Many months ago I thought of a story that would make for some good dramatic content. It would also give me a chance to express my views on race relations, ethnic identity, and the “human condition” in general. In the wake of the Ferguson riots, it seems like this is an appropriate time to write it.
The only thing is, I’m concerned about just how to pull it off. I don’t want to be deemed “inappropriate” or “insensitive.” Let me explain the concept, and you will see why I’m worried about this.
It all started when I found myself reminiscing about high school, and I remembered this kid named Jahmal. He was black, but he hung out with the skateboard kid crowd, which (except for him) was all white. He and I were friends. In my mind, that was the only way I defined him: a friend. It never dawned on me to call him “the black skateboarder” or anything like that. Jahmal was just another kid in the crowd. No more, no less.
Then my memory did a fast forward, and I found myself thinking about the mother of my twins. She is also black. At one point in our relationship, she revealed that she had dated mostly white guys. It turned out that other black people mocked her for this, calling her “Oreo.” (For those of you who don’t immediately get that insult and need it spelled out: Oreo cookies are black outside, white inside.)
This got me thinking: Jahmal and the twins’ mother were not 100% accepted by people of their own ethnicity because they mingled with “the other,” but then again I bet “the other” didn’t accept them entirely either. I’m sure there were moments in their lives where they were called “N” by some white people. After realizing this, one question immediately popped into my mind: what kind of effect would this have on someone as they grow up? You are criticized by both your own ethnicity and your “adopted” one (for lack of a better term). How do you handle that?
As I raised these questions I realized this would make one hell of a story, so I started to imagine characters and a setting. The setting came first: since this was all triggered by my memory of Jahmal, I would set it in high school. (Teenagers are VERY susceptible to identity crisis.) Developing characters would be no challenge either: I would base them on Jahmal, myself, and the rest of the skateboarding crowd. Most of the tale would deal with Jahmal and the troubles he faced. Naturally the story would have to reach some kind of critical mass, the dramatic moment that Hemingway called “the moment of truth.” This was where I stalled out. In fact, I still haven’t figured out what this should be because then ANOTHER problem came to mind.
Simply put: I’m not black.
I have this uncanny ability to look ahead and see what problems I might face with something down the line, and you don’t need to be able to see TOO FAR ahead to predict the kind of backlash I’d deal with for writing a story like this. What does my white ass know about being an oppressed black man, right? Of course, it’d be easy enough to counter such arguments with logic: Do you think everyone who wrote a Vietnam story was a Vietnam vet? Is every fictional Holocaust story written by a Holocaust survivor? However, it’s a good bet people would dismiss such a rebuttal. When it comes to issues of race, these defenses just don’t work.
Then I hit upon a good idea…a GREAT idea…the ONLY idea that I think will make this work.
If you have ever read the book ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, then you know that it was narrated by Chief Bromden. (For the movie, they changed it because the attention needed to be on Jack Nicholson’s mind-blowing performance.) Even though Randall Patrick McMurphy was the center of the action, it was NOT told from his point of view. Instead it was told by Bromden, an observer to all of McMurphy’s antics.
There was my answer.
I could tell the story from the perspective of one of Jahmal’s skateboarder friends. Then the story might not get blasted as much because I’m not writing as if I were Jahmal; I am writing as an outside looking in, one who is empathetic to Jahmal’s plight.
I believe this solves the issue of how to write it. Do you agree? Disagree? It would be great to hear people’s thoughts on this one.
But even if I am past that hurdle, one more remains: how do I end it?