Until the last couple of decades, the list of mysteries that featured a black female as the central sleuth was short. Thankfully, the list is now growing. Authors of every stripe seem to be more willing and able to bring their audience nontraditional, atypical characters who live and perform in more unpredictable ways. We no longer need to spoon feed readers the tired and worn images of the past. Indie publishers are certainly taking full advantage of that.
Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series immediately leaps to mind when thinking about this new crop of black female central characters. It certainly seems the most popular of the bunch. But McCall Smith’s character, while black, is still a detective, not an amateur sleuth. And since she is Botswanan, and the series takes place in Botswana, the reason for Smith’s character to be black is clear.
Yes, I said the reason she is black. Let me explain.
I spent a year in a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Part of the application process was to submit writing samples, multiple short stories and portions of novels. I had a pile of things that formed the basis of my application. Based on those writings, the school made their selections and it seemed clear their choices were, at least partly, based on an apparent desire to complete some kind of social type checklist.
There was the lesbian writer, the gay male, the rape victim, the in-recovery-from-drug-or-alcohol-addicted person, the privileged upbringing perspective, the depressed and angst filled writer, a few others whose place in the social strata I didn’t understand, and me, the black or mixed race female.
I learned quickly that I was expected to write about being black. My stories, in my professors’ eyes, were meant to educate about the black experience. My stories needed to have some element of racism. They had to show the turmoil of black life, gang affiliation, include an abusive father or lover, illustrate life on welfare, the struggle to leave the ghetto, or the struggle to come to terms with being bi-racial. At one point, I was asked to illustrate how difficult it must be to be bi-racial, something I knew nothing about.
In short, everything I wrote had to contain something that fit the stereotype of a writer of color or I wasn’t digging deep enough or I was afraid to expose my true feelings. The struggle, in whatever form it took, was an acceptable reason for my characters’ blackness.
No matter how many times I called “bullshit” to that requirement, I couldn’t shuck the assumption that if I didn’t include some kind of racial tension in my stories, I had failed. The problem was none of those situations fit my life or the lives of my characters.
While being a woman of color does play a role in my life, it is not the driving force behind my decisions. I have never been on welfare, have never lived in the ghetto and being bi-racial has never been a thing. I don’t enter into each new relationship wondering how a person will treat me because of my color. Why then should my writing be focused on it? My characters happen to be black, but their race does not define them.
I’ll never forget one rejection I received while my first mystery was shopped around. The editor, after praising the writing and the story, wrote, “She’s a soldier. She’s black. So what?”
To that, I wanted to say, “He’s a white man. He’s a detective. So what?”
The “so what?” should be, is the character three dimensional? Is the mystery compelling? Are you drawn in, do you care, and most of all, is the writing any good?
According to at least one editor, beyond those things, my character needed a reason to be something other than white.
Well, I call bullshit on that.
I quit the MFA program after a year. It was too expensive and I had found myself searching for ways to satisfy my professors’ requirements, like writing about a prostitute, a woman whose husband was a control freak and about children left to raise themselves while their mother worked. When I started outlining a story about a drug addicted, abused woman—an existence I know absolutely nothing about—I decided I’d had enough.
Write what you know. Isn’t that what we’re always told? Well, that’s what I’m doing. I’ll write strong, black female characters. Sometimes they will run into issues with dating, problems with coworkers and maybe on rare occasions, face discrimination. That said, their race will not be the central motivator in their lives or their stories.
What I can guarantee is that the central character of the Master Sergeant Harper mysteries will run into murder, mayhem, shifty characters, dangerous situations, sexy men and challenges that test her metal. I would hope the situations I put her in combined with some decent writing, might be enough to create a compelling enough reason for my character to be a soldier, to be female and to be of color.