Writing in black and white

How far are we from leaving the racial binary behind?

“There is no story that is not true”
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

In September of 2015, The Guardian published an article entitled “‘Black characters are still revolutionary’: writers talk about the complexity of race.” In the piece, the central question that the author, Tracey M Lewis-Giggetts, posed was whether or not “non-white” authors are “bound to the race narrative,” specifically within the context of American literature.

The three prominent black authors that Lewis-Giggetts interviewed for the article, Bernice McFadden, Tananarive Due, and Jeffrey Renard Allen, all had different takes on the topic. McFadden felt frustrated about the possibility of a black author’s success riding on the “big publishers” wanting only stories about race or oppression from them. Due emphasized the enduring impact of black characters and explained that she had only recently returned to writing about them. And Renard Allen stated with unmasked harshness that the American literary playing field leaves little room for black authors to succeed “in a country where the inequities and contradictions of race extend into every aspect of our society and culture.”

Then there is the opposite end of the spectrum: a white woman who forged her own race narrative, her own blackness, and then ended up as an NAACP leader in Spokane, Washington. I am speaking, of course, about Rachel Dolezal, whose bizarre story unfolded last year after she was “outed” by her white parents. The myriad reactions by black writers that arose in the weeks and months that followed ranged from utter contempt, to bemused questions of “why,” to the more complex examination of the social construct of race itself.

In one of the most eloquent examples of said examination, Jelani Cobb writes in The New Yorker of the “cultural tariff” upon those whites (like Dolezal, Iggy Azalea, Elvis) that steep themselves in and appropriate black culture: “Whatever elements of beauty or cool, whatever truth or marketable lies there are that we associate with blackness, they are ultimately the product of a community’s quest to be recognized as human in a society that is only ambivalently willing to see it as such. And it is this root that cannot be assimilated.” In this way Cobb makes a careful distinction between the myth that races are intrinsically different and the reality of a culture defined by race whose shared experience is indeed inherited. This inheritance, unlike its cultural manifestations, cannot be espoused by whites. The first is what has resulted in the second, more so in America than in many places, yet it is vital to differentiate between the current implications of both.

This is precisely what Jodi Picoult has attempted to accomplish in her latest book, Small Great Things. The story, set in present-day Connecticut, centers around a black nurse in a mostly white hospital who finds herself with the moral dilemma of trying to save the baby of white supremacists, the very baby whose parents demanded that she be forbidden from caring for their child. The baby’s death leads to criminal charges and a trial, with the narrative adopting the perspectives of the nurse, her lawyer, and the white supremacist husband in turn.

In an author’s note following the final pages of the novel, Picoult explains that she has long wished to write about racism in America, and therefore did her research thoroughly, extremely aware of being a privileged white woman. Critics of the book have taken this note to heart and appreciate the intentions it expresses: intentions to stimulate and spread the conversation about the deeply imbedded racism of American society. However, they also view the resultant novel as falling short of her aim, by trapping itself in the oversimplification of complex social issues.

Roxane Gay, for example, of the New York Times Book Review, applauds the disturbing portrayal of the white supremacist’s backstory, and the humanizing emotions he experiences as the plot develops, and appreciates what Picoult tries to do. But she sees a fatal flaw in the character of the black nurse, Ruth, whose “blackness is clinical, overarticulated,” as if Picoult were trying to check off a list “of issues in an attempt to say everything about race in one book.” And Eleanor Brown, of The Washington Post, underlines the importance of the book, while still acknowledging the problems Picoult has in depicting people of color in an oversimplified way.

But where does this leave us? If non-white authors are bound to race narratives, and white authors are barred from appropriation of non-white culture, where does that leave authors who wish to bridge these cultural chasms? A potential solution is to try, as hard is it may be, to ignore the racial identity of authors and accept their characters simply as literary creations independent of the social constructs hindering or enabling their authors. After all, long before female writers were accepted by society, women masqueraded as men without any questioning of the veracity of their characters of the opposite gender (think George Sand).

Yet is this ideological solution even feasible? Will authors, or you and I for that matter, ever be able to desist from entrapping ourselves within our own perceived racial identity, and allow our words to speak for the human experience, not the experience of blackness or whiteness, of the female or the male? It seems almost to be against human nature do so.

Thanks for reading.

Sarah for Team Instaread
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