When I was a child, I wanted to be a writer.
My reasons were not heroic. I did not initially see writing as a way for me to think about my role as an African immigrant in America. As a child, I did not fully understand how the lack of black heroes and heroines in the books I read affected my writing and my self-worth. For me, writing served was just a fun outlet.
Since I was never one to write about a princess and her prince, my early pieces dealt with “real kids” and their “real problems.” The main character of my first story—written at the tender age of 12—was Zoe, a blonde white female with blue eyes. Her life problems revolved around issues with the boy next door and her best friend—a classic love triangle. Looking back now, these “dramatic” problems were anything but.
As I grew, my characters’ struggles faced shifted from boyfriend stealing friend drama to deep issues concerning their families and personal identity. I began to explore pain, or at least what I thought was pain—which often left me with pieces saturated with staged drama and cringe-worthy emotional responses. While my writing continued to grow, my characters remained static. Despite their varied experiences, my characters stayed white females with eyes that I would often describe as “stunning pools of blue.”
In high school, I wrote a very short anthology, composed of three stories, for my best friend’s sixteenth birthday.
“I loved it!” she exclaimed a few days after I presented the gift to her. We were sitting in her apartment, listening to music and doing a lot of nothing. I beamed.
“But,” she said, “it frustrates me that all your characters are blonde, white and have blue eyes. Not everyone looks like that.”
Of course I knew that not everyone looked like that. I was shocked that my friend, who is white, had made this statement. While her comment certainly rubbed me the wrong way, I ignored it. Never before had I seriously thought about the race of my characters.
And why would I? Since I could remember, I had been fed a steady diet of literature about people who were white. All my favorite heroes and heroines in America’s classics were varying degrees of white. Rarely was there a character of color and if there was he or she acted as a supporting role to the white character’s life and adventures. As African immigrants raising two kids and trying to adjust to life in America, my parents did not have the time or the money to hand-pick books that would help shape my personal identity. To them, the fact that I could and wanted to read was more than enough.
When I was younger, my hero was Nancy Drew. Nancy represented the ideal to me. She was intelligent, charming, independent and beautiful. She was also white with blonde hair and blue eyes. Without realizing it, I began to associate these attributes with being white. I remember forcing my mother to straighten my hair for picture day in third grade because Nancy’s hair was often described as being styled in a blond, straight bob. As a role model, Nancy and her cast of supporting characters did not help increase my self-worth.
It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that this issue of race and writing resurfaced. It was time to workshop our last stories of the semester in my Creative Writing class and for the first time I was visibly nervous. The story I chose to submit was about Tyler, a black camp counselor, who is in love with Lily, a female camp counselor with blonde hair and blue eyes.
The racial undertones of this story were very obvious. By page three of the story, it was clear that Tyler struggled with his racial identity and that Lily represented the beacon of success—to obtain her love meant acceptance.
The workshop proceeded as normally. Instead of shock, people responded with positive comments on how I could better improve the racial themes of the story. My fear dissipated and I left the class feeling encouraged.
Fast-forward a year and I am sitting at my computer in Frist. A Facebook message from my friend pops up with a link to an article on Jezebel and colorful commentary: “Can you believe this shit?!”
Her anger was aimed toward Twitter’s reaction to the fact that Rue, Thresh and Cinna, three beloved characters in the Hunger Game trilogy, were black. Below I’ve picked out a few of my favorites:
“Why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie”
“Cinna and rue weren’t supposed to be black. Why did the producer make all the good characters black.”
“EWW rue is black? I’m not watching”
“Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad #ihatemyself”
After reading through the commentary and various reactions, I realized that even I had thought Rue was white in the novel. And while a part of this was due to a lack of close reading, it also never occurred to me that Rue could have been anything other than white.
I am not saying that I agree with the racist tweets, but I do understand why these people were disappointed that Rue was black. We live in a white America. An America that has normalized “white” and defined blackness as an “other” in various areas including film, the news, and the literary realm.
In fact, according to a study done by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center, only nine percent of the 3,400 children’s books published in 2010 contained significant cultural or ethnic diversity. Without realizing it, thousands of readers and I have internalized the “white as default” line of thinking.
The only times I can remember feeling inspired in my writing by the literature I read was in classes dealing specifically with “black literature.” For example, the spring of my freshman year I took a class surveying African-American literature from the Harlem Renaissance to present day. Despite how trite this sounds, it is true; the class inspired me. For the first time in my life, I had the opportunity to examine the lives and works of writers who not only looked like me but also wrote about their daily experiences through an ethnically diverse cast of characters. Twice a week, for fifty minutes, the alien feeling that often tugged at me was quieted.
Being a part of a white literary tradition, my introduction to characters such as Gunnar Kaufman in Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle and Beneatha Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun were anomalies. I was surprised that the characters in these books were not criminals or sassy supporting roles – instead they had dreams, fears and a story that needed to be told. Like the white characters, they struggled with complicated issues of identity, family and love. However, like me, they had the added the complexity of race.
Our nation is doing itself a disservice by not attempting to introduce more books that deal with a racially diverse ensemble of characters into our school curricula. I should not have to continuously seek out an elective class to have my self-worth validated.
Today, I still want to be a writer. However, writing is no longer just a fun outlet for my feelings—instead I am more aware of the necessity for characters of color. My stories and their characters have evolved to include not just diverse characters but to make sure that they have diverse experiences.
Who knows, perhaps if I had been exposed to characters who looked more like me, Zoe would have been an African-American girl with deep chocolate eyes and long braids.