Essay

“Write What You Know:” Should White Authors Write About Slavery?

Everyone knows #WeNeedDiverseBooks. But should we be dismissing stories based on an author's skin color?

“Write What You Know:” Should White Authors Write About Slavery?

Over the years, writers have attempted to capture the horror and degradation of slavery with varying degrees of success.

And some of these writers have been, rather controversially, white.

In the current racial climate – and in light of the recent #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement – that fact gives plenty of readers pause. How can old, white men ultimately understand racial injustice from their privileged vantage point?

Of course, this debate has been going on longer than the WNDB campaign. In 1967, William Styron wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner, the story of an infamous rebellion where slaves rose up to fight their masters.

Unsurprisingly, the book was highly controversial.

Styron was called a “cultural carpetbagger” with numerous critics indignant that this white, southern author had attempted to write about a black cultural icon. Others were indignant that Styron’s Nat Turner seemed to be an inept, reluctant hero obsessed with a white woman.

The debate continues to this day. Michael Chabon, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, recently wrote the novel Telegraph Avenue from the point of view of one black and one white character. According to a Slate article written after the book’s release, “For all his skills as a novelist, Chabon’s whiteness must be reckoned as a disability when it comes to writing about race, an asterisk next to his name.”

On the other end of the spectrum, South African writer Manu Herbstein’s Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, has been critically praised – and won an award – for its depiction of Nandzi, a young African woman stolen from her home and brutalized by slavery. It’s debatable why some books avoid controversy more easily than others, but in Ama’s case, it could be attributed to the author’s creative approach.

“I was aware while writing this book that I had to be very careful about cultural baggage,” Herbstein said in a radio interview. “I didn’t want to experience the criticism of people asking, ‘Who the hell are you, Manu Herbstein, a white South African, coming to lecture us about the slave trade?’”

should white authors write about slavery

But those stories are still few and far between. And the fact still stands: We need diverse books.

There are too few black authors. Moreover, there are too few black characters and too few narratives – not just about slavery, Civil Rights, and apartheid – but about all the racial injustices inflicted on various ethnic groups throughout history. We cannot afford to reject stories simply because of who wrote them.

Henry Louis Gates, Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, has a similar view on the subject. “Anyone has the right to write about any subject available to be written about,” he says. “That’s what the academy is all about. That’s what art’s all about. That’s what the pursuit of truth … must be about.”

In the past, the criminally overused literary maxim “write what you know” has been a guiding light of many writers of all colors. But by forcing the creative world into monochrome, we may perpetuate unhealthy stereotypes and false truths. By drawing artificial lines, we pigeonhole authors into writing only from their personal experiences. Slavery is too big of a topic to remain unaddressed.

So to honor the victims of slavery, read widely and well. Look for books by diverse authors and firsthand accounts, like Twelve Years a Slave. But remember to keep an open mind: A writer might have something important to say, regardless of their skin color.

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