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The Hate U Give, Propaganda's Crooked and Finding Your Voice
August 4, 2017
Earlier this year, there was an episode of The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend where the main character, Rebecca Bunch, is attending a Bar Mitzvah and before long, her mom and a their rabbi break into the song “Remember That We Suffered.” The musical number in and of itself ends up being hysterical but I remember thinking about why and how it succeeded so well--after all, this is far from the first time that comedy has played off the stereotype of Jews complaining. But what made this moment so genuinely funny was how specific it was and even though I hadn’t had those same experiences, not being of Jewish descent, the authenticity of the punchlines ensured that they landed with maximum impact. And this is, in a nutshell, why representation is important.
When some people who share my lack of melanin hear about the call for representation, they can get a bit antsy. After all, it’s all about silencing white people so that everyone else gets their turn, right? Well, as a white dude who still hasn’t made it yet, trust me when I say that I’m not hoping for some kind of future where all white male voices are silenced...but we must be diligent in inviting others to the table and listening to what they have to say. Because there are things to learn, richer stories to experience and laughs to be had that are not ever going to come to light if we only allow the same types of people to have a platform.
The song from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is just a brief reminder of what results when you allow for a different type of TV showrunner, humor that lands differently and with more precision than if it was attempted by someone who didn’t have Rachel Bloom’s background. Comedy is best when it has a point of view, when it’s speaking from specific experiences whether you’re Dave Chapelle or Ali Wong or Hasan Minhaj and yes, even white guys like Louis C.K. have a specific point of view to share. And I love hearing what Louis has to say but I also want to hear from people who come from different cultures, backgrounds, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds than me and better understand how they see the world. I really believe it gives me a fuller understanding of life, fills me with more compassion and empathy and helps me to be a little more informed about different viewpoints because you learn a lot from someone by listening to their stories and laughing at their jokes.
Being a writer is interesting because you’re creating characters and hopefully kind of losing yourself in them as you attempt to bring them to life, but at least for me, as I write a book and put words in the mouth of characters that I would never say and make them do things I would never do, I still have a specific voice. A point of view that permeates it all and I feel like if I let go of that then the purpose of whatever it is I’m writing gets lost. I mean, I don’t think good fiction aims to preach or indoctrinate, but there should be something of you in it that comes across through vibrant characters and compelling stories. I’ve self-published four books and whether I’m writing about serialkillers, aliens or a holiday story about a self-aware snowman, I feel like I’ve always found my “in” pretty easily and the themes and message of the story organically embedded themselves.
Over the past few months, I’ve done a lot of starting and stopping on what will be my next novel, a book that I initially planned to call Overcome Evil but have since gone through ten other titles since then so we’ll see what it ends up being, stay tuned. Either way, I have definitely been affected by the racial unrest in the country and felt like I had observed enough that I wanted to construct a story that examined some of my thoughts and feelings on the matter. The story already lives in my head as do most of the characters who continue to just kind of flesh themselves out for me--you know how that goes sometimes--but I’ve still struggled with exactly the best angle to approach things. I wanted it to be the type of book where people care about the message because they care about the characters and I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t appropriating Black America’s stories or struggles and attempting to tell them in some sort of incomplete way (which, through just about every medium, has happened a million times over throughout America’s history).
After sorting through these things for quite some time, I’ve arrived at a couple of conclusions. First being that I feel that I’ve sort of engaged with the spectrum of problematic white responses to black suffering in America--from emboldened bigotry, simmering white resentment to misguided rationalizations--and I think I have a story to tell that focuses on that aspect of the situation in a way that is hopefully helpful, a little provocative and a compelling read. Secondly, if I was to attempt to leave my lane and expand my voice in ways that my culture and background does not equip me to do, I’d be doing a disservice to the subject matter.
I’ve read and watched and listened to lots of art related to the subject of race in America and it is never as effective when people are talking second or thirdhand about something they didn’t experience themselves. Or, in other words, moving away from the subject of race and just speaking generally, your book is never going to be as good as it can be if you’re borrowing other people’s insights. What is YOUR point of view, what is it that YOU have to offer about this subject, where is YOUR voice in this story? I feel that if we can’t adequately answer those questions, whatever we’re working on will be missing the key ingredient.
As I’ve engaged with different art related to racial politics in America, two things in particular have stood out to me as just being exceptional.
The first is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas about a teenage girl named Starr who witnesses her friend being murdered by the police. While the subject matter is difficult and the themes are weighty, the book is compulsively readable. Starr is funny, pensive, complex and, most importantly, real. Far too many stories attempt to take on subjects such as this and rely on tropes or use characters as props to make their points, but Starr and her family and friends are much more than that.
Anyone who has spent some time thoughtfully engaging with topics related to race in America probably has an understanding of the fuller context of certain trends in the black community and it’s easy to sort of spell those things out in a preachy way, but in The Hate U Give those complexities are included very naturally as a way to accurately provide shading to the characters and the community in the story. While in the real world, Starr’s father might quickly be written off as a bad guy because he’s a convicted felon or her friend who was killed might be labelled a drug dealer and nothing more, dropping us in the middle of this world and these very real people’s lives makes it hard to boil things down so simply.
Starr is imperfect, sometimes messy and she wrestles with complicated facts of life such as the black community’s distrust of police officers and the knowledge that her uncle, a good man, is a cop himself. So often, people in predominantly white circles have only had good experiences with police officers and often know a few of them so when a cop shoots an unarmed black man, they’re more than willing to believe whatever excuses or explanations are offered. They have that luxury. Starr has very vividly seen both sides and, at a young age, has to reconcile just how gray and complicated the world is sometimes.
The Hate U Give is so incredibly effective because it’s just a smart, funny and moving coming of age story that happens to take place in a really horrible, culturally relevant situation. And it’s not just outsider observers trying to sort it all out or someone who has only read about some of these things trying to build a story around it; without knowing much about Thomas’s background, I could tell when I was reading this that it was written with an informed specificity that did justice to the characters and subject matter, beautifully capturing all their nuances.
Moving away from books, lately I’ve been obsessed with the new album Crooked by the rapper, Propaganda. From excellent production to passionate lyrics, Crooked is an unrelenting collection of tracks that serve as a blazing social commentary delivering disarming observations on race in America.
Propaganda is an important voice because in some respects he’s a “Christian rapper” in the sense that he is a Christian who raps and whose faith shows up often in his lyrics. But so often, black rappers with ties to the Christian market have had to tiptoe around an evangelical audience that was predominantly white. It’s okay to address fatherlessness in the black community, drug use in the ghetto and the profane nature of secular rap lyrics, but start talking about how Black Lives Matter, institutional racism, the war on drugs and the continued impact of racism on today’s America and suddenly you’re being asked to sit in the back of the church bus.
Propaganda has never seemed too interested in making white evangelicals comfortable though and his new album is chock full of observations and admissions that are specific to him. It certainly challenges the nationalistic tendencies of evangelical Trump supporters and the head-in-the-sand approach to the racial history of the country employed by many; for so often, the American church has refused to address sacred cows if their spots were red, white and blue but Propaganda seems determined to deliver hard-hitting truths and urge people to challenge their perspectives. In the title track, he says, “I don’t hate America, just demand she keeps her promises” and from there he challenges whitewashed history, problematic American heroes and different types of cultural racism that continues to be rampant.
But these songs contain that all-important specificity I keep talking about, whether a song like “Darkie” that delves into a very specific struggle of the Black experience to songs like “Gentrify” that exposes the sneaky way gentrification occurs or the spoken word performance of “I Hate Cats” that depicts the subtle ways bigotry sometimes rears its ugly head, Propaganda has a point of view and something real to say about all of it. And along the way, he challenges himself on everything from his own lust to his cynicism, always avoiding appearing self-righteous in his lyrics because of his tendency to turn the tables on himself in a brutally honest fashion.
Ultimately, the album is about broken people and broken systems and in the song “It’s Not Working (The Truth)” Propaganda delivers the emboldened lyrics “I am not at all shook in any way by Satan” as he meditates on his belief that fixing a broken system doesn’t rid the world of brokenness, a philosophy echoed in verses like Ephesians 6:12 that says our battle is not against flesh and blood but with forces of darkness. Sometimes this philosophy is delivered in a cliche, dismissive way like when white Christians say “It’s a sin problem, not a skin problem” to avoid having to discuss racism, but Propaganda delivers this mantra as a testament to his foundation, his faith, and not at all as a signal that he’s gonna stop speaking out against injustice and striving for progress on Earth. As a Christian who has been challenged and deeply depressed with finding my place in Trump’s America where evangelicals seem all too willing to ignore Jesus and kiss Trump’s ring, I appreciated this demonstration of clinging to Christ without compromising for Americanized Christian culture.
In the end, what makes The Hate U Give and Crooked such powerful pieces of art is that they both possess a commanding point of view, delivered with thoughtful passion and grace.
So if you’re a writer, find your voice. Coming up with a story, creating characters, shading in all the details--it’s all very time consuming but none of it will ever have as much impact if you don’t figure out why it should exist in the first place and what you’re trying to say. It doesn’t have to be political, it doesn’t have to address some hot button debate or anything, but it should be something specific to you. Something that’s important to you and can only be said by you in the way that you’re saying it.
And writers, readers and all people of Earth in general should make an effort to expose themselves to as many different types of voices as possible. Listen, I promise you that I still consume a lot of art of all types that come from the minds of straight white men and a lot of them have really interesting things to say that are exciting and enlightening and important. But I do make an effort to go beyond that in the books I read, TV and movies I watch and music I listen to because, honestly, it makes life more interesting and there’s a lot of really incredible stuff I’d miss out on if I only listened to people who look and think like me. Read stuff that makes you uncomfortable. Engage with something you disagree with. Challenge your own preconceived notions. Don’t be afraid to wrestle with your prejudices. You may be planted firmly in your viewpoints and they may evolve very little, but I guarantee you that when you make an effort to listen to as many different types of voices as possible, you’re able to interact with the world in a more caring and understanding way. I genuinely believe leaving your bubble with an open mind is the most effective way to exist without seeing everything in its most controversial, polarizing form. We need sharp, unique, specific voices telling their stories. We need to seek them out and absorb them. They make us better.
And we need your voice.
So many times, people try to mimic the voices of others they admire or who have been successful but the world has enough copycats. What the world will never get too much of is originality. We all have unique things and specific perspectives to share and when you find your voice and deliver it with authenticity, I believe it will find its audience.