Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Color of My Words

White is something just like black is something. Everybody born on this earth is something and nobody, no matter what color, is better than anybody else.  
                                                        - Mildred D. Taylor, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

In her article "Supporting Diversity, Supporting All Our Children," author Suzanne Morgan Williams hits upon a topic I find uncomfortable, to be very honest... that in our increasingly diverse society, children of color need to read about protagonists and supporting characters who reflect themselves - share their skin color, celebrate their holidays, speak their language.  As a reader, as a mother, as a teacher, I agree.  If we are to assure that our children grow up to become a nation of readers, it is vital that all children see themselves as the hero of their own story.  

As a writer, however, I am deeply conflicted.

I am a white Catholic woman of Polish, Ukrainian, British, and (possibly) Scottish background.  My son has the added seasoning of Czech and Slovak blood, thanks to my immigrant husband.  Growing up, however, a white girl in a largely white school in a largely white town, I longed to be Something Else.  I wasn't Irish, Italian, or any of the other flag-waving nationalities that had holidays or cuisines to celebrate.  Instead, I got "dumb Pollock" jokes.  The British in my lines petered out when my grandmother's birth records were destroyed in a town hall fire, so I've no idea if my forebears were squires or soldiers, farmers or felons.  I'd love to know if I do have Scottish blood, and if so, what clan I could trace myself to - but my fledgeling attempts at genealogy have foundered on that rock before.

A child of the seventies, I wanted to have Black Pride.  As I learned of the rich heritage of our Hispanic neighbors and the strong family ties of Asian-Americans, I wished for that, too.  White, I decided, was boring.  Plain vanilla.  Just my luck - I was even that most dull and dolorous of whites, the brown-haired and brown-eyed white girl.  I didn't often see myself in books as a child... redheads, sure, and blondes aplenty; later, chapter books extolled the strong female protagonist's "emerald eyes" or "flashes of violet and sapphire" when she blinked.  It wasn't until Disney made Beauty and the Beast that one of the fairy tale princesses looked even marginally like me, and I was an adult by then... now, all we need is someone to write a plump and cuddly heroine, and I'll be satisfied.  (I've got a sweet and roly-poly werewolf kindergarten teacher set aside for the right book, if the story ever presents itself.)

With all this in me, I would dearly LOVE to help The Cause - I think of the children of color I have known and, in my own way, loved; Kimberly, whose skin was the color of perfect coffee, who flung herself into my arms my second year as a counselor at her day camp, whose long legs propelled her faster than any of the boys, who became what I see as I teach Mildred D. Taylor's books to my white students today.  Keisha, tall and stocky, a girl who held herself with pride and told me, after our writing class had experimented with religious meditation, that while she couldn't tell me what had transpired in her mind, that she was filled with a sense of peace and knew that everything would be All Right.  There's only one problem.

I'm white.  Plain vanilla, again. 

With my picture books, it's easy.  I don't have to create a child of any particular race - my narrator is my narrator, and it's up to whatever illustrator takes the work to cast the skin tones of the story-people.  Mostly, I write about animals - I'm more comfortable that way (did I mention that I went through an "I wish I was Native American" phase, too, because I wanted to claim the Raven and Coyote tales as part of my bloodright?)  But as I begin working on chapter books... how can I do justice to children of color?  I don't know what it's like to be black any more than I know what it's like to be a giraffe - but the giraffe community is unlikely to take offense if I get it wrong.  I speak only a few halting words of Spanish myself; how can I convey, in rich prose, the intricacies of a tightly-knit Hispanic family, let alone any of the myriad sub-communities of Peruvian, Puerto Rican, Costa Rican, Brazilian families?  And heaven help me, while I would LOVE to be able to write a strong, dynamic Korean or Chinese girl - or a dreamy, poetic Iroquois boy - I wouldn't have the faintest idea where to start.

I admire Rick Riordan - his Olympus and Kane Chronicles series are alive with a vibrant rainbow of dynamic multicultural characters of every skin tone, ethnic background, and socioeconomic level.  They're all bound together by magic, however - and their demigod status trumps their mortal cultures; few people even notice, once they've found their way to Camp Halfblood or Camp Jupiter.  It's the outside world that notices... the outside world where race matters.  Even the Greek and Roman gods, the Egyptian deities have a wide range of physical appearance; Thanatos is described as something like an angel with skin "the color of teak wood."  I'm not sure I could do the same... I'd feel like I was making a character a particular ethnicity because I should, not because that's the form the character took in my mind when he or she first spoke in my mind.

I'm not even sure, in my genre, if race is really an issue... in a picture book, there are a multitude of characters; why not have a rainbow of skin tones?  In a novel, is it truly necessary for the first-person protagonist to consider her ethnic heritage, if it really doesn't play a role in the book?  Sometimes, I can definitely see the benefit of shaking things up and making a character ethnically diverse - part of me, in fact, was just thinking that if Chuck Dixon had REALLY wanted to reboot the G.I. Joe characters, he might have considered making Snake Eyes black.  That would certainly have made the character his own, and would have given a nod to a military that is significantly African-American; it would also have given a certain timeliness to his relationship with Irish-American Shana O'Hara, aka Scarlett.

But so far, my own characters haven't tromped into my mind announcing a particular country of origin... the humans have been very much like me, children of the suburbs, usually with intact parental pairs.  Most are geeks, outcasts, and a few are rather more than skin and bones (nobody talks about letting characters reflect the dimensions of American youth, I've noticed).  But if I had to stop and think about it, their skin would be, like mine, white.  I suppose that I could make it another color... but it would feel forced, artificial.  Very much "see, I am creating a character of color to better represent the diversity of our nation's young readers."  Something in me balks at that.

And I'm not sure if that's wrong.  All my life, the advice I've been given is "Write what you know" - or, later, "Learn more so you can write about what you know."  That works well for plots and scaffolding... but characters?  I'd be terrified of offending someone.  One of the first picture book drafts to go permanently under the bed was a fairy tale called "Bobby No-Legs and the Dragon," about a boy in a wheelchair who wanted to become a knight:

Bobby No-Legs had no legs.  He was just born that way.  Most of the time, nobody thought much of it - Bobby got around just fine, thank-you-very-much, in a Wonderful, Terrific, Spectacular, and Very Blue Chair With Wheels that his father had built just for him.  He could race and he could play ball; he could sing and he could imitate the sound that a rooster makes when he gargles before crowing the sun awake in the morning.  He was wonderful at reading and math, he was pretty good at art and cooking, and he was downright awful at knitting and crocheting (but he didn't mind that so much).  He played at being a fierce pirate with his friends Sean and Kevin.  He pretended to be an ogre to frighten Lucy and Marian.  Sometimes he was even a wild, wild wolf who howled at the moon with his wild, wild dog Bump.

But what Bobby No-Legs wanted to be most of all was a knight.

But I never got past the draft phase, because I had horrible visions of groups of differently-abled people protesting that I, a woman with legs that work pretty well, thank-you-very-much, would DARE to write a story about someone whose legs, well, didn't.  How can I know, how can I possibly know, what that feels like?  And suppose that the very idea of calling a character Bobby No-Legs was found to be insulting (despite the fact that, in the medieval-style world of the story and in reality, most people got their surnames from their professions, habitations, or physical features)?    Since I've got a hide about as thick as an onion skin, I really didn't want to find out.

Right now, the picture book I'm working on falls outside the realm of race entirely... NINGERBILS! certainly does have characters of color; one is black and white spotted, one is a sort of golden brown called "agouti" to those who know such things, and one is white and black spotted (I need to stay within what's genetically feasible for a litter of gerbils, you see - as a retired show gerbil breeder, I do Know These Things).  There is a human, of course, in the background - and I suppose I could very well, in my illustrator notes, describe him as Pakistani... or make her a vibrant young African American.

Or I could let my words color themselves, and leave it entirely up to the artist who takes the job.

That, I think, appeals to me most of all.

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