Fiona Snyckers
Fiona Snyckers

White writers writing black characters – a form of literary blackface?

White South African writers who create black characters are often challenged about the authenticity of their writing. If their main protagonist is black, this challenge intensifies, and if they write in the first person, it intensifies further. There is something particularly intimate about first-person narrative. It gets under the skin of the character in a way that third-person seldom achieves.

Blackface

When white writers are questioned about this issue, their reactions range from the exasperated to the downright tetchy. Why is this tired old issue being raised again, they seem to wonder. Has it not already been answered a thousand different times in a thousand different ways? But the question won’t lie down and die.

The standard liberal response is that fiction by its very nature is an exercise of the imagination. Writers make imaginative leaps all the time to create the characters they populate their fictional worlds with. Some would argue that gender is actually a greater gap to cross than race, but no one ever criticises male writers for creating female characters, or vice versa.

Taking this prohibition to its natural conclusion, no writer would ever be permitted to create a character outside of his or her precise social, political, racial, cultural, economic, religious, and gender circumstances. This would obviously be undesirable, and lead to boring, one-dimensional books. Therefore writers should be left in peace to create whatever characters they like.

This argument is in many ways irrefutable. Yet the uncomfortable suspicion remains that for a white South African writer to create a black, first-person protagonist is somehow inauthentic — a form of literary blackface.

Blackface is a term originating from the days of minstrel shows when white performers would blacken their faces with burnt cork to play African-American music. Today it is used as a kind of shorthand to refer to cultural appropriation of the most offensive and artificial kind.

Black stories are best told by black writers — this needs to be said. Whites already dominate nearly every aspect of South African cultural life, so for them to be putting words into the mouths of black characters seems like an act of arrogance.

It’s worth turning to the US for guidance in this regard since they are further along the road to normalising race relations than we are. Their civil rights movement happened in the 1960s, which gives them a 25 year head start on getting over institutionalised apartheid. In the first half of the 20th century, some of the greatest American writers created memorable black characters. Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Harper Lee come to mind.

Then the Black Consciousness movement rose to prominence and white writers were severely caned by the critics for attempting to speak in black voices. For two or three decades, very few of them tried again. More recently, it has become acceptable for white artists to depict blackness again, as novels like The Help and films like Django Unchained demonstrate. Kathryn Stockett and Quentin Tarantino hardly got off scot-free for their presumption, however, but the public outcry was more muted.

The trouble with giving white writers a free pass to ignore blackness forever is that they would be far too apt to take it, as Slate journalist Tanner Colby has pointed out. It’s much easier for them to stay safely on their side of the cultural divide. Less research is needed, and considerably less imaginative effort. It can’t be healthy for writers never to venture outside their comfort zones and that is certainly no way to build a vigorous local literary tradition.

As Zukiswa Wanner, one of South Africa’s most prominent young black writers, has said, “No-one should tell a writer when to write, what to write, how to write, where to write or indeed, who to write. It only ever becomes a problem if your character does not sound genuine to people of his/her demography, which is just a mark of bad cultural research or writing on the writer’s part and can’t be attributed to race.”

The message to South African writers seems to be to write what they like, but to do it mindfully, to do their homework, and to accept that the critics will probably have a go at them for it anyway.

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  • 21 Responses to “White writers writing black characters – a form of literary blackface?”

    1. Hector #

      Yep, what Zakiswa said.

      June 11, 2013 at 1:50 pm
    2. Catherine #

      The protagonist in your novels is a black woman. What were the challenges you faced? Would be interested to hear about your experience as a white South African writing about a black South African (from first person perspective, I think)

      For me, I feel like it is important to have more black characters in South African fiction – and not just minor characters. If you look at Young Adult novels (from all over), most protagonists are white. I have read that in the novels that do have non-white protagonists, publishers chose covers that depict someone whose race is deliberately ambiguous. Clearly publishers believe that white characters sell while non-white characters do not and that must change.

      June 11, 2013 at 2:01 pm
    3. Fiona Snyckers

      Catherine, this issue is at the forefront of my mind because it’s something I’m often challenged about, most recently in Franschhoek this year. My character is a mixed race, suburban girl with a fairly unique set of circumstances. I tried to follow my own advice of writing mindfully and doing my research properly in creating her. That said, I would hesitate to write in the first-person as an African girl or woman living in a township or in the rural areas. Until I had researched the character VERY carefully indeed, I would lack the confidence to write authentically in her voice.

      June 11, 2013 at 2:26 pm
    4. What is a Black or a White writer? Can a “Black” American who has never been to Africa write about a “Black” Taureg or Dogon with any authenticity?

      And can a “White” Icelander write about a “White” Australian with any authenticity either?

      June 11, 2013 at 4:25 pm
    5. You could argue, with much better logic, that women should not write about men, or men about women, because a man can’t know what it is to be a woman and vice versa. Jane Austen is criticised for leaving her male characters as unsubstantial and only fleshing out her female characters – but then she was a good writer because she wrote about what she knew about which was women, not men, as she was a single woman writing in an era when men and women lived segregated lives.

      June 11, 2013 at 9:20 pm
    6. Karney #

      I think one writer who has very successfully crossed the gender and race divide is Alexander Mcall Smith. His portrayal of a black African woman is all the more remarkable because he is Scottish ; but his love and understanding of human nature and character shines through.

      June 11, 2013 at 11:21 pm
    7. Being a writer, Zukiswa has it right.

      June 12, 2013 at 2:29 am
    8. Recently I wrote a short story about a woman in a transracial relationship, and I *agonised* over how I portrayed her boyfriend, as well as the issues they faced within the narrative. So much so that I almost didn’t submit the story for the call for subs. Plainly put, as white South African author, I’m almost too scared to write people people of other races into my fiction yet by equal measure know that to not do so is inauthentic to my own experiences. So yes, I try to do so sensitively.

      Part of me doesn’t want to dwell overly much on race in my fiction, yet I’ve found with some foreign publishers that they almost *expect* me as a South African author to treat racial issues in my fiction when I have other stories I want to tell.

      June 12, 2013 at 9:04 am
    9. Rachel Zadok #

      The ability to write characters with cultural differences from our own never seems to be questioned until the writer is white and the character black – it’s as if the ideas colonialism and apartheid spent so many years trying to convince us of – that white and black denotes a different species of being – have become ingrained. Writers create characters from different cultures all the time, but the difference between black and white is treated like something beyond culture and circumstance, a divide so difficult to overcome the research must be deeper and more thorough than for any other character. It perpetuates the idea of division; that we cannot sink below the surface and that our humanity is not shared by all.

      Also, 3rd person narrative is not so different from 1st person, unless you write in the authorial voice with no character P.O.V. Authorial voice is the most difficult to pull off, as you risk sounding distant and scientific – which brings about a whole new set of political problems.

      June 12, 2013 at 10:23 am
    10. @ Karney

      I agree with you about Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana books – I love them. ALL the characters are authentic, of all the genders, races, and classes and so is the culture.

      June 12, 2013 at 10:54 am
    11. Rachel Zadok #

      I have one final thought. As a writer, you’re not actually speaking for anyone other than yourself, using character as a vehicle to express your thoughts and emotions on subjects. The idea that we’re speaking for anyone else, that we’re the voice the people, or any person other than ourselves, is an arrogance writers should never aspire to.

      June 12, 2013 at 11:03 am
    12. Brent Meersman

      It IS hugely problematic! And a risk! In my novels esp Reports Before Daybreak (Umuzi 2011) and now Five Lives at Noon (due out next month) my lead characters are black and white, and I used to be vexed about the whole issue, but I didn’t feel I had a choice.

      Fortunately, black readers so far and black critics have been very generous to me. It was a huge relief, and I was over the moon when black MK veterans told me it rang true and they were really surprised.The only job a writer has is to convinve the reader.

      But, I think there is something else at work here that is even more important – the act of trying to imagine the Other. It’s that act of trying to understand, of putting yourself in another shoes, that is so important. It was important for me to write black characters as best I could. Yes, I did masses of research, and the characters are composites of real people I know. It is important that we make that stretch.

      The problem with SA is that we do not take the effort to find out about and read each other’s stories. So Reports attracted a readership who wanted Frans’s border war SADF story, but they had no choice but to read the Mfundi MK narrative in the same book. I got a lot of that kind of feedback … “I didnt know those things” form readers who came for one reason and discovered new narratives. I’m really tired of the apartheid in our fiction, and that has prompted me to write the books I do.

      June 12, 2013 at 1:08 pm
    13. Thanks for this — and especial thanks to those who’ve commented, for their helpful reflections.

      June 12, 2013 at 2:36 pm
    14. Sandile Memela
      sandile memela #

      It does not matter whether you are black or white, you should feel free to write what you like. Essentially, I agree with the sentiments expressed.
      I know that I will be accused of generalization but this point needs to be made.
      But the catch is that while blacks lives in theeirn own and other white world and thus gain deeper insight and udnerstanding of whiteness or its anthropology, whites are limited to their white world and have superficial understanding of the black experience and reality. They rarely are exposed to it. Thus whites are, largely, one-dimensional, predictable or very limited. This is because they do not crisss-cross between the white and black worlds.
      So, what can they say about the socalled black experience.
      @ fiona I am disappointed to learn that you think supremacist and capitalist America has “gone further … in normalizing races relations than we are.” I would love for you to unpack that statement. Above all, I would like for you to look at the strides made to reverse apartheid legacy in the last 20 years or so.
      You see, in South Africa whites have a sense of belonging and are at home. I am not sure that blacks in America are feeling at home and have a sense of belonging. So, what do you mean that Americans have gone further than us? Just because they have a black president? Well, so do we?

      June 14, 2013 at 11:06 am
    15. Pete Mills #

      It is simplistic and extremist to attempt to ban whites from attempting to identify with black experience in art. It is reductive to dismiss all such instances as racist blackface.

      June 17, 2013 at 5:05 pm
    16. Jozi #

      I agree that one cannot stay within one’s own cultural frame of reference and write well. And inauthentic work will ultimately be shown to be so. But what about cultural ventriloquism- speaking on behalf of those who either genuinely cannot represent their own narratives for some reason or other (perhaps they are stymied by poor education) or out of lack of opportunities (publishing ones included) – should one not tread carefully out of respect for an obvious imbalance, brought about by an imbalanced past, like say Bantu or gutter education?

      Still, i think writers must write and the best among you get it right, especially when it is out of a genuine desire to understand the other. But some get it very wrong like Pamela Jooste’s Dance with a Poor Man’s Daughter, still held up by many as a good novel, but it was utterly inauthentic to anyone who knew the people she attempted to anthropologise. Which brings me to the question of opportunism and attempting to mine new “markets”. Fiona — I put down your book (in the store) when Trinity dismissed apartheid as something she was so over. Really? I have only ever heard white people say this — apartheid still sits beneath the skins of most, if not all black folk, irrespective of their generation. I am also quite disappointed to hear Andrew say what he does about apartheid writing. How can either of you represent the other when you fail to understand this most obvious premise? Are Jews so over the holocaust too? No didn’t…

      June 25, 2013 at 8:53 pm
    17. Jozi #

      Apologies I meant I am disappointed in Brent Meersman claiming to be tired of apartheid in our fiction. Your intentions seems to be real in understanding the other, but my statement stands — are Jews tired of the holocaust in their fiction? You both misunderstand something quite fundamental and primal to your fellow citizens.

      June 25, 2013 at 8:58 pm
    18. Rob Boffard #

      This is a total non-issue. It’s moronic.

      Zukiswa Wanner has it right. A character either rings true or not. A good writer should not let gender, race or anything else be a hindrance to that.

      Should I not write a black character because I’m a white South African? Should I hell. I don’t get to pick who the character wants to be or what they look like – to suggest that my making a character black is a form of “literary blackface” is so ridiculous it makes me want to vomit.

      And by the way – should I then avoid writing Asian/Indian/Hispanic characters too? Because I don’t have their experiences? Should my female half-Maori protagonist in my manuscript be rewritten as a white woman? Sod off. No, seriously, sod off.

      I didn’t expect this piece to make me as angry as it did. At least you inspired a reaction.

      June 30, 2013 at 8:05 pm
    19. plaintain1 #

      I didn’t think it was possible for white authors to write about black people. I thought it arrogant and patronizing until I started to read books by Nadine Gordimer, Coetzee, Christopher Hope and Damon Galgut. I was amazed at the sensitivity and level of understanding of precisely what the African had experienced. i believe that when you possess such an acute understanding and empathy then you have a right to convey that to readers. When you don’t, it shows.

      December 25, 2013 at 1:06 am
    20. @Rob

      …and hyperbolic reaction it was.

      April 16, 2014 at 7:46 am
    21. Biff #

      Writing the thoughts and character of an Other should be an exquisitely painful and educational experience. It carries with it the privilege that, if you have gotten it right, for a properly developed character and not a clapboard caricature, you have had to step through the looking glass through which you view other cultures/races and view the world ( including your own world) through their looking glass.
      To me at least, this is a path to functional humanity ( and certainly humility, once you view your own world through the eyes of an Other): few of us are required to force ourselves to it, and fewer still do it by choice. To write authentically of an Other , you have do this, and a measure of your success will be the critical response. To write in this way is to be privileged to grow and not diminish through your art – against that should not be measured the offence to your ego of critics, if you get it wrong.

      September 18, 2014 at 6:53 pm

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