I crossed my first picket line yesterday! I had tickets to see the new musical The Scottsboro Boys by the same folks who wrote Cabaret and Chicago. It’s a musical retelling of the story of nine black men who were wrongfully imprisoned for the rape of two white women in Alabama in the 1930s. The framing device is a minstrel show. Blackface is employed. The writers and director are all white. Yikes! Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to enter past dozens of protesters chanting that the show was racist, that turning this tragic story into a minstrel show was akin to using Borscht Belt humor to talk about the Holocaust. For a show that deals with liberal white guilt, getting shouted at for being racist was actually kind of an affective prelude (more on this in a minute).
I’m appreciative of both the protestors and the show’s writers for this: together, they raised a really interesting question about what stories need to be told and who has the right to do the telling. I remember a former coworker (not here) ranting about Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Twenty-Seventh City and his lead character being Indian. She took great offense at his decision to “talk about something he knows nothing about.” At the Romantic Times convention this year in Columbus, I met a group of really wonderful women who wrote gay male erotica, and I won’t lie: that totally confused me. And I think everyone here has read at least one first person narrative where the author writes from the perspective of someone of a different gender and the whole thing feels inauthentic.
Of course, limiting authors to only writing about what they know would prevent things like, say, historical fiction. It would have blocked my client Mindi Scott from beautifully capturing a teen male’s voice in her debut Freefall. It would have reduced Colum McCann’s glorious array of first person narratives across racial, gender and class lines in Let the Great World Spin (have I mentioned lately how brilliant that book is?). But do the rules change when the character’s identity is so integral to the story being told? What about if the story is about the injustice done to a particular group of people?
I’m inclined to say that it’s simply a matter of quality. The Scottsboro Boys was a brilliant show. At once devastating and hopeful, it was about how far we have (and haven’t) come as a nation and our collective history of racial intolerance. I believe that. But I also question my response since I’m, y’know…really white.
I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this. Are there stories that “belong” to one group of people? Are there perspectives that you just wouldn’t trust? Have you attempted a first person narration from a perspective radically different from your own?