First off, I have to say that I looooved A Thousand Never Evers by Shana Burg. Not in the same personal way as Peggy, but I thought the story was just so simple and tween and had so much character development and honesty and…I just loved it. Any parts that I thought sounded inauthentic, I must have skimmed, especially the name of the town. I have read enough civil rights books and enough historical fiction to know that this is a book that reminds you that historical fiction is fun to read when it’s done well. That being said, I want to talk about the fact that the author is white.
Jen mentioned that this book “set the blogosphere on fire” when it was published. I’m sure she’s right, but I’m having a hard time finding those posts. What I have found are some honest interviews done by the author, as well as a blog post by the author discussing racism especially in relation to the presidential campaign that was taking place at the time. I am sure that Barack Obama’s candidacy and subsequent election only made the debate over this stronger. As a country, everyone was already talking about whether we are living in a post-racial society. It is clear from Shana Burg’s blog post about race bias based on a conversation with a white man raised in the South that race is still important. I don’t want to open a whole can of worms regarding the definition of post-racial society and what that means. So for now, I’m not going to worry about it. But I still wonder: is there a difference between a white woman writing from a black perspective and a black man writing from a white perspective?
Because there are no good statistics on where this has occurred, I’m mostly thinking about A Thousand Never Evers in comparison to Guardian, the book about a lynching written by Julius Lester from a the perspective of a young white boy. He writes in the author’s note that he chose to write from a white perspective because he ” wasn’t interested in writing something that would enable whites to shed crocodile tears for blacks” (from Author’s Note of Guardian, full text here). Julius Lester is an established writer, especially of books about African-American history, many for young readers. And Guardian is written extremely well. The review on Booklist mentions that Julius Lester has chosen to write from the perspective of a white teenager. But I doubt that anyone is saying that the author does not have an authentic perspective or can’t authentically write from the perspective of a person who is not his race. Now, maybe I’ve missed the complaints. It’s also possible that few people feel comfortable accusing this man, who has written a thought-provoking book this time around and has consistently produced other interesting, well-written books, most often from an African-American perspective. Or maybe it’s just because it’s believed to be easier to imitate a white point-of-view, mostly because whites are still the majority culture, much as they were during the era Lester is writing about. But I am still mildly offended by Lester’s comment in his author’s note. I understand where he’s coming from, where he feels that his experiences growing up aware of lynching have not been adequately represented. That’s fine. Still, he makes an assumption about white people and how they respond to books about lynching written from the perspective of blacks. Personally, I’m a little insulted, even if he has encountered people like those he is speaking of. I still like Guardian and I’m glad he took a chance writing it. We need the white perspective on these crimes and times, too.
I think what ties these books together (aside from the cross-cultural perspective) is that both authors are very open about the fact that they are not the same race as their protagonist. This is in contrast to some authors who write from the perspective of the opposite gender, who often use their initials. One who comes to mind is A.M. Jenkins, author of many books about teenage boys such as Night Road, Repossessed, and Damage. It took me a lot of searching to find out the author’s first name is Amanda, though you can’t tell she’s a woman from her writing, or her bio on the book jacket, for that matter. If Burg or Lester had done the same thing, obscuring their race, I am sure there would have been hell to pay. I’m grateful that they did, but I doubt that most tweens will care in the same way adults do. And I’m hoping that their not caring means good things for the future of our country, that has such an ugly history of Jim Crow, as evidenced in both of these books.