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Can A White Author Get Inside a Black Character’s Head?

By Robert Bruce @robertbruce76

I tread lightly entering today’s topic, but it’s one that I can’t help but ask.

And it’s this exact topic that fueled a lot of the controversy surrounding William Styron when he won the Pulitzer for The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1968.

It’s simply this: What would an older, southern white man in the 1960s know about the mindset of a young black slave in the 1830s?

Remember, Styron is writing in the first person. The narrator IS Nat Turner, the leader of a slave rebellion. To write from that point of view had to be an unbelievably difficult task. He’s simply telling the story as an outside narrator, or even a Nick Carraway-style observer. Styron, as Nat, is the narrator.

Styron explained his thought process in a piece written by The Library of Congress:

“When I began The Confessions of Nat Turner in the summer of 1962 … Martin Luther King was offering the hand of fellowship to the American community, preaching reconciliation, amity and anti-dischord. In the evolution of a revolution, 1967, when it was published, was a time of cataclysmic change in the United States. ‘Black power’ reared its head, and when it pounced, it pounced partially on my book. I was especially lacerated and hurt that it was labeled racist. That was hard to take for a writer who attempted to expose the horrors and evils of slavery.” He spoke of trying to figure out Turner’s motivation. “It was a powerful book that satisfied my ideal for a novel.”

His voice wavering audibly for the only time during the discussion, he added: “Basically it is a very politically incorrect book written by a white man trying to seize his own interpretation and put it into the soul and heart of a black man.”

The last sentence is interesting. I haven’t though of Confessions as being “politically incorrect,” but I think that’s a great description. Styron is attempting something you just don’t often see attempted.

And I have to say that, at times, he doesn’t pull off the narration. More on this to come in my review, hopefully soon.

But, in the meantime, what do you think—was the criticism toward Styron wrong or justified?

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