This was published in (and written for) Nisi Shawl’s Writing and Racial Identity (Wiscon Chronicles #5)

Aqueduct Press, 2011.

Racial Identity and Writing: Partial Transcript of a Wiscon 2010 Panel

Due to technical difficulties, portions of this WISCON panel discussion were lost. We present what’s left, unedited, for posterity: which is us, for in keeping with a literary gathering dedicated to the Fantastic, all the panelists were dead, in contrast with panels at other conventions where only every other participant is deceased. 

The panelists were, in gender-corrected alphabetical order, Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson, Samuel Clemens, and Zora Neale Hurston. Salman Rushdie, a no-show, blamed an ineffective fatwa. There was no designated moderator: the dead abjure moderation. It is among their advantages.

Due to an unscheduled fistfight in the hallway, the designated recorder, Ms N. Ebullienfuss, arrived after the discussion was underway. 

Octavia Butler

Clemens: … never bothered with such nonsense in my day. A writer was a writer, and that was all.

Butler: Was a man, you mean. Assumed.

Hurston: A white man. Lily white. White as the driven snow. Blacks need not apply.

Baldwin: A straight white man, to be exact.

Clemens: Pish. No one knew. Or cared. Wasn’t an issue.

Hurston: Of course not. It only becomes an issue when the outsider wants in. Then it becomes a struggle. The writer of color has to fight for what the white writer is given. 

Butler: Or strive, at least.

James Baldwin

Clemens: Isn’t strive what we all do? Color, as you call it, can be an advantage. You stand out. Every writer wants to stand out. I wore white suits.

Baldwin: Loved that moustache, Sam. You and Buffalo Bill.

Butler: It’s a restriction as well. It puts you in a box. You are expected to speak for the Race. You are caparisoned with expectations.

Dickinson: There’s a hard rhyme.

Baldwin: The white writer, on the other hand, because he is still the default writer, is assumed to be speaking for the human race. Universality is a freebie. He’s thought to have no axe to grind.

Clemens: I thought this panel was about you guys. Why is it focusing on me? 

Emily Dickinson

Baldwin: You see? The white writer is not a “racial” writer. He assumes any Race and Writing panel must be about us and not about him.

Hurston: His ethnicity is invisible, like water to a goldfish. He can put it on or take it off at will. Even if he is Jewish or regional, it is assumed he is talking about “larger matters.” Take Faulkner …

Clemens: Faulkner was Jewish?

Dickinson: Is that a cigar?

Clemens: Havana, Miss Emily. Only the best. Would you like one? 

A section of the recording is lost due to shouting in the hall.

Butler: … first thing a reader needs to know about a character after her gender? Unspecified, it’s white. 

Samuel Clemens

Hurston: So we get Nigger Jim but not Cracker Huck.

Baldwin: And it’s assumed if we introduce a Black character we are writing about Race.

Hurston: Sometimes we are. 

Clemens: Of course. This is America. Hell, I wrote about race. It was the subtext of everything American in my day, the blackboard on which the social drama was written.

Hurston: In white chalk for the most part.

Butler: It still is today. But it’s always assumed that we write about Race for more personal reasons. 

Zora Neale Hurston

Dickinson: Is that so bad?

Baldwin: It can be a diminishment. I like to think we write for the same reasons as every other damned scribbler: to play God.

Clemens: Bingo. Try one of these. You needn’t inhale.

Thirty seconds of dialogue are lost due to the clashing of swords in the hallway.

Baldwin: Enough about literature. Let’s talk about science fiction. An outsider venue. More inclusive, perhaps. 

Hurston: Friendlier, for sure. An easier party to crash.

Butler: True. But I wasn’t forced into SF. The fact is, I always saw SF as a more serious, more expansive literature. It was a better fit than so-called mainstream, which I always saw as a tributary with delusions of grandeur. 

Clemens: I like this river talk. I did a little SF myself, but I never got a Big Mac. 

Hurston: Just a ham sandwich!

Butler: No complaints here. But think about it: Black female SF writer wins MacArthur. When Jonathan Lethem won, it wasn’t “White guy wins big prize.” It was a bit of a diminishment. Too many modifiers.

Hurston: I like modifiers. Maybe you’re being too sensitive.

Butler: I would claim that privilege too and not have it laid to race or gender.

Baldwin: The bane of the outsider. 

Clemens: Outsiders! Aren’t we all outsiders? Doesn’t every writer wear that handy mask?

Hurston: Not all of us. Look at Jane Austen in that snug little circle of English gentry; she was no outsider.

Butler: Look again. A too-clever unmarried girl? I always identified with her outsiderness.

Dickinson: Hear hear, here.

Baldwin: Would someone please ask her to put that thing out?

Hurston: I’m not about to mess with her. 

Clemens: So you are saying every writer is a racial writer, it’s just that you are the only ones who know it.

Hurston: Bingo. It’s a gift, dude. A goldfish who knows she’s a goldfish gains a certain perspective. Maybe that’s why white writers never do so well with non-white characters. Nothing personal, but here comes Nigger Jim again.

Baldwin: Along with Queequeg. 

Butler: Foils. Or maniacs. Look at Styron’s Nat Turner.

Hurston: On the other hand, who can do white Italians as well as Spike Lee?

Clemens: ‘Scuse me: Coppola?

Hurston: There you have it! Coppola does them as they imagine themselves to be. Spike Lee as they are.

Dickinson: Who’s Spike Lee?

Baldwin: Hey, I thought we were talking about books, not movies.

Butler: Apparently you’ve never been on an SF convention panel before. We always end up talking about movies.

Hurston: No problem. We can’t get books in Heaven anyway, just cable.

Baldwin: Heaven? I thought we were in Hell.

Clemens: Me too. Which reminds me …

At this point, the fight in the hall spilled over into the meeting room, and the rest of the dialogue is lost. Since it was a WISCON panel, it is assumed that all the points of contention were amiably resolved.



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