By Abi Ishola
Several years ago a black nurse named Tonya Battle sued the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michagan where she worked. The lawsuit was brought on after she and other African American nurses were told by the hospital not to touch a white infant.
The child’s parents were white supremacists and requested that she and other black nurses be barred from handling their child. Battle also alleged that the child’s father showed him a tattoo of a swastika on his arm. Instead of the hospital to ignore the racist request, she and other black nurses were removed from the child’s case. She eventually settled out of court for nearly $200,000.
Popular Caucasian fiction writer, Jodi Picoult, heard about the case and became inspired to write a book with added layers. She told NPR during an interview:
I began to push the envelope a little bit, wondering what would happen if that nurse had been left alone with the baby? What would happen if she had to make a decision that could result on her going to trial and being defended by a white public defender who, like me and like many people I know, would never consider herself to be a racist? And I began to think about trying to tell the story from three different points of view – the African-American nurse, the white public defender and the skinhead father – as they all confronted their beliefs about power and privilege and race.
Her book titled “Small Great Things,” is told from the point of view of a black woman inspired by Battle, along with a skinhead father and a white public defender. My colleague, who is Jewish and currently reading the book, first brought it to my attention because all of the buzz it was receiving in the mainstream press because of her popularity and the fact that she decided to write from a black woman’s point of view. I haven’t read it, but according to my colleague, the main character also has sisters and there is an “Al Sharpton” political type character in the story as well.
As Picoult continues on her promo trail for the novel, many have questioned whether she can tell this story authentically as a white woman. She too questioned herself at one point, telling NPR:
I’d wanted to write about racism. I’ve wanted to do that for a very long time. Twenty years ago, I started a book after reading a news story about an African-American undercover cop who was shot four times in the back on the subway by his white colleagues. And I started that book, and I tried very hard to write it, and ultimately I failed. I just couldn’t write an authentic story. And I really second-guessed myself. I thought, you know, do I even have the right to write this story? I am a white woman. I have not lived this life. This is not my story to tell.
Given the fact that it’s not just a story about a black woman, but about a black woman who experiences the kind of racism that led to a life altering outcome, my initial reaction was, she absolutely can not tell this story authentically. This is a topic that’s been addressed many times in the past, but here’s my point of view. Black women are often shunned by society and left to figure their way through life’s challenges with little to no emotional support. Black women have been labeled and stereotyped for things that only we inherently understand. I think about our complexities and nuances and wonder if anyone else, even black men, can nail the art of telling our various stories authentically. (Ironically, Charlamagne Tha God, popular radio host of Power 105.5FM’s The Breakfast Club, recently admitted during an interview with Issa Rae, that despite having a black mother, a black wife, and black daughters, he never really knew that black women are affected by emotional pain until now since so many of us are speaking out about it on social media).
When I began to challenge my stance on the issue, I thought about Shonda Rhimes whose claim to fame was creating a show about a white lead character, Meredith Grey. But it’s not like she didn’t have an extensive amount of references to aid in creating such a character. After all, white people are “mainstream.” The average black woman doesn’t have to ask a white woman to touch her hair because she likely knows how it feels. We’ve watched countless films with majority white casts, we’ve been let into various white homes via television, we’ve been taught by white teachers in schools; speaking of schools, we’ve become well versed in whiteness and white washed history based on the books available at the average public institution. But do white people really know us? (This brings to mind when I gave another one of my white colleagues the assignment to watch a list of popular black films. So far, to my knowledge, he’s gotten through The Color Purple, which he enjoyed but didn’t totally understand).
Then I thought about what it means to be a storyteller and what goes into that—research being one of the main things. Jodi Picoult assures that she’s spoken to countless black women to tell the story the best way she could and some reviewers say that research shows up well in the book. But is that truly enough? Should we be happy that such a popular mainstream writer is inspired to tell stories of the mistreatment of black people? Or do we semi cringe like many did watching the movie, The Help—appreciating it because of the amazing black actresses who brought brilliance and humanity to their roles, but at the same time loathing it as yet another “poor black woman’s story of leading a life of servitude” written by a white woman. While we’re on the subject of being black in Hollywood, who could forget the time we got to see what the writers of Orange is the New Black look like. It was like a collective feeling of utter betrayal seeped into our bones via the show’s writing team’s cheery group photo. Not one black or brown person adding insight to these multifaceted stories about black and brown women? Ugh.
Books are inherently about the details, the nuances, and descriptions in the written form. For me, that’s what makes Jodi Picoult’s new book a bitter pill to swallow. But when considering the makeup of the publishing world and Hollywood, the sad reality is, if we want more of our stories told, accepting the fact that we won’t be the sole people writing them is a pill we must swallow no matter how bitter.
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