Literary Diversity - Describing Authors who are not "Dead White Guys"

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Background: I am writing a cultural landscape history focusing on a obscure California Central Valley township. Cultural landscape studies are the intersection of several disciplines: history, geography (physical and cultural), ethnography, and environmental design (architecture and planning). In such studies, works of art and literature are often cited as an expression of the culture of the place. My subject area is blessed in that more than a few well-known “dead white guys” have direct personal or literary connections to the place—Francis Bret Hart, Joaquín Miller, John Muir, Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, William Saroyan, Mark Twain, and Ernest Thayer. Nor did I have to dig deeply to find a diversity of voices—Joan Didion, Helen Hunt Jackson, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Gertrude Stein (through Alice B. Toklas) have their own strong connections.


I believe that it is important to present a diversity of voices, but that emphasizing that diversity in the text smacks of tokenism. I want to demonstrate that the diversity is natural and not the result of an artificial editorial choice.


Question: My problem arises with Joyce Carol Thomas (1938- ), an African-American poet and award-winning novelist. Thomas spent her teenage years in the subject area and graduated from the local high school. With other figures, I do not mention their ethnicity or gender—I do not mention Stein’s sexual preference or Maxine Hong Kingston’s Chinese heritage. These facts are both well-known and not important to my thesis. However, Thomas’ race is not generally known and her background does contribute to the overall story of the place. Nonetheless, I am not entirely comfortable making note of this as I have not made similar comments for others.

 

Any thoughts as to how this might be gracefully handled?

 

Edit Added: In my manuscript, I'm not trying to avoid offending the reader.  They will take away what they take away. Rather, I'm trying to provide balance. Once upon a time, newspapers regularly identified non-whites as such, even when it had nothing to do with the story. Today, that usage is extinct.

 

Therefore, I do not label Stein as a lesbian writer, even though her relationship with Alice B. Toklas is clearly discussed. (Toklas's family were early settlers, large landowners, prominant merchants, and the first mayor of the subject area.) I feel calling Stein a lesbian writer makes her sexual orientation more important than her work -- rather Stein is a writer who, by the way, happened to be gay.

 

For the same reason, I feel identifying Thomas as an African-American writer -- especially when I don't identify Maxine Hong Kingston as a Chinese-American writer -- places to undue influence on her race rather than her accomplishments.  Nonetheless, Thomas's race is an important "factoid" as she was one of extremely few blacks living in the township in the 50s. And because my text is mostly about what she wrote (and what is says about the place), I do not have a real place (trying to not interrupt the flow of the main thesis) to discuss her history in more than a phrase. 

edited Jun 21 '12 at 23:48 Jeff Pribyl Grammarly Fellow

Fair enough. I guess my point that I never said in my original answer is that I don't think you should worry about mentioning one race and not another, or not mentioning the races of all of your subjects. If it is important it should be mentioned. I agree with you that it is rare to see "fluff" facts added into news stories. My opinion is that you are not slighting one subject by mentioning relevant facts for some while the same category of fact for another subject is irrelevant.

TolleyJun 22 '12 at 00:14

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I like Tolley's answer.  I think that if there is something about the person that has clear influence, then it should be mentioned.  If Kingston's ancestral heritage strongly influenced her writing, you would mention it. If Stein was writing about lesbian relationships 100 years ago, I’d say it is worthy of a mention that it wasn’t some master plan to be considered crazy in her day.  

 

If I follow you right, your concern is that mentioning race so briefly might make it appear as a cheap way to prove there was diversity.  You are probably putting brief details about each author in the work, and those details are about the relevant influences on the writer, right?  So, whether the author was from New York, married an Indian woman, loved nature, was anti-Semitic, had an alcoholic father, or was a printer and riverboat pilot, whatever it was that influenced his/her writing might be mentioned briefly as well.  Others may or may not share any of those characteristics but if they weren’t influential they aren’t mentioned. 

 

I know that some people take offense easily.  My theory is that we can only control our own actions.  If someone takes offense where no offense was given, then so be it. I don't see any offense being given with what you have described.

link answered Jun 22 '12 at 01:29 Patty T Grammarly Fellow

Thanks Patty. As somebody who lives in a city widely known as "the People's Republic of ...", I rather relish offending people at times. Here, a relevant passage is used to open each chapter, and no more than a sentence is used to describe the author. The quoted passage says something that makes a relevant point, in a voice other than my own, about the place. For instance, I use a passage from Maxine Hong Kingston's "China Man" to introduce the chapter about the local red light district. She is writing about a similar district in her hometown, which is only 20 miles from my subject area and her descriptions are relevant.

Jeff PribylJun 22 '12 at 02:00

Sounds like a really cool piece.

TolleyJun 22 '12 at 02:24

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