The color of writing


Announcing HYBRID AMBASSADORSa blog-ring project of Dialogue2010 You met our multinational cultural innovators this spring in a roundtable discussion of hybrid life at expat+HAREM. Now in these interconnected blog posts they share reactions to a recent polarizing book promotion at the writing network SheWrites.Join the discussion on Twitter using #HybridAmbassadors or #Dialogue2010

I loved the Brady Bunch.

Never wanting to miss an episode, I’d rush home after school each day and hurriedly plough through my homework. I didn’t want anything to prevent me from spending an hour with the all-American clan and their three lovely girls, Marcia, Jan and Cindy. How I longingly envied these golden locked sisters and their blue eyes. Blonde hair and blue eyes were, I believed, what made someone American. And I desperately wanted to be American.

But changing my almond shaped brown eyes was, along with my olive skin, not possible, even if dying my dark hair was. Like it or not, I was stuck with this “foreign” look, that prompted almost everyone to ask, “Where are you from?” Even though I was born in Brooklyn, somehow I felt my features, along with my name and religion, kept me from saying “I’m an American.” Nothing gave me the right to that appellation.

In time I saw that I was wrong. Hair, eyes, names and race don’t make someone American. Values and vision do. So imagine my confusion in reading Lori L. Tharps’s blog post “Wanted: White Ambassadors to Help Me Cross Over,” in which she appeals to “White (sic) people”, whom she points out that she “loves”, to help her get “White” readers to buy her book.

“The sad fact is,” Tharps writes, “I can’t change anything without some white friends. It is a statistical impossibility that Substitute Me, (the book Tharps has written) will have a chance to shine if only my Black friends spread the word.”

It is an unfortunate reality that “black” writers are pigeonholed as such. They are set apart from their “white” peers whose books are categorized as “literature” – without adjectives. That has not, however, stopped whites from “crossing the divide” and picking up works by African American writes such as Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright or James Baldwin. A reader, by its very definition, is someone on a journey, eager for new discoveries or answers to curious ones. Barriers are inherently contrary to that.

“There is nothing in me that is not in everyone else,” remarked African-American writer James Baldwin in 1985, long after the civil rights movement. He was being questioned, not for his skin color, but his homosexuality. Did Baldwin’s sexual orientation separate him from other writers, the questioner wanted to know. To which Baldwin replied, “There is nothing in everyone else that is not within me.”

There is nothing in blacks that is not in whites and in whites that is in not in blacks. That’s what Martin Luther King Jr. was referring to when he dreamed that his children would be judged not by their skin color but the “content of their character.” What would he make of Tharps’s appeal, particularly at a time when the barriers dividing “blacks” and “whites” have largely been eroded? At a time when the U.S. President is a man of color?

Not too long ago, my little sister and I were considering what to watch on television. “Oh look,” I remarked elatedly, “the Brady Bunch!” My sister, who is fifteen years my junior rolled her eyes at me. “What?” I asked. “What’s wrong with the Brady Bunch?” “It’s not real,” she replied. Neither is Tharps’s appeal or assumption. Just as blonde hair and blue eyes don’t make an American, “White” friends or “white” word of mouth won’t make Substitute Me shine. Tharps’s own writing will. She should let it stand and be judged by all, no substitutes.

This post is one of in the Hybrid Ambassador series, written in response to a post on SheWrites asking for ‘White Ambassadors’. You can read the other posts below:

Sezin Koehler’s Whites Only?

Rose Deniz’s Voice Lessons from a Hybrid Ambassador

Anastasia Ashman’s Great White People’s Book Club

Tara Lutman Agacayak’s Circles

Catherine Bayar’s Thicker Skin

Jocelyn Eikenburg’s The Problem with “Chinese Food”

Judith van Praag’s Hope-filled Jars

Catherine Yigit’s Special-ism

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  1. Posted August 12, 2010 at 02:09 | Permalink

    I liked how you drew on the Brady Bunch and your own background to illustrate the problem — a very smart, thoughtful response. :-)

  2. Posted August 12, 2010 at 09:38 | Permalink

    I love that you talk about how you got caught up in the lure and heartbreak of loving The Brady Bunch, desperately wanting to be what you already were – American, and how James Baldwin pointed out the one thing many people probably didn’t want to think about – that we are part of each other, linked.

    I watched the Brady Bunch with the same awe and jealousy, mostly because of the perfect mother role. My stormy feelings as a child had no place in that world, though, and it wasn’t until I started reading YA authors who paved the way for self exploration that I realized there were other worlds and stories more compelling.

    Love your take on this, Elmira!

  3. Posted August 12, 2010 at 09:50 | Permalink

    Ah, Elmira! Another thing that connects as as hybrid sisters: I also watched The Brady Bunch, and I too wanted to have those blond locks that would authenticate me as American. Isn’t it interesting how these pop culture phenomenons shaped our younger self’s sense of identity? Although, as the years went by it was interesting to read about the absolute dysfunction in every single actor’s personal life. It made me feel like I hadn’t missed much by not being born blonde.

    I love that you’ve brought Dr King’s words into this blog ring. He would be so disappointed that after his life’s work and death to bring about change in American civil society that it is so easily disregarded in the White Ambassadors post on She Writes.

    Great work, Elmira!

  4. Posted August 12, 2010 at 10:46 | Permalink

    This article is very fascinating to me. Although you can write endless essays/books about race, money, affluence, influence and American values, thankfully we all get to Choose Our Customers

    • Posted August 14, 2010 at 10:55 | Permalink

      Right on Parris! Grodin says it all! Exactly what Anastacia Ashman was pointing at with her response to Tharp’s call.

  5. Posted August 12, 2010 at 11:21 | Permalink

    I think I agree with your sister! The Brady Bunch was watched with equal fascination in Ireland, but this fascination had a higher degree of skepticism I think. We couldn’t quite believe in a life or rather an attitude like that shown in it.
    Being true to ourselves, allowing our work to shine on it’s own merits, it all requires a lot of courage and energy. Energy that shouldn’t be wasted on skin-deep issues.

  6. Posted August 12, 2010 at 12:25 | Permalink

    But the color of one’s skin is used in measuring appeal. Ask any Hollywood executive with a great script regardless of whether it’s film or TV, reality or narrative. If you cast a black actor as the lead, it’s not going have as great of a chance to succeed as a white performer. It doesn’t matter how excellent his skills are as an actor. Only a few have broken through that colored ceiling.

  7. Kyra Gaunt
    Posted August 13, 2010 at 09:42 | Permalink

    Enjoyed this post and moreso the dialogue of the comments. I love the Substitute This writer’s courageous plea even if a bit politically incorrect. I’m typing from my iPhone so I can’t see the name of the previous commented but I think her point sheds light on the position that particularly a black author or maybe more accurately a young, desperately seeking a way out of a color barrier, author finds themself in. Esp AFTER writing a book about ‘blk’ life. Her marketing strategy might be considered colored pun intended but she’s trying and there is no right remedy to resolving this. I like that she’s trying something probably new for her. Social media is a great platform for that exploration. Also loved Parros’s link from Seth Godin’s blog. Hope the author we are discussing reads it.

  8. Lina
    Posted August 13, 2010 at 14:16 | Permalink

    Elmira, this is such a good response to what appears a fairly cynical appeal from Lori Tharp. This line alone– “There is nothing in blacks that is not in whites and in whites that is in not in blacks”– sums up a solution for how you might think of your work moving beyond a race-based categorization.

    The possibilities for building and reaching audiences has never been greater in this country than they are now, when we have so many online channels for publishing, distributing, and marketing. At the same time, we are such a polarized society. To state the obvious, while we still have so far to go in terms of true equality in this country, we are certainly better off than we were before the movements for civil rights and gender equality. But your response to Ms. Tharp is yet another great example of how our perceptions of each other haven’t necessarily caught up. Our politics and our cultural trends today increasingly push us apart by race, color, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, region…etc. etc. etc. And the Internet, while democratizing in terms of access to media channels, may not actually be a remedy because it so easily compartmentalizes us into niches and interest groups– if we even have access to the technology at all.

    So how do we cut through this, and shift Lori Tharp’s perception of her audience? By thinking about your line again: “There is nothing in blacks that is not in whites and in whites that is in not in blacks.” There are universal themes that appeal to all of us, regardless of race or ethnicity. This is one of the powers of narrative– to draw connections among people who may not on the surface look alike. If Ms. Tharp can herself stop segmenting her audience and harness instead the universal appeal of her writing, she might move into the general section of the bookstore.

    • Posted August 17, 2010 at 04:13 | Permalink

      Fabulous response Lina…and Elmira’s post about the unattainable Americanness of the Brady Bunch is a good example of a story with universal appeal. We’ve all felt like impostors or pretenders to some distinction. It’s when we’re most honest about our struggles to understand ourselves in the larger scheme of things we find we’re not alone at all.

      Elmira, I’m also of the Brady Bunch age (viewing them in daily syndication, so they had this retro Day-Glo feel). Also having an architect father made the comparison of my own 80yr old funky Northern Californian bungalow household and that new split-level, Southern Californian one even more bizarre, but what was fake about them was also real. Didn’t they have AstroTurf in the backyard? People did that (still do). No one I knew personally and doubtful it was a choice in my area, but it expanded my world to see it. (BTW in the movie SALT the Brady Bunch is used as an “American culture” teaching tool in 1970s Russia.)

  9. Posted August 14, 2010 at 10:52 | Permalink

    My goodness Elmira you nailed the issue. And by quoting James Baldwin and Martin Luther King you run home the whole idea about American Values and how “off” Tharp’s request was. Not funny, not humorous, not insightful nor deep, but self-demeaning. Worse though was to see how blindly many responders said yes to her request.
    Promising to promote a book they hadn’t judged —couldn’t have judged— for it’s content, solely for the fact that the black author had scratched at the scab of their guilty conscious is —how awful is this notion— a shame. Calling that same author on her “off” plea for help is a most civil act because that critique is given from a notion of equality, not differences.

  10. Posted August 17, 2010 at 08:15 | Permalink

    I hope that in all things I am judged on merit, not who I know or what I look like, but how well I use my gifts. I wonder, if her book sells successfully, will Lori Tharps credit that to her writing or her black/white friends? It would make me feel really bad if I knew people only supported my work because of my skin color and not because I did a good job. There’s very little to celebrate there.

5 Trackbacks

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