I remember as I was writing Varying Progress years ago, I made it a point to have educated black characters. I am from a mid-sized city in Kentucky. If I told someone that I am black, female, and from a city in Kentucky I can only imagine what thoughts come to mind. My skin is dark brown and I am sporting long braids at the moment. Most who meet me already have an idea in their head of the type of person I am before I open my mouth. I know this because they make comments about it later.
Recently, I met people through social circles and work tell me I sound so “articulate”. This comes as no surprise since I have heard this for twenty years. People from outside Kentucky always ask me if I am actually from Kentucky because of my accent. It is surprising and fascinating to me. Are these questions asked because I am black and “articulate” or just that I don’t sound the way they envision someone from Kentucky to sound. I believe it is a little of both.
People believe in stereotypes – I squash stereotypes on both levels: the stereotype of what a black woman acts like and what a Southerner sounds like. I confuse people. As a dark-brown Southern woman with braids people expect a ‘ghetto’ speak, long drawl, and someone with a limited vocabulary.
This is why I write black characters that are a mix of educated and uneducated, the person from the projects and the person from the suburbs. All of these various black people really do exist in the real world. I grew up watching the The Cosby Show. It was a great show for many reasons. The main reason I loved the show is because I knew plenty of black people who lived like the Cosby family. The father may not have been a pediatrician and the mother a lawyer – but the parents were well-educated and middle class. I grew up around mostly blacks that were middle and upper middle class in a city in Kentucky! Wow! That shocks people – seriously it does. I had no idea until many years later that some people didn’t like The Cosby Show (blacks and whites) because they felt it was not a realistic depiction of black life. I feel sorry for people who had such a limited view.
It is important to me that I have black characters that resemble me and my lifestyle. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the stories about growing up in the projects. Yet, every black person did not grow up that way. Every black person doesn’t know a drug dealer or prostitute. Not every black woman has five illegitimate children nor has every black man been to jail. There is a responsibility that I believe black writers have that other writers may not have – we have to introduce all perspectives. We can’t play up the stereotypes.
I feel the same way about not playing into the stereotypes of being a Southerner. I am college-educated and so are most of my peers (black and white) who are also from Southern cities. All Southerners are not uneducated walking around with no teeth, barefoot, in overalls. (No disrespect to those who did grow up around this). I can’t tell you how many times I visited places like Los Angeles and Chicago and people loved the way I dressed. I was asked where I got my outfit – I was like I’m not even from here …I got my clothes in my hometown of Louisville.
My goal in life is to help squash stereotypes! Therefore, in my writing you will see a spectrum of *black characters. The most important job of a writer is to shape great characters and tell a good story. I don’t believe a good story can be told if you aren’t keeping it real.
*I don’t only write black characters – but for the purpose of this post that is my focus.