hand gently patting you on the back? How patronizing.

I say: Define “Black”. Or better yet, choose your Black.

If you mean a colour or complexion that has no bearing on the world we live in, then please feel free to do whatever you want, without reservation or hesitation, including writing flat uninteresting characters, because it’s freaking fantasy! We’re still waiting on the elves and the vikings to come and tell us how to write about them, since we’re not them. As long as you can back your choices with the appropriate lore and world, you are free to persecute, enslave, idealise, romanticise to your heart’s content. That is your world, where none may gainsay you. 

If, for whatever reason, you intend to associate the word “Black” with it’s worldly baggage of history and culture in your story’s context, then please give it the authenticity it deserves by actually doing some real research. Because even in the US, being black does mean something. But I feel stupid saying it, because you know that already! You’ve been doing it for HEMA, boats, pirates, vikings, firearms, kimonos and all the rest. You don’t need an educator for that.

Lastly, if you adhere to the author’s hoodwinked notion of paying something back to “blackdom”, then by all means, follow her advice. I find skin-tone roulette distasteful personally, because true depth is the merge of heritage and self-affirmation; and it’s a sad band where no matter the instrument, the sound is the same.

If the author had specifically used “African American” instead of black, you might not have been subjected to this neverending tirade; I wouldn’t have felt involved. But she didn’t and I did. Because she’s displayed the same carelessness and narrow-mindedness she hopes to cure you, white writer, of. This by claiming ownership, for her own young and isolated protégé culture, of a word that goes beyond her ken. Sorry, dear lady, Black is much more than that!

Finally

Good advice should be universal. It should apply in any circumstance, for any race and it should be targeted towards everyone. Unfortunately, that’s not what this article is about. It’s aim is to help right a wrong done to minorities in the US; but the remedy offered is to now obliterate their past while keeping their appearance, and injecting that aberration at random into your stories. Please don’t do it.

My personal hope is that you’ve realised by now that “Black”, like Asian or Arabic, is a meaningless word, and there is no such thing as writing a <insert colour> character if your are not <said colour>, especially not in SFF.

What matters is Culture, in all its hues and shapes. And you don’t even need skin color for that.

Skin complexion in SFF is, and should be, nothing but another tool. It, like slanted eyes, or pointed ears, or protruding fangs, or clan scars, is an external cultural marker which says something about your character, whether you want it to or not. It would be better if you, the writer, were in control of the message being emittedTreating it as anything else by binding it to this world’s miasma of prejudices and misplaced reparations is, at best amateurism, at worst ideological confusion.

If you ever find it necessary to add it to your own story – and God knows you don’t have to! – then you should use it and milk it for all it’s worth! What culture is it a marker of? Mix and match, cherry-pick from cultures all over this world, reshape them to your purposes, or invent some from scratch if nothing fits.

To go back to Seven Cities, Steven Erikson takes great care to flesh out an identity and history for its people, hence making Kalam’s dilema all the more poignant when the Whirlwind starts. What role does skin color play in the Malazan series? It helps characters – and us – identify ethnicity at a glance, and that is critical to the plot.

Conflict, of any kind, is what drives a story. You are in control of your world’s destiny. Whatever tropes you use to set up your world, its ultimate fate is your decision.

Make it a good read.

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