On Writing / Writing

Why I Will Probably Not Ever Write a Black Main Character

I’m writing this blog post for more reasons than I can count. I will say, however, that the things that drove me to put my thoughts down on cyber-paper are as follows:

1. Kristen Strassel (@KristenStrassel on Twitter)

My beautiful friend Kristen wrote a great book with a biracial main character (Callie’s half Jamaican—West Indies, y’all!) and it made me wonder about the last time I read something in my own genre (New Adult—hollaaa!) with a black, half black, African-American, West Indian (whatever version of this you want to call it) MAIN character. Thing is, I don’t think I ever have.

I can’t even think of an NA novel on my TBR with a black MC.

After realizing that, I realized something else. I wasn’t upset by this. Every time I think about how under-represented minority characters are in fiction, I can link a certain group of genuinely upset people to it. (And rightly so—They’re more than entitled to those feelings. It’s natural to feel that way.)

What I’m saying is, there is a serious LACK in the mainstream NA world, when it comes to writing black MC’s, and I feel as though I’m required to be upset about this.

I don’t like being “REQUIRED” to do or feel anything, but I do feel like people expect me to be upset because the characters in the novels I read don’t look like me. This brings me to point #2.

2. Baldwin, baby.

I. Fucking. Love. James. Baldwin.

I love him and his writing so much that I took a lit class on him in college that I didn’t even need the credits for. The catch is that it was taught by this WITCH of a woman that I know for a fact hated me—but that’s beside the point. I was willing to take the class for him.

Why? Because Baldwin’s always just written whatever the hell he wants. I once had a discussion in one of my Queer Lit classes about how Baldwin was quicker to write a piece that deals with Queer issues than he was to write a piece that deals with or advocates for race issues.

Baldwin had a tendency to focus less on race politics and finger pointing, and more so on his own personal impact, as a human. Not as a black man.

Does he discuss race and his status as a black man? Yes. Do I also then have a responsibility to do the same, or to write black characters into my work? No. I don’t believe I do.

So why not just write it and not weight the situation at all?

I won’t just write a black character and not have the race issue touched upon at all, because you’re bound to piss someone off that way. Doing that would signify to some people that the issue at hand is unimportant.

With writing, you can’t please everyone. I know this. You’re bound to piss someone off for reasons beyond your control. But this is an issue that hits close to home, so I wouldn’t want to write about it (neither the issue nor a black character) and not do it justice. I guess that’s what it all comes down to.

I don’t want to do it and get it wrong, so I’m bowing out gracefully. It’s a personal choice.

I grew up in Los Angeles. It’s a very race-conscious city. I’ve experienced racism at school when kids asked me why my skin was so dark, while shopping in the mall with my friends at the age of 13, in my ballet studio at the age of 8 where I thought I was safe from it. So, yes. It’s an issue that hits close to home. My mama and my step-dad used to drill these lessons into me about how I needed to be an educator for people who didn’t know any better. They told me I had a voice and a mind (and a mouth) for getting things heard.

Did I want that responsibility? Hell no.

Why?

enhanced-buzz-18244-1375462338-32Because black history is incredibly weighted. All history is weighted. It’s a heavy topic. Some people are okay with being responsible for doing that justice. I’m just not. I don’t want that responsibility. I’ve had this impression that I didn’t have a choice about it. That the responsibility was mine whether I wanted it to be or not. But now I’m saying I do have a choice.

And another thing? Growing up, I didn’t want to be looked at as a black woman. I just wanted people to see me as a woman. Period.

As a kid, I wanted to be seen at as “Candice the dancer.” Not “Candice the black dancer.” Now, I couldn’t care less how you look at me, because I’ve grown thick skin.

Even were I to write a black character and not touch on black history at all, it would make me feel like I was calling the character black but not doing enough to prove his/her/Their (for my Queer babies) blackness to people. And that’s messed up too. Should it have to be proven?

Well, what’s the point of saying your character is black if that’s the only time you’re mentioning it? How is his or her racial identity important? How does it affect the story? SHOULD IT affect the story? Why is it significant enough to mention? Is it enough for readers to know that the author branded his or her character that way? These are serious questions.

A Scenario

My MC’s name is Cash. Let’s say he’s black. (He isn’t—he’s actually a hazel-haired cutie from Texas—but for this, let’s say he is black.) Without knowing much about Cash, do you have an opinion about him already?

A black kid named Cash. Picture him.

Now, let me just inform you that Cash does music. It’s his thing. What kind of music would you assume he does? Rap? That was your go-to, wasn’t it?

If not, you’re a better person than I.

I don’t want the responsibility of having to write a black character and having people expect me to name him/her Jamaal (Jenna Black does this—writes a black love interest named Jamaal. Gives him tattoos, baggy pants and cornrows) or Keisha Johnson.

enhanced-buzz-1863-1375388526-15So in that regard, I’d be caught between a rock and hard place. If I do write the character and gloss over the racial details, I’m doing it wrong. “I’m ashamed.” I’m “white-washing” the character. Which is dumb and totally ridic.

So the reader can easily forget about the race detail if they wanted to. They can easily replace it with blond hair and blue eyes or sharp Asian features, if that were their prerogative.

If I write the character and go race heavy, have the character experience racism, have the character celebrate Kwanzaa, have the character be from some uber urban city, sag his pants, wear cornrows and drop the “G’s” off the end of his words, then I’m still doing it wrong, because THAT’S NOT ALL BLACK IS TO ME.

They say “being black” is an ideology. But I digress, because that’s a whole other pile of shite we are NOT about to cover in this long ass post.

So, lovers!

My name is Candice Amanda Montgomery.
I’m a classically trained dancer.
(I think) I do an excellent British accent when frequenting public establishments.
(Ask me to do the accent for you, I will).
I’m Pansexual and proud, but my family’s not hip to that yet.
I love anime and manga and boba.
I love indie rock and alternative music.
I curse like a goddamned sailor.
I am a writer, above all things.

Oh, and as an aside? I’m black too.

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6 thoughts on “Why I Will Probably Not Ever Write a Black Main Character

  1. Hey Candice, you’re amazing. You’ve echoed everything I’ve ever felt about this topic, but I never had the balls to write it. I agree with you 110%. It all stems back to personality and preference – I’ve always wanted to be known as/looked as/treated as a PERSON, not a black person. What does race have to do with anything? I was asked a few weeks ago about the novel I’m writing and the person randomly asked “Are there any black chatacters?” When I told them no, they looked like they wanted to say something, but they didn’t, but it visibly bothered them. Why does it irk you so much? If I did write a black character (just a character, we’re not even talking about main character) what would it change about the story? Period. Anyway, great post. You’re writing voice is incredible and your points are powerful.

  2. I totally agree with your views here. I never go out of my way to write a book that has characters of a certain race, sex, religion, or anything. I don’t worry about whether I’m “doing it right” according to people who focus on such things.

    For example, my main character is a teenage lesbian. I didn’t go out of my way to make her a lesbian for the sake of “promoting gay rights,” or because I wanted to show a “Strong queer woman” can be a MC. I didn’t even decide consciously she would swing that way when I started writing her. It just kind of developed along the way.

    I fully expect people to eventually say things like, “You, as a straight white male, don’t know what struggles a lesbian woman goes through.” Which is totally true, and totally beside the point. Because the “struggles she goes through” have nothing to do with her sexuality. They have to do with the arcane chaos going on around her with the development of magical powers. I’m not going out of my way to choose character traits that I think are fitting for a lesbian character to represent other lesbians. I’m just writing Gabby Palladino, as an individual (who just happens to be gay).

    Likewise, my book has a major character who is Hispanic, and one who is Asian, as well as supporting characters who are Australian, black, Indian, white, straight, homosexual, and so on. I didn’t pick those on purpose in order to push diversity into the story. Heck, some of the characters I let other people decide: I recently went to Twitter and asked people to help me pick a name for one of my new supporting characters, and one picked “Vijay” (a popular Indian name). I liked it and picked it, not with the thought of “I need an Indian character for diversity” (since I already have another Indian supporting character). I picked it with the thought of “That’s a cool name and it sparked some inspiration in me.”

    I fully support people who want to go out of their way to write a book that represents a certain race/sex/culture/etc. But I also think some of us can just write what we write, and anyone who says “But your character doesn’t properly represent X!” can go ahead and think what they will. I write people, not races. The race or other traits are just a minor detail, like the color of someone’s eyes (after all, no one goes out of their way to write a book to “Represent the struggle of people with blue eyes”).

  3. Pingback: Why I Will Probably Not Ever Write a Black Main Character | Cylithria's Collection

  4. THIS. I know that someday I’ll be getting flack for not writing enough gay characters, or enough characters of this group or that group or this belief system or…

    And it’s like, you know, I’m not really TRYING to write anything…I write the characters who come to me. I don’t know if people who don’t write realize this, but our characters (mine, at least) kind of just show up in our minds and are like, “So, I have a story for you to write…”

    And I don’t care what anyone says, I am NOT going to force one of my babies to be anything other than what they are. That’s just cruel. And it would never make for a good story–it wouldn’t be genuine.

    And to your point–I, too, have found myself in the “if I write a character from/in ______ group, then I’m going to get told that I did it wrong.” Know why? Because I won’t be writing a charicature of that group, I’ll just be writing a person who is gay/ethnic/disabled/etc. They’ll have their own personal challenges and flaws, but I don’t want to make a mockery of a group by shoving some cliche behaviour, character traits, personal issues, or anything else onto a character. They’re just people. Their sexual orientations or skin colours, while certainly important, can be anything and everything and THEY’LL STILL JUST BE PEOPLE.

    And at the end of the day, all I really want to do is write cool people.

    So I guess what I’m saying is, I will totally write a story about any character who ever comes to me–disabled, LBGQT, any ethnicity at all–but I don’t want to do it to be all “LOOK GUYS I INCLUDED DIVERSITY IN MAH BOOKS!” I just want to do it because I was inspired and I found a story and a character I love. That’s the only way I know how to write.

    I have no idea if anything I’ve written here makes sense because I feel like it’s terribly incoherent but WHATEVER FOREVER. I L# you and your characters, no matter what race or creed or orientation or whatever they are, and will happily read whatever you write 😀

    • I wrote my above reply to this post way back in January, eleven months ago. I got an email today about a new comment, and I decided to re-read the whole thing.

      I still agree 100% with everything that’s been said here. Especially when Eve said “All I really want to do is write cool people.”

      I doubt this post will ever stop being relevant. I was just discussing this topic with some other people last week. So it’s always important.

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