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.
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.
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 http://libbywarewriter.com.