Thursday, November 05, 2015

Race in historical fiction: a guest post by Libby Ware, author of Lum

Libby Ware, author of Lum (reviewed this past Sunday), is here today with an essay on an important but complex and sensitive topic in historical fiction: writing about race in historical times.


Race in Historical Fiction
By Libby Ware

As W. E. B. DuBois said, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line." I’d like to add that the problem was central to the nineteenth century and still is in the twenty-first century, as well. The problem for white writers is how to accurately portray African American characters within the context of the times in which the novel is set. Three things that are hard are: dialect; terminology; and the strictures that white supremacy placed on whites and Blacks.

I do not like the use of dialect when used to misspell every other word, for example, “dem” for them, “I gwine” for I’m going, etc. I like to give a flavor of speech patterns, for example, using one colloquial word in a sentence or dropping a g off of a word, but not all words. And white Southerners have dialect, too, for example, “I’m fixin’ to go.” My book Lum is set in Appalachia in the 1930s, so I flavor all of the characters’ speech with words or sentences appropriate for the time. By researching diaries or novels written in the time period I’m writing about, I can get an idea of colloquialism to sprinkle into characters’ speech without going overboard.

A writer may need to use slurs as well as historically accurate names for other races. I hate the n-word, but since it was in use during the time I’m writing about, I used it when it suited the character and situation, as it does once or twice in my book. Another word that I can remember hearing when I was growing up is “nigra,” considered a slightly more genteel version of the n-word. I also used that word once or twice. Generally I used the term “colored.”

It is also important, but can be personally hard, to show how white supremacy is prevalent, even in sympathetic white characters. To write about a white person who always treats Black people equally in the time of slavery or Jim Crow is just not accurate. Degrees of individual racism existed, but remember that the whole of society was racist. Certainly some characters are less racist than others, but that line of division is still there.

One of the most informative books I have read was Growing up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race, by Jennifer Ritterhouse. The author points out how differently these two races learned about what is and isn’t permitted at the time of Jim Crow. White children were often told “it just isn’t done” or “they know their place.” Black children were taught that to act in a way that wasn’t sanctioned by white society is very dangerous. For example, often young Black and white children played together until a certain age. For Black children, caution was drilled into them. If a Black boy and a white boy rough-housed and the white child came home with a black eye, the Black boy could be punished by whites. An unspoken reason for taboos was often the underlying threat of interracial dating, or what was called “race mixing.” So, I had to make sure characters don’t cross those lines without showing either reprisal or the threat of punishment.

While I want to be accurate about the period we are portraying, I often have to write things that are not comfortable. But using language, attitudes, and social customs appropriate to the social mores of the time makes a novel more true to the time period.


Libby Ware is a native of West Virginia, and she feels most at home in the Appalachian mountains, although she has made her home in Atlanta, Georgia for more than 30 years. She is the owner of Toadlily Books, an antiquarian and collectible book business. Her short story, "The Circuit" (the beginning of LUM in slightly different form), was a finalist for the Poets and Writers Award for Georgia Writers, judged by Jennifer Egan. She is a member of Georgia Antiquarian Booksellers Association, the Atlanta Writers Club, and the Georgia Writers Association and is a fellow of The Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. Visit her website at

1 comment:

  1. Hello,
    Lum sounds like a great title and I'm looking forward to reading it. Also, I'm not familiar with the Rittenhouse book, so I need to look that one up too. As an African American author of historical fiction, there is much to what you convey here about Black childhood. Fear is one reason why Black parenting styles were (and still are) more corporal than the larger society.
    In writing historical romance, I had been warned away from using particular terms, and colored was one of them, even though I thought of it as a compromise candidate from other terms. It's a difficult tightrope to walk, as I try to maintain the dignity and humanity of my characters while still remaining accurate to the the time period. Thank you so much for your informative column.