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Freeing black writers

January 29, 2006|Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Cultural and social affairs commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who wrote "The Crisis in Black and Black," responds to playwright Thomas Gibbons' Jan. 15 article.

GIBBONS says he's often slammed for having the temerity to write about the black experience. My problem is just the opposite. As an African American, that's all I'm allowed and expected to write about.

There's no deliberate conspiracy by editors to stuff and then confine me into writing solely about black-themed issues. If that were the case, and I could prove it, it would make the racial pigeonholing much easier to stomach. I could then chalk it up to bigotry, ignorance or indifference.

But that's not the case. I'm not overreacting and imparting insidious motives to them when they reject out of hand any of my work that deals with non-black-themed material. I have tested the water many times with editors just to be sure. Over the years, I have submitted numerous film, play and book reviews, op-ed articles and interviews on non-black-themed subjects to large and small newspapers, magazines, journals and even newsletters.

The editors who routinely reject them are the same ones who have published my op-ed pieces, reviews and interviews countless times, and with whom in most cases I enjoy a cordial relationship. It's just that the things they publish must in some way deal with a black theme. Their reflexive thinking that anything I write about that strays from the narrow prism of race -- is foreign ground and way beyond the pale of my experience or expertise.

This is not the sour grapes gripe of one black writer pissed off because he's been rejected. Black writers constantly complain of the same thing. They are frustrated, bitter and even angry that they are tied tightly in a literary racial straitjacket. Think about it. How often have you seen a black writer or critic discoursing on the merits of a recording of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," a performance of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," the film worth of "Brokeback Mountain," or giving his or her insights into the worth of a biography of Laurence Olivier.

But if it's a Miles Davis recording, an August Wilson play, a film such as "Hustle & Flow" or a biography of Denzel Washington, it's instantly assumed that a black writer is the fount of insight and wisdom on the subject.

A few years ago, I did a review and critique of the film "Enemy at the Gates," starring Jude Law and Ed Harris. The film told the story of the deadly chess match between Harris, a German sniper, and Law, his Soviet counterpart, set against the horrific carnage of the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II.

It was a subject I had great interest in. During an extended visit to the then Soviet Union, I met with Russian World War II veterans who had taken part in the battle. One vet had actually belonged to a sniper unit. They spoke effusively and in great detail about their experiences.

Later, I did extensive research on the war within the war that snipers such as those played by Harris and Law waged against each other in Stalingrad and other war-ravaged Russian cities.

I pointed out to the editors that I would dissect the film's artistic merit and its historical accuracy. I was not out to prove any particular point by writing about a nonracial subject. I was simply interested in the film and the war. It was no go.

These were the same publications for which I had done other film reviews, and the editors had complimented me on my work. Although many black writers itch, yearn and strain to roam over the full range of cultural and literary experiences, the unstated rule that black writers must write only about black subjects and issues has prompted a knee-jerk and agonizing self-censorship.

In other words, if you know that something you write about Van Gogh, Beethoven or Hemingway will likely never see the light of print, then why even bother? Many don't.

I applaud Gibbons for defying the type, breaking through the prism of race, and daring to write about important and even controversial themes that involve blacks.

His duty as a writer true to his craft is to think and write outside the box of his experience. He brings insights to the issues that a black writer might even miss. That helps us bridge barriers and narrow the gulf of racial misunderstanding.

Gibbons demands the right to see the world through another pair of eyes. And he should. I -- and I know that many other black writers feel the same as I do -- want, no, demand, the same right. Why? Because, as he simply put it to his critics, I'm a writer too.

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