Ben Winters just released his new book Underground Airlines. The book is a fictional account of America if the Civil War never happened. The main character is a bounty hunter named Victor who was once a slave. After making a deal for his own freedom, Victor ironically earns a living by hunting down escaped slaves and returning them to their owner.
As he began writing his book, Winters struggled with the idea of being a white author writing about slavery. He stated in an interview with the New York Times that, “I had reservations every day, up to the present day, because the subject is so fraught, and rightfully so.” Regardless of his fears, he decided to bring his book to fruition.
Winters was hesitant about how the book was going to be received, “The first impulse is to go, oh man, are you supposed to be writing about that, as a white American?” He went on to say, “We tend to think of racism and slavery as something that’s appropriate only for black artists to engage with, and there’s something troubling and perverse about that.”
Racism is an important and sensitive subject that is not always understood well by Hollywood and other entertainment industries. Currently we are seeing powerful backlash towards white actors portraying Asian, Hispanic, and Black characters in Hollywood. Scarlett Johansson is being accused of cultural appropriation for her role as an Asian woman Ghost in the Shell.
Attica Locke, writer for the television show “Empire” picked up Underground Airlines and was “taken aback at first when she picked up the book and saw the author photo.” She added in her interview that, “For me, as a black writer, I have to be like, ‘What’s Ben trying to do here?” Fortunately Locke ended up loving the book. She says that “I’m so grateful that he did not let his choice to have a black protagonist scare him away from the project.”
Perhaps the lesson here is intent. When we engage sensitive topics of all kinds we must approach the situation with as little ignorance as possible. Ignorance can no longer be tolerated in our society because of how pervasive information is in our everyday lives. If you think the Holocaust didn’t happen, or that the world is flat, then you most likely you are not aware of the most advanced information source in existence, Google.
Creatives of all kinds must be careful when they begin to describe another person’s race or experience. Often times, if we are not the race in question, our views can be misguided or based on a subtle form of ignorance. Certainly there are many cases where the entertainment industry uses the black struggle as a way to profit, but we cannot let that prevent us from having conversations about our history, even in the context of fiction.