I’ve been writing fiction for a long time. Since I was ten. And since I was ten, my characters have always looked like me, black, even before I really know what it meant to write black characters in fiction. Especially in contemporary and urban stories. But recently, I’ve been reflecting on that means when I write.
I’ve been writing fiction for a long time. Since I was ten. And since I was ten, my characters have always looked like me, black, even before I really knew what it meant to write black characters in fiction. Especially in contemporary and urban stories. But recently, I’ve been reflecting on that means when I write.
I say this because in real like, as a black woman, being black is constantly with me. Sure it’s with me in obvious ways. The color of my skin, my kinky hair, big lips, etc., but it’s always with me in my thoughts and how I walk in the world. I’m very aware that in this law career that I’m currently embarking upon, some employers are going to pass me over because they won’t think my twist/braid outs or wash ‘n’ gos are neat and “professional.” They’re going to overlook me because I’m not afraid to talk about race and the injustices in the system of law that I’m being taught and that my teachers are trying to teach while balancing the thin line between trying to justify the law while at the same time being unable to deny how insane some of it is. When my 1L class was given the advice to clean up our social media or make them private because employers might look at them and dislike our opinions, I had to make the conscious decision to not hide who I am at the risk of an employer not hiring me.
And all of that’s okay with me. If an employer is upset about how I do or don’t wear my hair or what color the shirt under my suit is or me conforming to a profession where white men made the “rules” we should follow, then that’s not somewhere I want to work. I’ll be led to the right place to work.
It sounds like I’m just trying to be rebellious. But my very unapologetic existence as a black woman who relishes in being a black woman in American is an act of rebellion in and of itself in a world that tells me I should be ashamed of it. Tough. My blackness is part of me. I can’t get away from it.
All that to say, just like that experience shapes me, the black experience shapes my characters and the way they move through the world. In my early writings from when I was a teen and even a little into my early twenties, I didn’t understand that. Though I was unaware at the time, I wrote my stories in a way that showed that I had internalized the racism that I’m faced with every day through how I wrote my characters.
I tried to avoid names that sounded “too black.” I tried to write not to write lines that might be too “controversial.” I tried to write the black people in a way that a more “sensitive” audience might accept it. Essentially, while the color of my character’s skin was black, they could have just as easily not have been. But in doing that, I was severely limiting my potential as a not just a writer, but a black female writer.
So now, while my books aren’t “issue books,” for lack of a better term, the struggle of the black experience walks with my black characters just like it walks hand in hand with me every day. Rafael, for instance, is self-aware that he’s a tall black man and notices when people watch him in the store. In All the Little things, his sister warns him not to speed before he leaves on a trip, so he doesn’t get stopped by cops because South Georgia isn’t very fond of young black men. Akilah doesn’t have the luxury of liberally talking about the fact that she used to hold onto marijuana for a dealer as a teenager to make more money because while the American bar and law schools may forgive a white person for doing it, she might not get that same forgiveness as a young dark-skinned black girl. And when confronted with her friend’s abusive husband in public, Spring has to weigh how she’s going to act carefully or risk the potential ire of a white man that she knows is a gun owner while she’s pregnant.
But while I don’t shy away from the everyday struggles, I also don’t hide the good, the endearing quirks, and the magic of the black experience. I liberally use “kinda” and “wanna” and “ain’t” in my text first-person present POV narration and dialogue because that’s the way me and my friends talk in casual settings. Rafael finds a sense of brotherhood in black greek life. Bilal uses the black experience to create a popular alternative history webcomic and TV show. Akilah is faced with the “problem” of trying to maintain her hair while having an active sex life, and Spring is always telling Bilal not to play in her hair because of the maintenance involved in natural black hair.
While my stories are far from about spirituality, spirituality plays some role in my black characters. Like in real life, that spirituality takes different forms based on their experiences. Rafael has an agnostic leaning though sometimes he thinks there’s something beyond him that may or may not have been looking out for him when he was a teenager. Akilah claims no religion but is very spiritual and is open about the fact that her “spirit” guides her. Spring is influenced by her dad’s African upbringing and Muslim leaning and lives by what she feels is her truth. And Bilal is influenced and leans toward, though doesn’t dictate or live his life by, his Baptist Christian upbringing.
And when you read Akilah’s name or Bilal’s name in the summary of my books, you already know you’re about to read about black people.
Not only were they purposeful choices, but they were also natural choices to make given the people I was writing about. To take all that away would be to end up with a story where if someone decided to make a movie about them (Ha! In my wildest dreams) they could plug in my characters with any race of person. While their stories aren’t about the black experience, that experience shapes my characters as I tell their stories.
That’s why it’s so important that black writers writing about black people in every aspect of life is so important. I’m not saying other people can’t write black characters. Have at it. But writing black characters in fiction, especially novels based in historical, contemporary, and “urban” (I hate that word, but you get it) settings, is about more than just saying that your character has brown skin in their introduction and leaving it at that. There’s another piece to it that I think that only a black person writing about black characters can fully bring to a story.