Wishful Thinking Won’t Get Us There (But This Will)

Susan DeFblack history month, fictionLeave a Comment

people standing and overlooking a mountaintop

It’s Black History Month, y’all,

 so it seems a fitting time to talk about the change we need to see in the world.

Specifically, the change we need to see in our characters.

I write–and talk!–a lot about character arc. Over at Traci’s Skuce‘s Write Your First (or Next!) Book Summit, I shared why I consider character arc the heart of story. And over at Jane Friedman’s blog this month, I noted that the strongest, most emotionally compelling character arcs tend to be based on the author’s own experience.

But there’s something I wanted to share with you here behind the scenes, and that’s this: A lot of writers have a hard time owning their own personal growth, and that of the people they love.

Which is to say, a lot of White writers imagine White characters acting in enlightened ways on race that…realistically, they probably would not.

Here I’m talking about the privileged child who, nearly from birth, has empathized with people of color.

I’m talking about the White mom in the 1950s South who has no anxieties or objections about her son marrying a Black woman.

I’m talking about the White YA protagonist who exhibits nothing but unbridled cultural sensitivity toward her Latina best friend.

The worlds we create in fiction are in many ways idealized, and that’s part of the fun. But we do ourselves and others a disservice when we deny the hard truths of reality–and deny the growth we ourselves, and those we love, may have gone through.

I think this is particularly important when it comes to the ways we portray race, and the consciousness of race. Because it’s in modeling growth, not perfection, that we make that kind of growth feel safe for our readers.

That means, instead of depicting White characters who exhibit wholly enlightened attitudes, we depict them as people in the process of change.

That privileged child may have been a lot like any other privileged child, unquestioning of what she’d been taught or absorbed about race, until confronted with a situation of injustice that awoke her empathy.

That Southern mom may have had to fall in love with her grandkids before she could see how wrong she was to try to keep their parents apart.

And that YA protagonist might mix up the Virgin Mary with the Virgin of Guadeloupe, or her bestie’s godmother with her grandmother, and have to be set straight.

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve seen the promised land.”

I think we can see it too, now more than ever: The hope and promise of a genuinely egalitarian society.

But to actually get there as a culture, and as individuals, we need to climb. And rather than Instagram-worthy pictures of the summit, I think what we could really use right now are some detailed trail maps that will take us there.

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