Zora Neale Hurston was an amazing African American author who wrote during the Harlem Renaissance. (Instead of African American, can I save time and write "black"? We're all Americans anyway, right?)
She recorded a lot of folklore and black tradition of the South and Haiti, which has been incredibly helpful to me in researching Voodoo Queen. She also wrote novels, her most famous being Their Eyes Were Watching God. In that book, I noticed something extraordinary.
There are no white people!
Why did this seem odd to me? It's because we focus so much on racism that we forget black people have rich cultures of their own. Often we make it seem like if white people ceased to exist, black people would have nothing to live for.
Zora Neale Hurston complained about this as well. She was against whites assuming "black lives are only defensive reactions to white actions." (Source unknown, since the afterword in Tell My Horse didn't provide one.)
It's tempting for me not to include racism in my book at all. Then I could focus on nothing but the amazing culture of New Orleans and the voodoo religion.
Not only would it be impossible to tell my story that way, but I would lose a fascinating and empowering aspect of that history. For example, during Spanish rule a law was passed that forced black women to wear head dresses called "tignons" to make them less attractive.
Women outnumbered men three to one in New Orleans at the time, so most white men had black mistresses. The powers that be wanted to prevent this practice.
But this had the opposite effect. Black women started wearing brightly colored tignons tied into fancy knots until they grew famous for them. Tignons became a mark of beauty.
I decided one of the main themes of the novel should be the hunger for self-expression contrasted with the universal impulse to assimilate everyone else into our own way of thinking.
With that theme in mind, I can depict racism as well as the culture we seem to forget. When I write about voodoo practitioners being arrested for performing ceremonies, I would of course describe the ceremonies being shut down. When I write about the dancing in Congo Square becoming outlawed, I would first show the dances and explain why having them was so important.
The whole time, I'll ask the question: Why do people care so much about what others do? I'll show the frustration of being contained when all you want to do is be yourself. And, since there were many white voodoo believers, I can extend the idea past racial lines into a statement about humanity itself. After all, every human being has experienced this struggle.
(I have the same opinion regarding school uniforms, but getting into that would take a whole article.)