Writing White-Redux 2009
If you haven’t seen this before, please read our take on readin’ writin’ and racism below and let us know what you think. Please feel free to share a link to this on your social networks!
Crossing Over—Mirror vs Window
When an African American writer or entertainer achieves success with a wider (read White) audience, a la Will Smith or Terry McMillan, they are said to have cross-over appeal. Why isn’t the reverse true? When Blacks watch CSI, Spiderman 3 or pick up the latest John Grisham, no one attributes that to cross-over. Is it assumed that everyone will find these diversions entertaining? That race doesn’t matter as long as it’s White? That Blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, Lakhota Sioux, Lebanese and whomever else the census separates out will “get” the storyline and generate the dollars requisite for success?
Even in the racially diverse “Grey’s Anatomy”, the central character, intern Meredith Grey, is a White woman, despite the fact series writer/producer Shonda Rhimes, is African American. Happenstance or economics? Quiet as it’s kept, in our first novel, Exposures, we “wrote White”, deciding it was the surest way to test our joint writing chops--and get published. It worked; the novel sold in two weeks. It took a lot longer to find a home for our first book with Black characters. At the time we didn’t fit the established categories (we weren’t Toni or Terry), so many editors didn’t believe we would find an audience. They were wrong.
Are these situations silent testimony to the more refined racism that lives with us everyday—the kind of de facto pecking order largely unrecognized by those who perpetuate it, and unchallenged by those of us who are aware, but just grateful to be in the game? Maybe it’s not so silent. The movie “Crash” asks questions about who we are, and what we think about all those other people. There was awkward, knowing laughter in the theater when our not so secret little prejudices were laid bare.
Not so long ago, a White reader (one of many who identify themselves that way) emailed to say how much she enjoyed one of our books, but wondered if she was welcome to read our work since she wasn’t Black. We were stunned by the question, but it spoke to the segregated reading habits which are more the norm than we would like to admit. Are we so tired of dealing with each other at work, in the supermarket, on the bus, that it’s a relief to open a book and find people with strange accents and hairdos banished from our fictional world? Or is it more insidious? Are books our mirrors, and we only look for reflections of ourselves?
Shouldn’t reading provide a window to the greater world? We read Anna Karenina without being Russian,The 100 Secret Senses without being Chinese, Catcher in the Rye without being teenaged prep school boys,Shelters of Stone without being Cro-Magnon—Anne Rice without being a vampire. We delight in Carl Hiassen without being Floridians, Sandra Cisneros with no experience of being Latinas from Chicago, understand the plight of a Nigerian girl as told by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, never having set foot in Lagos. Since childhood we have read thousands of books about people who didn’t look like us and found them enlightening, hilarious, heartbreaking, and know, without doubt, we are better people because of it.
Why then is it so surprising when works of fiction, save for “literary” efforts like those of Alice Walker and Edward P. Jones, which mostly recount our collective, tragic, post middle passage history, cross over? Are we to believe that as fully franchised, contemporary Americans living a variety of social, educational, and economic circumstances that our stories are so foreign as to be incomprehensible? That we share no universal human truths?
After the surprise success of Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made, which featured drawings of two brown-skinned women on the cover, our publisher made a conscious effort to cross over our next book. That cover was dominated by a house flanked by a lush tree. Our three main characters were rendered the size of carpenter ants, their color indistinguishable. So, to appeal to a wider audience we had to lose face? What must we sacrifice to be palatable to the culture at large?
Some bookstores even have separate African American areas. Is this to make us more comfortable in unfamiliar territory? Does this highlight our work, or let other people know they can skip this aisle? Granted, some argue that having a unique section celebrates the Black experience. But are they really separate but unequal niches, a publishing ghetto with very different real estate values?
Until Waiting to Exhale made publishers understand that Black people buy books, we were mostly left outside the gates. Clearly they did not learn in American history that we risked and often lost our lives to learn to read. The Exhale phenomenon is the reason many of us were given a chance. Walter Mosley reached a wider readership thanks to the endorsement of President Clinton. But is it really so hard to throw open our windows and get some fresh air? Browse a bookstore section you usually pass without Oprah to lead the way? Ask a librarian or a co-worker for a recommendation; that’s how many non-Black readers found our work. You might discover a good read on an unexpected shelf—maybe gain insight into someone else, or surprisingly, yourself.