Adventures in Exoticism: The "Black Life" Novels of White Writers

By Fikes, Robert, Jr. | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Adventures in Exoticism: The "Black Life" Novels of White Writers


Fikes, Robert, Jr., The Western Journal of Black Studies


The appearance in the 1990s of an unusual number of adult fiction books portraying the lives of Black folks written by white novelists wherein most or all of the main characters are Black, including the principal protagonist, attests to the irresistible progression of forces in American society that resulted in the production of a string of such works extending back to the early 1920s. From one extreme to the other, these "Black life" novels have been applauded and trashed by critics of both races as, on the one hand, sensitive but oftentimes clumsy, self-conscious attempts to understand and humanize African Americans, and on the other hand condescending, overrated examples of literary slumming. Crafting a believable plot and setting is not paramount here; rather these assessments are largely the result of varying perceptions of white authors' intentions and the degree to which they were seen to empathize with the characters in these novels. None were granted temporary passports to journey through Black America and artistic license is scrutinized at every checkpoint.

Understandably, fear of betrayal, misrepresentation, and a host of unseemly motives have been attributed to whites who have ventured to write about peoples of color, and for good reason too. Numerous instances of white fiction writers exploiting other races to advance their careers and socio-political views extends back nearly two centuries and continues to this day. The most egregious examples of these are the racial charlatans who, anonymously or using pen names to disguise themselves, wrote sympathetic but completely bogus slave narratives/novels like The Slave; or Memoirs of Archy Moore (1836) by abolitionist-historian Richard Hildreth; Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave (1838); and Autobiography of a Female Slave (1857) by slave owner Mattie Griffith.

More recently this class of grand deception has been suffered by other minority groups as well. In the 1930s Archibald S. Belaney, an Englishman, passed himself off spectacularly as Grey Owl, son of an Apache Indian, and was lionized as a true primitive for The Adventures of Sajo and Her Beaver People (1935) and other environment-friendly books; and another bold impostor, Asa Carter, a former Ku Klux Klan member and speech writer for Alabama's segregationist governor George Wallace, using the pseudonym Forrest Carter wrote the bestseller Education of Little Tree (1976) about an orphaned boy who moves in with his Cherokee grandparents and supposedly is taught uplifting Native American family values. Similarly, readers of Mexican American literature were duped by white writers as in the case of Daniel James, better known as Danny Santiago, author of the widely acclaimed Famous All Over Town (1983) set in an East Los Angeles barrio, who cleverly managed to hide his racial identity for fourteen years. In fact, there have been so many Anglos who have openly written novels about Mexican American life (e.g., William Cox' Chicano Cruz, 1972, and John Nichol's The Milagro Beanfield War, 1976) that the term "literature chicanesca" was coined in reference to them (Lomeli & Urioste, 1976, p. 109). And, lest we forget, Asian culture has been interpreted to Americans by the thoroughly transformed Japanophile Lafcadio Hearn (a.k.a. Koizumi Yakumo) and Sinophile Pearl S. Buck (The Good Earth, 1931), both prolific authors.

Even abroad we note the existence of the same phenomena of Caucasians either fraudulently offering their work as done by persons of a different race or, without artifice, daring to describe the lives of those in racial communities with whom they have had little if any intimate contact. In the case of the brazen Australian Leon Carmen, whose award-winning My Own Sweet Time (1995), was written under the pen name Wanda Koolmartie and purporting to be an autobiography by an urban aboriginal girl, the writer later claimed he committed the fraud as a deliberate act of revenge against the Australian literary establishment which he contends discriminates against white male writers in favor of women, aborigines, and assorted ethnics. …

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