The Controversy

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The Controversy

"Why Can't A Black Man Write About White Folk?"
Published Monday, July 7, 1997, in the Miami Herald

Let us begin with the self-evident but necessary: Fiction writing is the art of putting one's self into the soul of another.Tom Clancy wrote about submarine commanders without ever having been one. He was praised for his skill. Mark Twain wrote about a slave without ever having been one. He is revered for his genius.

Gene Cartwright wrote about white people without ever having been one. He's been in trouble ever since. Cartwright, let it be known, is a black man, son of black parents. None of this Tiger-Woods-multiracial dodge for him. He wants you to know that he's black, dammit! Black! "I'm a little defensive at this stage,'' he explains, "because I feel like I don't have to establish my pedigree.''

Well, actually, he does. Ever since Cartwright's first novel, I Never Played Catch With My Father, came out two years ago, he's been catching h-e-double-hockey-sticks from black folk -- and one or two whites. All because his characters are white, Sandral Clark, a black speech pathologist in Dallas, found that "offensive.'' And Cartwright counts her as a longtime friend. Talk-show hosts have asked him why he did this bizarre thing. His own sister-in-law was upset. And he says black bookstores won't have anything to do with him.

Indeed, Stephana Clark, co-owner of Afro-In Books & Things in Miami, has never heard of Cartwright's book but says she's offended by the idea of a black author writing white characters. Cartwright says the characters simply "turned out to be" white, a choice dictated by the story he wanted to tell -- ultimately, one about the relationship between a kid and his father -- and the time and place in which he set it, North Texas in the '50s and '60s. (The story line follows a kid from the sticks who grows up to become a billionaire.) Besides, he says, "Who knows white people better than black people?

Come on, be serious here. We've washed their clothes, tended their children, cooked for them.'' Still, Cartwright understands black folks' disaffection. We -- meaning African Americans -- take it as a given that the black storyteller has a duty to tell our stories. To be our voice in a nation that often refuses to hear us. That obligation is compelling and real.

But it shouldn't be a noose. So Cartwright's woes force me to ask, with love, ''Black people, are you out of your minds?!'' When white people say we are incapable of writing about them -- Hollywood does this often -- we rise in protest. When white people presume to restrict our options, we call them racist. When white people seek to hold us by fetters, we resist.

We have struggled for generations to free ourselves from limitations imposed by white people. Will we now turn around and clamp the same shackles on ourselves? It's crazy. It defies logic. But then, when has race in America ever made sense? When has it ever been anything but a cauldron of contradiction?

As Kenn Davis, a black man and a community relations manager for Barnes & Noble bookstores points out, ``Tons of books have been written by people outside the African-American race about African Americans, and they have been taken for the truth, so why not the other way?'' Moreover, why is a black man who chooses a different route shunned by black people?

"I do not, would not, run from my ethnicity,'' Cartwright says. The poor man's problem is, where literature is concerned, he never understood black as a barrier. Never saw it as a reason he, too, couldn't write about bug-eyed monsters, aliens from outer space or even white people. We would confront the white person who told him otherwise. We should also confront the black. Because black people should never, even from benign motives, even in the pursuit of admirable goals, become that which history teaches us to abhor.

As Sandral Clark puts it, finding Cartwright's book offensive "revealed something about me that I didn't like.'' Cartwright says he never wanted to be a pioneer or a lightning rod. He simply wanted to write a book and make some money. He's already at work on his next project and feels the need to issue a preemptive strike. "It has all female characters,'' he warns. "I confess to having never been a woman.''_____________________________________
Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column runs in Living & Arts every Thursday and Saturday.Readers can call Pitts at 1 (800) 435-7578. Please dial 1-800 even if you live in South Florida. Copyright © 1997 The Miami Herald


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