A Question of Race in Writing

I am listening to James Lee Burke’s Creole Belle as an audio book, and while i am more or less enjoying it so far, i am struck by a question that has been bugging. I first noticed it in my own writing, and now i see it everywhere, especially amongst white writers.

He is in a hospital, and he has an elderly black man as an orderly. He description of the gentleman is perfectly proper in every way, except i wonder at the need to identify him as black or African American.Why do we note it? I mean, of course, being black or white or brown or catholic or whatever matters in the context of the history it brings to that character’s life, but this man walks into the room and opens the curtains, against hospital policy, but i wonder, does giving his race do anything here? is it an underlying sense of racism? is it a way to be more realistic and inclusive? just been thinking as a white southern writer, i never thought about it for the first 30 years of my life, but the last 20 or so, i have begun to try to sort it out. two of my more favorite poems that i wrote several years ago got me thinking. here are mine:

They Do

Three boys in a row,
Black against the green-gray water
Flat-lapping mid-thigh
On their bright orange shorts

Lines in hand, lead boy turns
And shouts, “Cast!”
In unison they toss the net
It floats and sinks like a drifting leaf

White against a neutral bay
White lace rises
In welcome to meet the mesh
“Pull,” he calls, and they do.

Anthony Watkins
10/13/01

and even this one, which has no mention of color, but because of its setting, could be perceived as a benevolent white superior patronizing a black community ( this was pointed out to me by someone else)

 

French Quarter Side Street

 

Off, off Bourbon,

Where children play

Under oaks and elms

Each tree grander than

New Orlean’s finest brothel.

 

The children’s voices

Are as an untuned piano

As they intoxicate themselves

On imaginary Mint Julip

Or drink real lemonade.

 

Early summer rains,

Full of swamp water clouds,

Bathe the dusty children

Until their mothers stand

In damp doorways and call.

 

Naked on the stoop,

Sodden clothes heaped about,

Little children dry and find

Cotton underwear to play in

Off, off Bourbon.

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About anthonyuplandpoetwatkins

https://www.goodreads.com/AnthonyUplandpoetWatkins born in Jackson, The United States August 04, 1959 gender male website http://www.lulu.com/shop/search.ep?contributorI... genre Poetry, Historical Fiction influences James M. Lancaster, Brenda Black White, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and Al Filreis member since March 2011 About this author edit data As one of the most public lives ever lived by a private citizen, there is little about me that isn't already available at Facebook or Shelfari and countless other places. Poet, writer, construction worker, salesman, truck driver, climber into the attics of total strangers, father and husband, and all around one of the luckiest men on the planet. My luck continued with a win in the June Goodreads Newsletter Contest! What an honor! http://anthonyuplandpoetwatkins.wordp... Additional Influences: Bob Dylan, William Faulkner, Barbara Kingsolver, Gloria Naylor, Eudora Welty
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2 Responses to A Question of Race in Writing

  1. It’s difficult to know how to treat race or gender or sexuality because whatever is written will collide with the readers baggage. It feels like if a character is described as black that then similar characters should be described as white, or whatever. I know writers can use incidental details just to give a feel of it being a real world, (the world being full of such detail), but like you I sometimes feel that there is an inherent strand of racism in the way that a character will be described as ‘black’ while no characters are described as ‘white’. I have always been struck by the way that a person or character who is half white, or far less than half, will be described as ‘black’. It is as if we only see the divergence from the false ‘normal’ imposed/created by cultural practice.

    • i thought i replied once to this, so if it shows up twice, i will guess i did:) yes Seamus, this is my concern. and though i have been given a pass on the matter by my friends of African origin (arent we all, really?) I will still tread lightly when approaching areas that remind me of the attitudes of the white writer of black culture when there was nothing about black culture that was considered worth writing about, except as how it was sublimated to white culture. I am glad those days are slipping behind us, and want to contribute to their more rapid demise!

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