Stereotypes that should die: The Magical Negro and The Purely Racist Southerner

The thing I’ve really concentrated on trying to do with my writing recently is to get rid of the cleverness.  I don’t mean intelligence but cleverness.  That need to show how smart you are in your writing.  The need to make yourself laugh or to make the three people in the world who know you best laugh.  The more I’ve written, the more I’ve read, and the more I’ve studied writing as a skill, the more I’ve noticed this trait in the writing that I don’t like.

This cleverness comes off as an ironic sneer at characters and people the writer thinks are beneath them or ideas the writer thinks are stupid.  Both of these are examples of the great sin of making the writer part an integral part of the story.

This need for the writer to make himself a part of whatever is going on probably started with Hunter S. Thompson.  Thompson’s journalism and his essays were all about his experiences in situations from The Kentucky Derby, to hanging out with Hell’s Angels, to covering Presidential campaigns.  However, Thompson didn’t condescend to his subjects he was writing about because he in many ways felt he was one of them.

Thompson would have loved blogging (he did do work for ESPN.com Page 2 before his death) and Twitter because it would have been an extension of what he already did.  Many writers in the internet age have taken up what he did to varying degrees of success.  Many didn’t or don’t have his talent so in their attempts to be funny they go the easy route and make fun of the people they see instead of mining the pathos out of the situation that the writer and his subjects are in together.

Let me try again, instead of finding the comedy through the absurdity of the situation they make fun of the people in the situation.  This lack of respect for characters isn’t as egregious a sin in fiction as it is in nonfiction, but it is still the worst type of writing.

Maybe because I am African-American and a Southerner I am more sensitive to these slights.  Too often in fiction, television, or movies those from these groups (and others) are depicted in the worst light.  There was a time (some would say we are still in it) when a black person or Southerner was in a movie they were usually a criminal or uneducated/ignorant innocent.

My least favorite of these stereotypes is the “Magical Negro.”  I first remember hearing the phrase around the time The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance came out in theaters.  I remember Christopher John Farley’s Time Magazine article “That Old Black Magic.”  Basically, the magical Negro is a stock character of American fiction that appears in narratives to selflessly help white folk see the error of their ways.

While the magical Negro is an infantilizing subornation of blacks in order to help assuage white guilt, almost any white Southerner in a movie is a breathing representation of how the South is thought of in the rest of the country.  White Southern males are usually ignorant and racist (often drunk).  White Southern women come off a little better because they have been the central character in more Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts movies then men have, but those characters are still of a type that is not very flattering because they are not very real.

I understand how a writer can write about people are characters that he doesn’t like or respect by making them into stereotypes.  It is easier to write a stereotype then it is to create a character out of whole cloth especially if you have never had any interest in meeting a character not like you or your friends and family.  How can you write a Southern character if your only experience in the South has been going through Hartsfield-Jackson or Charlotte-Douglas airports?  How can you write about a black character if the last time you were around any black people, was when you were in high school?

I just think, however, if you are a writer, an artist, a musician, or any type of creator you have a responsibility to your craft to try and do better.  To try and show the closest thing to truth you can muster with each sentence and that begins with approximating true three dimensional characters and not some cut and paste fabrication you gleaned off of a television show you saw one time.

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