Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Readin' Writin' and Racism 2010

Writing White---Redux 2010

We first wrote this piece as an article back in 2005 but it never found a home. So we posted it on our blog in September 2007 and again in November 2008 and 2009. Last fall, Virginia’s Open Letter to Oprah made the cyber-rounds, author-friend Bernice McFadden took a stance on Seg-Book-Gation, and Carleen Brice's blog Welcome White Folks and December is National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black Month, celebrated it’s first anniversary, but it’s evident things haven’t improved significantly. There’s the recent post by Laina Dawes on Blogher.com, Reading While Black or White: Do Readers Prefer Books Written by their Own and Black and Blues, by Cheri Paris Edwards. Seems we’re touching a nerve. Some react negatively-there are some truly hateful comments on Bernice McFadden’s recent Op Ed piece in the Washington Post, Black Writers in a Ghetto of the Publishing Industry’s Making, but we have new voices joining the conversation--white voices. Virginia participated in a Shewrites Radio chat yesterday about this issue and while those of us who were present (Bernice, Carleen, Martha Southgate) and vocal were not surprised to discover the audience was mostly black, Kamy Wicoff, founder of Shewrites was taken aback and wrote this post after our hour of (black) power radio: Books by Women of Color: Separated, and Not Treated Equally, Either. Speak Up, On This, She Writes! It is the opportunity to have these conversations; to have them aloud and not just with others who have similar experience that we hope will initiate a broader understanding on all sides.

For now, it seems that white readers prefer books about black people written by other white people, like Kathryn’ Stockett’s The Help, (the most recent), Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and Chris Cleve’s Little Bee. And why are the black characters in so many of these stories caught in some kind of Antebellum, Reconstruction, Jim Crow or Civil Rights era, generally separate and unequal historically? Do the lines of demarcation lessen a kind of general uneasiness? Is it too uncomfortable to see the wide variety of ways black people exist today, and therefore easier to portray us as the “Magical Negro” -- always good, and selfless with a little noble savage thrown in for good measure? Is it simpler to write off Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey as anomalies and accept the thug/athlete/rapper as more accurate representations of black people today, and therefore more easily dismissed?

Readin’, Writin’ and Racism—Do You Want a Mirror or a Window?

When a black writer or entertainer achieves success with a wider (read white) audience, a la Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey or Terry McMillan, they are said to have cross-over appeal. Why isn’t the reverse true? When blacks watch CSI, Iron Man 3 or pick up the latest James Patterson, 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 African Americans, 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 one of the most racially diverse television shows, “Grey’s Anatomy”, the central character, intern Meredith Grey, is a white woman, despite the fact that 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—Morrison or McMillan in case you’ve been under a literary rock for the past twenty or thirty years), so many editors didn’t believe we would find an audience.

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” asked 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. We wonder what people who watch on Blue Ray in the privacy of their own homes have to say.

Not so long ago, a White reader (one of several 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 that 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 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, (Almost 800,000 copies later, we are happy to report those who didn’t think people would get it, were wrong—at least they were then.) which featured drawings of two brown-skinned women on the cover, our publisher made a conscious effort to cross over our next book. The resulting 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 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.

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