By: Janita Pegram
The lack of diversity and roles available for people of color, is an issue prominent in the entertainment business these days. Historically, this isn’t surprising. This is mainly due to Hollywood’s idea of “attractive” (which hasn’t always been “dark and lovely”) and the scarce amount of black writers, producers, and directors behind the scenes.
There aren’t a whole bunch of black writers in entertainment today for us to look up to. The ones that come to mind are Tyler Perry, Lee Daniels, Ava DuVernay, and YouTube talent Issa Rae. Then we have the OG’s of writing, like August Wilson, Maya Angelou, and Lorraine Hansberry – just to name a few. All of these writers are famous for telling black stories and writing about the struggles of the time – some of which still occur today. So, fellow writers, should we follow in their footsteps and continue to only write about our “colorful” experiences using POC as the main characters, or use only non-POC as the main characters?
As I was thinking about this idea of black writers being pressured to write black stories, I thought back on my own story– as a matter of fact my first story! I’m gonna take it back to circa 2005, when 10-year-old me was obsessed with TV shows on Disney Channel, like The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, The Proud Family, and Hannah Montana. At the time, I had dreamt about being an actress when I got older so I thought it would be fun to write a story about a teenage girl who wanted to become an actress as well.
This teenage girl named Allison lived in Texas with her father and her brother. She had two best friends, Emily and Mitch, who were very supportive of her dream and helped her to enter a singing contest to fly to Hollywood. Long story short, this story was pretty much based off of Hannah Montana – in some cases too eerily close– and if I had published this book, my little writing career would have gotten cut short as I would have learned about copyright laws and such. The POINT is… all of the characters were white. And I didn’t really consider it at the time.
When you’re a kid, you’re colorblind. Your best friend isn’t your Black best friend, your Asian best friend, or your Latino best friend. They’re just your friend, and their race has nothing to do with your feelings about them. So initially 10-year-old me didn’t look at these characters as white people, I looked at them as human beings. You might ask why I didn’t choose characters of color, and honestly, I didn’t choose them because POC (people of Color) weren’t my everyday life. Let me explain.
I grew up in Iowa – a predominately white state. And though Caucasian people outnumber us POC, there ARE actually black people that live here. Everywhere I went – the grocery store, school, the mall – there were white people. They were my teachers, my parents’ co-workers, my daycare instructors, my mayor, my governor, and my even president (Until Obama!). They were lawyers, judges, police officers, and they even managed to take over most of daytime and nighttime television.
Because whites were the only people presented in my environment as role models, I believed that that’s what my characters should be and that’s why they were the main characters in my childhood story. But as time went on and my knowledge capacity grew, I became more aware of the state of America and how things function in this society, whether good or bad. I also saw color for the first time in my life. As I transitioned into the college atmosphere, I became more aware and more appreciative of my own black culture, and now that I appreciate my blackness, as a writer I’m confronted with one question – Since I’m a black person, am I supposed to only write black stories?
Adhering to the Majority
If you don’t want to write black stories, the extreme would be to adhere to the status quo – using only non-POC as characters in your stories since it may be to the liking of the majority of those in America. The main audience of today’s popular television shows, films, and books (statistically) are white.
We know the statistics of race in America – the majority is white – and since they have this power, or “gain” if you will over us, it makes sense that they are the main ones to create new films, books, and poems that appear on big platforms and get national attention. They are also the ones that are the majority voters on award shows like the Oscars. So why not create stories that would appeal to their audiences?
Though there is nothing wrong with writing stories with non-POC as the main characters, adhering to this “rule” would limit the education or understanding about POC in real life and present a false representation of the melting pot of cultures and experiences that occur within these United States of America.
This is why it would be most beneficial for writers of every ethnicity/background to share their stories from their perspectives, allowing diverse audiences to appreciate and understand others’ experiences. This would hopefully lead to an appreciation of others’ cultures and a decrease in ignorance.
Write your life, Get your life!
These days I personally get a sense of fulfillment when I write short stories as well as fan fiction about POC (specifically blacks in my case) and their experiences, including elements of their culture like slang, music, dance, food, fashion, and more.
Not only am I able to connect with my characters, but those who read my stories can connect with them too. Writing about the black experience can be an outlet for speaking your mind. It sometimes is a freeing experience to share stories among those who can relate.
Because of the lack of diversity in different media outlets, I find it my duty to write stories for my people. No one else is going to do it for us, so why wait? We have a lot to say and we need to be heard. At the end of the day, all types of writing are needed and acceptable. So if you’re a POC and choose to have white main characters in your story, go for it! As Tamar Braxton would say – “Get your life”! If you’re a POC and you choose to have non-white main characters in your story, “Get your life”!
No matter what, have fun with expressing yourself through this art form. With different categories of creative writing like poetry, screenwriting, play-writing, or fan fiction, the whole point is freedom of expression with no rules. So seize the day, my fellow writers. And don’t let the pressures of writing within a certain label based on your gender, age, ethnicity, or whatnot stop you from expressing yourself.