I’m hearing more readers say that when they figure a story is just about white people they don’t waste their time. Why shouldn’t they feel this way? Don’t we have dedicated Science Fiction readers, people who like hard boiled old school detective stories, or Romance. If there isn’t a person of color, somebody gay, transgender, or a lead female character it’s racism, sexism, and homophobia by exclusion. I’ve heard beginning writers describe their technique: they outline their plot, do the dialogue, basically write the story, and then go back and decide which characters can be black, gay, transgender or strong female leads. Villains must be white.
Want to write about medieval Europe? We don’t know that a black person couldn’t have wandered through. The idea isn’t any more implausible than Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a book I read once and never felt the need to return to. Without the diversity it’s just dead white guys.
Puts me in mind of the Western craze of the 60’s. You want to sell a story to a pulp magazine, it better be a Western. Hard boiled noir detective stories were over. Didn’t matter if you were a New York writer who’d never picked up a gun, ridden a horse, or knew nothing about cattle or rough country. Lack of knowledge didn’t hurt all that much. The readers didn’t know anything either. Accepted tropes of the gunfighter drifting from town to town spewing justice were developed; readers were happy and had a writer emerged who could have realistically penetrated the Romanticism of the Hollywood old West that never existed, he wouldn’t have been much liked.
In the 70’s a fashionable young man would have worn a leisure suit. Today, at some point in his day, he will shed a tear for the mistreatment of the transgendered. I’m not suggesting anybody be mistreated, but when the tears amount to a fashion statement, they’re worth about what a mildewed leisure suit in an old closet is worth. To my knowledge, I’ve never met a transgender person, but the controversy has affected me.
Used to be when I popped over the Blue Ridge down into North Carolina to meet friends for lunch in a little hometown dinner my table would be crowded by people passing by. To everyone at my table, I proceeded to explain that these crowds constituted autograph seekers working up the nerve to collect my signature —although none ever quite did, ask that is, but they had to know I was somebody. They just weren’t quite sure who.
After the flap over the transgender bathrooms and all of the celebrities vowed to boycott North Carolina, I was ignored. The locals knew I couldn’t be a celebrity they couldn’t place. The delve back into obscurity hurt. My pain was just as real as the best of the liberals crying over poor black children they had never met.
If your story is set in the 60’s, your white character will have marched with Dr. King. The rarity or the implausibility wouldn’t matter. You wouldn’t mention that most black people in the period just wanted to get through their day without attracting attention and lived without any real belief that the world would ever change.
Michelle Obama said she didn’t like living in the White House because it was built by slave labor. Actual construction was on a slightly different model. Slaves would have been used to move some of the heavy materials, but the dangerous work on the walls and the roof would have been done by Scot-Irish and German immigrants. It made sense. If a white worker killed himself in a fall, the owners got whatever he’d put in that day free. If a slave died, the owner would be out of his value. There was nothing noble in the way the slaves were used, but it mostly made economic sense at the time.
Which version is true — mine or Michelle Obama’s? Michelle Obama is a darling of the American media. If she chooses to speak to a subject, her words become history. History is the voice of the most popular and charismatic speaker who addresses a subject. History is too valuable and even two hundred year old events are too politically charged to leave to a dry piecing together of what may have happened. If such an account finds publication in a professional journal, it won’t necessarily reach the popular consciousness unless someone with a voice the public trusts takes an interest.
Historical truth is not court truth, even when the courts are performing at their most ideal, which they rarely do. As with real history, there are always elements, in the case of the courts, the prosecution or the defense, and sometimes both, who actively do their best to suppress the truth.
I recommended a local attorney I liked to an old reprobate whose company I sometimes kept. Tate, the old reprobate, had traveled the world. The mundane didn’t suit him. He rubbed shoulders with heads of state, great military leaders, and the Gettys and the Hunts, told stories of Howard Hughes, some of which might have been true, if he did discreetly check how much you knew about a subject before he entered into the next yarn.
He had gotten drunk and smashed into another car, thus the need for the lawyer.
Some months after the trial, I ran into the lawyer. “They had him dead to rights. I kept continuing the case. Who knows maybe a witness would die. It was his best chance. When I finally got him on the stand, he told a story, I’d never heard.”
Tate had the charm to sway the court, and his lawyer would have injected enough doubt with procedural objections to cloud the issue. In the year between the accident and the trial, Tate would have come up with more imaginative and favorable interpretations of actual events until I doubt he remembered many hard facts. His version would have stood out above and beyond in eloquence and style over anything the people he had hit could say.
The lawyer confessed, “I don’t like Tate very much, but I have no idea what really happened.”
Most often, we can’t know what happened. We interpret events the way we need them to be interpreted.
Even when we find the truth, it won’t necessarily give us perspective. I took a course in the history of World War II in graduate school. The primary focus the Japanese-American internment camps in America and America’s failure to allow African-American soldiers to fulfill their true potential, undoubtedly true parts of history, although I’d enough heard first hand accounts of black outfits breaking under fire to know that the classroom account wasn’t the only point of view.
The professor ignored the Allied advance across France in ’44. “Boring. We had the most tanks, the most men, the greatest manufacturing potential.” He didn’t realize he hadn’t dug past necessary Allied propaganda of the time and how near won a thing it was. I asked him after one of the lectures, “If I come back next week, will the shooting start again?”
A story can be completely true and be from such an individual or minor cultural perspective that though it plants important seeds for the future, it has almost no significant bearing upon the events of the times.
When our focus changes the language goes with it. Language is power. Racism used to mean the mistreatment of a person due to the color of his skin. Racism in current usage is the misdeeds of the white culture. Aging dictionary definitions only speak to archaic usage.
These changes have left me in an unvisited backwater both artistically and politically. I don’t hold with the mistreatment of people, but I was never ahead of my time. When the major news outlets of the 60’s reported that J. Edgar Hoover had the goods on Martin Luther King, that he was a womanizer and a communist sympathizer, I tended to believe what I heard. Actually, whether he was or not is irrelevant. To speak to an injustice doesn’t require a divinity. Maybe I had the excuse of being fifteen in ’68, but my thinking was pretty much average for my place and time. I’m a little older and don’t necessarily equate the most popular and vocal voices as being the voice of evenhanded justice. Evenhanded justice on a large scale may be a human impossibility.
When you add your voice to the winning side, it doesn’t prove you’re wrong. There is no absolute proof the vocal elements of our times can’t be right, but it does say something about individual courage when a person falls too neatly in line with anything easy, which is why I call most of this new diversity writing merely another genre. Writing from a deep knowledge of personal pain and battling against the odds is an entirely different form and stands outside the genre, a quality of writing and thinking and living that can never be cheaply acquired by latching onto whatever seems to be on the winning side at the time.