Friday, August 10, 2012

Why I Don't Qualify to Write About Racism

When I took an African American literature class in college, my professor told us that most of what we know of Voodoo is actually European witchcraft. In the 18th and 19th century, the Americans spread false rumors about the Voodoos in order to expel African culture from the country.

I wanted to raise my hand and say, "Shouldn't we be outraged about that?" How is it that in an age of unprecedented tolerance, we're still spreading these rumors?

Voodoo has next to nothing in common with my religion (Latter-Day Saint, aka Mormonism), but I've been wrongly accused of belonging to a satanic cult enough times to sympathize. 

So right away, my book about Marie Laveau - the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans - would be about religious tolerance.

I'll never understand why people hated Latter-Day Saints so much. Did you know it used to be legal to kill a Mormon in the state of Missouri? It was called the Mormon Extermination Order, and it lasted from 1838 to 1976. 

Don't mistake the date for a typo; seriously, the law wasn't revoked until 1976. If my dad went on vacation to Missouri as a teenager, you could have legally murdered him.

But I understand why people hated Voodoo. It all boils down to racism. Sure, Voodoo is a strange religion from a Western point of view, but the cold truth is that Voodoo is African, and all things African had to go.

This means that by default, my book is going to be about racial tolerance as well.

I'm the whitest person I know. I don't have any inkling of what it's like to be discriminated against racially. When I tell people I'm a Latter-Day Saint, the worst reaction I get is an awkward silence and a cleared throat. 

If I close my eyes tight and concentrate really hard, I might be able to picture being a black person just enough to make my characters believable. But then my book won't have any passion. When it comes to racism, the only things I have to say have already been said.

Also, I get the impression that African Americans are exclusive about their culture and history. I understand and respect that completely; after all, I don't really like it when non-members write about Mormonism. They never get it right.

I guess if I want to tell this story - and I really, really do - I'll just have to do my best.

5 comments:

  1. It all boils down to "write what you know," but there are somethings no amount of research can familiarize you with. I really appreciate this post. Keep it up!

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  2. That's exactly my problem; I've always felt very strongly that you should only write what you know. I even wrote an article about it: http://teralynpilgrim.blogspot.com/2012/04/how-do-you-write-what-you-know.html

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  3. I've heard that saying rephrased recently as "Write what you WANT to know." There's something to be said for willing to learn enough to immerse yourself and empathize. And I don't see male writers swearing off of writing from female POV just because they aren't female.

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  4. This is an excellent post, mostly because of how honest and open you are. Too many writers are afraid(?) to say, "I don't know enough to write about that time/circumstance/culture/race/orientation."

    I think I agree with Cynthia to an extent - write what you want to know. But if you're delving into a subject (whatever it is) you have limited knowledge of, do your research, get betas who have experience in the subject, and revise til your fingers bleed to get it right :)!

    You can do it!

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  5. I absolutely! Understand your post! If the shoe was on the other foot,I too would have this concern...being a black American. It is hard to write on a subject sometimes, when we have not walked that particular path. But even in your post I felt the passion that you have to tell the story...so tell it!
    If you still feel uneasy, get a little research done by going to the horse's mouth...aka..a black person, that may be able to give some insight on what racism feels like to them. I think you will do well, because as you stated 'I'll just have to do my best'...and isn't that all anyone can do.Blessings

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