Friday, September 28, 2012

What We Forget When Writing About Racism

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.)


  1. "Why do people care so much about what others do?"

    A question I ask myself every day!

  2. Good post and I agree with most of it, except this:

    (Instead of African American, can I save time and write "black"? We're all Americans anyway, right?)

    No, we aren't all Americans. (And not all blacks originate from Africa.) Canadians, including me, don't like to be dismissed as just another part of the US. I'm not angry; it's a common mistake Americans make. But I thought you should be aware, while you're trying to avoid cultural biases.

    I'm interested in your take on racism because my historical novel also touches on this a bit. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. You're right, Barb.

    Readers: Canadians are not Americans; they are Canadians.

  4. I personally prefer black as a black person. There's a joke that Chris Rock does (apologize in advance for the language):

    "Every time I hear white people say, African American. I wanna say did you just call me a Nigg@!"

    For those of us that are black, this is funny because we don't call ourselves or each other AAs, it's something thrust upon us by others. Also, whites don't usually call themselves Caucasian or British American/Irish American/etc. so it smacks of racism that our Americanism must be prefaced with a country that most of us do not have a physical connection to.

    Also, some blacks are not African American, the African Diaspora is huge, so some blacks are Latino, Caribbean, British, etc.


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