Can only a black person explain the black experience? In the current cultural climate, the question dominates, but it is narrowly defined. We can ask in a similar way: Can only a Jew explain the Jewish experience? Can only an Arab explain Arab culture? We have a broad cultural question which, if distracted by a popular answer, will permanently polarize us.
Alexandra Duncan certainly believes that only a black person can explain the black experience. She has withdrawn a novel because she is white and some of her novels present a black perspective. That she, as a white person, originally thought she could write about blacks was a terrible mistake, she said when she explained her decision to put her novel, for which she had allegedly received a handsome advance, on ice.
Was Duncan mistaken when he thought that a white person could not represent a black perspective?
A person who is black has a grip on what it means to be black in a way that a non-black person does not. That is intuitive. Similarly, someone who is Jewish has a sense of what it is like to be Jewish that a non-Jew has not. The same applies to an Arab or a member of a particular ethnic or racial group, whether majority or minority.
However, this is a big difference from the statement that it is necessarily a mistake for someone who is white to write about the black experience. There is no mistake, since each individual perspective is limited. Being black and writing about the black experience means offering an insider perspective. This is unique and valuable, but it is not the only perspective. There is the outsider’s perspective, which, if conscientious, can only complement, not displace or distort the insider’s perspective.
Let us consider an analogy: the biographer. Who is best suited to delve into the essence of a person? Is it someone who had a personal relationship with the subject, or someone who had none? The answer is not either/or. A personal relationship offers a unique, but also a limited perspective. An outsider sees things that an initiate cannot see. Because of the limitations of both the insider and outsider perspective, a first-class biographer will look for both.
Take Robert A. Caro and his unparalleled, multi-volume biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson. It is based on extensive interviews with and knowledge of people who were close to Johnson at every stage of his life. This is the insider perspective. Caro was also persistent in her search for seemingly endless documents and other facts about Johnson. In addition to the insider perspective, these facts provided a more complete picture of Johnson than those who knew him could provide alone.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, mercilessly exposed the injustices of black slavery. Stowe probably gave the abolitionist movement more power than anyone else. Not to mention that her book was a bestseller in many languages, helping to discredit slavery in other countries as well.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was white.
Exactly what she portrayed in the black experience of slavery was interpreted differently over the decades. At the very least, Stowe’s book strengthened the moral of the abolitionists when it was published in 1851, for Stowe’s account of black slavery revealed its horrors more than anyone else had ever done. Had Stowe refrained from writing about black slavery, the crucial mood in the North for an end to slavery would have been dramatically set back. Does this mean that Stowe’s insights were beyond criticism or addition? Of course not.
Another analogy: religious discipleship. Can only the disciple understand the master? I have written about religious masters both as disciples and as scholars. Each perspective has its advantages; neither of them is complete. One revealing incident: as a scholar I had portrayed a religious master whom I had never met. One of his students thanked me extensively, as my dispassionate portrait for this student revealed the source of his extreme discomfort over the master’s posthumous influence on him and freed him from it. The insider perspective of a student could not have done this. Does this mean that the outsider perspective is superior? No, it just means that it is different from the insider perspective. Each is limited, but each is revealing.
Can only Jews explain the Jewish experience? Paul Johnson