Am I a Racist Author?

Dear Reader,

I got a nasty surprise yesterday when, idly browsing my sales, I decided to see if any new reviews had been submitted for my books on Barnes and Noble. Lo and behold, I got a one star rating for Catching the Rose and the title of the comment was “Racist?”

Believe me, when you see that word, in bold, associated with your book, especially when that was not the intent of it, you are fully aware of how silly you sound when you say “…whoa” while blinking at your computer screen.

The comment went on to say,

I’m sure “SLAVES” had a name so pray tell why didn’t this writer choose to use one. I couldn’t believe how many times the word was used. It really ruined the storyline.

Rather than taking this comment personally, I’m now trying to see it from the reader’s perspective. Yes, I do use the word “slave” multiple times in the first chapters of the book as a stylistic choice. I don’t name any of the main characters until they begin to meet one another:

  • Amy Williams is the “young woman in the blue bonnet.”
  • Veronica Vernon is the “blonde southern belle” with Nan, her quietly disapproving slave.
  • Mrs. Beaumont is the “woman sleeping upstairs” while her “housekeeper slave” Maum Sukie throws open the parlor drapes to the morning sun.

I’ve gotten comments on both sides about whether this nameless introduction was a good decision. The book, especially by today’s reading standards, begins very slowly, and I’ve been accused of being long-winded in my description. Obviously, the opening offended one reader, for which I am sorry. Surely that wasn’t my intent. However, I feel as though the reader should realize that Catching the Rose is set in the Confederacy during the opening months of the Civil War.  Slaves were slaves. They didn’t have names. Not ones their masters would bother remembering should the slave, for whatever reason, no longer be there. At least, the masters I was writing about acted that way.

Hell, in one account I found during my research, there was a woman who named all the female slaves one name and all the male slaves another just to make it easy to remember. I know people who treat their dogs like that. The family dog Bingo dies, they buy another dog of the exact same breed, and name it Bingo. Not Bingo the Second, because that acknowledges that there was a precursor Bingo. No, just Bingo. As if Bingo had never left.

I know I will never have a chance to discuss this issue with the reader I offended. I doubt they will ever read another of my books, which is a shame, and the risk one takes when deciding to become an author. But I do want to make it clear that I’m not a racist. If anything, I wanted to be true to the era.

I would like to mention that I am, according to the US Census, a black woman. Well, I’m mixed race, but if you were to see me walking down the street, your gut reaction, if you were thinking about the race of a woman walking past you, would be, “Now that’s one nerdy black woman. But man, has she got a quirky style.”

Ok, maybe not the nerdy part, or the quirky part. Though I will say my plastic-framed glasses are pretty awesome. But the point is, I am a woman of mixed race who is acutely aware of the way in which strangers perceive me. It isn’t a big deal, it’s happened my entire life whether I pay attention to it or not.

I understand that one could argue that simply because I’m this mixed race doesn’t mean that by default, I am not racist against one half of me. I could very well be a black woman racist against black people. It happens.

But if that is all you got out of Catching the Rose, then I’m guessing you didn’t read past the first two chapters. That’s ok, that’s your prerogative.

Just so you know, Nan, Veronica’s slave, plays an important supportive role when Veronica feels like she has been cut off from the world. One which enables Veronica to take an important, decisive action.

The fact is, I am disappointed that one reader felt so strongly that they wrote this comment in a public arena. I have had readers compliment this book for close to ten years; the re-release last year has been slow, but steady. How disheartening, to have someone accuse me of racism, when the point of the book is how important it is to fight for freedom of choice, whether it is in love, occupation, or simply living.

There is nothing I can do to prove I’m not racist. By saying I’m not, I come off as defensive, and if I don’t say anything, it’s seems as though I’m guilty by staying silent. So I come here to my blog to have a public record of my concerns on the matter, for better or worse.

All the best,

Belinda

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This is part of the ROW80 blog hop. I’m keeping my goals (750 words per week), are you? I’ve sucked at being a sponsor, though. Haven’t been leaving comments like I should. Will try to do better!

13 thoughts on “Am I a Racist Author?

  1. Well I haven't read Catching the Rose yet, but I am certain that you treated the subject with the exact right amount of reality. I've come to expect that of your historicals. I live in the deep south, Mississippi to be exact, and racism is a topic that (sadly) still comes up with regularity (usually by people not from here who are sticking their nose in to find problems that aren't actually problems). Absolutely racism is horrible. Certainly slavery was deplorable. But for God's sake, we can't go back and change history and we certainly SHOULDN'T ignore it. That's how history gets repeated. So I say bravo to you for sticking to your guns and portraying things accurately.

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    1. The thing with Catching the Rose is that it's heavy on the description… perhaps too much for most readers. I really wanted to stick to the 19th C style of novel writing. Which really shortens my reader list because I'm not a 19th C author!

      Anyway, I did try to be real, at least in terms of attitudes and emotions about the topic. I'm surprised that a person opened the book, knowing it was about a southern belle DURING THE CIVIL WAR, and took issue with me calling the slaves "slaves." Oh well. I'm glad I stuck to my guns. Seven years this book has been out, and I've never once had this complaint. Guess it was about time I got one, at least. 🙂

      Thanks for the support!

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  2. Well said, Kait 🙂

    The problems of the past do make rather sticky wickets for those of us who write about the past (especially when we choose to do so accurately) but I stick to what my favorite bumper sticker in college said: "Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it."

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    1. That's right! The book isn't even about slavery, not directly anyway. The characters themselves are very casual about it, which isn't very real to era, unfortunately. When I wrote Catching the Rose, I was seventeen years old and the topic was just a little too taboo for me yet. I made it known slavery existed, one of the main characters had a slave and didn't mistreat her, but she also made no attempt to free her. Just doesn't really occur to her.

      Anyway, anyone writing about the Civil War can't just ignore the slavery issue. Without slavery, the war wouldn't have happened, because the south wouldn't have seceded.

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    1. That's my thought as well. "Slave" is the accurate word, what did they want me to do, use the awful n-word? I hate even having to reference it. People do think Twain was a racist author. It's the mistake of projecting our modern sensibilities on history. It doesn't work.

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  3. I believe I shall hop out and read CATCHING THE ROSE so I can craft a review and push that mind-blinding 1-star further down the track. My book has multiple 4 and 5 stars, then a 1-star. It just came in this week. Was there a full moon? The reviewer obviously doesn't want me write in the vernacular, or to create scenes that depict life as it actually happened in the 1890's. I guess she wants an historical told with a contemporary voice and idioms. Sorry to disappoint, but that's not going to happen! Like Jennie Cruzie says, "give me 5 stars or give me 1 star, but never never never give me 3". She wants readers to either love it or hate it. That's her goal. So at least now we have the 1-star end of the spectrum taken care of!

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    1. Haha thanks Bailey, you don't have to do that! If you read the book, give it the review you think it deserves. Just know that it's a slower read than Haunting Miss Trentwood, if you've read that one.

      How can a reader expect you to write a book set in 1890 and NOT use the vernacular?? Sometimes I just get confused about things like that. It's like people don't realize that things were different in the "good old days." Very different.

      I like Cruzie's theory. Glad you've gotten it taken care of!

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  4. Belinda, I've found that no matter what you do or write, someone is going to take offense. I've gotten bad reviews on one of my books because it has no sex in it. I've gotten good reviews on the same book for the same reason. LOL

    It's not racism when you're just being historically correct. I'm like Kait, I live in the south, and it's a touchy subject around here. And to answer CM's question…many people do think Mark Twain was a racist author. Someone said the other day that Huckleberry Finn should be banned from schools. LIke Kait said, we can't change history. That's the way things used to be.

    You've got me a little worried about a book I started writing awhile back now. I may write a blog about that tomorrow and see what people think. There are parts that may be taken as racism, although that wasn't my intentiion.

    Don't let this get you down. You can't please everyone. And I know you're not a racist!

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    1. Very true. One reader loved Catching the Rose because it's so heavy on description. Yet another reader (via Goodreads) said she couldn't finish the book because the description slowed the plot down to a stop. It's a divisive book. I wrote Haunting Miss Trentwood to appeal to more readers, and it worked. Readers who find me through HMT will be split about CTR, that's for sure.

      I don't think you should worry about your book. I think maybe genre fiction suffers from this idea that it can't tackle heavier topics. To do so, one needs to be "literary." I call bull crap. There is a reader, somewhere, who will appreciate your work.

      I'm glad you think I'm not a racist! 🙂 I really appreciate everyone's comments.

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  5. You know, I don't even mind the one star, I know that book isn't for everyone. I experimented with a lot of things, the description, the opening, the topic and the historical event… it's not as palatable as Haunting Miss Trentwood, plain and simple.

    The name calling was much much worse than the one star rating. 🙂

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  6. Sometimes you just cannot win with people who make comments like that. You are writing fiction, granted it is historical and there is some element of fact, but what would the label have been if you had used some of the more colorful language of the time excessively. I personally look forward to reading you book. I dropped over today from the hop and found your site and have signed up to follow. There is always someone who will find something they don't like and will be nasty about it. I have some books that have been absolute favorites over the years and have read some incredibly awful comments and have to wonder are they reading the same book I am. Look past the negative, accept the thoughts you feel are helpful, and be happy with your achievement in being gifted enough to be able to write. Be well.

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    1. Thanks for your support, Denise! I do hope you enjoy Catching the Rose, should you read it. People seem to be loving Haunting Miss Trentwood, which makes me feel vindicated at least. I wrote Catching the Rose almost 10 years ago… I've been wondering lately if I should put it to pasture.

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