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?
talk to me.