Thursday, May 7, 2009

Diversity Roll Call #5 and other thoughts

It's time to answer this week's Diversity Roll Call question! Head over to Worducopia to participate. This time we're going to look at the book Gone by Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson. I'll use that book to answer these questions.

1. Are the nonwhite characters too good to be true? (or do they have depth that goes beyond their race, faults and all?)

The non-white characters in Gone are Mil, Risa and Darnell. Mil is an older black gentleman who makes ice cream and Risa and Darnell are his grandkids. I'll focus on them. Perhaps Risa and Mil are a little too good to be true. Mil is a strong paternal figure in the story and even though he has sort of a dark past he has pulled himself together and he's sort of the center of the neighborhood. It seems like people are drawn to him. I don't know if that's too good to be true but it's definitely good.

Risa is also very good. She very understanding and kind to her brother. She's the first girl to give Zach, the main character Connor's awkward best friend, a chance. She's pretty, nice, smart and even willing to share someone else's earwax. Now, Risa is a secondary character so the reader doesn't get to know too much about her but from what I can glean she's close to perfect as presented.

Darnell was an annoying little boy. There's nothing perfect about that.

2. How and why does the author define race? (Does it need to be defined? Is their race crucial to the plot?)

I don't think race is crucial to the plot. It presents itself as a small conflict when Zach worries about being with Risa because she's black and he's white but that quickly passes when it comes up. One of the reasons I picked this book is because I think the author is fond of black secondary characters. I don't think it necessarily needs to be defined. I also don't feel like Risa and Mil and Darnell were black just for arbitrary "diversity" reasons. Like I said, I think she just likes that kind of dynamic between her characters, the black and white interactions that can occur. It could have also been a way to illustrate the kind of neighborhood that Connor lives in.

The author doesn't use any food analogies to describe any of the black characters just describes Risa's skin as brown and also the narrator states the fact that they're black.

3. Is the cover art true to the story? (Perkins cites as an example the cover of Cynthia Kadohata’s novel Weedflower, in which the Japanese American main character is wearing a kimono, even though she's never described as wearing one in the text).

In this case the cover art is about the main character Connor who is white so it's true to the story. He's got a good tan though.

4. Who solves the problems in the story? (Would "Dances With Wolves" have been as popular with theater-goers without the white hero?)

The problem is solved through a group effort but Mil definitely helps. He challenges Connor to take a good look at himself and cites his past problems which are similar to Connor's. He offers his tough love and wisdom which may or may not be seen as stereotypical.

5. How is beauty defined?

The story is told from Connor's point-of-view and he's really into his teacher so he appreciates her blue eyes and long hair and snug fitting jeans and things like that. Zach's hair is really curly and people make fun of him and at one point Zach is wondering if it is like an afro. Zach's hair is not very beautiful. However, near the end of the book Risa gets him hooked up with a good haircut. Risa is described a few times and while Zach thinks she's fine Connor doesn't seem to have any opinion. But his mind is occupied. Beauty is also defined by the way you feel on the inside. Connor is jealous that Zach and Risa seem so happy. So it's a variety of things.

So this challenge got me thinking.

I'm always interested in authors who write main characters outside of their own race. I came across this article on Google. Here's an excerpt:

Brockmann, who gained a following for her series based on a team of Navy SEALS, made her hardcover debut with Gone Too Far (Ballantine Books, July 2003), a romantic thriller featuring Alyssa Locke, a biracial female FBI agent as the heroine, and Sam, a white SEAL team member, as the hero. Any tension between these two is purely sexual.

For Brockmann, Alyssa's biracial background was part of an attempt to bring more diversity to the lives of romance readers, who are typically middle aged, white females living in the Midwest. Alyssa, according to Brockmann's description, is a done of the light-skinned actress Vanessa Williams. "Traditionally, the romance industry is filled with stories about really, really, really white people," Brockmann says. "I get charged up by differences, and I try to bring that to my books." Brockmann tries to give her characters substance by reading African American writers.

It is all about sales not idealism, says Diggs [a literary agent]. "These writers see that African American characters are very popular right now, so they say 'Let me get my share of the market.' As a business decision, it makes perfect sense. There's nothing altruistic about it."

I don't know how popular African American characters are really but I do agree that when someone just makes a character biracial or black in order to "color up" the novel it seems disingenuous to me even if they have the best of intentions. I think that's what Mitali is asking us to think about when we read or do our own writing. Maybe in this case it would be good for Brockmann to leave the character's race up in the air and let the reader fill in the blanks with his or her own mind.

I feel torn because I do like physical description, I like knowing the race of characters in books and it's not something I would want to leave out of my own writing. I don't mind reading books with only white characters or black characters or Asians or whatever. The type of person in a book doesn't make me pick up a book. Now it might make me take a second look, it might make me weigh my options and say you know, I want to read more novels about minorities so I'm gonna pick this one over this one but it's not the only deciding factor. But it is annoying when people think diversity comes only with skin color and that's what they want to create.

My friend and I were talking about how we chose our colleges and she told me about visiting John Hopkins, her dream school. She went down there and while it was rich with racial diversity and all of that she said that she was turned off because even though everyone looked different on the inside they seemed all the same. They were all uber-competitive and conservative, blah blah blah, at least that was her impression. So she decided to go somewhere else because she was looking for more a diversity in experience and attitudes and backgrounds. I think that's what's missing when token characters are just thrown into a text in order to be politically correct or all inclusive. In a way, anything you write should be all-inclusive because you don't know where it's going to end up. All writing can and should speak to anyone who gives it a try if it's good enough, even if you write it geared more towards a specific audience.

What about black authors writing white main characters? Is that still considered African American fiction? Does it have the same kind of "crossover" success that a white author can have for writing about a black character? I came across this blog post and I thought the discussion was very interesting. I have not heard of Millenia Black or her book but that doesn't mean anything because I probably hear about very little if it's not advertised in the middle of American Idol (by the way I can't wait for Glee! Hee! Two more weeks!). Well the Amazon page doesn't tell me much about the controversy or the race of the characters inside except that all the books recommended with her book are from African American writers. Positive reviews... I'm glad the book finally got into the world despite the trouble.

I'm not sure the answers to these questions because I don't have much experience with it all. And then we have to expand this conversation beyond black and white to all of our other wonderful neighbors like Anoop who is of Indian descent, grew up in a white neighborhood (I imagine this) and wants to sing black music! Oh things like that make me smile. I was looking at author Jenny Han's website and her books APPEAR to have white main characters although she looks not to be white. Of course, you can't judge someone on looks and I haven't read her books but I'm just saying, it's definitely out there.

It always annoys me in TV shows where they only have two black characters in the main cast and they date each other. This happens all the time! Why do they have to date each other? Why can't they date other people and sort of expand the whole circle of friends and characters. It's just so closed in, makes me claustrophobic. An exception to this is the new 90210. Dixon is dating Silver and for a couple of episodes they made it seem like he was going to jump ship to date the black girl they had on there to facilitate his blackness identity crisis but it turned out the black girl is gay. And then she disappeared. I wanted Dixon to be with her. Silver is annoying.

I think this post deserves some TRUE COLORS!


  1. Great post, Summer. You did a far better job sticking to the questions than I did.

    Jacqueline Woodson is a black writer who wrote about two sisters in Lena. They are white. Jack Ezra Keats wrote the Peter series. Jack was white, Peter is black. I loved Keats books.

    Sometimes race informs a read but it isn't the focus and this true of a lot of books with black lead characters.

    I hope others' join in. At any rate those of us who did have shared thoughtful replies.

    Thanks for participating.

  2. Nice Post. I like physical descriptions as well. If we can know the gender of a character why not race. It doesn't define the character but its a part of who they are.

  3. Great post, Summer. You ask many of the questions I've had in my head since reading the article, too. That post you linked to is powerful and asks questions that hadn't even occurred to me. Thank you.

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