Should the Experiences of People of Color/Minorities Be Written By Authors Who are Not From the Same Background?


Publication Date: January 1, 1960
Publisher: Signet (For this edition)
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir
Page Count: 192 (In this edition)

In the Deep South of the 1950s, journalist John Howard Griffin decided to cross the color line. Using medication that darkened his skin to deep brown, he exchanged his privileged life as a Southern white man for the disenfranchised world of an unemployed black man. His audacious, still chillingly relevant eyewitness history is a work about race and humanity-that in this new millennium still has something important to say to every American.

Now I know I don't talk much about nonfiction on this book blog, but this a whole different species.

Should the Experiences of People of Color/Minorities Be Written By Authors Who are Not From the Same Background?

Now if you have not read this book, please do, but for those of you who haven't, here are the basics. The author, John Howard Griffin, became interested in exploring the experiences of living as a black man in the Southern U.S. during the 1950s, so he used medicine to darken his skin color. And the result you ask?...Well, we will go ahead and just categorize it as not fun.

But we already would guess this right? If you don't at all understand how blacks have been treated up to this day in the American society, let anti-racism activist and educator, Jane Elliott explain it simply...

But we will leave the discussion of racism at large in America for another day and focus on authors in particular, as well as the books they write.

Ben Winters is the author of the new sci-fi thriller novel, Underground Airlines, which New York Times in their article described the premise as

"A bounty hunter named Victor tracks fugitives for the United States Marshal Service. But his mission, like his past, is complicated: The people he's chasing are escaped slaves. Their main crime is rejecting a life of forced servitude. And Victor himself was once one of them."

I will be honest and say that premise sounds pretty intriguing. Mind you, this is no low key book. Even though it came out this month in July 2016, it already has a TV adaptation coming soon. When reading this same New York Times article that is titled, In His New Novel, Ben Winters Dares to Mix Slavery and Sci-Fi, I was initially very irritated by the idea of this man's book and even more by a statement made by popular Fantasy novelist Lev Grossman who claimed,

"This is a white writer going after the questions of what it's like to be black in America. It's a fearless thing to do."

As an African American myself, some of you can probably just imagine my reaction: "Fearless? Are you serious??? Try living it on the daily and then we can see who's fearless."

Let's just say I got quite of worked up, and I know for a fact that I was not the only one.You might have seen the mixed reactions if you happened to be on Twitter around the time this article came out. I sat in my room fully irked over what I had read until my eyes landed upon one of the best books I have ever read on my shelf, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. This book does exactly what is said to be done in Ben Winter's book: explore what it is like to live as an African-American in America. The most crucial part is that they are both written by non-black authors. Yet, I condemn one and praise the other. Trust me. I am not blind to the obvious differences between the books of these two authors.

But even still...By being against a book like Ben Winters', am I claiming authors should only write about characters that come from the same background as them? Does this mean only the mentally ill should write characters with mental illnesses or even only teens should write about experiencing life as an average teenager? OF COURSE NOT. I mean it helps, but it is definitely not a requirement, nor do I think it should be a requirement. One thing that it can be is worrisome.

It is perfectly justifiable that people, especially those in the minority, should be a bit apprehensive about authors from the majority depicting their characters whether it is fiction or nonfiction. Books can really butcher people's perspectives on a certain group of people. The fact of the matter is that there are some who learn how to empathize well with minority groups, but nobody (be it a minority or not) can ever understand an outside group's predicament until they have literally lived their life as part of that particular group. For many of us, this is just not possible because we only get the life we are born into in most cases, but unfortunately, this leaves room for racism, stereotypes, biases, and general misunderstandings. I would say a lot of these are done accidently with no motive of hurting the group in question, but it definitely does.

It's kind of like how explorers of the sixteenth century journaled about the natives in foreign lands as being savages, and thoroughly dehumanized them. Those descriptions are read by others and soon it is thought of as the norm when really the explorers failed to understand that just because others live a different lifestyle than what they are used to does not make them evil or devalue their existence.

The most we can do is plead with authors to DO THEIR RESEARCH! But on top of all that, please be respectful in your portrayals and realize your one Hispanic character in your newest contemporary romance novel is going to be viewed by some as a representation of the whole race and culture altogether whether this is accurate or not. So please, try to do the character some justice and at the very least put effort into making them authentic. Trust me when I say I get it. This can be a very challenging task, but for writers to try their best is all I can ask.

After reading Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, I can say that the author did his research and it is obvious he worked hard on portraying the truth as well as getting the truth out to the public, so a change could be made. I greatly applaud him on this and that is what makes Black Like Me an iconic novel that anyone should read.

As for Underground Airlines by Ben Winters, I have not read this novel and cannot accurately state my opinions on its quality and message until I have. For now, I will try and give Ben Winters the benefit of the doubt, and I hope his novel is honestly as great as the media has made it out to be. As for his fearlessness, you won't see me fully agreeing with that statement, but I will admit his novel is unconventional and has obvious potential.

But in conclusion, I would like to emphasize something known as Own Voices here in the book community where minorities write about characters just like them in order to explain their real struggles and ways of living. These books are a necessity to make sure there are always accurate depictions of minorities in books, and publishers as well need to try hard to let these authors be heard. We as readers can also help by reading books like this and promoting them as much as we can. We cannot always wait on others to tell our stories for us, and one day we must actually share our own stories ourselves.

Thank you for reading this discussion and of course, I want to hear your thoughts and opinions. I have a few questions for you guys.

Have you heard about Ben Winters' book and how do you feel about it?
Have you read Black Like Me or do you want to read it in the future?
How do you feel about authors writing about characters that are both from same or different backgrounds as them?


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