Sunday, June 4, 2017

Coalhouse Walker (Part 2): Writing Black Characters

I can only see Coalhouse's anger (in E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime) as righteous indignation. Doctorow as a white writer in the 1970s, allowed for that reading, even if it's not how his white contemporaries may have read it. 

What right does a white writer have to write black characters? How good of a writer do you have to be to write something this timeless about anything, let alone race in America?

I am not Doctorow. I don't generally write about black people. When I wrote fiction, some characters "happened to be black," but  this was probably a disservice. Following that recognition, there became so much I want to say about our time that I felt ill-equipped to say. 

I used to love the idea of adopting a black child from my local area, not because she would be black, but because I recognized (I thought practically) that this would be one way to make a family without bringing a whole new life into an already difficult world. 

Sonia criticized the fantasy saying, "the only reason you think you can raise a black child is because you're white." As an Asian person who has experienced only a fraction of the racism and challenges experienced by other minorities, she'd never presume to raise a black child. 

What can a white, queer writer contribute the conversation about race in America and in my own city? If I do not have the right to raise and love a child of another race, what right do I have to create a representation of blackness that (dare I hope) may pulse and vibrate like Coalhouse, with life beyond the author's? 

Who is served if politically active, socially liberal white writers cannot write black characters? Surely the only white voices cannot be the bigoted ones; that's serving exactly no one. 

In the most recent episode of With Friends Like These, Ana Marie Cox interviews W. Kamau Bell and he tells white people to handle ourselves, calling out racism when we hear it and advocating for a new narrative of whiteness. 

This resonated with me because I recognize that there is not a strong narrative for the "good white person," while the white supremacist is a familiar character. We need names for things, and leaders, in order to inspire. 

If I'm to follow W. Kamau Bell's advice as a writer, the task becomes not writing black characters but trying to find empathy or insight in my parents' view of the world. 

That feels more foreign to me. I've ridden the wave into adulthood on the premise that the old white, Christian tale of America was simplistic and ignorant, the result of brainwashing or fear. 

It is easier to see my black neighbor or the Coalhouse character as sympathetic humans than it is to see my own parents, with all of their ingrained prejudice and homophobia, as sympathetic humans. 

But who said being a writer was easy?

Coalhouse Walker (Part 1): Real Characters


Into this waiting-to-move period, I've injected an old favorite: Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow. Before I opened the book this time, I remembered loving the book but I did not remember the story. I got to fall in love all over again.

The book is a collage of the early-1900s. Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Emma Goldman make appearances. Two families, one upper-middle class and the other new immigrants, meet these giants of their time in likely, sometimes inconsequential scenarios.

Because there are so many "real" characters in the book, you imagine Doctorow researching and discovering all of the characters: Father, the executive at the fireworks factory, self-empowering Mother and the revolutionary Younger Brother. Tetah the artist who makes it big and his little girl. Their lives elevate to be as important to the course of history as all the names a reader in 2017 still recognizes.

When I last read the book, Emma Goldman was not familiar to me. Now that I know her as a historical figure, the book reads differently: as though any character, if you explore enough old newspaper articles, could come to life and be proclaimed as "real."

This brings me to the central character: Coalhouse Walker. In this reading, I was sure he was a historical figure. Following humiliation at the hands of the local all-white fire department, Coalhouse and his men (a ragtag team of 3-4 black youth and one middle-aged white man) barricade themselves with explosives inside the library and museum of J. P. Morgan. The metaphor is simply too perfect. I wanted to believe it.

From a NYTimes article written shortly after the book was published: "Asked if this angry black man were a real person Mr. Doctorow said, 'There are several hundreds of thousands of Coalhouse Walkers in this country.'" (Article here.)

But Coalhouse Walker entered the novel as a polite and proud black man determined to marry a young maid who was already the mother of his child. It was only through humiliation and his insistence on his own humanity and worthiness that he became indignant, and ultimately dead at the hands of his oppressors.

I believe in the reality of Coalhouse Walker, as unique or as aggregate, as both human and metaphor. I wonder if many black readers also believe in him.