Is my character “black enough”

I recently got this question from a writer, who agreed that answering it on the blog would be useful:

My hero is a fifteen-year-old African American boy [in a science fiction story]. A few of my alpha readers (not all) have said that he doesn’t sound “black enough.” I purposely made him an Air Force brat who has lived in several different countries to avoid having to use cliche hood-terminology. I want him to be universal.

Do you have thoughts on this either way?

Is there a possibility that my potential readers could really be offended that a) I am “a white girl writing a book about black people” and b) that my character doesn’t sound black enough? I’ve looked through your blog and website and haven’t found anything specific to my needs on this particular question. Perhaps I missed it?

…should I use Ebonics or not use Ebonics?

First of all, black people—just as white people or Latino people—are a very diverse group of people. There are people who speak in Ebonics [ETA: which I believe would be more accurately referred to as BVE–Black Vernacular English] and people who speak plain old suburban English, people who speak with any of a variety of Southern accents and people who have Chicago accents, people who speak with French or Spanish accents (or who speak French or Spanish or an African language). So the question of whether a particular character in a particular situation sounds “black enough” is a complicated question, one that even the African American community can’t necessarily agree on. Within the community (and I say this because I asked a coworker who is African American, who can speak with more authority on the subject than I can) it’s often a question that draws on complicated factors, such as money, privilege, “selling out,” skin tone (relative darkness or lightness—literally, being “black enough”), and hair texture, which all relate to how much a part of which community a person might be.

The question, then, is fraught with loaded meaning not only to do with stereotypes, but also socioeconomic meanings. [And, edited to add, because it might not be clear enough: The question can also tend to be offensive because of that diversity and the loaded meaning the question carries.]

Which leads me to the question of your alpha readers. What are their demographics? Is it a diverse group? What is their experience with the military? Is more than one of them African American? When writing cross-culturally, you’ll want to be sure that your beta readers include sufficient numbers of the member of the group you’re writing about. Every individual experience will be different—one person’s opinion on whether a character reads as African American will probably differ from another person’s, especially if their socioeconomic background and regional experiences are different. An African American from the St. Louis suburbs will have a different life experience than someone who grew up on a farm in Louisiana, whose experiences will probably be different from a kid who grew up in Harlem or someone else who grew up in Seattle.

If your local writing group isn’t very diverse, you might need to branch out for beta readers who you can rely on to comment on that particular element of your story—perhaps through an online writing group, perhaps through the SCBWI. You might even approach a local high school and ask if any of their students who come from a similar background to your character might be willing to give you feedback on your manuscript. Do you have connections with a local Air Force base? Perhaps you might network with people you know in the military to find someone who can give you feedback on that aspect of the character building.

To answer your other questions: it’s always possible that someone will be offended by a white person writing about a person of color, but generally, most readers I’ve talked to who care about diversity in fantasy and science fiction want that diversity to come from everyone, not just writers of color. This is why I emphasized alpha readers—it’s important to make sure that if you’re not from that background, you do your research (which it sounds like you have) and then run it past someone other than yourself who understands that culture or background (in this case, you’ve got two cultures going on: African American and military, particularly Air Force, which has a completely different culture than Army).

A few someones is even better, to ensure that you get different points of view and can mesh that feedback into something that works for your particular character, who will be an individual in his own right and not a representative of a group that plays into a stereotype.

Which leads into your next question: should you use Ebonics? And the answer to that is: I don’t know. Do African Americans in the military use Ebonics? Do only some of them, and does it depend on their family history/region of origin? Do their kids speak to each other in Ebonics? Or do they have their own way of speaking that’s particular to the Air Force community? (My uncle was in the Air Force and I have a couple cousins who might read this who may be able to answer that question; they’ve never spoken anything but “Midwestern” to me, but they might have spoken differently to their friends who were also Air Force brats.)

And that’s important too: people often have different vocabularies when talking to different groups of people. When my roommates from Georgia talked to their family, their accents became stronger. When I talk to my rural family, the word “crik” has been known to creep back into my lexicon. So ask yourself, “what’s the context my character is in?” as well.

And of course, that’s just me spouting off from the point of view of an editor. Readers, feel free to chime in and help out writers who write cross-culturally: what other issues should they be aware of when writing African American characters?

14 thoughts on “Is my character “black enough”

  1. I once wrote a story in which the main character, a detective in Detroit, is a black man. However, when I got done with the story, I realized that there was absolutely nothing within the story itself that gave any indication that he was black. I just had the picture in my mind, and knew his background, and knew that he was black. But he was educated, and nothing in his speech or mannerisms was particularly “black,” and he interacted with people of various races in the process of a criminal investigation, and the investigation had nothing to do with race.

    So upon realizing this, I had to ask myself something: Do I want to add something into the story indicating that the character is black?

    I decided against it, because I could never figure out a flawless way to do this. I wasn’t trying to make a point about his race within the story, it’s just that he was black, and if I’d gone out of my way to make his race evident, that to me seemed awkward.

    My only real concern was that I liked the character, and intended to use him in future stories, and hopefully in novels. So I wondered if readers would be shocked to learn, at some future point, that the character they’d read about was black. (I remember once I was several pages into reading a first-person story before realizing that the protagonist was a female, which was a bit jarring to the mental image I was crafting of the character.)

    However, I realized also that in order to “throw” readers, it would mean that 1. the first story would have to sell, 2. I’d have to write and sell other stories based on the character, and 3. I would need to HAVE readers of these stories, who follow through them. These are all good problems to have, so I didn’t add anything into the story about race.

  2. Wow, Stacy, I love, respect, and appreciate your response. It was informative and insightful. As a person of color, a writer, a mom, and psychologist, you have hit the nail on the head.

    When I read the submitted question, I was offended and defensive, but the reality is that this person probably has no way of knowing how her question could be received. I’m referring to the ‘Ebonics’ portion of the question and that Ebonics is the essence of an African American.

    I don’t know who the alpha readers are, but it causes me wonder about their contact with the African American community. Or, if this is how that writer defines people belonging to that community, it raises the question, should that person be writing cross-culturally?

    Your response, that the writer should spend time learning/experiencing members of that community and the acknowledgement that it is a multifaceted community/culture is perfect. Thank you for your insight and willingness to share it with others, particularly the writing community.

  3. In my first novel, FREEZE FRAME, the librarian is Afro-Colombian. I always knew he was because, well, I created him. I never outright said, “He’s afro-Colombian” just as I never said about my MC, “He’s a skinny white kid.”
    That said, after it came out, somebody said to me, “I can TOTALLY picture the librarian: Alan Rickman!
    I thought, “What??” I was thinking more along the lines of: Michael Clarke Duncan.
    The pieces were in place: Where he was from in Colombia. His last name. What he used to do in Colombia before moving to the states etc.
    But at the end of the day, I think that’s what’s cool about readers — they create the characters they imagine from our words. So is Mr. Cordoba (my librarian in FF) black enough? For me. He definitely is. Somebody else, though, might think he’s indigenous, Colombian w/ Hispanic roots, maybe Asian?? I don’t know.
    Should that matter to me as a writer? Or to somebody as a reader?
    Just random thoughts.

  4. My response to the author’s question:

    As a military brat, I pretty much lack an accent. People don’t place me as being from anywhere specific, except America.

    Having said that, being in the military does not erase accents or patterns of speech from everyone. How a person’s core family unit speaks and how many years they spend living in a location are the primary influences on how they pronounce words.

    IMO, your character needs to speak based on their influences, not on readers’ opinions of the world. Where do their parents come from? How do individuals from their parents’ backgrounds, childhood neighborhoods, and social class speak? How does that influence your character? Does your character have an opinion about how their parents speak and do they make conscious decisions about their own way of talking? How can you use the character’s voice and upbringing to flesh out the character better and further serve the plot of the novel?

    Also question your motives for making a character the way they are. If you made them a military brat to avoid using a specific pattern of speech, that’s the foundation for a poorly-drawn, flat character. Being a military brat is a culture unto itself and your character needs to be one from the inside-out. Work your butt off to find several real-world military youth who fit your character’s ethnicity and cultural background and talk to them. Do interviews. Hang out with them. Read books of non-fiction, fiction, and poetry written by them. Research your character — that’s 3/4ths of writing them well and a crucial part of being a good writer.

    The thing about a character not being “black enough” is that black is a false label that lumps diverse individuals into one, tiny box. “Black” is supposed to cover everything from the son of a Nigerain immigrant and a white woman who was raised in Hawaii to a girl raised by a Haitian aunt in the Bronx after her parents died in an earthquake to a rich girl raised in Texas by ranchers whose grandparents were Canadian. There are millions of vastly diverse individuals with thousands of cultural backgrounds and accents being lumped under the umbrella of “black” based solely on skin tone. If your friends think that all those people ought to speak one way, that’s their narrow life experience that’s being exposed, not any actual reality.

    Make sure you know what background your character comes from and make sure you do the research necessary to flesh them out based on that background. That’s what matters — not what a couple of people who have a narrow definition for the tiny box of “black” think.

  5. I agree somewhat with Stephanie on the last part, the question about Ebonics is just…. I don’t know. Being “black enough” does not mean you use Ebonics so that shoudln’t be the deciding factor. However, my guess is that as a “military brat” he wouldn’t use Ebonics. I know some African American people who were in the army and they don’t use it. But that’s the army, not the Air Force, so it could be different.

    I would be offended if your black character never talked about certain issues we face like the subtle racisim, especially as a black guy. But since’s science fiction it may never come up, although if it starts out in the 21st century in America then the character should acknowledge the fact that he gets looks of suspicion in certain areas because he is an African American guy.

    Stacy’s advice was right on 🙂

    That is so true about how people speak differently wiith different groups of people. When my mother is back home down South, she regains her Southern accent. My father speaks Spanish with his relatives. I use a lot more slang/Ebonics with my African American friends and Latino friends. So that is a key factor. Something an African American person has to learn to do is be able to “speak two languages” in a way. around white people and authority figures, most of us speak properly, no slang. But I know from what I’ve done myself and from what I’ve seen my parents and their friends do, when African Americans are just with each other, they loosen up and their is less of a concern for “speaking properly”

  6. My upcoming book Bumpy Landings is set in Hawaii, and has a fairly multi-cultural cast. I believe I’ve done a good job of writing believable characters and fairly authentic speech that can be understood by a general audience. Having culturally believable dialog is one of the things I worry about, even though most characters have some basis in people I know personally.

    This is a great discussion. Thanks for posting the question!

  7. “Being a military brat is a culture unto itself and your character needs to be one from the inside-out. Work your butt off to find several real-world military youth who fit your character’s ethnicity and cultural background and talk to them. Do interviews. Hang out with them. Read books of non-fiction, fiction, and poetry written by them. Research your character — that’s 3/4ths of writing them well and a crucial part of being a good writer.”

    Exactly. As a former military brat (multi-ethnic), I picked up various regional dialects, a bit of military speak, and speech patterns that my family used.

  8. the problem with making a character sound black enough is that you’re competing with the imagination of the reader. if the reader can’t perceive your character as having a distinct ethnic voice, in america they’re gonna default to seeing the character as white. this happens even to us ‘ethnic’ folk, who grow up in a white oriented media. and the… See More end result is something like the Earthsea anime where the main, black, character becomes a lily white specimen.

    without vocal cues in the dialog, it becomes really hard to indicate race, and that ultimately damages your message if race is a part of the concern. why make a character black if your readership will never know it?

  9. I think there are plenty of ways to show readers that a character is black without defaulting to stereotypes, though. Description where appropriate, experiencing subtle racism and discrimination as Ari pointed out, an interest in family history (including descriptions of family members), and a myriad of little things that would depend on where the character lived, who his family is, and their socioeconomic status. And those cues can be as subtle or as blatant as is necessary for the story.

    And I could just as easily ask, “Why make a character white if the readership will never know it?” Or “Why make a character female if male is the default for most readers?”

    Part of the point of emphasizing multicultural characters in fantasy and science fiction is because too often white IS thought of as the default, and we’re trying to change that.

  10. Hi,

    I’m an African American dad & writer, and my advice to the writer is to skip the ebonics. Not every African American speaks with ebonics, and I fear it may come off as condescending and offensive if you attempt to tell your story in such a way. “Not black enough,” is offensive as hell, wether voiced by black or white people. The character is African American, there’s nothing wrong with him sounding like an American. Period.

  11. I’m black, and my father (a radio broadcaster) spoke VERY properly when at work or in public/integrated places. But when with close friends or family, he’d use all kinds of slang, ebonics, and other colorful metaphors. So I think it’s possible for characters to be able to “turn it on” or “off”. I’m not sure how that would come across in a story, though.

    1. Nicole, I find that’s often the case with one of my African American friends, too—especially when she’s writing to other African American friends online. (It’s sometimes a challenge to parse out what they’re saying to each other!) As others on the thread have noted, it has a lot to do with context—who you’re talking to, and what you’re talking about. I think that kind of thing can be expressed in a story with a close point of view pretty well with just a few words to establish it as a character trait—IF that’s something you want your character to do, which will depend on the character.

  12. I believe all writers can create believable characters of another race. But to do this writers must be familiar that race.

    should I use Ebonics or not use Ebonics? – that question makes me cringe. A White author asking this should really take a look at their character and ask themselves, what do I know that will give life to this character of another race.

    If they still want to do it, research. Listen in on conversations. Read books by Black authors. Ask around find out which non Black authors have created believable Black characters and read those , also read the Black characters by non Black authors people found unrealistic.

    African American is a reading pet peeve of mine. I always find it a little too formal and stiff for fiction. Especially when another character is refered to as White not Caucasian

    When non Black authors use African American as opposed to Black, I always assume they do it because they didn’t want to offend. And the PC ness of it does just that.


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