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Can white women write black women’s history?

There is much to like about The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. It tells a story about a black woman’s struggle to eke out a life for her family in the unforgiving terrain of the Badlands, South Dakota.  She battles against drought, poverty, racism, infant death and a growing isolation from her husband as their farming land increasingly holds them, and their fortunes hostage.

It’s an easy read, with a likeable central character and a compelling plot. It shines a light on a rarely told aspect of American pioneering history.  And yet, this book just didn’t gel with me.

Why?  Because a few pages in I realised, belatedly, that Ann Weisgarber is white. From that point, despite all the good things going for this book, I kept distracting myself as I was reading it.

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Ann Weisgarber

Two questions kept turning over in my mind. Shouldn’t a black woman have written this?  And then the even bigger question, can a white woman ever write black women’s history?

I checked out other reviews and it didn’t seem to have bothered anyone else.  The book has won tons of awards and is about to be adapted into a film.  But this – what seemed like appropriation – troubled me.

So I asked an expert: Veronica Strong-Boag, a super-smart and highly regarded Professor of Women’s History at the University of British Columbia.  I put those two questions to her, and she replied:

While we can write beyond, even significantly beyond, our own experience, we have to wrestle with questions of appropriation and position ourselves. I haven’t read the book but I would consider what claims the author makes or suggests about any ‘special’ relationship to her subject. Fair comment certainly for a reviewer.

Kind of my thoughts, but expressed better.

But I really wanted to know if these considerations had worried the author herself.  So riding high on a tidal wave of temerity, I emailed Anne Weisgarber herself.  Delightfully, she emailed me back with these answers:

Shouldn’t a black woman have written this? 

This is a difficult question with no easy answer. I suppose it comes down to the passion a writer feels for her characters. If the writer is driven to tell a story, if a writer can’t sleep because she is haunted by a story, then she must write it. She must ignore the critics who say she shouldn’t, she can’t. This might mean writers venture into dangerous places but that’s the point of literature. Literature allows us to imagine worlds and people who are different from what we know. Must the writer be bound by her race, religion, gender, age, and/or nationality?   The writer, like the reader, should be free to imagine worlds different from her own. This happens all the time. Men authors assume the voices of female characters, women authors the voices of male characters, adult authors the voices of children, and those of us who write historical fiction assume voices of people who lived far in the past.

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The dug out that inspired the novel

Who owns a story? Who has the right to tell a particular story? For me, it’s the author who cares deeply about the characters. It’s the author who can’t rest at night until the words are on paper.

Can a white women write black women’s history?

I can honestly say I don’t know. If the white writer cares deeply, if she does her homework, if she strives to get the emotions right, then she can certainly try. She should not be told a topic is off limits. The decision about whether she did a good job is up to readers. Readers are the judges.

I instinctively agree with Ann that no topic should be off limits to an author.  However, while I think Ann has done a good job, framing it as she has goes to the quality of the writing, rather than to questions of authenticity and appropriation.

In the end, I concluded that I’d rather this had been written by a black women.  But I just can’t decide whether, in the absence of black author coming forward, this story should have been left unwritten. Perhaps it is better that Rachel’s story has been told, in case stories like hers, and many others, are just never recounted.

What do people think?  Budding authors, would you steer clear of a topic, or do you agree with Ann, that if done carefully and done well nothing should be off limits?  Readers, do you have sympathy for the concerns of appropriation, or does a well-written story trump that?

This is a site about books and about tea, and how we should read more books and drink more tea. Sometimes, it’s hard to know what books to read and what tea to drink. This is where I can help out.

25 Comments

  1. I am a little disturbed that a story should be told by a person of a particular race if it involves that race. Isn’t that a biased way of looking at it? For example, if we go by the theory that only a black could write a black story, then where would someone like me be in there? My GGGM was black/Cherokee……my other relations were all white. Does this mean my blood is too thin to write on the travails or joys that a black woman feels? is it really about the color of my skin? then should I be able to write it as I am a deep olive………but my experiences are all “white”? thought provoking post. Thank you for it.

  2. Good question. While I do think that white authors should use their privilege, as much as they can, to give a voice to black writers and to writers of colour, I think that this might not always be possible, and I don’t think that just saying “then don’t write anything” or “write about something else” is a good solution.

    Is writing about a black woman a way to give her voice, or is appropriation and exploitation? I think this is really difficult to say in most cases, though I believe the amount of research and accurateness put into writing the book might make a difference.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments Melyanna. To take this specific example, there is no doubt that Ann Weisgarb was very passionate about this story and felt that it was her ‘duty’ to write it. From what I can gather, she did do a lot of research. So maybe it comes down to each individual book and each writer?? And perhaps as Ann herself suggested, it’s really up to the reader to make that determination.

      • I agree. I would also say it’s important that authors and their works are judged after reading their books, rather than only based on the fact that it’s a white person writing about the experience of a black person.

        But I do understand how black people and people of colour might not whant to do that.

        If I may ask something that is only slightly related: you mention you realised the book was written by a white writer “a few pages in”. Was it because of the writing style?
        (Sorry, this is more of a “Italian person interested in the nouances of English language” question, I don’t mean to derail the conversation).

        • Derailing is fine too, although I don’t think you are! No it wasn’t the writing style. Although I think writers like Toni Morrison would write differently, and perhaps more convincingly. I flicked to the biography page to see what the connection of the writer was to the subject- it was then that I realised and when the thought struck me. Maybe it is because the author writes in the first person, as if writing from Rachel DuPree’s point of view, rather than writing about Rachel. Maybe that’s why I assumed she was black….. Thanks for helping me think that through!!

          • Oh, I see. The fact that the writing style wasn’t a dead giveaway goes in favour to the book and to the author, I think.

            Thank you for taking the time to answer my comments. 🙂

            This would be a very difficult conversation on some other media, but it was a great pleasure to read the comments and your thoughts in here.

          • Yes, you’re probably right. So thanks for making it a pleasurable exchange!

  3. Interesting post Weezelle. I would argue that what is being written about is the human condition, human suffering and for that the author needs empathy. The colour of skin or people’s circumstances should never detract from our ability to relate to the suffering of others. Facts are easily collected but I believe to write the true story of another’s life would be not be made easier just by having the same outer packaging, so to speak. I’m sure there are people who would agree with you though and find it impossible to relate to someone of another race, but I warrant that they would not be the kind of people to attempt to write such a book. Great point for discussion. Thanks for sharing. Natalie

    • Thanks Natalie. Although, I hope I haven’t misrepresented what I was trying to say – I don’t think its impossible to relate to someone of another race, at all. You’re right, that the ability to relate across points of difference sits at the heart of what makes us human. My point was more that coming from an institutionalised position of power, as white people do, is it appropriate to try and speak on behalf of others who might not have the same access to that power, in this instance, publishing houses etc.

      • Oh I do understand Weezelle and it is a very valid talking point, and brave of you to tackle it. I was incredibly impressed with the depth of your research and hope that you enjoy the debate that is sparked. My belief is although the ‘institutionalised position of power of white people’ may well describe a tiny minority of our planet but should by no means be the pen that marks us all. I will follow your blog with interest and commend you on your writing so far. Best wishes

  4. I do feel it’s not possible to always write from personal experience. You could write on the basis of extensive research and well-formed opinions. As long as the information shared is accurate and the opinions not inflammatory. And why should the colour of a skin be a factor in expressing your thoughts.
    A straight man could write about LGBT just as a non-fashion conscious person could write about her favourite star’s style quotient.

    What do you think?

    • Thanks for this. I probably haven’t been very clear about why this bothers me. It is to do with the institutionalised and unequal power relations between white women and black women, and whether when speaking for black women about their experiences we are, even if well-intentioned, perpetuating this. So extending my thinking to your example of a non-fashion conscious person – I think that is a different thing altogether. There isn’t a history there of inequality and discrimination. Your example about the LGBT experience though gets closer to what concerns me; there is a history of LGBT people struggling to get their voices heard, so I would want to encourage those voices to be listened to. And I would rather listen to their stories, rather than someone’s approximation of their stories.
      Does that make sense? Not sure whether that my thinking any clearer?

      • It sure does. I think I know what you mean. It’s not about someone who’s not lived that experience talking about it. But about someone who’s been marginalised or discriminated against and someone from the opposite spectrum voicing their opinions. But that’s empathy in my opinion. I still feel that if the representation is non-supermacist, fair and well expressed without bias, it’s fine. But then again who am I to be saying that.

        • Your opinion is totally valid and I love that we’re talking about this! I would add though that I think it doesn’t need to be so extreme to be problematic – even (and especially) well-intentioned appropriation can be paternalistic/ patronising. Which I should add, this particular book isn’t. It does make it more difficult thinking about it in the abstract.

  5. If it is about priveleges, I think it is important that a white person writes a black persons story to show that these are stories that needs to be told. If we write, and sell, more stories like this, maybe the bias of the publishing houses gets torn down.

    Here’s hoping, anyways 🙂

  6. Hi Olive. Do you think so? That reminds me slightly of the economic ‘trickle down effect’ argument (it will eventually help poor people) or ‘the women law graduates are in the pipleline’ argument (even after 30 years they still don’t appear to be firm partners). I wonder whether that would change publishing houses behaviours or whether as consumers we should just insist on demanding what we want, and not buy what we don’t want.
    I’m not sure whether as readers if we have a more effective way of making that point?

  7. We should all be free to write about anything we want to. A white woman can have a black heroine, in real life or in fiction. Whether we’ll be credible if we’re writing about something outside our direct experience is another matter. The more talented the writer, and the more sensitive their ear and eye for detail, the more likely they are to pull it off.

    Taking a different angle, thinking of my country, England, should southern actresses be cast in a northern role? For me, it largely depends whether they can speak with a northern accent as if it’s normal and comfortable. Some manage so perfectly, you would think they were born to it. Others try but are not comfortable, accentuating some sounds and not quite hitting others, making it seem like a mockery to someone who naturally has a northern accent. Then, because there are lots of roles for southern actors and less for northern ones, it’s tempting for northerners to say northern actors should have been chosen. Southerners would probably think the actress was doing a great job.

    You make a very good observation and for me, there’s the rub. Did the writer pull it off so well that a person from that time and that culture would say ‘that’s a fair portrayal’ – or not?

    • Thanks Susurrus. I lived in Scotland for 10 years, so I get the point about southerners and northerners, although I still think there is a difference there between white women and black women, particularly in the US and in Australia. But you’re right – its hard to judge the book in the abstract.

      • I just thought the example would help me explain my view in the clearest way. I saw a programme about the first casting of Coronation Street and that’s what made me think of it. I agree that the black/white dynamic is more complex.

  8. What an interesting post, and interesting comments from your readers. I understand what you’re saying and am impressed that you took time to ask the author and the academic their thoughts. Also impressed that the author gave such a thoughtful reply. I agree with all the points made about empathy – a good writer can stand in someone else’s shoes and tell their story with honesty and compassion, but I can understand your concern about giving black women writers more opportunity to tell the stories themselves. I have a similar issue with Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books. As cosy crime, I love them, I think they’re very well written, but part of me feels uncomfortable that a privileged white man is writing about a black woman. I don’t get the feeling that he’s particularly invested in Botswana and that’s what gives the books a slightly patronising edge for me. It makes me think of a bunch of white people standing around at a dinner party saying, “Oh black people, they’re so funny…” In comparison, Henning Mankell seems to have had a deep concern for and social conscience about Mozambique. I haven’t read any of Mankell’s books set in Africa yet, but I’m interested to know how he writes African experience.

    On a side note, have you read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? Rebecca Skloot has an inner tussle about whether she, a white woman, should write the story, and Lacks’s family and community are largely suspicious of her. She reaches the conclusion that nobody else has written the story so she should use her privileged position to get it known. I’m glad she did, and think she did a good job.

    • Hi Jan. Thanks for your really very thoughtful comments. I agree with you totally. There is something very twee about No 1, although like you, I think they are an entertaining, light read (I think I prefer 44 Scotland St more though). I know that he lived in Zimbabwe for a while when he was younger, but on the spectrum of ‘investment’ it probably doesn’t rate all that highly. I haven’t heard of the Immortal Life, but I am going to order a copy tonight – it sounds fascinating. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. It sounds like Rebecca Skloot arrived at a conclusion very similar to Ann Weisgarber, and some of the commentators on this post (@oliveole)- that her privilege could be used wisely.

  9. For anyone interested in thinking about this further, this article by Katy Simpson Smith gives some interesting insights:

    Who Can Fictionalize Slavery?

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