There’s an argument I get into about Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, which is set in England in the early 1800s. When I criticise the book’s racism the defender often says, “But they’re just reflecting the racism of the time.”
Here’s the problem with that argument for The Grand Sophy (or for Gone With the Wind for that matter). They were not written during the period they were depicting. They do successfully evoke the racism of their particular periods. However, a distinction has to be made between depicting the racism of a particular time and being complicit with that racism.
For instance, The Grand Sophy was written and published after World War II. That is, the book was written and published after there’d been an appalling demonstration of the logical end of anti-semitism: the Holocaust. Heyer is not critiquing racism in The Grand Sophy she’s re-inforcing it. Her Jew is not human, he’s a grasping monster. That’s not even as sophisticated a portrait as Shakespeare’s in The Merchant of Venice several hundred years earlier. So, yes, I have huge problems with it and haven’t been able to read that book for many, many years.
The fact that those attitudes were historically accurate for the period she’s writing about is irrelevant. You can show racism without condoning it. Heyer not only condones it, she revels in it. It’s clear that she thinks Jews are bad people, not that she’s showing that many people of the Regency period believed that Jews were bad people. That’s a huge difference.
Compare Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Wench both depict the racism of the period they’re writing about, but Mitchell’s text looks back on slavery with nostalgia, Perkins-Valdez absolutely condemns it while not reading like a twenty-first condemnation of the nineteenth century. Wench is one of the best historicals I’ve read.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I research and write a novel set in the early 1930s in New York City. A period when racism and sexism were everywhere.
In the 1930s NYC was even more segregated that it is now. People in Harlem lived in third-world conditions with much higher unemployment than the rest of the city. The only jobs available to most black women were as domestic help. But when the depression hit many white families could no longer afford help and those that could increasingly hired white women. There were black men and women with professional degrees, but few whites would employ them. They had to go into business on their own—tricky given that no bank would loan them money—or work in capacities well below their skills.
Racism pure and simple.
Some of my characters are white. Most have the racial attitudes of their time. If I depict them accurately they can only be read as villains by contemporary readers. But if I depict them as thinking and acting like a twenty-first century liberal white USian then I create a very unrealistic depiction of the time and place. Which makes me wonder why bother writing an historical?
That’s not to say that there weren’t white campaigners against racism at the time. There were. But they were white anti-racism campaigners of the 1930s. They did not think about racism in the same ways that many of us do now. Actually, they may not have thought about “racism” at all as the word was newly minted in the 1930s and did not become widespread until decades later. Reading some of the letters and lectures of these campaigners now can be horrifying. To say they are often paternalistic would be a kind assessment.
It’s a fine line. Obviously, it’s impossible to write an historical that’s a hundred per cent faithful to the time and place. I wasn’t around then. All my information is second hand. All of it is informed by my time and place. But I want to avoid truly egregious false notes. People saying and doing things that were not thinkable at the time.
But in doing that you can wind up in trouble with your contemporary audience. Someone I know, a white writer, wrote a book set in the 19th century and received a lot of criticism for not using the term “African-American.” Despite the fact that the term did not exist then. They were also criticised for using the n-word, which was in common use at the time.
The last word is a major problem. It is a hateful word bearing the weight of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow laws and continuing racism today. For many reading it in any context at all feels like a slap in the face. So is historical accuracy more important than the hurt of people reading your book?
During the period and place I’m talking about—NYC in the 1930s—it’s a word that was used a lot by most classes. Though a nice upper class white lady would not have sullied her lips with. However, when she hears it said, she’s supposed to be shocked not because it’s racist, but because it’s vulgar.
I think many white writers are reluctant to be accurate in their depiction of racism for fear of being seen as racists themselves.1 I fear it. I want to be a good person. But racism exists and white writers are part of it. The ways in which we write about race and racism are important because we can help shape thinking about them. And depicting the past as a magical wonderland full of enlightened, kind, good white people is not only wishful thinking it does not help us understand and combat racism right now in the real world.
I have no conclusions about any of this. But I would love to hear your thoughts.
Update: I seem to have managed with this post to give the impression that I am writing an all-white novel. I am not! I have never in my entire career done so! I will never do so! I was mentioning the white characters in this post because they are the ones who will be read as villians if I give them the racial attitudes that were prevalent at the time. Sorry for being unclear.
- And there are an awful lot of white people who seem obsessed with that particular word and seem to look for any excuse at all to be able to use it. To which, well, uggh. [↩]