Can a White Guy Like Michael Chabon Write About Black Characters?

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Sept. 19 2012 11:10 AM

Can a White Author Write Black Characters?

Michael Chabon says yes. And he’s right. This shouldn’t be controversial.

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Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, white writers willing to step up to the color line nearly vanished from existence. It wasn’t until 1987, a full 20 years after Styron, that Tom Wolfe tackled race and racism as part of his broader satirical take on Manhattan’s elite in The Bonfire of the Vanities. And it was only in 1992, in the genre of crime fiction, that white writers really found their way back to the subject. Richard Price went there first with Clockers. Price, a product of New York’s white-ethnic working class, immersed himself in the world of a poor, black, drug-ravaged housing project, producing a groundbreaking novel that Spike Lee would later adapt for film.

At the time, Price’s only company was Washington, D.C.’s George Pelecanos, a middle-aged Greek guy who launched a successful series of detective novels that mined the underworld of the Chocolate City. Pelecanos, whose father owned a diner downtown, never joined the actual white flight to suburbia, and so saw no reason to join the literary one either. Racial tension in D.C. was his daily reality, and it never occurred to him that he couldn’t, or shouldn’t, write about it. (Both Price and Pelecanos would both go on to write for David Simon’s The Wire, often hailed as the greatest White Person Tackles Black Experience work of our time.) It took eight years after Clockers for Philip Roth to come out with The Human Stain, which was itself a scathing critique of the political correctness that had divided the fiction world in the years before.

But things are (possibly) starting to change. Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue appears to be the culmination of something that’s been going on for the past few years: the thawing of cultural ownership. If this is not yet a full-fledged movement, it is certainly a pivot. White writers are returning to the subject of race, and they are driven not by some ham-fisted, white-guilt social consciousness, as William Styron was, but from the realization that the story of race is their story, too. They’re not cultural carpetbaggers—they’re taking a long look in the mirror and assessing the impact of race and racism on themselves.

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In 2005, Kansas City novelist Whitney Terrell published The King of Kings County, a fictionalized chronicle of the lives and families of the Kansas City real estate barons who made millions off of segregated housing under Jim Crow, a subject he was drawn to explore after learning that one of those families was his own. His uncle by marriage was heir to the largest real estate fortune in the city, a fortune built largely through the use of discriminatory housing covenants. The source of the money, in polite WASPy fashion, had never been discussed. Terrell elected to discuss it, and a great novel soon followed. Similarly, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help—the book, not the terrible, terrible movie—was driven by the author’s personal curiosity about the intimate and emotionally fraught relationships between white families and the black women who hold such an intimate and complicated place in their lives.

Chabon grew up in Columbia, Md., a suburb built with the utopian ideal of economic and racial integration in mind. Race wasn’t incidental to his life. Quite the opposite, he says. “I felt determined by it. Being taught by black teachers during black history month, surrounded by my black classmates, I didn’t even question it. It was just the case that Harriet Tubman, Dr. Charles Drew, and Ida B. Wells and all of those people, that they were my forebears, too. That was my history. It was just American history.”

(Chabon also describes himself—somewhat atypically for a white, suburban teenager—as a “regular monthly reader” of Ebony magazine. “They always had it my school library,” he says. “It had the musicians I liked and the movies I liked. The whole blaxploitation element of my book derives from my reading of Ebony, which is where I learned everything about blaxploitation because I was too young to go to those movies.”)

Chabon’s book arrives at a time when similar issues of gentrification and racial tension are being explored by white artists like playwright Bruce Norris (in Broadway’s Clybourne Park) and by David Simon and Behn Zeitlin (in Treme and Beasts of the Southern Wild, respectively). Race, as James Baldwin pointed out when the Nat Turner controversy first broke, is “our common history.” And the more we treat it as such, the more productive our national conversation about the subject will be. That day may or may not be arriving soon, but if Chabon gets any real blowback in the meanwhile, he insists he isn’t too worried about it, having already had his mettle tested by the relentless critics of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. “I’ve been challenged by Yiddishists,” he says with a laugh. “Once you’ve been challenged by Yiddishists, you’re pretty much up to anything. I’ll stack an angry Yiddishist against an angry black person any day.”