In Part One of this two-part series, I focused on the positive feedback I’ve received for my Sci-Fi novel, The Selah Branch, A Novel of Time Travel and Race in America. You can read it here: https://www.tenebraypress.com/new-blog/2018/9/1/the-selah-branch-love-it-or-hate-it-but-nobody-likes-it
This post will focus on the criticism (much of it legitimate) of this same book. To recap, the story is focalized through its protagonist, Kenia Dezy, a Georgetown University undergrad studying public health. Many people of color have praised the book. They have expressed gratitude for the work I put into it. Others, even friends of mine, HATE The Selah Branch. Some don’t even consider themselves friends of mine any longer.
And I see their point. Stories about women of color BY women of color have never had the platform they deserve in this country—or in the world. Writing is a tough profession and it took a lot of capital (social and financial) for me to break into the industry. My privilege gave me access to resources to fall back on as I started down this road and copies of my first books were selling slowly. Publishing has given me a voice, but no one can argue that white males are historically underrepresented in the US—much less American Literature. (If you think you can, I’d like to know which planet you are living on and if Elon Musk colonized it yet.)
When the median net worth for 40-49 year-old black women with a college education is only $6,000 (debt factored in against savings), as opposed to college educated white women of the same age whose median net worth is $25,000, there is no denying the disparities in privilege, opportunity, and capital that exist in our country as the result of racism. The net worth of younger black women, even with a college degree, falls to an astonishing ZERO, while white women with an equivalent education are still very much in the net positive. See more at the link in the footnote.
These economic disparities have fallen disproportionately in favor to white people, like me, giving me more access, more opportunities, and more resources. These advantages have enabled me to pursue further education and good jobs, to network professionally, to seek out mentors, and ultimately has helped me to publish. So when I roll up and write a Sci-Fi book, written from the point of view of a woman of color, let’s face it, this can mean shelf space taken away from a Sci-Fi book written about black women by black women. A book like An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon (one of the best books I’ve read this year). Suddenly, here I am, a white dude, taking up space (once again) from women writers of color, who historically have not had the same opportunities that have been granted, undeservedly, to me.
And that’s how erasure happens folks. That’s how structural racism persists.
And I’m part of the problem.
But wait! Sadly, there is more.
When we consider books by white authors or films by white writer/directors, we must consider the legitimate question of, how well do they depict characters of color? Are the men and women of color fully fleshed out, authentic people, or are they one dimensional caricatures that might just reinforce stereotypes? As a writer, it’s deeply uncomfortable for me to read that, on reflection, a luminary like Viola Davis wishes she had passed on her role in the 2011 film The Help—partly for this very reason https://thegrapevine.theroot.com/about-aibileen-viola-davis-says-she-regrets-playing-ma-1828998001.
Ms. Davis has a valuable point. The Help, as feel good of a movie as it was, failed to really explore the lives of the women of color or represent their voices in an authentic way. We are witness to the indignities they suffer, but in the end (like so many black characters before them in American cinema) they end up serving as props to highlight the moral development and moral victory of the white protagonist (played by Emma Stone) and her family. Despite a movie title that references the characters of color, The Help is, disappointingly, white centered. The harshest criticism for the film being that it is another example of a white artist(s) exploiting the stories and suffering of blacks, to promote their careers, fill their pockets. Nia Long has recently spoken out about this https://www.theroot.com/nia-long-i-ve-watched-a-lot-of-men-get-rich-off-of-the-1828664319. To quote the article: “The Love Jones actress has a point—the gender pay gap is real, and it impacts black women tremendously. In fact, black women make 38 percent less than white men and 21 percent less than white women.”
But even more pernicious, not only does revenue from these films flow disproportionately to men (and white men at that), the storylines, white focused as they are, work to ameliorate the guilt white people might have regarding the legacy of racism in this country. Once again, we can pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad,” and, “It’s all going to be okay.”
I won’t argue with any of Ms. Davis’ or Ms. Long’s points. I can’t, because they are right.
So, what am I to do, as a writer? As a privileged white writer?
To my frustration (crying fragile white tears here, I know), it’s impossible for me to disentangle myself from my own skin color and the privilege it gives me. I know many white writers try to highlight these issues; we try to call one another out when our work falls short of a higher standard (e.g., The Help). I do think white people need to participate in these conversations on race, art, and representation. We certainly need to do more listening than talking in these conversations, but we do need to add our voices to the mix. For no other reason than the sad fact that, as Dahleen Glanton recently wrote in the Chicago Tribune: Nothing is more powerful than privileged white people talking about white privilege. (I keep finding myself referencing this excellent article in my blog posts. Check it out, link below!)
That sad truth, stated by Ms. Glanton, is uncomfortable to accept. But it rings true. And yet, there are further double standards and injustices we white people have to be aware of as we engage in these issues. Perhaps most important to acknowledge is that we white folks are rarely penalized for trying to address racial inequalities. If anything, we get patted on the back—by ourselves especially—for being “woke.” We give ourselves an A+ for just making the effort.
But when black people make these same claims (as they have been longer than we have), they are punished. Case in point: Colin Kaepernick still does NOT have a QB job despite being a better quarterback than more than half the men playing in that position.
But I also believe that doing nothing, for white artists/writers not to wrestle with these issues, to not participate in these conversations, would be a loss. I still feel that to NOT write and publish The Selah Branch would have been a missed opportunity. I think of the women in my life who inspired it and how, in many ways, the story was a declaration of my love for them. I also think of the woman who came up to me weeping, thanking me for writing it. Then there are the comments on Goodreads and Amazon from readers of color who appreciate the book. And frankly, I see The Selah Branch as an opportunity to appeal to white readers, who might not otherwise pick up such a book with a female black protagonist, but would pick it up if it was written by a white author.
Sad but true.
So I’ve tried to split the difference, and make up for any “harm” I’m doing with The Selah Branch. I won’t allow The Selah Branch to “compete” in any contests in the category of “African American Writing.” Without question, that would place it in competition with authors of color, possibly limiting their exposure and their opportunities for promotion and accolades. I won’t do that. Any awards The Selah Branch has been nominated for, I have made sure it is in categories such as Sci-Fi or Multicultural, not African American.
I’ve also been trying to make The Selah Branch a force for good. Not just by the content, but by donating all the proceeds from my sales to three organizations I know well. These are organizations that work to counter the effects of structural racism and racial injustice. In the final analysis, I felt I should not “profit” from writing a book like The Selah Branch. I have profited from racism enough living as a white man in America. But if other people of color, children, college students, or aspiring writers could benefit, well, then I might be able to sleep at night. More on those organizations here: https://www.tenebraypress.com/the-selah-branch/
It’s not a perfect solution. But there are no perfect allies, only imperfect ones. I hope writers like Rivers Solomon, Jason Reynolds, Nnedi Okorafor, NK Jemisin, and Tomi Adeyemi would be all right with that. And I hope the Rivers Solomons, Jason Reynolds, Nnedi Okorafors, NK Jemisins, and Tomi Adeyemis of the future will be too. Maybe some of them are enrolling at Georgia State or in a head start program run by CURS or Atlantic Street Center right now.
I can only hope.