Zetta Elliott and Francine Thomas Howard: Black History and Historical Fiction

This month marks the debut of the first full seasonal offering from AmazonEncore, our new publishing program, which, as it happens, was just featured in a USA Today article today. And as it's also Black History Month, we've asked two of Encore's new authors, both writers of historical fiction about the African American experience, to sit in today with a shared guest post about the role that historical fiction can play in our memory and understanding of black history. Zetta Elliott's A Wish After Midnight, a young adult novel in the time-travel tradition of Kindred and A Wrinkle in Time, comes out later this month, and Francine Thomas Howard's Page from a Tennessee Journal, a debut novel set in the Jim Crow-era South, comes out in March.

Most Americans like to think of US history in terms of progress, especially when it comes to African Americans (thing were bad, but they’re steadily getting better). Does historical fiction support or disrupt that theory?

Americans hold a unique outlook on the world: we are optimists imbued with a sense that our society can only move forward has been ingrained in us since 1620. We see ourselves as people destined to progress in all areas. Neither regression nor stagnation is to be tolerated. Historical fiction plays its part in keeping alive the core American belief that good will always triumph over bad.

That history is the recitation of events written through the eyes of the victor does not eradicate all those other stories floating around. There are many oral histories tucked away in family memories that tell more of the American story--the good and the bad. Yes, many of the details of these stories have been sacrificed to the ravages of time, but as writers of historical fiction, we bear the responsibility of putting flesh back onto those old bones to reveal the entire story of America.

Zetta: I think historical fiction has the potential both to support and disrupt the theory that race relations in the US are steadily improving. Literature not only reflects reality, it can also problematize the stories we tell ourselves as we try to make sense of that reality. When I hear people use the term “post-racial,” I automatically think: fantasy. The idea that we are somehow beyond race now that we have an African American president is just wishful thinking and, perhaps, an insidious form of denial. I was profoundly affected by Octavia Butler’s neo-slave narrative, Kindred, and chose to write my own speculative fiction novel in order to engage in the longstanding debate about what freedom really looks like. When we contrast the condition of blacks in the 19th century with that of blacks living in the 21st century, we’re inclined to think the difference is like night and day. But speculative fiction reframes the past, creating a kind of literary lens that enables us to look more closely at the shifting definition of freedom. Have we really crossed the finish line? I think a lot of us still have a long way to go…

What do contemporary African American authors owe those ancestors who can no longer speak for themselves?

Francine: That's an easy one. Everything. While all of us stand on the shoulders of those who've come before, present-day African-descended people owe a particular debt of gratitude to our ancestors. Ten years ago, I stood in the Door of No Return on Gorée Island in Senegal and thanked my ancestress. Without her sacrifices, I would never be where I am today. I do not believe I wrote Page from a Tennessee Journal alone. My grandmother whispered--no, she shouted that she wanted her story told. I think every writer revealing a family secret knows in his or her soul when the time is right to offer justice to that ancestor.

Zetta: When I write, I’m conscious of the many silences and gaps in the literature written by black women in previous centuries (Harriet Jacobs often comes to mind). Historian Darlene Clarke Hine argues that black women have participated in a “culture of dissemblance,” whereby they maintain the appearance of openness but in reality are working to shield themselves from unwanted scrutiny. This is particularly true around issues of sexual exploitation, which were considered taboo until quite recently. As a 21st-century woman, I am less constrained by social conventions; I have access to more resources and a wider audience. When I write, I speak for those women and men who were stripped of their true voices; I may not be able to tell their stories, but I can try to fill in some of the gaps and I can expose the forces that made truth-telling so difficult for them.   

Recently a black teenage blogger wrote a thoughtful post expressing how tired she is of reading historical fiction that seems to tell the same story over and over again. What does historical fiction have to offer younger generations?

Francine: The truth and a dash of hope. And the truth comes in more than one flavor. I sympathize with the young blogger. There are a multitude of stories out there recounting the unspeakable horrors of slavery and Jim Crow. Young minds have been filled over and over with images of beating, rape, murder, torture, and lynching. But what emotions do these images stir up in our young? Frustration, anger, and powerlessness may be the unintended consequence. That the twin systems of slavery and Jim Crow were an affront to humanity is an undeniable truth. But misery piled upon misery is not all that happened in those days. For that young blogger, there is a "rest of the story."

Free blacks owned land and prospered throughout every southern state in the days of slavery. That teenager is right to ask where are their stories? Black families flocked to Nebraska in the 1870s to take advantage of the Nebraska Homestead Act. A black conquistador founded Los Angeles. The exploits of my own ex-Buffalo Soldier grandfather, ranching his own land in 1900 Montana, are worth the telling.

The umbrella of slavery and Jim Crow covered this country with darkness. But even among the misery, people of color ignited a light that not only allowed them to survive, but to play a vital and positive role in every facet of our American story.

Zetta: I often encounter resistance from teens who don’t want to be subjected to yet another story about the humiliation and brutalization slaves endured. I think they’re tired of being figured only as the victim--they want (and deserve) stories where blacks figure as the hero, and are empowered and triumphant. I don’t think teens want the past to be sanitized, but they do want greater complexity and variety--stories filled with passion, intrigue, magic, and adventure. I can only hope the publishing industry will respond to this demand, and get over its obsession with Harriet Tubman and the Civil Rights Movement (two important subjects that get plenty of coverage). Books that feature diverse African American characters from throughout history are worth reading all year long--not only during Black History Month.

Zetta Elliott has spent the past 15 years studying, writing, and teaching.  She earned her PhD in American Studies from NYU in 2003 and has taught black feminist cultural criticism at Ohio University, Louisiana State University, and Mount Holyoke College. She currently resides in Brooklyn. Her young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, which explores race relations through the eyes of a contemporary teen displaced in Civil War-era Brooklyn, will be released this month on February 16, 2010.

From the other coast and another generation, Francine Thomas Howard grew up in San Francisco and has lived in the Bay Area her entire life. A love of writing came to Howard late in life. Loosely based upon a long-guarded family secret, her debut novel Page from a Tennessee Journal comes out on March 16, 2010, and explores the impact of segregation and racism during the period of Jim Crow laws through the lives of two couples, one white, one black, whose lives become inextricably intertwined.


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Posted by: Jordan Spizikes | Wednesday November 10, 2010 at 5:51 PM

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