Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Color of the Wild West

This is written on MLK Day, but posting a day later. Anyway do you know who the first black female billionaire was?  Oprah.  Shouldn't be a surprise, really. She's very good at business.  And she doesn't lie and cheat people like Donnie does. Am I saying I want Oprah to run for president? No. I don't do a political blog, so I wouldn't say that.

I thought I'd actually touch on another aspect of race. I'm editing a book of ghost stories right now, along with Julie Campbell.  I noticed something that's come up before.  Almost all the characters are white people, or generic people we assume to be white.  As of this moment, I'm almost through the preliminary round of readings. There just aren't many folks of color--although there was one Asian character in one of the stories.    

My western oriented books have done better, often having a Native American person, sometimes an Asian. My projects tend to be rather specialized.  They're, alas, in the small press end of the market and not high paying projects.  So, I don't pretend to have all the answers. I just note, that on MLK Day, as an editor, I see dang few black people in the stories submitted to the projects I edit.

As an author, I've used Chinese characters quite a few times. I've used Native Americans a few times. I can't say that I've used black characters, either.  Again, I don't really know why. I do a lot of stuff set in the Wild West era. Census data (and this varies a lot by state and territory) from back then says about a fourth of the cowboys were black. About a third were Mexican. You don't see that in Hollywood's version of the Old West. Gunslingers and Ghost Stories, edited by yours truly, has a really good story about a black marshal. My Science Fiction Trails magazine has had stories about Buffalo Soldiers. Like I said, I don't see a lot of stories about people of color, particularly when it comes to black people.   

Stories set in the west do have people of color. Just not a lot of them. Joel Jenkins' Lone Crow is  a Native American gunfighter.  I reviewed his new book recently right here on this blog. My newest book, Legends of the Dragon Cowboys is two novellas--both with Chinese heroes. 

So then, why don't I see very many black people in this era when we know they certainly were around? A lot of freed slaves fled the South after the Civil War. They took various jobs as did other folks heading west to make their fortune.  In fact, I wanted to write  a nonfiction book on black lawmen in the Old West. I decided I simply couldn't figure out how to research it. There just isn't much information on this topic.  I got interested in the  topic after seeing a gravestone for a black marshal in a Missouri cemetery some years back  I can't realistically wander the nation's cemeteries trying to see if I can find the names of more black lawmen.

Like I said, I don't have the answers. I just note the lack of black people in western stories.  Even more so than the lack of other people of color.

1 comment:

  1. I suspect the reason you see a lack of people of color in the stories submitted is that there's a lack of people of color writing and submitting genre fiction. That's a big problem that I've seen addressed in both SFWA and SFPA forums. Specifically, how do we get more people of color to submit?

    Related to this is the idea that writers should write what they know. If most writers are white, they'll write about white people. There's a real risk that writing too far outside your experience will put you at risk for cultural appropriation -- where you as a white person are writing about experiences you didn't have and making a profit off them.

    Like you, I've been known to have non-white characters in my stories. I do it because I think it reflects the world as it is and it reflects the neighborhoods I've lived in all my life. In spite of that, I do my best to research the experiences of the people I write about to make sure I respect those cultures.

    No easy answers here, just a few additional thoughts.