Days ago I was reading an article discussing the dissatisfaction of several fans of the book, “Hunger Games”, with the casting of African-American actors/actresses in the recently released hit film based on the book as some of their favorite characters:
This along with all of the racially charged current events that are happening in America right now made me think of the ways that race has played into my actual life as a new author and how it concerns the life of my characters themselves.
An African-American friend of mine was reading my book and must have read some minor implication as to the race of a character when she turns and looks at me with an expression of total shock and says,
“These women are black?”
People have become so used to seeing black characters as lead characters only in stories where the plot focuses on the condition of being black that it is often difficult for people to wrap their head around main characters being black in a story that has no racial agenda. Even I am guilty of this at times when I read a book and automatically picture the characters as Caucasian in my mind.
In my book I made a conscious effort not to put too much emphasis on the race of my characters, but that can be difficult when you want to create a three-dimensional character that the readers feel like they know and can relate to. For the most part, I tried not to give so many details that the race of several of the supporting characters are not arguable, but the question is why is it so important to argue over?
The main character of my book, Regina Dean, is African-American for the same reason that my stories usually take place in the mid west or in cities in which I have lived, for the same reason that the occupation of the characters is usually one that I am fairly familiar with…because it is what I know and it is easier to write a believable story when you are writing about things and people who you know. I am African-American, therefore I know the culture and the history and clichés and it is uncomplicated for me to write a character from this perspective even when the story does not center on race relations of any kind.
On another note, outside of the actual pages of my novel I had to make decisions about the cover art for the book and I had to decide if I wanted to place my picture on the back with the blurb. It was a decision that was not as easy to make as it should have been. I spoke with my publicist who is African-American and she suggested, as I suspected on my own, that I should wait until my second or third novel before disclosing my race so as not to lose readers who may decide not to read the book based on that alone. After that, I spoke to another African-American entrepreneur who had recently started a business in the arts and she confided in me that she struggled with the same dilemma and ultimately decided that there was no reason to hide her race. She decided that she was talented and should be appreciated for that talent alone and I agreed. You not only have to be proud of who you are, but you have to let others know that you are proud of who you are and if you end up losing some money along the way…well, self-respect and dignity is much more valuable.
In my mind, I see the main character of my new novel as a young African-American woman, but in my next book or the one after that, if the art calls for the main character to be Caucasian or Asian or Hispanic, that is how I will write them, ultimately not because race matters, but because it doesn’t, it’s only about the art, and if I lose readers because I or any of my characters are black then they were readers that I didn’t want in the first place.
By: JeanNicole Rivers