Leonce's articles often revolve around race issues and class inequality. I am delighted to welcome him as my guest blogger.
A Writer's Racialization and Keeping Black Writers in Their Ethnic Places
by Leonce Gaiter
I am black and in my latest novel, all the main characters are white. I wrote the seeds of this book around 25 years ago, and at that time, the book’s racial makeup didn’t concern me. It’s not as if white worlds were ever foreign; I’ve spent my entire life in them – in school, in church, through media, socially, and professionally. In fact, any not-completely-insular black man or woman would be infinitely more qualified to write white characters than the average white person is to write black ones. Yet, you see plenty of the latter and little of the former.
Yes, decades ago, the racial aspect of writing white characters didn’t register. But back then, I hadn’t had dealings with the publishing industry.
My previous novels portrayed black principals and almost all-white supporting casts. They received admiration from publishing houses, but few takers. Publishers told me that they could not see a route to commercial success for my books. I soon learned what that meant.
Partly due to the boundaries mainstream publishing erects around black letters, I wrote a book with white principal characters. Then I discovered a writer who had done the same over 50 years ago, and his example shows how little has changed when it comes to African-Americans and American mainstream publishing.
I learned about Frank Yerby from Troy Johnson of the African-American Literature Book Club (aalbc.com). I contacted Troy about marketing my new white-charactered book to his mainly black audience. Troy mentioned how rare it is for black writers to ‘write white’ and mentioned Yerby as a one who had done so starting back in the 40s, and whose reputation suffered for it. Per the New George Encyclopedia:
“Yerby was often criticized by blacks for the lack of focus on or stereotypical treatment of African American characters in his books. Thus, ironically, while Yerby held the distinction of being the first best-selling black novelist, he also became one of the most disparaged for his lack of racial consciousness.”
Yerby had written a novel about Southern racial injustice, but publishers rejected it. It seems that subsequent to that, Yerby turned to white protagonists.
Kudos to Aronstein for working to resurrect a writer he finds underrated; however, it’s interesting that the grounds on which he attempts to resurrect him are the very well-worn fields of the African-American race novel—a soil Yerby spent a great deal of his career purposefully sidestepping. Discussing his indifference toward typical racial themes in a 1981 interview, Yerby called the ‘race novel’ “an artistic dead end,” from which he said, “I’m glad to have escaped.” Nonetheless, Aronstein insists in stuffing him into a category the author himself minimized. It’s as if Aronstein knows that publishing only admits black writers through a particular back door, so that’s the one through which he tries to slip Yerby.
Aronstein wrote, “Yerby did write romance novels. But genre snobbery risks brushing aside his significant accomplishments in the publishing industry, and ignores the way race actually operates in his books.”
Aronstein rests Yerby’s literary significance on his incorporation of race into his novels, as if that is the only standard by which a black author could or should be judged. Perhaps, like Wilkie Collins or Marion Zimmer Bradley, he produced a genre masterpiece that deserves in-print status through eternity. But Yerby is black, so that cannot be the basis for his reconsideration. He has to be made ‘a credit to his race’ instead. Yerby escaped the American publishing ghetto in the 50s and fled to Spain. Little has changed since he felt compelled to do so. He is still being ordered to sit in the black section.
It seems publishing learned a lot from her.
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