I am black, and in my latest novel, all the main characters are white.
My previous volumes portrayed black principals and almost all-white supporting casts. These books received admiration from publishing houses but few takers. Publishers told me that they could not see a route to commercial success for my books. I soon learned what that meant.
There remains in publishing a very Jim Crow notion of what black authors should write. We are supposed to write about “The Black Experience.” What does that mean? We can write about slavery and the civil rights movement. We can write protest fiction of one sort or another. We can write victimized characters who take the world’s abuse and turn it self-destructively inward.
And black writers know this. That’s why self-censorship enters the picture. We know what kind of books will gain mainstream acceptance, and we know what kinds of books will receive the polite publishing industry “no thank you” — regardless of merit.
Partly due to the boundaries that mainstream publishing erects around black letters, I wrote a book with white principal characters. Then I discovered a writer who had done the same more than a half-century ago, and his example shows how little has changed when it comes to African-Americans and their reception by mainstream American publishers.
I learned about Frank Yerby from Troy Johnson of the African-American Literature Book Club. I contacted Troy about marketing my new white-charactered book to his mainly black audience. Troy mentioned how rare it is for black writers to, as he put it, “write white.” He mentioned Yerby as one who had done so starting back in the 1940s — and whose reputation suffered for it.
“Yerby was often criticized by blacks for the lack of focus on or stereotypical treatment of African-American characters in his books,” the New Georgia Encyclopedia reports. “Thus, ironically, while Yerby held the distinction of being the first best-selling black novelist, he also became one of the most disparaged for his lack of racial consciousness.”
Further research led me to a 2012 essay on Yerby by A.J. Aronstein, a lecturer at the University of Chicago, on the website Bookslut. In it, Aronstein discusses Yerby’s first and breakthrough novel, “The Foxes of Yarrow.”
He writes: “For the last 40 years, defenders of Yerby have attempted to justify the fact that he wrote romance novels, suggesting that he dodged confrontations with racial issues in order to publish on his own terms. According to these readings, the value of Yerby’s work arises mainly from his rejection of expectations imposed upon his generation of African-American writers. But a reading of ‘The Foxes of Harrow’ presents an opportunity for rethinking Yerby’s handling of racial themes, and suggests that we should reconsider the importance of his work among mid-century African-American writers like Wright, Hurston, and Ellison.”
Kudos to Aronstein for working to resurrect a writer he finds underrated. It is, however, interesting that the grounds on which he attempts to resurrect him are the very well-worn fields of the African-American race novel — a soil Yerby spent a great deal of his career purposefully sidestepping. Discussing his indifference toward typical racial themes in a 1981 interview, Yerby characterized “race novel” as “an artistic dead end,” from which he said, “I’m glad to have escaped.”
Nonetheless, Aronstein insists in stuffing him into a category the author himself minimized. It’s as if Aronstein knows that publishing only admits black writers through a particular back door, so that’s the one through which he tries to slip Yerby.
“Yerby did write romance novels. But genre snobbery risks brushing aside his significant accomplishments in the publishing industry,” Aronstein writes, “and ignores the way race actually operates in his books.”
Aronstein rests Yerby’s literary significance on his incorporation of race into his novels, as if that is the only standard by which a black author could or should be judged. Perhaps, like Wilkie Collins or Marion Zimmer Bradley, he produced a genre masterpiece that deserves in-print status through eternity. But Yerby is black, so that cannot be the basis for his reconsideration. He has to be made a credit to his race instead.
Publishing seems desperate to keep ethnic writers neatly sealed in racial ziplock bags. The underlying idea is that writers write novels. Black writers write Black Novels, a decidedly separate and unequal subset.
The hope is that more black writers will exploit our exhaustive intimacy with the American mainstream to cast our eye and voice upon that world — and so put the lie to the idea that our range, ambitions, or abilities should ever be limited.
Leonce Gaiter’s newly released novel, “In the Company of Educated Men,” is a literary thriller with socio-economic and racial themes.