That's right, let's talk about honkeys and spades, ofays and spearchuckers. Let's roll over that slimey rock and take a look at America's great big ugly black-faced bugaboo, that four-letter word with a history so awful that white people want to forget it ever happened (la-la-la I can't hear you) and black people, my age, who remember getting the high balcony at the Carolina Theater, the back end of the bus and the short end of the stick.

I'm working on a novel set in 1941 Washington. When I started this book (back in 1958), I was attracted to the backdrop of a sleepy southern town being shoved onto the world stage before it had time to learn its lines. But as I did my research, I discovered that according to all of the newspapers and magazines of the era, there were no black people in Washington.

One guidebook light-heartedly referred to the black mammy and her picaninnies, but there wasn't a paragraph on Howard University or the rising black middle class, bouyed on the backs of Pullman porters; or the Civil Rights march scheduled for the summer of '41; or the jazz clubs on U Street, so ubiquitous that Ella Fitzgerald called it "the Black Broadway." A third of the city was black and not a mention in the books. Just mammy and her picaninnies.

We've made progress, but Don Imus can still conjure up "nappy-headed" and Rush Limbaugh can call Barack Obama "Halfrican," so we're not out of the woodpile yet, are we, children.

The reason I bring this up is because I'm not only writing about people in another time, but I'm also writing about people of another race. I'll be the first to admit, I don't know what it's like to be a black man in America. I don't know what it's like now, and I sure don't know what it was like in 1941.

But I can imagine. I can do my research and I can imagine the life of a black woman passing for white, or a jazz musician trying to find work with a swing band, or an honest man working hard behind the counter of a chili joint on Fourteenth Street. I can imagine and then I can write it.

Will it be any good? Will the characters become real people in the reader's mind? Will I find their voices without slipping into black-face stereotype? I don't know. All I can say is what Stephen King once said to his critics:

"I'm doing the best that I can."

It's not that I'm having a hard time. In fact, it's just the opposite. The people show up in my head and speak the way they speak. Whether they're white or black, men or women, cops or robbers, it doesn't matter. I don't know how that happens, exactly, but it does.

And I've always written female characters, and I'm not female. I write kids, and I'm a grown-up (kinda). I've written Latinos and I'm Anglo, Jews and I'm goy, the rich and I'm as broke as a novelist can be.

But it does give me pause, because I need to do it right. Maybe that's why I'm taking so long to finish this book. Or maybe I'm just slack. I don't know. But I know enough to approach this with a great deal of respect for both the people and the craft.

If you have the inclination, share your thoughts about writing from another's POV. Do you find it tricky, or do people just spring up and speak their lines? Do you see them complete or do their features come into focus over time, as mine often do? And do you ever hesitate to write a character out of your own insecurity that you're not good enough to get it right?

As always,

talk to me.

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You might want to check out the black newspapers of the era:
(I'm not sure which ones were in operation in 1941.)

They are going to have their own political agendas, so it might not be the complete picture of the community of that time, but it'll give you with more material than you'll find in the mainstream media. (I used to edit an ethnic daily newspaper.)

I think it's very difficult writing from another ethnic person's perspective. I recently wrote a short story featuring Korean immigrants and I'm waiting to get criticized for that. (It's probably only a matter of time.) I think that as writers we should feel free enough to tackle any kind of character, but we do need to search our souls a bit. Are we writing from stereotypes--are TV shows and movies our models? Or have we done our homework and actually walked the streets of our characters a bit? And be prepared to be criticized. It just comes with the territory.

I spent four days in the MLK library reading over old copies of the Afro-American, Times Herald and Evening Star. Very eye-opening. You're right, it was an invaluable insight into what people were talking about, what movies they were seeing, who was in town, what the fashions were, the hotels, clubs, social events, etc.

As for criticism, I get that from my friends here, so I'm as prepared as I can be.

And John, amen. It's exactly the way this is coming out. The biggest issue is language. I live in a black community, so the music of the language isn't foreign, but every now and then a character will use slang and I have to stop and go back to see if that particular idiom was in use in 1941. But it can be a minefield walking around in my 21st century head with these incorrect 1941 shoes.
I think I would have more trouble trying to figure out what people were thinking in 1941 as America watched the world at war from the sidelines for most of it. The race issue has never bothered me. Maybe because I grew up in a racially mixed city. Not being bothered doesn't necessarily mean getting it right of course, but I'm more likely to doubt myself about portraying white Americans than anyone else.
On a related note, the people themselves thought differently then. (My grandmother, who died recently at 93, never joined late twentieth century thinking, never mind the 21st.) They had different perspectives, different values ordered differently, and different beliefs. Most went to church, for example.

Any character who isn't the author is in some ways a cheat, no? On the other hand, both the writer and the reader can benefit from the the writer's research and imagination aptly combined.
James Sallis seems to have done this particularly well with the Lew Griffin series. And I don't recall Sallis being the target of criticism. As far as his mind set, I think the following excerpt from a longer 2002 interview in 3ammagazine.com is consistent with your approach:

"I never meant to write six novels about this guy, you know. First, it was only a short story, then one novel and I thought I was done with him. Then, when I wanted to find out more about him, a second. But I was always working with the material put forth in that first novel, pulling it out, turning it in my hand to see it from different angles. There's really nothing more I can do. Lew's there, on the page, as complete a character as I'm capable of creating.

"When I'm writing I have only a general sense of where I'm going: a shape, or a kind of palpating absence waiting to be filled. I work by intuition, feeling my way through thickets and around walls, forever improvising. In the revision stage I'll look back explicitly at themes and at structure, analyze, see what I can do to tighten things up. But I find that if I've paid sufficient attention word to word and line to line, the rest pretty much takes care of itself."
Wow, David. Writing my first novel, I am narrating from the POV of a black female, which I am, but I don't speak Portuguese, and have never visited Brazil, which my main character does. Her partner, is a Brazilian man. How and the hell do I work that out? All I can try and do is research, cultivate some friends who are familiar with my content (believe it or not, I have come across two people in this little tiny rural town who speak Portuguese) who are willing to give me some honest feedback. And trust my gut. My characters change every day, and I don't know if that is good or bad. I do know that I grow with them and am excited by the possibility of them becoming!

Just my 2 cents.
PS No Black people in DC? I am interested in knowing when it became the "Chocolate City."
Tell a good story. Make readers care about your characters and want to know what happens next. Be vulnerable, and risk enough of yourself in the telling. Opression is a universal theme. Ignorance, awakening, injustice, fear, and selfloathing come in all colors. Just as pride, intollerance, insecurity, greed, and ambition do. Do heavy research on the period and people, but use it sparingly. It's the frame, not the picture.
Being a white South African writer, this is something I have to grapple with each time I put metaphoric pen to paper. Personally, I believe anyone can write about anyone or anything, provided they take the time to research the subject matter and, beyond that, to truly strive to grasp the soul and subtext of the research. But not everyone agrees with my outlook. There’s a growing swell of dissatisfaction in my country about white people writing “black peoples’ stories”. There’s understandable resentment against the recent oppressor being in the position to narrate the experiences of the recently (and still in many ways) oppressed.

It’s a complex issue and I relate to your doubts on this, David. The way I deal with it is to believe what several of the other posters have said – I strive to tell human stories. I do so to the best of my abilities. I hope I get it as close to right as I can and that the voices criticising me for telling their stories will realise, in the end, they’re our stories too
Speaking as a black woman, I have no problem with people of other races writing black characters, even if I am sometimes forced to roll my eyes up in my head at the stereotypes I've encountered. Most often, I haven't appreciated a black character in a story for two reasons a-the character was there only to prove how cool the white protagonist was or b-the black character seemed more like a plot device than a person (what Stephen King gets hit with all the time with his magical Negroes).

I appreciate your dilemma, as well. My fictional worlds are multicultural--I've got some of everybody in there, black, white, Hispanic, Asian. But I have the luxury of asking about what I don't know, since my real world reflects the diversity of my fiction.

As for your research, it's telling in itself that you can find no newspaper reports from the time, no? What does it tell you about the people of that time, both black and white. That's a type of education, too.

Glad to see you followed Naomi's advice about checking out the black newspapers. Good luck to you.
It took me forever to find film on the newspapers covering the black DC community. There were about a dozen that published but only a few that did so with any regularity. I searched Perkins Library at Duke, NC Central's library, called and wrote to Howard's library with zero satisfaction, and finally had to go to DC and the MLK library to read their copies on microfiche. The MLK library, over even the Library of Congress, was a gold mine of information on the era. I can't say enough good things about the reference librarians in their Washingtonian collection. A great resource for all Americans. They are my personal heroes.

And I promise, there are no magical Negroes in my book.

And I promise, there are no magical Negroes in my book.

He, he. Boy did you crack me up! Again, best of luck with your story.
Librarians ARE pretty cool, huh? ; )


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