How to tell black stories without making them “Black Stories,” and other stories

9 Dec

By Ayo

Marginalized people, as subjects and as audiences to art and cultural products, are under multiple pressures: erasure of our very existence from popular imagination, whitewashing of history and whitewashing of our oppression, backgrounding (placing marginalized people in non-active, almost decorative roles as figures in the background).

Number one: stories about anthropomorphic animals are at best a stopgap when it comes to representing differing racial groups and at worst they are an actual impediment to imparting compassion and empathy for other humans to the readers.

I do not necessarily oppose stories about animals. I support these stories as a form of resistance against the cultural juggernaut which is white supremacy, manifested in art as euro-primacy. What I absolutely do not support is the practice on relying exclusively on animal-characters as a method of avoidance. I roundly reject the idea that animals must be presented as characters for the benefit of a society that refuses to see people of color as viable subjects worthy of interest.

Number two: nonfiction is a trap. A particularly insidious thing that happens in the trends surrounding storytelling about people of color and other marginalized people is that the stories most often featuring marginalized people tend to be historical narratives, or the related genre, fiction centered around the specific oppression faced by the marginalized community in question.

These stories are important. They are vitally important. Biographies, histories, historical fiction, culturally-specific folklore, fiction derived from specific oppressions that marginalized people face: all of these are important stories to tell. We can never afford to lose track of history and lived experience. The trouble is that for marginalized people, these are not presented as some of the stories, but rather the only stories relevant to marginalized communities and peoples. An association begins to build where people start to link nonwhite characters and nonwhite people with suffering and struggle alone. Focusing on fact and history alone denies people their humanity in the eyes of a society. Instead, people become reduced to moral lessons, teachable moments and in the process, people lose perception that marginalized peoples exist as fully-dimensional human beings.

Number three: backgrounding. This tendency must be rejected on an individual story basis and condemned on a systemic basis. We cannot continue to condone the practice of simply placing some brown people into non-essential roles and claiming that a work depicts a diverse reality. That is not reality. People do not exist exclusively in support of white people nor do people exist exclusively to stand behind white people.

Number four: stories happen to everyone. White people are not the only people who have adventures.

~Ayo, out~

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