Here are some labels I never want associated with my name, or with my writing: minority, black, African-American. Not because I’m not happy to be those things, but because I’m so much more. When I write, I’m not telling black stories: I’m telling human stories. Labels lead to marginalization.
Recently I read the excellent essay “Literature and Democracy,” in which Pablo explores his concerns over labels, especially the ethnic kind. “Suddenly,” Medina writes, “the person’s worth as a writer is of secondary importance to the social labels we, as critics and readers, are able to tag on her.” Even though, as he says, “What matters about truly great literature is the totality of its human content.”
Lately I’ve been thinking about the color my words take on. In my vision, the characters I write often look similar to me, which I take as a reaction to the fact that in what I read, the majority of the characters do not look like me.
What I’ve been trying to deal with in my writing is how I can create a fully-fleshed character without describing superficial physicalities like facial features, or hair—or skin color. I want a reader to love my character, to see him/herself in my character’s shoes before finding out she doesn’t look anything like them.
It’s not that I want to create some kind of twist or “Aha!” moment. It’s just that for all my life I’ve felt like a chameleon: but instead of me changing skin colors to fit into my surroundings, the people around me choose my ethnic background to suit their tastes.
I don’t know what it is about me, but the brave and curious people who question me about my background do so because they don’t know what to label me. I don’t fit any of their preconceived notions. In one situation I was even asked if I was adopted … because I spoke well and was attending college.
Perhaps this is why I write my characters with ambiguous descriptions. Before readers are able to identify the character as foreign to them, they’re in the foreigner’s skin and experiencing things through the foreigner’s eyes—and hopefully finding that, apart from the normal variations from one person to another, there are common threads that weave through all of humanity.
Does it truly matter if a person—including a fictional one—is one color or another? In the grand scheme of things the fact that some characters have a little more melanin in them shouldn’t make them any less identifiable.
Jacqui Bryant’s love for reading, ability to create adventure, and general curiosity for all things unconventional in life may outweigh her ability to write well. But she hopes not. Jacqui holds a BA in a couple of different things from Emerson College and blogs occasionally about how to bring fiction to real life here.