I was writing. But now I’ve stopped. Just for a moment, mind you, but maybe it’s more accurate to say I was stopped. Allow me to explain.
When dealing with history, one must report what actually happened. Whitewashing benefits no one. We all understand this. But I wanna talk about something I’m not sure the general populace – even of writers – understands to be an issue/concern/topic. Let us hope that I am able to articulate it without too much getting lost in translation. No guarantees though because it’s not like I ever claimed to be a wordsmith. (Er…)
My main characters (as in the MC in a story, not all the main characters of that story) tend to be Black. I feel like that requires no qualifying remark or explanation so bam. Done. The consideration with which I find myself faced, though, is that I have gotten rather fond of writing speculative fiction whose setting is shall we say, nostalgic. Steampunk is the easy one to place; I could say Alternate History as another, except that it’s (this book) not actually springing from a different outcome of a historical incident and so doesn’t really fit within that sub-genre, as I understand it. We’ll figure that out later. The point is. When you have characters of color in a time period in which things, well, sucked – so let’s say anything before the 1980s – there’s this sense that it would be a glaring omission to ignore it. Otherwise whatever you’re writing just went from science fiction to fairytale. But wait! I didn’t ask for all the baggage, yeah? Do I really have to go into ALL the ways one’s life was restricted and oppressed simply because I want my MC to have dark skin? Really?!
The easy answer is: Of course not.
When I say, easy, of course, I mean…it takes a while to get there. I have a real world setting, a real epoch. A world of difference [INSERT ME TELLING YOU ALL ABOUT THIS STORY BECAUSE HOMERDROOL]… but all that is racialicious would have no place. It would mean that every story involving a Black person (in particular) would have to be about being Black. From where I’m sitting in time, one’s life would be ruled well enough by it that it would reduce one to it. I mean, isn’t that why James Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room? So he didn’t have to talk about RACE, for Lord’s sake? But then it’s just the writer who’s oppressed. Forced to leave himself out. (Note: I haven’t really researched whether or not that’s why he wrote it, but it makes sense to me.) My point is: every historical Black story would be a slave, servant or otherwise oppressed story, no matter what their triumphs. And to leave that aspect out, even of a story about a world famous talent, for instance, would be insulting because it’s something they endured.
I guess the question isn’t just to myself and my muse. It’s to the readers. If I write a story set in (some version of) 1925, will your brain insist that this protagonist wouldn’t be the protagonist, couldn’t be the protagonist? (Of course, that would be to put aside all the other pieces of the story that could not have been!) I am dealing with a period in history, there are references to the reality of that time period in the work and yet, the novel itself is not a historical piece. I choose to cut out what I don’t care for. Not as a student of history, but as an artist. It has no place in this book. Believe me, I couldn’t whitewash history without rewriting my own parents’ lives and it’s not something I’d care to do. But when I’m working? I reserve the right to reject it.