Historical Fiction

Railroad

I recently finished the novel, “Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead. It was my first foray into African American historical fiction since I had read “Beloved” years ago. Now, I love historical mysteries. It’s fascinating to follow a clever sleuth who solves a murder without the benefit of modern technology.  But I’m one of those people who has deliberately avoided African American historical fiction. I always assumed such books would be about the misery of slavery. Whenever I read a book or see a move about slavery, I get emotionally overwrought. And then I end up in a funk for days. But I’m glad I stuck with “Underground Railroad” because it’s a must-read kind of book.

Whitehead mixed fantastical elements with historical facts. At first, this made me feel a little off balance. I had always considered slavery to be so serious that it always required a sober and historically accurate treatment. But Whitehead’s writing made me see things differently. He used fantasy to provide a literal interpretation of the Underground Railroad as he told his story. He didn’t go overboard with the fantasy. There was just enough of it to make it interesting but not so much that the novel wasn’t grounded in reality.

It’s quite probable that I’ve cheated myself out of a number of good books by avoiding historical fiction about black people. I really hope that’s true in the sense that it would be sad to find out there aren’t many black authors who write historical fiction. Whatever the case is, this should be a good research project for me.

Expand My Horizons

African American writer science fiction
Octavia Butler

A friend told me that I should read “Kindred” because it’s a science fiction novel about slavery written by Octavia Butler. I am not into science fiction, but I’ll put the novel on my list because I understand that Octavia Butler’s work is brilliant.

Villains

Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.

Erik Kilmonger
African American man

I’ve always tried to make sure that my antagonist was as strong and multidimensional as possible. After all, a thriller is only as good as the villain is bad. Although it’s not a book, I have to give a shout-out to the screenwriters of the film, “Black Panther.” Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole rendered an antagonist, Erik Killmonger, who was vicious and without any remorse as he sought power in the interest of righting historical wrongs.

The line of dialogue quoted above became instantly iconic as it perfectly encapsulated Kilmonger’s character. He was a ruthless killer, but his motivation was grounded in the reality of the pain of injustice. More than once I’ve heard it said that he was a bad guy, but he wasn’t wrong. I consider Kilmonger to be one of the greatest film villains ever.

Man in mask

Another fascinating villain is Dr. Hannibal Lecter from the book, “The Silence of the Lambs.” Dr. Lecter was a killer and a cannibal, and he was the most compelling character in the story. Similar to Kilmonger, he had a tragic backstory; however, unlike Kilmonger, Lecter’s motivation was selfish and rooted in psychopathy. But when he was pretending to be human, he was a man of culture and exquisite manners. Sir Anthony Hopkins won an Academy Award for his depiction of Dr. Lecter in the film version of the book.

When writing characters who are villains, I love the fact that there is a cornucopia of human traits from which I can draw without limitation. There is so much room to be creative without worrying about making the villain likeable. And then there are so many ways I can go with it. I can make a likeable bad boy/girl or a repulsive one that my readers will always root against. Whichever way I choose to go, it won’t be wrong, and there’s a lot of freedom in that.

African American Literary Organizations

I don’t think enough attention is given to the importance of African American organizations. We live in a society where we are bombarded with media images of ourselves over which we have little control. These images affect every aspect of living in America, from getting bank loans to receiving medical care. Black organizations provide an opportunity for us to work together to overcome barriers and destroy stereotypes. More importantly, we’re able to relax and be ourselves with each other.

African American books

For those of us who love the written word, literary organizations are invaluable. Publishers Weekly has published a list of African American literary organizations recently. Publishers Weekly calls the list, “A valuable resource for writers, readers, and publishers alike, black literary organizations have for decades raised awareness of African-American writers and their literary legacy while also nurturing and championing black creativity in succeeding generations.”

Of the six organizations listed, the African American Literature Book Club (AALBC) is the most accessible because it’s online. It started as an online bookstore, but it is now much more than that. The AALBC provides services to authors, discussions forums about black literature, a black bestsellers list, and other resources of interest to readers, writers, and publishers. In other words, it’s a full service website that has something for everyone who’s interested in African American literature.

African American books

It’s wonderful how technology allows us to have virtual meeting spaces in which we can get together in the interest of uplifting African American culture. Of course, we should always remember that African American literature is American literature, and we should also remind others of that fact. If we don’t, then we leave it to others to define American literature without us, which is not acceptable. In the words of Langston Hughes, “I, too, sing America.

African American Detectives

Denzel Washington plays one of the African American detectives
Denzel Washington in “Devil in a Blue Dress”

I was thrilled to find a list of African American mystery writers on the blog site of the Los Angeles Public Library. The title of the article is “African American Mystery Writers and Their African American Detectives.” That made me chuckle because it showed that the author understood it was necessary to say that the African American writers were writing about African American detectives. One can never assume anything.

Idris Elba plays one of the African American detectives.
Idris Elba in “Luther”

Last week, someone asked me about the novel I’m writing. I explained the plot to him. Immediately, this person—who was a white male—started throwing out names of actors who could play the lead role in the imaginary movie version. Every actor he mentioned was white. Every single one. When he finished, I just looked at him for a few seconds. Then I said that I was thinking along the lines of Denzel Washington or Idris Elba. He looked like he was confused. And then his expression changed to surprise as he realized that I was writing about a black man.

It wasn’t unusual that his default casting was for a white man. What was surprising was that he assumed that was my position, too. I think it honestly didn’t occur to him that I would imagine a fictitious person as anything other than white. The fact that I’m a black woman didn’t change his assumption.  

Representation matters. Therefore, I feel that it’s incumbent upon me, and others who feel the same way, to create as many different images of African Americans as we can in both print and visual media.