"Maybe they didn't have black people back then."

It’s International Blog Against Racism Week, and it FINALLY motivated me to do something I’ve been thinking about doing for a long time: research people of color in my era and setting of choice, Regency England.

I’ve written three manuscripts and I’m starting a fourth, and guess what? I haven’t written a single black character, or Indian character, or Egyptian character, or even a Jewish character (and I’m Jewish myself). I haven’t written a single character who isn’t white and Christian. Not even a minor character or an extra in a crowd scene, unless you count having my heroine bank with Rothschild that one time.

Why is that? Well, the most obvious, easy answer is that the minority populations of England weren’t as large during the early nineteenth century as they are today. Many of the big waves of immigration from different areas of the Empire hadn’t happened yet. And that’s true. But I think there are three factors that are far more important than that one:

1) My default is white. I wish this wasn’t true, but it is. If I have to describe a random housemaid or the heroine’s friend from finishing school or a sailor on the docks or a doctor or a land agent or a waitress or any of the huge cast of supporting characters that are inevitably created for any novel, it doesn’t occur to me unless I consciously think about it that THEY COULD BE A PERSON OF COLOR.

Even Victorian Thackeray did better than that in his historical novels–just off the top of my head, there was an African page boy in History of Henry Esmond and a mixed-race student at Miss Pinkerton’s in Vanity Fair. (Of course, both of those portrayals were racist, but that’s hardly an excuse for my own whitewashing.) English society in 1815 was a lot more homogenous than it is now, but it was also a lot less homogenous than I’ve depicted it in my books.

Why do I say “supporting characters” up there? Because there’s no way I know enough about nineteenth-century non-white-British cultures to write a story from the point of view of someone from one of those cultures. No way at all. Which leads me to:

2) I don’t write characters of color because I don’t have the knowledge base to write historical characters of color well, to give them the detail and the verisimilitude and the voice and life that every character needs.

Research for writing historical novels is an on-going process; no matter how many books I’ve read or how much I think I know about the Regency, every time I sit down to write I realize there’s another gaping hole in my information. When is a cavalry officer allowed to wear his uniform off-duty? I asked myself a few days ago, and I had no idea. I know quite a lot about historical accounting and poaching and new farming methods in Norfolk thanks to In for a Penny, and right now I’m busy researching bluestockings and the internal workings of the Whig party for my next book, but when the time comes to write the next book I’ll have to do a whole new set of research.

Since ALL of my information about the time period is acquired from books and fellow research geeks, and I don’t have general knowledge based in life experience the way I do about the modern world, I know nothing about Regency communities of color because…

I’ve never researched Regency communities of color. Because I never really thought about it, and I can get away with never thinking about it.

3) Writing characters of color is scary, because if you do it wrong people might get upset. If you just don’t write them, it is hard for people to get upset at you, because you blend in with all the other books that give the impression that the entire world is white.

I’m not happy writing books set in the All-White World anymore. So:

Here are some awesome Regency-set books written by white people that include major characters of color, as inspiration and example:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. The character in question is the wonderful Stephen Black, an extremely competent butler who, to his great dismay, becomes the favorite friend of a cruel and capricious fairy ruler. Stephen is awesomely realized, and oh yeah, he saves England in the end.

Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series includes a variety of characters from different parts of the world (in particular, China and Africa).

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson. This one is actually set in the US in the period leading up to the Revolutionary War, but it’s so great I included it anyway. It’s about a little boy who gradually realizes that he is a slave and that his entire upbringing is an experiment by Enlightenment philosophers and scientists to determine whether Africans are inferior to Europeans. It’s brilliant and inventive and the historical voice is amazing.

Here are the research books I just ordered:

Black London: Life Before Emancipation, by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina. “Alongside migrants from all over Europe, Georgian London supported a community of more than 10,000 blacks. Theirs is the story that Ms. Gerzina, who teaches at Vassar College, tells with great clarity.” – New York Times Book Review

Immigration, ethnicity, and racism in Britain: 1815-1945, by Panikos Panayi.

And here are the ones I put on my wishlist:

Black Experience and the Empire.
Black Writers in Britain: 1760-1890.
Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing and Empire, 1780-1830. Yes, I’m a geek, I can’t help it! Too bad textbooks like this are so expensive.
Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History.

If anyone can recommend good Regency romances with characters of color and/or good research reading on the subject, please do!

And here are some blog posts that brought home to me the importance of creating a multicultural world in my stories. They’re about science fiction and fantasy because I read a lot of geeky blogs, but I think the principle is the same.

This one is about Uhura in the new Star Trek movie. I’ve always found it really, really difficult to describe or articulate how this invisibility feels, how it affects you and the way that you view and experience media. I remember someone posted a one page article or somesuch wherein all of the actors in STXI had just one little soundbyte type quotation about their character and their feelings about the original version. John Cho’s was him noting that his reaction to Sulu was essentially: “OMG AN ASIAN GUY IS ON TV.”

This one is a moving essay about the Earthsea trilogy and how it felt to the author to finally read a fantasy story with characters of color in it. Seriously, read this. I cried. But I remember Dad saying, how come you never see anybody like that in the stories you like? And I remember answering, maybe they didn’t have black people back th
en. He said there’s always been black people. I said but black people can’t be wizards and space people and they can’t fight evil, so they can’t be in the story.

Musings on Race in Fantasy or: Why Ron Weasley isn’t Black. This poster rambles a bit, but he makes some points that resonated with me, as a white author. No writer would dream of suggesting that a black person couldn’t be beautiful, but our “generic” idea of beauty is pale and blonde, just like our “generic” idea of boyish charm is a freckly redhead and our “generic” idea of a wise man is a white guy with a long beard and a pointed nose.

I want to change, and I’m going to try. I know I’ll probably make a lot of mistakes, but I think that’s better than staying where I am, and hopefully, when I do mess up, I’ll be able to apologize, think about it, and do better next time.

6 thoughts on “"Maybe they didn't have black people back then."”

  1. You might want to also try Simon Schama's ROUGH CROSSINGS. It's mostly about black responses to the American Revolution, but it goes a bit beyond that into the British abolition movement in the decades that followed, and the experiences of blacks in London in the late 18th century.

  2. I’m just finding this entry after doing a google search for romances with characters of color.
    I can understand your fear of not writing a character of color ‘correctly’, and I guess if you were a fantasy writer, this would be less of a point, but the only thing I can say is write them anyway. Please.
    Because a character of color is , first and foremost, a character. A heroine, hero, villain, catalyst, whatever. You get in their head the same way. They have loves and fears as any other character, though their outlook may be shaped by how they are judged by the world around them, that is not all they are or all they experience. Please write characters of color. Please. It would be a shame to let fear interrupt what could be a great story.
    – gina (a reader (who happens to be of color))

    1. Thanks, gina! That’s really helpful to hear, because I completely agree with you. I’m working on it! I think it will be a while before I’m comfortable taking on a hero or heroine of color but my next book, A Lily Among Thorns, will have several bit players of color and I’m hoping to include a more major character in my third book, although that one’s still in the brainstorming stages at the moment.
      If you come across any great Regency romances with major characters of color in your search, pass them along!

  3. I read “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” basically on the strength of this entry — well, that and the fact that my roommates own it. It was fantastic. I could not put it down, even though it weighs about 15 pounds. So thank you for the recommendation.
    The Wikipedia entry expressed something (actually a bunch of things, including this) that I had vaguely appreciated but not put into words: “In the end, it is Strange and Norrell who are trapped in everlasting darkness while the silenced women, people of colour, and poor whites defeat the antagonist.” Strange and Norrell, who thought they were pulling the strings, never even learned what happened. WICKED.

    1. Wasn’t it great? You should read the collection of short stories set in the same world (but in a variety of time periods), Ladies of Grace Adieu. A lot of the stories are about women, and women practitioners of magic. It’s really, really awesome.
      Strange and Norrell, who thought they were pulling the strings, never even learned what happened.
      Yes!! Well played, Susanna Clarke. WELL PLAYED.

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