An Italian-American drove an African-American pianist on a concert tour through the South. His son wrote a film script. Which became the movie, Green Book. Which recently won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Nick Vallelonga grew up hearing his father’s stories about a trip with Dr. Don Shirley. Nick recognized the potential for a good story. If he was going to write about that trip, though, he’d have to rely on his father’s account. He’d have to write it from the white man’s point of view.
William Styron, who grew up in Virginia, became fascinated with the slave uprising led by Nat Turner. Styron recognized the potential for a good story. He did his research and wrote a best selling novel, which won a 1967 Pulitzer Prize: The Confessions of Nat Turner.This was before the days of political correctness. Styron seems not to have anticipated the problem of a white man telling the story from the black man’s point of view. Some of his critics did.
When I met Daniel and Anna I recognized the potential for a good love story. I was naïve, though, when I asked for an interview. (Their story became Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987).I didn’t anticipate the story’s racial complexities: Daniel being black, my being white. And there’s the story’s ending. Styron fed white fears about violent black men. I, a white woman, was dealing with a black man’s sexuality
In my first draft I tried to tell Daniel’s and Anna’s story as an impartial narrator. It became obvious that there’s no such thing. I was pretending to get into Daniel’s head when as a white woman, I couldn’t.
Finally I decided that because I am a white woman the most honest way to tell the story was to rely mostly on Anna’s point of view. Besides, Daniel was so articulate that he could speak his own truths.
All of this begs the question: must writers only write from their own social/gender/racial position? Part of the joy of writing comes from imagining experiences outside one’s purview. I’ve been working on a short story told from a troubled teenager’s point of view. It’s a challenge, but it’s all right to try, isn’t it?
Writing non-fiction, though, compels the author to consider another question: Who does the story belong to? The story is/was Anna’s and Daniel’s to share. I got to tell it because I was with them at the right time.
An African American writer would have written a different book, maybe a better one, but I was the person Anna and Daniel trusted, the one to whom Daniel said, “Today we’re going to give you your surprise ending.”
Nancy Werking Poling is author of Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987). The book is usually available wherever books are sold.