The Pulse: When White Writes Black & the Politics of Narrative Ownership

Sometimes, stepping outside of the world of film allows us to bring fresher perspectives back to it.  So, how about Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, the eighth novel from the Pullitzer Prize winner, about a black couple and a white couple who live in the Bay Area (here’s a digestable NPR synopsis/interview)?  Among generally positive reviews, there exists a realm of awkwardness/distrust/skepticism of a white author writing about black characters, which Slate’s Tanner Colby[i] takes head on in his piece “Can a White Author Write Black Characters?” with the tagline “Michael Chabon says yes.  And he’s right.  This shouldn’t be controversial.”

The piece (you should go and read the whole thing) is as interesting for its treatment of Chabon’s book as it’s rough outline of the historical moments in the conversation on narrative production and ownership (for example, William Styron’s –he’s white – 1967 Confessions of Nat Turner and the ensuing work William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond).

Here’s an interesting quote from Chabon in Colby’s article, speaking about his MFA program at UC-Irvine:

If a white member of the workshop wrote something from the point of view of an illegal Guatemalan immigrant—as I recall someone did—there were some people who said there were issues of cultural imperialism involved in doing that, that you shouldn’t do that. I understand it politically. I understand the historical context, completely. Artistically, I don’t understand it at all. Because if I can’t write from the point of view of a black woman nurse-midwife, then I can’t write from anybody’s point of view. That’s why I do this. I use my imagination to imagine myself living lives I don’t live and being people who I’m not.

Colby crafts an argument that runs along the same grain, but warns of that even politically (using the same art/politics distinction as Chabon), there is a destructive element to binding narrative production to experience:

If you convince white people that they’re not qualified to tackle race, if you scare them away from the issue, if you give them the slightest excuse to ignore it, they will be more than happy to ignore it. For as long as you’ll let them.

I’m reminded of recent chatter in the world of film, particularly about Beasts of the Southern Wild.

bell hooks’ recent critique of Beasts of the Southern Wild published on NewBlackMan runs counter to the generally positive and encouraging reviews (not just any reviews, but reviews cognizant of wider racial politics) of the film wherein a white director takes on a black narrative.

To be fair, hooks’ critique is not directed at the whiteness per se of the film’s makers (director Behn Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Aliba), but at “a crude pornography of violence” centered around “the continuous physical and emotional violation of the body and being of a six year old black girl,” which hooks traces to a particular history of white supremacy in images, narratives, and myths.  hooks maintains that the film is grounded in old racist stereotypes (the strong black woman inscribed on Hushpuppy, the hard badass black man in Wink, among others), and states:

Ultimately this film expresses a conservative agenda.  Before audiences had a clue about its content, the notion that it was somehow a radical response to Katrina circulated.  But there is nothing radical about the age-old politics of domination the movie espouses.

Compare that to the comments of Andre Wood (author of Slave Cinema)about Beasts of the Southern Wild in Shadow & Act:

I believe that we, as an African-American audience and as critics and scholars, must reclaim and celebrate the previously neglected films made by race traitors[ii], as well as, come to grips with those current and future films like BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD or Tarantino’s upcoming DJANGO UNCHAINED because if we summarily dismiss these works as simply white appropriation of our culture/history or exploitation we are missing the richness of the social critique within the films and the opportunities such films provide to break the entrenched stereotypes (Bogle’s pentad of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks) within Hollywood cinema.

I think that the parties central to the imagined conversation constructed here (bel hooks, Andre Wood, Michael Chabon, and Colby Tanner) would agree that far too much media privileges the narratives of white men concerned about white man-ness and would love a media landscape the narratives of all bodies.  The debate, and it’s an important one (whether it’s named or, worse, assumed) centers around the query: what happens when white men concern themselves with things other than white man-ness?


[i] Tanner Colby is the author of Some of My Best Friends Are Black, which looks like a pretty interesting and skeptical treatment of the new(er) discourse of post-raciality from a white perspective.

[ii] Wood uses the term ‘race traitors’ in a very particular way – his own – that he’s probably a lot better at explaining than I am (I’m unsure of the term’s efficacy); here’s Wood explaining the term in a quote from his book, in the original S&A blog post (he also goes further in depth about the term, and it’s pretty interesting):

“To begin with, I do not use the phrase “race traitor” in its negative or pejorative sense, but instead I use it as an emblem of a certain kind of selfless artistic heroism that honors an individual white filmmaker’s sacrifice of immediate commercial interests in the effort to shift narrative focus from whites to African-Americans within a film.  As a consequence of this shift of narrative focus and sacrifice of commercial interests, the resultant film elicits a penetrating social criticism that extends beyond the circumstances presented and casts doubt upon the values and prejudices of the spectator, both white and black alike, who observe those circumstances”

About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

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