Monday, August 22, 2016

Review of July Write Brain with Jason Evans

By: AmyBeth Inverness

I recently edited out a reference to one character’s brown fingers being entwined with another character’s black. The setting was SciFi, in a community where one’s skin color was no more notable than one’s eye color. It was completely irrelevant to the story. I strive for diversity in my fiction, but sometimes that means ethnicity doesn’t matter.

I write SciFi and Romance. When I realized that the descriptors of my non-white characters all depended on a mention of skin color or eye shape, that bothered me. There is much more to ethnicity than physical appearance.

That’s why I anticipated July’s Write Brain presented by author and teacher Jason Evans, on Writing Authentic African-American Characters with great eagerness.  I want my characters to be authentic, and to have agency, not just act as an entourage for the white protagonist. A character without agency is one whose every word and action is performed for the sake of the protagonist. They have no form of their own.

Jason Evans was very easy to listen to. He began the presentation with an overview of African-American history, which shaped the community and made it what it is today. Most people know the very basics; black Africans and other unfortunate people were brought to the New World as slaves. Eventually, many nations realized that slavery was inherently wrong, and outlawed the practice. In the United States, conflict over whether or not slavery should be legal led to the Civil War. After the war, the South faced great hardship, largely due to the fact that so much of their economy was dependent on the practice of slavery.

In one hour, Mr. Evans brought light to many important points. Although blacks were not the only ethnic group to be enslaved, the obvious difference in their physical appearance made it easy for any casual observer to identify an individual as a slave. Generations after being freed, the African-American culture remained entwined with the culture of poverty as not only was there a cultural and social bias against them, laws were enacted for the sole purpose of oppressing African-Americans as a group. The culture of poverty has intrinsic consequences. The hopelessness and helplessness causes a person to be concerned with immediate needs instead of long-term planning. Provincialism is prevalent; people in poverty congregate together. They trust the people close to them, and separate from people who are different.

Within the African-American community, there are terms for people who have made their way out of poverty. Some of these terms are slurs, intended against African-Americans who are seen as having “given up their blackness.” An Oreo is a person who is black on the outside, but white on the inside. A BAP is a Black American Princess. The Black Bourgeois (or Bourgie) are African-Americans who are leaders in the community, control property, and possess wealth. They may be reviled by other African Americans, but not necessarily so. They can be elitist and obsessed with materialism, or they can be admired as leaders in the community and the nation.

Many African-American stereotypes exist in literature and film. The Numinous Negro, Mammy, The Noble Savage, The Jezebel or Mandingo, and The Sapphire, a sassy, strong woman who emasculates the men around her. All of those literary stereotypes are perfectly fine as characters... just as long as they have agency. This means, as secondary characters, they must put their agenda, their desires, before those of the white protagonist.

We write what we know. But if we limit our stories to the scope of our own experiences and identity, we are handicapped as writers. It is possible to write a murder-mystery without killing someone. I can write about life on the moon even though I’ve never been there. And white writers, like me, can write authentic African-American characters. It requires an active, inquisitive mind. Do the research. Learn about the culture and how it developed. Observe people. Talk to African-Americans about their experience and identity. Read what you’ve written, and judge whether your character is just there to support the white protagonist, or whether they have agency of their own.

Sometimes, ethnicity doesn’t matter. J.K. Rowling recently shrugged off criticism that Hermione would be played by a black actress. The characteristics that made her who she was had nothing to do with her physical appearance. In television and film, it is easy to either sprinkle in actors who possess certain non-white features, or to completely white-wash the whole thing. In literature, the character’s appearance is completely up to the author’s description. The challenge for the author, when writing an African-American character, is to ensure that the aspects that make the character who they are, beyond skin color, are reflected in the things they do, the words they speak, and the lives they live.

This past Spring I returned to Colorado after spending twenty years in Vermont, a state with little ethnic diversity. It has been so enriching for my family, and for me as a writer, to be back in a community with a rich and varied conglomeration of traditions, skin colors, languages, and cultural systems. I once felt alone as a writer, doing the work with little support. With Pikes Peak Writers I feel lifted up, buoyed by the camaraderie and friendship I have found with my fellow writers.

Jason Evan’s presentation left me wanting more, in a good way. He encouraged us to do further research, and offered a list of recommended reading and viewing. Two hours does not make us all experts in African-American characters with agency, but it does give us a starting point regarding the formation of secondary characters who speak and act like real people, not two-dimensional stereotypes. I hope Mr. Evans will speak to the writing community again, expanding on this or other topics.

Editor's Note: To learn more about Jason Evans, www.jason-evans.net

About the Author:  AmyBeth Inverness  is a writer by birth and a redhead by choice, She is a creator of Speculative Fiction and Romance. She can usually be found tapping away at her laptop, writing the next novel or procrastinating by posting a SciFi Question of the Day on Facebook and Google Plus. When she’s not writing, she’s kept very busy making aluminum foil hats and raising two girls, a cat, a dog, and one husband in their Colorado home.

You can find her on Facebook, Google Plus,Ello @USNessie, and Twitter @USNessie or check out herAmazon Author Page.