I am a novelist and I am white. My great-grandparents immigrated to the United States and Canada from Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, and Finland. My ethnicity has been confirmed by DNA tests on both my parents. You’d have to go back to the prehistoric migrations to find any of my ancestors who were born in Africa.
So the question that arises is: Am I permitted to include black characters in my novels?
Why not? There are plenty of black people in North America. How can I set novels in California, New York State, or elsewhere in North America without including the occasional black character? If I consciously exclude black characters, then I could be legitimately accused of racism.
This leads to a second question: Am I permitted to give black characters important roles in my novels?
Of course I am. Again, if I consciously limit black characters to background roles – make them mere props – then I can be legitimately accused of racism for marginalizing them.
Which leads directly to a third question: Am I permitted to make a black character my main protagonist?
I should. If I cast black characters only as villains and sidekicks in my novels, then I am doing black people a considerable disservice. Sometimes black people are heroes in the real world, so why not in my novels.
This leads to a more difficult fourth question: How do I write black characters?
Do I make them literary Oreos? Do I describe them as black, but then have them think, speak, and act in the same way as my white characters? Or do I “write black”? Do I try to make them think, speak, and act as real black people. And I mean, real black people, not exaggerated stereotypes like some kind of literary minstrel show. Black people with aspirations and prejudices of their own.
You should not be surprised to hear that I’m going to try to make my black characters as realistic as possible. I may not do it as well as I would like, but none of my writing is as good as I’d like. All that I can do is to write the best stories that I can.
Which brings me to one of my recent novels, not published under the Ashley Zacharias name, but written under a different pseudonym.
My main character is an ex-convict who found religion in prison and returned to his old neighborhood to establish a store-front church. He’s no saint – he’s big and tough, a womanizer, and maybe a bit of a con man. But when the teenage son of one of his flock is accused of a brutal murder and bullied by the police into a false confession, my hero is asked to help establish his innocence because, as an ex-con, he “knows the system.”
I never mention race in this novel. I don’t mention anyone’s skin color, eye color, or hair style. But I do have characters in the neighborhood speak ungrammatically as people with little education would. They are quick to anger, and resentful of both the wealthy people who live up the hill, and the middle-class professionals on the other side of town.
Though I never say that they are black, there is no question that the main characters are written black. And not as black professionals, but as black working class. The other characters, the wealthy victims, witnesses, police, and lawyers are not deliberately written black, but are more neutral. Some readers envision them as white, some as black. The police and lawyers, in particular, are seen as ambiguous.
I submitted the first ten pages of this novel to an agent. When I met with her, face-to-face, her very first words to me were, “You’re not black.” I explained that I don’t mention race explicitly in the novel, that it’s about class conflict and the abuse of authority, but that made no difference. The agent was never going to represent me, no matter how good my novel. She never used the words, cultural appropriation, but her words and demeanor made her thoughts perfectly clear. No matter how good my writing, in her mind, I had no right to create major characters who appear to be black unless I am black, myself.
The reverse would never be true. When a black author writes a novel about white characters, no one raises an eyebrow.
But if the author is white, it doesn’t matter what he choses to do – exclude people of color, or relegate them to the background, or make them only villains and sidekicks, or make them protagonists who speak and act white, or make them protagonists who speak and act black – he will always be accused of racism.
So, if I’m going to be damned no matter what I write, then I’m damned well going to write what I want, as best as I’m able. And I’m not embarrassed about that novel. The first ten pages were convincing enough that the agent expected me to be black. That tells me that I managed to write black adequately. I published my novel myself; agents can no longer bar the gate to publication. Some day, I will write a sequel with the same protagonist and I will self-publish that one as well.
I see no reason to let the self-appointed guardians of political correctness censor me.