On controlling self-stereotyping in Black literature

A fascinating and well-written personal essay on how a young Black writer learned to control stereotype for literature. I wish more creative writing workshop stories worked out as artistically profitable.

The contrast between Conroy and McPherson could not have been more stark. Conroy was tall, white, and boisterous; McPherson was short, black, and shy. Conroy cursed, yelled, laughed, and joked; McPherson rarely spoke at all, and when he did his voice was so quiet you often could not hear him. The students dominated his workshops. I was disappointed. McPherson was a Pulitzer Prize winner, after all, the first African American to receive that honor for fiction. He was the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” grant, as well as countless other awards. I wanted his wisdom. I wanted his insight. He gave it mid-semester, when it was time to workshop my first story.

“Before we begin today,” he said, “I’d like to make a few comments.” This was new; he’d never prefaced a story before. A smile crept on my face as I allowed myself to imagine him praising me for my depiction of a den of heroin addicts, for this was not easy to do, requiring, among other things, an intimate knowledge of heroin addicts and a certain flair for profanity.

“Are you all familiar with gangster rap?” McPherson asked. We were, despite the fact that, besides me, all of the students were white and mostly middle to upper class. While we each nodded our familiarity with the genre, McPherson reached into a shopping bag he’d brought and removed a magazine. He opened it to a premarked page on which was a picture of a rapper, cloaked in jewelry and guns and leaning against the hood of a squad car. Behind him was a sprawling slum. “This person raps about the ghetto,” McPherson said, “but he doesn’t live in the ghetto. He lives in a wealthy white suburb with his wife and daughter. His daughter attends a predominantly white, private school. That’s what this article is about.” He closed the magazine and returned it to the bag. “What some gangster rappers are doing is using black stereotypes because white people eat that stuff up. But these images are false, they’re dishonest. Some rappers are selling out their race for personal gain.” He paused again, this time to hold up my story. “That’s what this writer is doing with his work.” He sat my story back on the table. “Okay, that’s all I have to say. You can discuss it now.”

For a few seconds, the only sound in the room was of my labored breathing. And then someone said, “McPherson’s right. The story is garbage.”

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