As A White Crime Writer, I Vetted My Manuscript For cultural appropriation

As A White Crime Writer, I Vetted My Manuscript For “Cultural Appropriation”

Give the recent controversy over “American Dirt” and cultural appropriation, Joe Gannon (a white mystery writer) researches what the notion means, and shares the advice he took from writers of color to “vet” his current novel. 

The recent controversy over the novel “American Dirt,”  by Jeanine Cummins raises again the specter of cultural appropriation, sensitivity readers, and the fraught question of who can write whom. It touched on my own writing as I had been researching what “cultural appropriation” means and the general controversy (of writers writing those who they are not) in regards to my own novel.

I doubt there would have been any controversy had Ms. Cummings received the usual $10,000 most of us get.  But that is a question of publishing, and marketing, not writing. Still, I wanted to vet my own writing against what I found; and in doing so see what and how such concerns affected my writing.  I don’t mean to enter the debate over “American Dirt” but it raised the question for me: What do I owe this debate? Am I under attack? It is artistic cowardice to even consider such things when writing?

But was this act of vetting my writing itself capitulation? Was I violating some inviolable right by even considering scrutinizing my own work?  The idea had come to me while reading the members discussion board on the Author’s Guild website dedicated to sensitivity readers. Much of the grousing was from white writers who felt they’d had a manuscript spiked by a sensitivity reader out of ‘political correctness’.  But there were few writers of color in the conversation.

So, I Googled, Why white writers should not write characters of color.

Frankly there was nothing out there. If you stay away from the general hysteria of Twitter and social media for opinion, rather than bloviating, there is little out there from anyone who would say so.

If the debate over ‘cultural appropriation’ and the use of ‘sensitivity readers,’ has any value other than a mindless, punitive censorship, it must have to do with good writing.  Indeed, the more I read up on it (on any medium other than social media) cultural appropriation is the condemnation of bad writing, not the inhibition of writing itself. (This was also true of the reviews I’d read of “American Dirt”.)

Overwhelmingly, the articles I found were much less about who can write what, and more about how to write characters of color, and avoid the insult of (liberal) racial stereotypes.   Some of the advice was highly specific: don’t use a food metaphor when describing characters of color, for example, unless you do so with white characters also.

If the debate over ‘cultural appropriation’ and the use of ‘sensitivity readers,’ has any value other than a mindless, punitive censorship, it must have to do with good writing.

When introducing a character, don’t highlight only the race of characters of color unless you explicitly do so for whites as well.  I’d found I had done this, once with the two main characters I’d described as “one was as cream white as the other was coffee black.” But later had only described other Africans in relation to food, “India tea with splash of cream” for example.

But most often the advice struck at the core of the debate: white writers should never use characters of color as mere cyphers: the native American whose only role is to impart wisdom to a white protagonist, the Asian martial arts expert, the “dignified, but long-suffering Negro.”  A recurring warning was against white writers who do a cringe inducing bad job at dialect – black English — the incessant dropping or “g” off gerunds for only non-white characters. (I noticed I’d done that only with my black character. Why? Because he was a former slave? Did I assume my character would not take pride in proper speech?)

Mentioned most often in the research I found was the command to avoid the “white savior” syndrome: that only white characters have the wherewithal to bring about the change required in the plot. Movies are most often faulted for this, think Avatar or Dances with Wolves; but novels like “the Blindside” and “To kill a mockingbird” or “The legend of Bagger Vance” were often mentioned.

In other words, most of the articles on cultural appropriation I could find were about the bad writing that white (liberal) writers had not been called on before. Not the outright racist writings of  Dixon’s “Birth of a Nation”, but the equally embarrassing racial stereotypes of “gleaming white teeth” of a black character, the “ya brotha fo sho” use of Black English.

The remedy mentioned again and again for these faux pas was research and agency. Research into the contemporary or historical background of the character, and agency in the need for the deep interior lives of your non-white characters who have an agenda other than the white protagonist’s. (An example of some highly specific advice from a black woman writer to white women writing contemporary black female characters: White writers should go to forums where black women speak openly about their lives and in a manner that might make the white writer feel uncomfortable, “But I ‘m not like that!” The white writer’s job, she said, was to take in the opinions of black women without passing them through the prism of “white consciousness” which might want to make them mope palatable.)

So, I tested my historical crime novel against that backdrop.

It began serendipitously enough: I’d come across an historical account of New York’s first sensational murder trial in 1800, that I was researching as the plot for a crime novel.  But I was in need of a detective. Then, one day, walking to town, my teenager stuck his headphones on me and said, “Listen to this.”  It was the soundtrack to “Hamilton.” I was taken by the music and listening over the next few days I caught the name of a minor character, Hercules Mulligan, and, I thought, Ridiculous, no one could be named that.

But some Googling quickly showed, in fact, that Hercules Mulligan was indeed as portrayed, a master spy– earning even a page on the CIA’s website. An Irish immigrant and Manhattan’s most renowned tailor, Mulligan had been a mentor to Alexander Hamilton when the latter had arrived a penniless immigrant. After Hamilton had become George Washington’s chief of staff during the Revolutionary War, he’d recruited Mulligan to be a ‘confidential correspondent’ in Manhattan.  And Mulligan had gone on to provide intelligence that saved Washington’s life, twice: once form a kidnapping, and again from assassination.

It began serendipitously enough: I’d come across an historical account of New York’s first sensational murder trial in 1800, that I was researching as the plot for a crime novel.

This was my Eureka! Moment.   An historical person, with a name like that, who’d been a spy, and thus had the skills needed to be New York’s first private eye?  Mulligan would’ve been about 60 in 1800 (he died in 1825), and so still spry enough to do the job. All I need do is insert him into the historical murder mystery.

But the more I read, the more something caught my eye – in most accounts of Mulligan’s daring-do during the war (including once being arrested and interrogated by none other than Benedict Arnold) passing reference was made to his  “Negro courier” who smuggled all that intelligence out of Manhattan and into Washington’s hands: the surname-less Cato.

Mulligan’s slave, or more often, “loyal slave.”

Little else was said about Cato, as it was with most slaves, women and the illiterate or pre-literate in history.   But again, just the names! Hercules and Cato? It would seem impossible for the modern crime writer to invent such names and such a relationship: master and slave serving a slave-owning general?

But the historical veracity of their names and deeds during the Revolutionary War made for an irresistible temptation: could I pull it off? Could I make them — Black and white, former master and slave — willing partners?  Private eyes, all those years after the war? What would the modern reader, let alone the writer, in our time of sensitivity readers make of such a complex relationship, and can a white writer like me pull it off?

Or did I even need to? My story is set in early 1800 – seventeen years after the war’s end and on the eve of New York’s abolishing slavery. I could plausibly leave Cato out of the story – and thus avoid the live wire of “cultural appropriation.” Or would that silence Cato once again? (Or is assuming I can give this forgotten black hero a voice itself cultural appropriation? At some point we just have to not go down the rabbit hole and get to writing!)

Also, in truth, a commercial consideration loomed:  As with all crime fiction, a series is the golden fleece – as Mulligan would’ve been near 60 in 1800, any series would have to work backwards towards the revolutionary war, his work as a spy, and so entangle the story, and me, in the personal history of two men who began as master and slave.

Unless I just let that cup pass me by. A little “whitewashing” of their history and I could leave Cato out of the story completely.

It might turn out to have been hubris, but I did not hesitate to make the two men partners, and eventually decided to add Mulligan’s wife, Elizabeth, an English aristocrat who came to America only to marry a rebel named Hercules.  If a motely crew is one of the requirements for good characters, I had an Irish rebel, a former African slave, and an English lady turned turncoat.

First, then, research:  precedent for Cato’s service to, first, the historical record and his role in spying for Washington beyond being a slave serving his master; and second, my fictional  need to have Cato partner with Mulligan as a private eye, or a “Watcher” as I call them,  after Independence was won.

First, the general story of Blacks fighting for the rebels. Some 9,000 Africans had served the Continental Army, some slave, some free, about half of them in combat roles. Their average length of service was 4.5 years, about twice as long as white volunteers.  On the other hand, some 20,000 Africans, some free, but mostly enslaved, had served the British, mostly as laborers, on the promise of freedom in the event the British won, and transportation to Canada if they lost.  (There was one British combat unit, a vanity project called The Ethiopian Regiment.)

So, there was historical justification for Africans taking up the rebel cause – but in the ranks. How would Cato have come to find his own reasons for serving? Knowing the value of the intel he carried, why would a slave forgo what would’ve been fantastic rewards for selling out the man who enslaved him? (And here I was indebted to the Booker short listed “Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan, which is set in that very part of Canada, Nova Scotia, where the freed slaves who’d served the British during the Revolution had been dumped by them. Their lot, decades, later was a sorry one: abandoned by the British and despised by the locals, they eked out a desperate living in the margins of a marginal land.)

So, from whence would Cato’s “patriotism” have come? Again, I sought historical precedent for my imaginative world, and the example of Phyllis Wheatley immediately sprang to mind.  Wheatley was one of America’s first great poets and certainly its first and most famous African one. Born in Africa she’d been taken as a slave while a child and raised in Boston by the proverbial “kindly master” and was celebrated here and in Britain for precociousness with verse. (She was freed in 1778.)

Her poems to Washington during the revolution are almost saccharine in their praise of the man who was both leading the revolution and a prominent slave owner himself. While Wheatley’s verse contains many references to the “sable souls”, there is no bitter irony that she joyfully supported the cause of liberty in a country steeped in slavery.

Having found historical precedent for my imaginings, the exceptional challenge was to give agency to Cato. And agency requires far more imagining than mere historical precedent. And it is where, I suspect, the greatest challenge comes for a writer writing an other they are not. To imagine the inner life of that other.

So, what would Cato want? He was a slave and wanted his freedom. So, what might have been the effect on someone like Cato from reading the Declaration of Independence?  How would his own agency present in such a scene?

So, I wrote one set in 1799 — Cato attends “a free-colored church” where he also gathers intel – and recalls that day:

Cato was no fool. He knew that when it came to Negroes and slavery there was no difference between colonials and kings, Americans and Britishers.   But that day – That day, as he still thought of it – in ‘76 when he’d read a smuggled copy of the Declaration, his breath had caught in his throat.   That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator… with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The pursuit of happiness!  How that still brought a smile to his face.   The genius of the phrasing – a meaning that could only ripen over time.  He’d known Thomas Jefferson and the rest of them weren’t talking about him, not even about white women — they weren’t even talking about all white men! They were talking about themselves – planters, merchants, doctors and lawyers (even tailors!)  — and how they loved to talk about that.  All their woes and how they suffered under British tyranny as if paying taxes to your sovereign lord, even for a thousand-thousand years, could outweigh a single day under the yoke, a single sting of the lash… Cato had instantly recognized the error of those Declarationists, it was this:  they could not control the destiny of such words, anymore they could the nation they’d just created.  The dream of freedom they had dreamed was bigger than ever they could imagine.

So, he’d stayed to wait it out, and then Hamilton’s letter had come.

First, I assume Cato was both literate and a skilled craftsman – the former was not unknown, as we see with Wheatley in Massachusetts, or Frederick Douglass in Maryland. And the latter was simply true everywhere: wherever there were slaves, most of the skilled labor was done by them too: tailor, wood worker, blacksmith or cane cutter.  Second, that Cato was as capable of critical thinking as any white colonial would’ve been at a time when Americans were among the most literate and most informed people in the world, with more newspapers and weekly journals than most European nations had, and that were not subject to royal censorship.

So, the agency I give Cato is that he had his own agenda both for serving as Washington’s spy, and later, fictionally, as a Watcher and Mulligan’s partner. Cato reflects on those years of war:

They were heady times those revolution days. White New Yorkers didn’t know it, but in rebellion they hadn’t thrown off their chains so much as become more like their own slaves:  having to hide your innermost thoughts and truest self from those with the power of life and death.   Sowing and nurturing a thousand lies, each of which must be ready to be harvested in an instant. And watching above all – watching, watching everything and everyone, hearing all and knowing all.   A successful slave was like a successful spy: an all-seeing eye and an all-knowing mind hidden behind a mask of brute ignorance.

And so, when the letter came secretly to Mulligan from Hamilton (another one who loved to hear himself talk about himself) it was the slave who’d shown the master how to take up the dangerous course of confidential correspondent.  Cato merely demonstrated how every slave got by every day. 

This gave Cato his own agency: his decision to throw in with the rebels was not misguided patriotism, nor false consciousness, it was a bet that doing so would serve his plan for self-liberation better than going over to the British.

That took care of Cato’s actions during the war.

But my story is set almost two decades later.

…I was under no illusion that manumission or abolition was the same as equal rights and justice for all.

Neither I nor the modern reader could accept an enslaved Cato carrying on in bondage after the war. Could I, through research, establish Cato was free during the time of the novel? Again, it would have to be via the known history of the white characters, giving the dearth of firsthand knowledge about Cato. (Even the sole biography of Mulligan, from 1934 “The Confidential Correspondent,” made little mention of Cato) Both Mulligan and Alexander Hamilton were founders of the New York manumission society – a woeful middle ground for modern readers, that the best route to freedom was for the enslaved to “pay back” the masters they had served for decades.

But there it was, historical precedent for Cato’s otherwise unwritten story. And I was under no illusion that manumission or abolition was the same as equal rights and justice for all. For people like Hamilton the debate was not over freedom but labor – would the newly minted United States be built on slave labor or free? The question was entirely political and economic.

So, it was quite plausible that during the time of the novel he is a free man. What would he do with that freedom? Again, I looked to research and found two signs that pointed the way: first, New York was the major port where slaves would run away, especially is they were returning with their owners from Europe. Boston, on the other hand, was avoided by slavers like it was hung with a cholera flag, so famed was it for helping slaves flee.  Second, the life of a free black was not an envious thing. Their movements, rights to property, restrictions on voting, where to live. curfews etc. made them a “controlled” group of free blacks in a slave-based system.

So, what would Cato do with his freedom?

As I struggled with that answer, I began to realize that I was only now approaching what writers of color mean when they talk about white writers and appropriating characters of color:  all of my choices were based on research and agency. But the result of those choices, of wanting to have this black character play such a vital role, was that I now had to honor what that decision meant – where it took the story.  If Cato was not to be a mere cypher, some “color” tossed in the story, then I had to acknowledge his and Mulligan’s long friendship was the emotional core of my novel.

I either had to re-write the novel to put that friendship at the core, or eject Cato from the story all together. And that is a lot of damn hard work, trade craft work.

And I believe that is the point.


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