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Should White Writers Write About Racism?
On Stephen Crane's "Monster"
I’d just about completely forgotten about this piece I wrote for Playboy way back in 2015. It isn’t online anymore, and still seems relevant, so I figured I’d share it for you all.
White people often make art about racism, one way or the other. From Uncle Tom's Cabin to To Kill a Mockingbird to "Strange Fruit," many of the most iconic condemnations of racism in the U.S. have been created by white writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harper Lee and Abel Meeropol.
You could see that as a tribute to the goodness of at least some white people—a sign that white folks reject American apartheid. But you could also see it as part of that American apartheid itself. As J.A. Micheline says in a blistering review of a new independent superhero comic, Strange Fruit, "There is too long a history of white people writing stories about racism and blackness, too long a history of white people shaping these tales to their own purposes, too long a history of white people writing about what they genuinely cannot understand."
Strange Fruit is, in fact, by two white creators, J.R. Jones, and Mark Waid. The story is a riff on Superman; a mute, superstrong alien who looks like a black man lands in the pre-Civil Rights South, where he fights the KKK and other racists. The last image of the comic is of the almost naked black superhero wrapped in a Confederate flag—a would-be iconic choice which, as Micheline says, seems like an incredibly bad idea.
American superhero comics have been almost exclusively written by white men since their inception 75 years ago. Given that history, the eerie silence of Strange Fruit's alien protagonist, who never speaks, ends up being a bit too on the nose. Black people, in superhero comics, have been kept from speaking for too long. "Not even a perfect, eleven out of ten comic would have justified the continued erasure of black voices," Micheline argues. And she makes a convincing case that the comic in question is not in fact, an eleven out of ten.
There are, though, truly great works by white creators about racism, and they're harder to dismiss than the Jones/Waid Strange Fruit comic. Perhaps one of the best is the semi-forgotten classic novella "The Monster" by Stephen Crane, which is critically praised as one of his best works but is rarely referenced in popular discussions of race or American literature.
"The Monster" is set in Crane's fictional town of Whilomville, based on Port Jervis, N.Y. Its plot centers on the family of one of the town's leading men, Dr. Trescott. Trescott's house catches on fire, and his son is saved from death by his black coachman, Henry Johnson.
In the course of the rescue Johnson's face is destroyed by acid ("He has no face" as several characters remark), and he is driven insane. Trescott vows to care for Johnson, but his horrible injury is so terrifying that the rest of the town fears and hates him. The Trescotts, committed to Johnson, are left in social isolation.
There's certainly plenty of material in "The Monster" to support skepticism of white creators. Crane's attitude towards all his material is sardonic, but for the black characters, the gentle mockery slides into unexamined racism.
In a perhaps deliberate parallel with Huckleberry Finn, Crane pairs Henry Johnson with the child Little Jim Trescott; the description of their friendship and of their shared worship of Dr. Trescott insultingly infantilizes Henry. The black characters inevitably speak in thick dialect, and Crane even compares Henry, his girlfriend and her mother sitting in a parlor to "three monkeys."
Trescott, the patriarch, is shown to be noble, kind, thoughtful and firm. His righteousness is certain, and Henry's loyalty to him is seen as natural. As a white creator, Crane never really questions the logic of white supremacy — at least not directly.
Questioning it indirectly, though, is another matter. Trescott's authority, after all — his wealth, his power, his certainty and righteousness — is shadowed by a faceless nightmare, a black man destroyed in Trescott's house.
"He will be your creation, you understand, "one of Trescott's associates warns him when Trescott works to save Henry. "You are making him, and he will be a monster, with no mind."
Trescott has birthed this thing, and now he must live with it. No wonder the mad Henry emits an occasional, mad, "satirical chuckle."
Henry, as a practical matter, is harmless; he never hurts anyone and never shows any predilection for doing so. But his facelessness means that the people in town (black as well as white) project onto him their own guilt and fear and terror. He is dehumanized not because of anything he does, but because his society refuses to extend him humanity.
It is his existence, not his actions, which prompt town members to demand his death, and which leads to the ostracizing of the Trescotts when they take him in. Henry's blank ugliness is a reflection of the town's vision of him; he bears the ruined face of hatred.
The opening scene of the novel shows Little Jim accidentally decapitating one of his father's flowers in the garden — "the spine off it was hurt, and it would only hang limply from his hand. Jim could do no reparation." The rest of the novel underlines that point.
Dr. Trescott's debt to Henry cannot be repaid, much as Trescott tries. And indeed, the novella in many ways simply compounds the injury, as Crane's racism further damages Henry even as the supposedly virtuous Trescott tries to shelter him.
I think "The Monster" does make the case that white people writing about race can be valuable. But it definitely shows why white creators are unable to leave the subject alone.
Henry saves Trescott's son. Trescott's life, his comfort, his stability, is the creation of Henry as surely as Henry is the creation of Trescott. White people can try to ignore or murder or veil the "monster" they've made. But they can't escape it, because the thing they've made out of their racism has made them, too. One way or another, when white people write, the monster is in the room.
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