My skin is pretty light. My mother is of European descent but my father was from Birmingham; my entire family on his side is straight up pre-Civil Rights Alabama black. I came out light-skinned and as a result for most of my life I thought of myself as white, though I was still raised to be very conscious of my black heritage.
Over the past year— after the release of Dead Roots but before Blood Mother— I have been reconnecting with my family roots and identifying as a biracial African-American. I tick African-American and white on forms where I’m asked for my ethnicity. I consider myself an author of color. If this is an issue for you, do us both a favor and stop reading— it’s not up for debate.
I had a pretty privileged upbringing, but my father did not, and the emotional impact of growing up the way he did most definitely impacted the environment in my home as a youngster. I did not grow up in a “white” household. However, for much of my life I sort of viewed the world through a white filter, one I’ve had to deprogram myself from since I started dedicating myself to my writing. I viewed white as the default for characters in media. Though this is no longer the case, Thomas Bell and many of the characters in Dead Roots came out of the last days of that mindset, so as a result two of the three main protagonists in my series are white guys.
This is a situation I’m not entirely happy with, as I had the opportunity to go against the grain with a black protagonist and I didn’t take it. By the time I was writing Blood Mother, I was conscious of this and the story started to take shape around the fact that Tom and Artie are straight white guys. Much of the plot in Blood Mother centers around a colony of creole farmers descended from antebellum slaves. Rodham Baker, a black co-worker of Tom’s, is presented as a perceived threat to Tom’s masculinity; Tom projects his insecurities onto Rodham, in a way wants to be him. This is cemented in a scene near the end when Rod becomes a threat to Tom’s romantic life, the subtext intended to shine a light on Tom’s ingrained, unexamined fear of the “black male”.
Though not as emphasized, Artie’s background as a hillbilly from West Virginia is also thrown into focus on a few occasions, with his attitudes towards both race and sexuality. He is not what I would consider hatefully homophobic or racist, but certainly has some hangups that he could stand to have examined; he is portrayed as fearful of gay people and people of color in the sense that he feels like a guilty party. He is fearful of being perceived to have prejudice towards the minority characters in the story.
I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m attempting to make up for propagating the cliche of the white protagonist duo by examining it, and laying my own previous disregard on the table. I’m hoping that by subverting the trope and highlighting the fact that Tom and Artie are a couple of milquetoast guys in a rapidly advancing society, by contrasting Tom’s progressive attitudes against Artie’s ingrained fears, I can retroactively justify making the characters Caucasian.
In this way I expect I would, hypothetically, want Artie to be played by a white actor or portrayed as Caucasian in a comic adaptation; Tom, however, is not so enmeshed in his race as a part of his character that he couldn’t be played by anybody, at least to me. If I were starting the series again tomorrow he’d be definitively black, though as it stands I’m happy for him to be thought of by the reader as black, Asian, latino, or whatever might come to mind—though American-born is non-negotiable, by virtue of his canon background and how it informs his relationship with Shinichiro Keda. Similarly, Margaret is described as white and red-haired, but her personality and background are a blank slate as far as ethnicity is concerned.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Dead Roots reflects a white-as-default attitude that I found myself surrounded by, having light skin and living in suburban New Zealand for a large chunk of my life; but from the second book and going forward I will be working to remedy that. Thanks for your patience, and sorry for dropping the ball.