intervening years have done little to quell the controversy
spawned by Gene Cartwright's first novel. Why?
Why Can't A Black Man Write About White Folk?
COLUMNIST LEONARD PITTS JR.
Published Monday, July 7, 1997, in the Miami Herald
us begin with the self-evident but necessary: Fiction
writing is the art of putting one's self into the soul
of another.Tom Clancy wrote about submarine commanders
without ever having been one. He was praised for his skill.
Mark Twain wrote about a slave without ever having been
one. He is revered for his genius.
Cartwright wrote about white people without ever having
been one. He's been in trouble ever since. Cartwright,
let it be known, is a black man, son of black parents.
None of this Tiger-Woods-multiracial dodge for him. He
wants you to know that he's black, dammit! Black! "I'm
a little defensive at this stage,'' he explains, "because
I feel like I don't have to establish my pedigree.''
actually, he does. Ever since Cartwright's first novel,
I Never Played Catch With My Father, came out two years
ago, he's been catching h-e-double-hockey-sticks from
black folk -- and one or two whites. All because his characters
are white.Sandral Clark, a black speech pathologist in
Dallas, found that "offensive.'' And Cartwright counts
her as a longtime friend. Talk-show hosts have asked him
why he did this bizarre thing. His own sister-in-law was
upset. And he says black bookstores won't have anything
to do with him.
Stephana Clark, co-owner of Afro-In Books & Things in
Miami, has never heard of Cartwright's book but says she's
offended by the idea of a black author writing white characters.
Cartwright says the characters simply "turned out to be"
white, a choice dictated by the story he wanted to tell
-- ultimately, one about the relationship between a kid
and his father -- and the time and place in which he set
it, North Texas in the '50s and '60s. (The story line
follows a kid from the sticks who grows up to become a
billionaire.) Besides, he says, "Who knows white people
better than black people?
on, be serious here. We've washed their clothes, tended
their children, cooked for them.'' Still, Cartwright understands
black folks' disaffection. We -- meaning African Americans
-- take it as a given that the black storyteller has a
duty to tell our stories. To be our voice in a nation
that often refuses to hear us. That obligation is compelling
it shouldn't be a noose. So Cartwright's woes force me
to ask, with love, ''Black people, are you out of your
minds?!'' When white people say we are incapable of writing
about them -- Hollywood does this often -- we rise in
protest. When white people presume to restrict our options,
we call them racist. When white people seek to hold us
by fetters, we resist.
have struggled for generations to free ourselves from
limitations imposed by white people. Will we now turn
around and clamp the same shackles on ourselves? It's
crazy. It defies logic. But then, when has race in America
ever made sense? When has it ever been anything but a
cauldron of contradiction?
As Kenn Davis, a black man and a community relations manager
for Barnes & Noble bookstores points out, ``Tons of books
have been written by people outside the African-American
race about African Americans, and they have been taken
for the truth, so why not the other way?'' Moreover, why
is a black man who chooses a different route shunned by
do not, would not, run from my ethnicity,'' Cartwright
says. The poor man's problem is, where literature is concerned,
he never understood black as a barrier. Never saw it as
a reason he, too, couldn't write about bug-eyed monsters,
aliens from outer space or even white people. We would
confront the white person who told him otherwise. We should
also confront the black. Because black people should never,
even from benign motives, even in the pursuit of admirable
goals, become that which history teaches us to abhor.
Sandral Clark puts it, finding Cartwright's book offensive
"revealed something about me that I didn't like.'' Cartwright
says he never wanted to be a pioneer or a lightning rod.
He simply wanted to write a book and make some money.
He's already at work on his next project and feels the
need to issue a preemptive strike. "It has all female
characters,'' he warns. "I confess to having never been
Pitts Jr.'s column runs in Living & Arts every Thursday
Readers can call Pitts at 1 (800) 435-7578. Please dial
1-800 even if you live in South Florida.
Copyright © 1997 The Miami Herald
Cartwright has had two more novels published, and has
several completed manuscripts and other completed works.