White Authors & Black Characters

I have recently discovered the marvelous work of Nnedi Okorafor, about which I’ll blog more later, but this led me to her insightful analysis of Stephen King and what she calls his “Super-Duper Magical Negroes.” I have heard this expression before. I believe it started with Henry Louis Gates (now best known as that college professor arrested for trying to enter his own home), and once Rush Limbaugh co-opted the trope I wanted nothing to do with it.

However, this keeps coming back to haunt me, because I realize, whenever it comes up, that I could be held up as an example of a white author using this narrative device. Sekou, a.k.a., “Charlie” in Mamba Point holds up to all five of Okorafor’s five criteria:

  1. He or she is a person of color, typically black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.
  2. He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
  3. He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.
  4. He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.
  5. He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.

My book takes place in Liberia, but since it is primarily concerned with white characters and white experience in West Africa, I think it’s fair to call Sekou a person of color (from mine, and Linus’s point of view). Sekou does not die, but does take risks and make sacrifices to help the hero. He is not uneducated or disabled, and he does not occupy an especially low position compared to others in his world, but he could be seen as poor compared to the white occupants of the Mamba Point neighborhood where he sells his art.

I felt Sekou deeply as a character when I was writing Mamba Point, and gave him a rich back story that did not make it to the final copy, but I can’t imagine that if anyone were reading it with an eye to compiling a list of middle-grade novels which committed this particular cliche and offense, I would be found innocent.

I don’t think I need to apologize for having written a heartfelt quasi-autobiographical book about Liberia, and I feel I avoided some of the traps white authors fall into when writing about Africa, but Okorafor’s essay and the trope of “the magical negro” in general keeps me mindful of the limitations of my own experience, of vision narrowed by white privilege, and especially how, when given my own experiences to mine for literary material, I still subconsciously go instead to the frameworks and archetypes of other white authors.

The ultimate test for me is to have writers I admire read my books and like them, and so now, though I’d love to say to Ms. Okorafor, “I’ve also written magical realism set in Africa!” and hope she’s intrigued, I would rather she didn’t read my book, because of Sekou and the SDMN problem.

I’ll just try to do better next time. I’m writing a book now largely set in the Caribbean, realizing all of the dangers of doing so, but unable to shake these imaginary people from my head. I can accept my own limitations of experience, but I cannot forgive myself for using tropes or cliches of the Caribbean that are already identified as tropes and cliches; that just comes down to be knowledgeable of the region and its literary treatment, which every author should do when they set out to write a book in a particular vein.

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