RTW: For Black History Month…

Today’s Road Trip Wedensday at YA Highway is in celebration of Black History month (which is this month, if you didn’t know). This week’s questions is: “Who is your favorite African American author or fictional character?”

Honestly, I wish I had a week to prepare for this. Not that I don’t read novels with black characters, but often an author will describe a character as having dark skin and dark hair, which could just as easily describe someone of Middle Eastern or Indian descent as it could someone of African American origin. (Is this naïve of me? Should I just assume “dark skin and dark hair” means “black”?) Given more time, I could go back and re-read some of the character descriptions to get a better idea of their ethnicity. But for the sake of responding today, I’m going to cheat a little–just a little–and present a character from my current read: Hunter from Neil Gaiman’s NEVERWHERE. She’s a tough warrior, guardian to the Lady Door, and while she may end up dead, a traitor, or somehow not as good as she appears right now, at the moment I’m enjoying the way she contrasts the other characters in the story, and gives glimpses of depth to the tough exterior. As I said, I’m still reading this book, so my opinion may change by the time I get to the end. I’m sure there are dozens of other characters I could have chosen, but for now, off the top of my head, Hunter’s my pick.

Who would be your pick of African American writers or characters? Comment below, or join the fun at YA Highway by blogging your answer and then linking in the YA Highway article comments!

16 thoughts on “RTW: For Black History Month…

  1. Jaime

    Oh wow. I’m ashamed to say I can’t think of a single one. There’s a noticeable lack of African American characters in YA, particularly in the books that I’ve read. Unless I’m forgetting about characters. That’s possible too (I guess that puts me in the same boat as you).

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      I wonder how many times we read character descriptions and we just don’t register their ethnicity. But that makes me wonder, how much should we care about the character’s ethnicity unless it’s central to the plot? Clearly, for a book like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, it’s far more important than, say, THE HUNGER GAMES. To what extent should we be color-blind as writers and readers? I feel bad when I have to really think about whether a character is black, Asian, Indian (assuming the name doesn’t give it away–and even then you can’t be 100% certain). But on the other hand, that ambiguity means you can love characters without caring about race, which is a good thing, isn’t it?

      Food for thought.

      Reply
  2. Gabrielle Prendergast

    There is a LOT written about the issues of color-blindness in YA readers etc. I feel that way too. Even in a book where it is quite clear that the character is black or whatever, I often still see them as white, because I’m white.

    That’s not to say that readers of color don’t have a completely different experience, or feel alienated from white characters and white-centric books. what I’m reading is that they do.

    It’s complicated.

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      This does raise some interesting questions. Do white readers tend to see characters with no racial description as white? Similarly, do black readers see them as black, Asian readers as Asian, etc? And if we’re reading a novel by a black author, do we assume their characters are black, unless we’ve been told otherwise (and likewise, without any information to the contrary, do we assume white writers write white characters)? And, as I ponder in my article, how much does this really matter? I don’t mean to be dismissive of the issue; it’s a genuine question.

      I think you’re right, Gabrielle–it’s complicated.

      Reply
  3. stephanie

    I haven’t read Neverwhere either, but it’s definitely an interesting discussion (about what our default assumptions are based on who we are). It seems there’s always a balance between not wanting to neutralize or ignore real differences in experiences, but also not wanting characters to be defined solely by their race/ethnicity/other minority or target group status. All food for thought! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      So true. Someone’s ethnicity may play a lot into their character, given the experiences that person may have been through as a result. Yet, while it would seem silly–perhaps even ignorant–to not allow ethnicity to factor into a character, it also seems wrong, as if playing to stereotypes, to allow ethnicity to define a character too much.

      BTW, congratulations on selling your novel, Stephanie! 🙂

      Reply
  4. Crystal Schubert

    Neverwhere creeped me out so much! Neil Gaiman is amazing. And I agree that it can be tough to tell what an author intends with “dark hair and dark skin.” That covers a lot of different ethnicities…

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      I like Gaiman’s story telling. He writes in a way I feel very comfortable reading. I’m not sure why that is. But I would certainly recommend NEVERWHERE.

      Reply
  5. Laurie Dennison

    I struggle with this issue in my writing. My current main character is multi-racial, and while it comes up during the course of the book, should it be addressed in the beginning? Also, you must read The Graveyard Book and Stardust! (Two of my favorite Gaiman titles.)

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      I wonder too if it would be insensitive, or playing to stereotypes, to describe a character as “black” as a shorthand to the reader so they have at least some kind of mental image. The main argument against this that I can think of is that writers don’t tend to use “white” to describe non-black characters–unless they are unusually pale. I guess the best way is to subtly weave that information into the narrative (e.g., “Mike was the only African American in his work team…”–which would perhaps indicate a strong character, or highlight feelings of being different–or “Chris was promoted quickly through the ranks, an unusual feat in a predominately white police division…”–which might speak to tenacity, or extraordinary ability).

      I enjoyed NEVERWHERE so I welcome any and all suggestions for my next Gaiman read. Thanks! 🙂

      Reply
  6. Robin Moran

    Hunter sounds like my kind of character. I do like a tough one.

    I’ll admit that looking back on books I’ve read, I don’t think the MC has ever been any other race except white. They’re usually secondary characters. Shame because they’ve usually ended up being the ones who were more interesting.

    My mind flashes back to Dee in particular from The Forbidden Game by L J Smith. Jenny the MC was a bit blah. Caught in your typical love triangle and didn’t really have much going for her in personality. She was just the good girl next door. Dee was an outspoken character with a love for physical sports and absolutely afraid of technology and aliens. She also knew a bit of African mythology as well which added to her character. Couldn’t tell you much about Jenny except her life revolved around her relationship with a jerk.

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      That’s an interesting observation. Even beyond the scope of this discussion, how often do we find secondary characters with more personality and interest than the MC? That has to be a danger sign to the writer. Thanks for bringing it up, Robin.

      Reply

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