Skip to content

Can A White Author Get Inside a Black Character’s Head?

I tread lightly entering today’s topic, but it’s one that I can’t help but ask.

And it’s this exact topic that fueled a lot of the controversy surrounding William Styron when he won the Pulitzer for The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1968.

It’s simply this: What would an older, southern white man in the 1960s know about the mindset of a young black slave in the 1830s?

Remember, Styron is writing in the first person. The narrator IS Nat Turner, the leader of a slave rebellion. To write from that point of view had to be an unbelievably difficult task. He’s simply telling the story as an outside narrator, or even a Nick Carraway-style observer. Styron, as Nat, is the narrator.

Styron explained his thought process in a piece written by The Library of Congress:

“When I began The Confessions of Nat Turner in the summer of 1962 … Martin Luther King was offering the hand of fellowship to the American community, preaching reconciliation, amity and anti-dischord. In the evolution of a revolution, 1967, when it was published, was a time of cataclysmic change in the United States. ‘Black power’ reared its head, and when it pounced, it pounced partially on my book. I was especially lacerated and hurt that it was labeled racist. That was hard to take for a writer who attempted to expose the horrors and evils of slavery.” He spoke of trying to figure out Turner’s motivation. “It was a powerful book that satisfied my ideal for a novel.”

His voice wavering audibly for the only time during the discussion, he added: “Basically it is a very politically incorrect book written by a white man trying to seize his own interpretation and put it into the soul and heart of a black man.”

The last sentence is interesting. I haven’t though of Confessions as being “politically incorrect,” but I think that’s a great description. Styron is attempting something you just don’t often see attempted.

And I have to say that, at times, he doesn’t pull off the narration. More on this to come in my review, hopefully soon.

But, in the meantime, what do you think—was the criticism toward Styron wrong or justified?

Advertisements
19 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’d have to admit that I don’t know the book, and I don’t know the criticism, so I can’t pass direct comment, but I can comment on the question you pose in the title.

    Why not? I’m a white, 50 year old male, currently single. My female characters tend to be more believable than my male ones. I have no issue with writing Black, Asian, Male, Female, Shemale, or Martian characters so long as I can do them justice. (Though, to be fair, I’ve known far fewer Asians and I worry I stereotype them a little.) I don’t write Black/Asian/Martian characters anyway, I write characters with a background.

    Now, “Confessions” seems to be trying to make a political point, and I usually actively avoid those. Maybe there are other ways the book could have been written from a viewpoint closer to the author’s experience. On the other hand, he won a Pulitzer for it so presumably he did a reasonable job… I guess I should let you judge that.

    Um… I think the point I’m trying to get across is that describing something as racist (or sexist) because it’s one type of person trying to understand and write as another, is racist (or sexist). Don’t be the thing you hate, folks, and let the poor white guy try to understand his neighbours.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 16, 2014
  2. I think it’s a bit harsh to label it racist simply because he was writing from a point of view that was not his own. Given the volatile political climate of the time one might actually describe his efforts as commendable. Of course you get things wrong when you try new things, and of course we hope that authors will make the effort to research and to be realistic, and not perpetuate stereotypes… but I always think that when the effort is made to understand another person’s life with good intention, it should not be denounced.

    Liked by 2 people

    October 16, 2014
  3. I think the criticism is absolutely warranted. It’s not a warning for white writers to not write characters of color – that is a good, necessary, and long overdue thing. But it is a warning for white writers to do their damn research. That doesn’t just mean reading some history books. It means actively engaging with current literature on racism, class, and privilege. It means vetting the book to people of color you trust (and who a. hopefully trust you and b. are really WILLING to vet it – it’s no POC’s job to teach a white writer about race). There’s a learning curve and white people need to tackle it head on.

    There’s also the problem of white people appropriating POC stories for financial gain. Often, these stories have already been told in a far more authentic and meaningful way by people of color. But because of the society we live in, a white man’s book is more likely to get media coverage and sales than just about anyone else. That’s a reality that white people need to take into consideration – is writing their book somehow silencing the voice of a person of color? If it is, then they’re not really “shedding light” on anything, be it slavery or any other evil. They’re just perpetuating our current systems of oppression.

    Liked by 3 people

    October 16, 2014
    • Out of interest, have you noticed your choice of words?

      The writer is “white” and he’s writing about “people of colour.”

      Writing anything always sheds more light on the writer than it does about their subject. Comments made from others in their review of writing often shed more light on the commentator than upon the work their are reviewing.

      Liked by 1 person

      October 16, 2014
      • Of course I noticed my choice of words. I also noticed yours – “shemale” is a highly offensive term and I hope to goodness you don’t actually write about transpeople if that’s how you speak of them.

        I fail to see your point.

        Liked by 3 people

        October 16, 2014
        • Yes. I know you fail to see my point. I expected you to.

          Like

          October 17, 2014
          • And damn me for feeling the need to defend myself, but… Given that you know nothing about my friends, family, or me, and you clearly have no idea what I write, I should not expect you to understand why you’ve insulted me. For the record, to date, I have not written in a transgender character, unless you count a hermaphromorphic alien, and I wouldn’t. Should I elect to do so, however, I think I would have sufficient experience to make a reasonable job of it.

            Like

            October 17, 2014
  4. What I’m wondering is this: Is there more license for writing outside of your own personal experience when writing historical fiction? If you’re writing a story that is set in the past before you were even alive, you are already entering territory that is beyond your personal experience. Mr. Styron was giving a voice to and telling the story of a man who had been dead for at least a century. I hope he did his research. I am curious to read this book now.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 16, 2014
  5. This is a very interesting question that I’ve just come across in reviewing ‘The Invention of Wings’ by Sue Monk Kidd. Oddly in thought I feel I don’t have much against it – all writers ever do is write someone else’s story after all – but in practice it did make me feel a bit uncomfortable.

    My post is here if you’re interested: http://booksforthetrees.com/2014/10/02/why-sue-monk-kidds-gripping-the-invention-of-wings-kept-me-reading-but-troubled-me-too/#more-274

    Like

    October 16, 2014
  6. rupakbanerjee #

    Now all of these comments and the post itself makes me want to read this. If I put it on my to read list…it’ll be a long time before i get to it. My rate of adding books there is so much more than the rate at which I am able to read through.

    Like

    October 16, 2014
  7. I think it’s a bit over the top to say it’s racist, sexist or whatever to write from a different point of view, after all unless your writing an autobiography you will be doing just that.
    However I can imagine that at the time tensions and emotions were running high so offence was easily taken. Not to mention that it was probably very controversial at the time but that is probably what got the book noticed and thus winning the Pulitzer.

    Whether or not one is able to write successfully from another’s perspective is down to a person’s skill and talent, plus their research.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 16, 2014
  8. It’s a tricky subject, but I just heard yesterday that in a recent interview, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said (and this is not a direct quote) she thought that women and ethnic minorities write better about their counterparts (i.e men and white people or whichever opposite is appropriate) than white men do about either. The contention was that unless you have experienced being the oppressed minority it is harder to write about them convincingly. She could have a point.

    Liked by 2 people

    October 16, 2014
  9. I haven’t read this book, so I guess I can’t really comment on how effectively Styron handles the character of Nat Turner, but if we really wanted to be as objective as possible about the book, why should it matter what color the author’s skin is? Naturally, as a white person living in the mid-twentieth century, he probably never experienced discrimination to the same degree that a black man of his generation might have (notice I said “probably”: you don’t know for sure), and in that way, perhaps he would be at a disadvantage when writing about a character who faced discrimination. But that’s what authors do: they try to live other people’s lives and record what happens. Shouldn’t his work be judged by its own merits, whoever the author may be? Isn’t a white man just as capable of projecting himself into another person’s mind as a black man?

    Liked by 1 person

    October 16, 2014
  10. Every writer who tries to write a character that is different from them facing this. Can a female writer create a male character? Can a male write create a female character? Can an adult writer create a child character? Can an earthman write as a Martian? Or can an actor portray Hamlet? Or Stalin? Or Hitler? I think that when we limit an artist as some would and say that you’re not that, then why not limit all art. For an artist not to explore areas where their imagination takes them seems to me very very sad. How are we to learn what others feel and experience if we don’t try to live in another’s skin. Maybe we won’t do this completely. But at least we try.

    Liked by 2 people

    October 16, 2014
  11. I read this post this morning, & I decided to let the concept marinate all day before posting my thoughts. Because, although I have not read the book in question, I have had the pleasure of reading plenty of books that are written by authors who write characters that are very, very far from who they are as people. & I think that’s awesome, & I think that there is no reason that can’t happen. It’s not discriminatory to write from a point of view that is not your own as long as you are writing from a place of knowledge. As long as it is well researched, accurate, well written information, I don’t see a problem with it. If a man wants to write from the POV of a teenage girl–Why not? If a middle/aged white woman wants to write from the POV of a Filipino nanny… Why not? Isn’t that the pleasure of creating literature, or at least part of it, anyway? Being somebody you’re not: Bringing a character to life through words. If everyone wrote only what they knew, literature would not be as rich as it is. At least, that’s my two cents.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 17, 2014
  12. To say a white author cannot narrate as a black man from another era is to say any author cannot narrate as any other character different to himself. Many writers over the centuries have written books narrated by a character starkly different to themselves, of a different era, gender, nationality etc . Why is it that when race is brought in this idea becomes baffling ? Are we not just all people who are all different ? Or is the only barrier and differentiating factor of people race? I struggle to understand how this is still a debatable topic today . The topic should rather question all authors in first person narrative, and not simply those whose narrator differs in race.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 17, 2014
  13. Howard Thomas #

    Robert,

    I grew up in the deep south at the tale end of segregation. This book had a prominent place on my father’s bookshelf. He and my mother grew up under some of the worst conditions imaginable for a black person. I never heard either one of them complain about the author being white. Rather they admired him for taking on the story of Nat Tuner because they thought it needed to be told. Nat Turner was a hero in my neck of the woods. Would you argue Faulkner didn’t nail Dilsey in The Sound and The Fury? That Carson McCullers didn’t nail Dr. Copeland in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter?

    All novels require imagination. Lie Down in Darkness features a character named Peyton who commits suicide. I don’t think Mr Styron ever successfully committed suicide, but from what I have read Styron nailed her too and gee he’s a man. Was Nabokov a pedophile? Was it wrong for Ralph Ellison to include white characters in The Invisible Man?

    I think the issue was black authors having a chance to tell their stories. We should not deny ourselves the musings of one of the great writers of the twentieth century because he is white and his character is black, nor should we deny ourselves his description of the disintegration of a family bemuse he is not a young woman who killed herself. What we need to do is to afford as many great writers an opportunity to tell their stories as possible. This for me is the real issue. Great writers of all stripes having their stories heard.

    Like

    October 17, 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The Praise And Criticism Of William Styron | 101 Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: