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Writing while white ... An unprecedented number of black characters inhabit today's mainstream fiction best-seller lists, but few of them are created by black authors.

CALIA H. RUFFIN IS THE LONE BLACK JUROR IN THE TRIAL OF A white man charged with murder in a small town in Mississippi. Miss Callie is certainly unlike any typical black woman you would expect to find in the rural South, where the "coloreds" are kept poor, uneducated and in their place by a less-than-benevolent white power structure.

She could give diction lessons to an English governess, speaks fluent Italian and loves opera. She owes all these attributes to a while benefactor who befriended Callie as a young girl. Callie, along with her husband, Esau Ruffin, is a character in John Grisham's latest page turner, The Last Juror (Doubleday, March 2004), which zoomed up The New York Times best seller list.

Grisham, a native of Mississippi, makes Callie the stuff of legend. She braves racial prejudice to educate her children, becomes the first black woman to vote in Ford County in the '50s and in time the county's first black juror. But in the end, he can't resist casting Callie in the classic role of "mammy" as she serves up lavish weekly meals and words of wisdom for white upstart newspaper owner Willie Traynor.

Grisham, whose legal thrillers have become automatic best-sellers, is one of several popular while authors, including Janet Evanovich, Suzanne Brockmann, Robert B. Parker and James Patterson, who are prominently featuring men and women of color in their novels so much so that far more African American characters are on The Times best seller lists these days than the number of black writers there would indicate.

Meanwhile, a few books by African American writers manage to attract a crossover audience among white readers.

Grisham unintentionally--at least we hope so---portrays Miss Callie as a sort idiot savant, filled with knowledge she is unable to put to use. Her story is told through the disillusioned eyes of a twentysomething white boy.

This ploy allows Grisham to intellectualize any discussion of the racism that dominates Miss Callie's life and the lives of other African Americans in Ford County. It also lets him avoid having to adopt the rhythms of black speech.

White attempts In depict African Americans in literature, no matter how sympathetic, are almost always problematic, says Professor Kimberly D. Blockett, a professor of English Literature at Pennsylvania State University. "They are not as well developed as the writers think they are, and they are always black Americans as seen through the dominant culture's eyes," says Blockett.

However flawed, there is an advantage for black readers in this kind of book. "It gives you a clear idea of how white people perceive us," says Professor Reginald McKnight, who teaches a class on cross racial literature at the University of Georgia. McKnight, who is the Hamilton Holmes professor of literature, is the author of the novel He Sleeps (Picador USA, September 2002).

PERFECT ROLE MODELS

Patterson is another practitioner of cross-racial writing. He has written nine mystery thrillers featuring Alex Cross, a black D.C. cop with a Ph.D. in psychology who also works with the FBI as a profiler. Cross is a widower who lives with two of his three children and his paternal grandmother in the nation's capital. He is a good father, a true Southern gentleman to the ladies in his life. He is the perfect role model for males--white or black,

While Patterson has given Cross a detailed family life and professional resume, there is nothing other than his skin color that makes Cross a black man. Patterson never allows Cross to lapse into internal monologue that would provide insight into what makes him tick outside his professional pursuit of serial killers.

The Cross series is immensely popular and three of the novels have been made into movies starring Morgan Freeman as Cross. Yet after the publication of The Big Bad Wolf (Little, Brown and Company, November 2003), Patterson openly discussed retiring Cross, saying he wanted a change. Alex Cross occasionally encounters cases where his race becomes an issue, but it is never THE issue of the book.

Patterson has created another African American character as part of his Women's Murder Club series. Claire Washburn, the heavyset black female medical examiner for San Francisco, joins three white female professionals to solve crimes that have stumped the system. Patterson has published three novels featuring this team, the most re cent of which is 3rd Degree (Little, Brown and Company, March 2004). Like Cross, Washburn has a stable family and a comfortable middle-class lifestyle to put white readers at ease.

Evanovich released the 10th novel in her series about an inept bail enforcement agent in Trenton, New Jersey, Stephanie Plum, and her equally clueless sidekick Lula, a reformed black hooker, and Ranger, her inscrutable and mysterious, copper-skinned Cuban American colleague, who frequently comes to their rescue.

Most of Evanovich's characters are over-the-top caricatures played for laughs. Her pistol-packing, sex-crazed Grandma Mazur is a hoot. Lula is straight out of central casting--black, fat, bug eyed and ignorant--a supersized Butterfly McQueen in a size 12 miniskirt.

Here is a typical scene for Lula and Stephanie in Ten Big Ones (St. Martin's Press, June 2004). The two are standing outside a deli debating lunch choices, when Stephanie asks Lula if she is still "officially a filing clerk" in the bail bonds office.

"Heck no," Lula said. "That's so-o-o boring. Do I look like a file clerk to you?"

Actually, Lula still looked like a hooker. Lula's a full-bodied black woman who favors animal print spandex enhanced with sequins, I figured Lula didn't want to hear my fashion opinion, so I didn't say anything, I just raised an eyebrow.

By contrast, Evanovich's Ranger is a Latino version of Hawk, the darkly menacing, monosyllabic backup man Parker created for his Spenser detective series. Hawk, the baddest bad-ass black man to ever leap from the pages of a novel, has only one purpose in life--to play backup for Spenser, a wisecracking white P.I. most recently in Bad Business (Penguin USA, March 2004).

Both are testosterone-loaded stereotypes defined by an endless sup ply of slick cars, designer duds, cool sunglasses and big guns. Parker writes Hawk as the ultimate angry black man whose violence is held in check by a personal code of tough-guy honor shared only by Spenser. Where Hawk goes when he is not with Spenser is a mystery that Parker never tries to solve.

That is as it should be, says Anita Diggs, an agent at The Literary Group and former senior editor at Ballantine Books. "Mysteries are not supposed to be in-depth character analysis. Mystery is plot based and plot driven."

ROUNDING OUT THE PICTURE

The status of African Americans in popular literature has improved since Uncle Tom nobly suffered the pages of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Mark Twain created Jim, a runaway slave, as Huckleberry Finn's sidekick. These 19th-century efforts were followed in the 20th century by authors like William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, both white Southerners for whom black characters were more symbolic figures than fully rounded personalities.

Blockett says contemporary white writers do best when they are writing black characters as a white character. "If the character is just written without race in mind and you cast a black person in that role, then at least when race is not the counterpoint of the theme, you're not relying on stereotypes," Blockett says. "You can say the character may be a little vacant, but it probably comes closer than consciously setting out to say 'I'm going to write about being black in America.' That's when you're setting yourself up for failure."

So where do white writers get these black folk?

Patterson has said that for Alex Cross he drew on memories of a black family he knew as a child, the members of his household. Coincidentally, they very much mirror roles played by Sidney Poitier and more recently Denzel Washington.

Brockmann, who gained a following for her series based on a team of Navy SEALS, made her hardcover debut with Gone Too Far (Ballantine Books, July 2003), a romantic thriller featuring Alyssa Locke, a biracial female FBI agent as the heroine, and Sam, a white SEAL team member, as the hero. Any tension between these two is purely sexual.

For Brockmann, Alyssa's biracial background was part of an attempt to bring more diversity to the lives of romance readers, who are typically middle aged, white females living in the Midwest. Alyssa, according to Brockmann's description, is a done of the light-skinned actress Vanessa Williams. "Traditionally, the romance industry is filled with stories about really, really, really white people," Brockmann says. "I get charged up by differences, and I try to bring that to my books." Brockmann tries to give her characters substance by reading African American writers.

It is all about sales not idealism, says Diggs. "These writers see that African American characters are very popular right now, so they say 'Let me get my share of the market.' As a business decision, it makes perfect sense. There's nothing altruistic about it."

The problem is that few white writers can create black characters that strike black readers as vividly valued. Even more serious literary lights like Tom Wolfe often misses the mark more often than not. Wolfe won accolades for creating Reverend Bacon, a manipulative Harlem minister, in his novel Bonfire of the Vanities (Douglas and McIntyre Publishing Group, November 1987). That insight is missing in A Man in Full (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, November 1998) in which he offers up blacks straight out of central casting. Roger "Too" White, an uptight, self-hating lawyer, and Fareek Fanon, a college football star with ghetto roots.

The questions are do we as African Americans stomp on these writers for exploiting black characters and perpetuating negative stereotypes? Of do we applaud their efforts for at least trying to include people of color in the mainstream?

One African American, Bebe Moore Campbell, author of What You Owe Me (Berkley Publishing, September 2002), hesitates to applaud, but she says, "It is a step forward when they try."

Earni Young is a staff writer at the Philadelphia Daily News.
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Author:Young, Earni
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2004
Words:1689
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