Archive for February, 2021

WRITING BLACK CHARACTERS WHEN YOU’RE WHITE?

February 28, 2021

I, for one, can’t do it. I grew up in a totally white universe though, for a time, when she was expecting my brother and caring for him as a baby, my mother did hire a Black lady to do her ironing. (That was back in the day before polyester or other No-iron fabrics.)

Verleen stood at the ironing board in our basement, in the same room where I usually played, and I can still picture her there. She stayed all day–I don’t recall her ever sitting down or stopping for lunch, nor do I know what my family did about bathroom breaks. Sometimes I sat on the floor in front of the ironing board watching her. I know we did talk, but unfortunately I don’t remember any of our conversations, held when I was four and five years old. I am sure, in that era, she would have felt she had to be careful about what she said to me if I asked questions about her life.

Otherwise, I had no awareness of Black people except that, where I lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, they had to sit on a bench seat in the back of the bus or stand if that was full. Black children attended all black schools.

I might have made a book character Black had I written earlier in life and was ignorant of the Black experience being so very different than mine. Thank goodness I didn’t.

I have been asked a couple of times if I planned to include any black people in my novels or stories. The answer is “no” though it has nothing to do with any antipathy toward Blackness. Quite the opposite. In recent times, especially the last several months, I have become very aware how little many white folks like me have understood about the Black experience. However, sympathy and interest caused me to read books by James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King, and other black authors, and, after the assassination of Dr, King, ,my husband and I drove to the Greenwood area of North Tulsa and , for many months to attend Sunday evening services at Black churches there. Congregants were always welcoming and friendly, and the singing was glorious. I remember my shock when one church member showed me the Sunday School in her church and I saw a picture of a very white Jesus. By then I was aware he was most likely tan-skinned.

You might say there may be one Black character in my novels. During his earlier career as a police officer, my male protagonist, Henry King, shot and killed a young teen who was robbing a convenience store, had killed the clerk, and turned his gun toward Henry. Experiencing grief over this, Henry went to visit the boy’s mother, hoping for a degree of understanding and forgiveness. He got only grief and anger from her, which led to trauma extending into the time period covered in my novels. I had pictured the boy as (maybe) Black, but never mentioned skin color in any of my novels where that sad experience is re-told.

You read the term “Greenwood”in Tulsa, Oklahoma ,mentioned above. My father, newly home from his time in France during World War I, was there. I found black and white photos he took at that time which I remember well because they showed such horrors. I have no idea now if he participated or how he felt about the white against Black riot and murders, as well as the destruction that took place in Tulsa in 1921. Indeed, I knew nothing about that riot until I was well into adult years myself, and after my father was gone, which is when I found his photos. I donated them all to the Black History museum in North Tulsa.

So, a Black character? Could I do that person justice? Could Carrie, like me, learn more deeply about the Black experience as an adult Senior Citizen, as I have? At this moment, can’t answer that.

What do you think, especially if you are a white author reading this?