When I write, I rarely have a personal agenda. In fact, I try to keep my personal beliefs out of my characters’ lives. Still, things eke in, despite my efforts. A primary example of this is my attitude towards race.
Simply put, I don’t believe in it. Race is a fiction, largely invented during the 1850s to justify the failing slave trade. Even the idea of a “black race” and a “white race” was distorted by the fact that families often started as one and ended as the other.
The last time humans were two significantly different races was when one of them was Neanderthal. Sure, there are differences – for instance, how Europeans developed lighter skin in response to a lessening of sunlight. But none of those physical differences can explain deviations in behavior, morays, or anything else. They are, in fact, of no more import than the difference between a tabby and a calico cat. Still, the fact that people believe race is real is fodder for a storyline.
When I create characters, their ethnicity is almost random. I would go so far as to say I spend less time deciding a character’s physical characteristics than I do choosing their name. That isn’t to say ethnicity is unimportant. It often defines people – or bounds their belief systems – in a way nothing else can. A person brought up in the Black Church will be different than someone who is not. However, an urbanite from NYC is different than someone from rural Arkansas – unless, of course, you allow yourself to probe below the surface. I’ve written characters that are each of the 4 letters in LGBT, and you know what? At the end of the day, they are just people.
We are not a melting pot, we Americans. In fact, I liken it to be more of a tossed salad. Our differences define us and give us our distinct flavors. Some parts of the country are more taco salad and others more Cobb salad, but we mix and blend in interesting ways everywhere. I come from a southern seafood salad environment. This mixture becomes a dynamic, and the dynamics spawn issues. I am not suggesting no one is racist; they are. Some run for President, in fact. No, I am saying race is no more important than other human interaction catalysts.
I have enjoyed writing stories where these dynamics are either key parts of the story, or the characters’ explorations of each other add a bit of spice to the story dynamic. I only plotted a few stories in advance. Mostly, I let them develop organically. Below, are some dynamics that flow from The Juice. The fun part was allowing them to be secondary to the main point of the story.
- A native people deal with the invasion of and exploitation by a foreign peoples
- A woman examines her choices as a career woman, wife, and mother, after a near-tragedy
- A woman of the street deals with her own demon – a particularly virulent form of addiction
- A man balances his ability to attract and detect mentally ill people with a desire not to get involved
- A synesthete interacts with the world and attempts to use her differences as assets
- An alien – whose race is foreign to emotion – deals with new-found feelings, sexuality, and human friendship, while balancing those against needing to forestall an impending cataclysm
- A lonely man falls for a lonely woman he has never met in person
- A man helps a woman to discover her own inner hero. ( There is a second story with a similar theme – this one involving small children)
- A pair of brothers deal with bullying, drug use, and their own differences, despite the perception that twins should be alike
- A black man debates the importance of race with a white woman – on their first date (if you guessed he mirrors my beliefs, you are wrong:) )
- A pair of former best friends (finally) deals with one friend’s being transgendered
- Two female friends walk a mile in each other’s very different shoes
What is fun about the list above is that I have described events in my science fiction and urban fantasy short stories and novelettes. There is more going on than the surface differences, as there is in real life. The differences among people do not have to be what separates us. They can be what pulls us together. We writers should lead the way.
2 thoughts on “The Fiction of Colored People”
Art will always turn out to be a vessel of our thoughts, feelings and opinions. Even when you consciously or unconsciously decide not to involve race into your fiction, that in itself is a statement. It doesn’t have to be explicit and written in big, bold capital letters –some people believe it has to– but it dwells in the midst of your words nevertheless.
I think I can relate to your point. In spite of being Mexican, I have never felt obligated to write my characters as latinos. I write about a lot of things that I see, even the behavior of people in my neighborhood, but race has never been a major factor in that either. It’s what inside of them, however beautiful or rotten, that matters to me.
Joe, that’s very well stated. Thank you.
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