Sunday, October 4, 2015

That Time I was Almost A Horrible Racist In Print

This is part one of a two part blog. Tomorrow I'm going to be annoyed about something another writer wrote, then excused: you'll see.

My point today and tomorrow is this: as writers, we don't get to hide behind 1) ignorance; 2) laziness; 3) the idea that the characters we create aren't under our full control.

I am really, really, in favor of writers, especially, say, white, cisgender, straight, Christian, more-or-less-able-bodied writers like myself, branching out to tell stories about people with backgrounds different from ours.

This is sometimes a controversial opinion. Even now on the Reading While White blog there's a piece that at first glance to seems to say, if you're white, write about your whiteness. At second glance it actually says, if you're white, be very aware of your whiteness and how it gets reflected in your writing--which is wholly different, and harder, and important. We have plenty of straight white cisgender able-bodied people writing straight white cisgender able-bodied stories. For the love of all that's holy, let's try a little harder.

Even if it means we might fail. Even if we fail really badly.

If we do fail, we owe it to our readers to admit that we did.

So, before I tell tomorrow's story, I'm going to tell one on myself. My novel Jefferson's Sons came out a few years ago. It's the story of Thomas Jefferson's children with Sally Hemmings, a woman that he owned. It's written for fifth-graders, which presented a whole host of challenges in presenting the material. Being both honest and appropriate for a ten year old was difficult. Add to it the fact that I'm a white woman writing primarily about enslaved black boys two hundred years ago--throw in a founding father revered by a large percentage of the population--you'd better believe that I went through several drafts, and contemplated every word.

And yet the book was nearly published under a wholly racist title.

Jefferson's Boys, not Jefferson's Sons.

This was as far from my intention as it was possible to get, and still I almost did it, and my (white, duh) editor almost let me.

In my defense, first of all, while all the narrators of the novel are boys, they are all not Jefferson's children. Second, in my home, in my limited personal experience, "boy" is a word of tenderness and love. My husband and I called our son "our boy" from his infancy. Where's the boy? How did the boy do in school today? I even have a made-up lullaby of sorts I call "the boy song."

However, I can't defend that title.

The book was introduced to the sales department, one member of which was a Black woman. She came up to someone on the (white) editorial staff after the meeting, and told them that if it were published as Jefferson's Boys some Black people would refuse to read it based on the title alone.

As soon as my editor relayed this to me, I got it. I understood entirely how racist I'd been. "Boy" has been used for centuries to denigrate full-grown Black men. But I seriously didn't get it until then. I never would have been intentionally racist, and yet I came that close.

I asked my editor to thank the Black sales rep profoundly for pointing out my wrongdoing, and also asked her to apologize on my behalf that I needed such education. I promise, if I hadn't realized the problem until the book had been published, I would have done everything possible to get the title changed anyhow.

So, when I say that writers need to own their words, I mean it. Even their racist ones. Especially their racist ones. No matter how pure their intentions were or are or in future may be.

P.S. Someone on Goodreads or SLJ or somewhere in the blog world realized that the title had been changed, and said it was because I was "trying to be PC." Let's all admit right here: trying to not be racist is not the same as trying to be PC.