Recent debates have highlighted a need for greater diversity within the UK’s literary landscape. What is less settled however, are questions concerning the representation of BAME characters in literary texts. Debate has focused on whether white authors should portray characters of colour, or whether there are definable limits to what a white novelist can write.
Recent controversy in the artworld over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till parallels this literary debate. When Schutz’s painting of Till was unveiled at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, there were requests that it be destroyed. Hannah Black, a black artist, stated in an open letter that ‘the subject matter is not Schutz’s’ and that white artists must ‘stop treating black pain as raw material.’ Although Till was a historical figure, rather than a character, Black raises interesting questions about the role authorship has in representing racial experiences. For Black, Schutz as a white artist represents a wider historical practice whereby white Americans ‘transmute black suffering into profit and fun.’
I agree with Hannah Black’s assertion that Schutz should not have painted Emmett Till. However, part of me remains wary about restricting the boundaries on what white novelists can write or portray. It can, after all, be a double-edged sword. The 2015 Writing the Future Report highlights that BAME authors are expected to solely write about ‘racism, colonialism or postcolonialism, as if these were the primary concerns of all BAME people.’ Although restricting the access a white author has to a racial subject is not tantamount to all the restrictions imposed on BAME authors, it could nevertheless perpetuate the idea that BAME authors must be, and can only be, the voice of the oppressed.
Indeed, I wonder if we are less concerned whether white authors should write characters of colour, than whether the characters are a respectful portrayal. I doubt for example, that Dana Schutz would have received the same criticism for painting a portrait to honour Mamie Till. Although it is remarkably difficult to cite white authors who have written characters beyond racial tropes, Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys proves that it can be done. The success of her novel, centred on a hate crime against a Somali Mosque, was largely due to the breadth of research behind it. In order to write Somali characters, Strout became involved in her local Somali community, and remains so today. Dana Schutz on the other hand, had not done her research. If she had, she would have known that Mamie Till had already framed Emmett Till’s suffering at his open-casket funeral. We have the photograph, so we do not need the painting.
Although I have highlighted Elizabeth Strout’s novel as a successful example of a white author writing characters across racial difference, perhaps it is only successful because it details a racist hate crime perpetrated by whites. After all, if a white author wants to write about race, they could start with disentangling the contradictions and privileges of the white race first.