Sunday, October 16, 2005

It's Not Easy Being Green

Very interesting ATBF posted over at AAR discussing African American romance novels.

I have to admit that I've only read one true romance novel that featured an African American hero and heroine, and that book was written by a white writer. I really enjoyed Suzanne Brockmann's Harvard's Education. But I can't say that I enjoyed it because the characters were African American. I enjoyed it because I liked the characters, period, and also because I generally always like a Brockmann story. The fact that the hero and heroine were African American was totally incidental.

This as opposed to reading Terry McMillan's Waiting To Exhale. It's been years since I read that book, but I can recall that I never forgot, as I was reading it, that the heroines were African American. Not that I couldn't relate to them or that they weren't sympathetic. I enjoyed the book, but I didn't "forget" about the color of the characters the same way I did when reading Harvard's Education.

Do you suppose that's because Terry McMillan is African American versus Brockmann's being white? After all, Brockmann can give lip service to her characters' experiences about being African American, but she herself has no way of knowing what such an experience entails. As such, she can't infuse her book with the same atmosphere (for lack of a better word). It's like, after stating at the beginning of her book that the characters are African American, Brockmann then writes the rest of the story as if the characters were no different than the white characters.

This is good and bad. Because, really, African American characters are no different than white characters on the most fundamental level. You either relate to a character or you don't, regardless of skin color. So if a book is written well, in a way you almost forget all about the color of the characters' skin. It's like, if you love a heroine, you forget if her hair is red or brown or blonde because it so doesn't even matter.

Except, if there is no fundamental difference, why the segregation? Isn't something missing if the African American characters are as bland as white characters? It's kind of the opposite of white people posing as hip hop rappers (a la Vanilla Ice), trying to be something they aren't. There are difference - neither good nor bad - that keep things interesting. It's part of the beauty of the world, that we are all the same and different.

These thoughts all come kind of timely for me. Last night the hubby and I celebrated our anniversary with a trip into The Big City for dinner and a show. We saw Wicked, which to anyone who has the opportunity to see, please do. Wonderful. The music was amazing, and Ana Gasteyer absolutely blew me away as the lead actor.

Anyway, my point; the heroine of the story is Elphaba, who becomes the infamous Wicked Witch of the West. And Elphaba is green. I'm talking Kermit the Frog green. It's a big deal. She faces discrimination, ridicule, and, ultimately, becomes an outcast because of the color of her skin. It matters that she is different, and not in any good ways.

Except, after a while you didn't notice that Elphaba was green. You only knew that what she suffered was unfair. You rooted for her to find love and felt outraged when she suffered unfair persecution. Her story - her character - was sympathetic, and the color of her skin didn't matter one bit.

So I guess that should be the goal of both readers and writers. Whatever the color of the writer and whatever the color of the skin of the protagonists, the story must be compelling. And to that end, I don't believe that African American romances - whether written by AA writers or starring AA characters - should be kept separate from other romance novels. When I'm perusing the shelves, I want all of the good stories under my fingertips.

That just makes sense to me.

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