Important Decisions About Big Issues

Saturday, November 21, 2020
I will begin by apologizing. I’m sorry. It’s not the first apology--when it comes to my soon-to-be book--and I know it won’t be my last. 

I apologize for being white and female and old, and for telling a story from a Black and male and youthful perspective. I’m sorry I am the one telling Henry’s story… or rather, I’m sorry I’m telling Henry’s story and not a male POC author. I wish someone else had told it.

But Henry chose me, not somebody else. 

When talking about this about-to-be-born book, I usually add: I didn’t write Henry Simmons’ story. He came alive when I had over 25,000 words and then scrapped them all and started from scratch. Things happened to Henry and he saw things and he realized things… and I was merely the conduit. I know that sounds like an excuse for this not being an #OwnVoices story. I also know that the above is full of a great deal of “I this” and “I that,” and I don’t mean it to be. 

I mean to be telling the horror and loss and injustice and the loss and the loss and the loss of the Tulsa Race Massacre. 

A little background information: I wrote a manuscript about the Tulsa Race Massacre (sometimes mistakenly called Tulsa Race Riot, but there was no riot). After sending it out to over 120 agents and publishers, I finally got a yes. The manuscript is going to become a book. The 100-year anniversary of the massacre is coming up in May. I plan on being in Tulsa with my book. 

                                                                  image by Pixabay
                                      This is a sculpture in Tulsa. During the massacre, Black people
                                              were often shot and killed despite having surrendered. A.C. Jackson
                                               a local surgeon who was recognized nationally as a gifted surgeon, 
                                             was shot in his front yard even though he said to the small mob, "Here
                               I am, I want to go with you." Jackson was only forty years old when he was murdered.

But do I have the right? Do I have the right to even tell the story? 

I recently contacted a nationally-known and well-respected expert on the Tulsa Race Massacre. She and I are both educators; I’ve met her at national conferences. Would she be willing to read my manuscript and possibly give me a blurb for the book cover? She said she’d love to… and then she asked the million dollar question. Who was telling the story? When I told her it was told from the perspective of a young African American male, there was a reflective gap in time. And then she respectfully said no… and she gave me some suggestions. 

  • Rewrite the story from a white person’s point of view--not really possible in this case 
  • Wait 10 years until the playing field evens out, until there are more diverse stories told by authors with more diversity--Does my lardy body have 10 more years?
  • “Boycott” publishers and refuse to submit work until more Black stories are told by more Black authors 

She also said some Black Tulsans feel saddened when people are making money off of their pain and suffering. That made me stop--as a writer and a human being. 

I’ve made some decisions. I’m going to continue with this on my next post (or two) because it’s too huge to cover in just 500 words. But I’m interested in what you think. Is this a story I can tell? 

And please be honest. Please.

Sioux Roslawski's writing has been published in 15 Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies. She's more than halfway through November (and NaNoWriMo) yet hasn't made as much progress as she'd like, since she's writing surrounded by her middle-school students. If you'd like to read more of Sioux's writing, check out her blog.



Theresa Boedeker said...

Henry isn't around to tell his story, but you are. I want to hear these stories written by a good writer who respects the history and the person. It doesn't matter to me so much who the writer is, but how they tell the story.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Sioux ~ You said the expert's comment made you stop: "Black Tulsans feel saddened when people are making money off of their pain and suffering." What about donating the proceeds to a foundation that honors victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre and their families?

I know that doesn't answer your question. Is it a story you can tell? Yes, because you wrote it; and I know you wrote it to bring light to the event and to teach kids about it. Honestly, even though my father is from Oklahoma, I didn't know about it until you told me a couple years ago, so people need to know about it. Is it right to tell it? I think you have to do what you feel is right, and go with your gut.

Margo Dill said...

Hi Sioux:
Well you know my opinion since I want to publish it. I think this comes down to the reason why you wrote the book and your research. I still find it hard to accept that a writer can't write a book about a character that is not their race or sex or sexual identity. For example, can a straight female write a story with a gay man in it? I think yes. I think she can do her research. I think she can talk to gay men. I think she might know a gay man (her brother, her best friend). I think we live in a time when everyone is very very very sensitive to everything. ANd I'm hoping as the nation turns a corner on January 20 that we can all take a collective breath and start working together to tell stories.

I think Angela does not have a bad idea. We could easily take a portion of the money and donate it to something in Tulsa--do they have a nonprofit fund? Do you want to look into that? Or even a scholarship for a black student or something...I like that idea. I could easily bank the money until we got a certain amount each quarter to send or something like that. Let's talk about it off-line.

Don't give up on Henry's story. There are men writing romance books right now. There are gay women writing straight men. I know people are sensitive, and yes, you might face some criticism, but when you know you are doing it for the right reasons, I think that makes all the difference.

My two cents.


Jeanine DeHoney said...

Sioux, there has been a lot of debate about this subject amongst black and white authors and readers for many years. As a black author I understand why it is so controversial, especially now during these times of racial unrest, with a not as diverse as it should be publishing industry across the board. I also understand the importance of marginalized and underrepresented people writing about their experiences in their own voices. I think if one is to tell a story from another cultures, or races perspective, it has to be believable with facts and show the myriad of nuances of that culture or race, steer clear of stereotypes, and show the depth and authenticity of the characters. That being said, with your skill and compassion, I am sure your novel is an example of that. This is your story, your voice, and your perspective coupled with facts and loads of research. You've worked diligently throughout the years on it, hoping to share the pain and lessons of Henry and the Tulsa Massacre with readers. I think readers will see the passion behind your work, especially if you share it with them in a forward for your book, and thus also see why you chose to be the voice of a character who lived through such a horrific time in history, the massacre of Black Wall Street.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Theresa--Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate you taking the time to stop by.

Angela--I already decided to take my "cut" and donate it somewhere. I like Margo's idea of a scholarship. I met a man who works at the Greenwood Cultural Center--I thought I could talk to him.

Margo--I love the scholarship idea. I've decided I don't want the little bit of money I'd make per book--it's not going to make me James Patterson rich--so doing something good for the people of Greenwood would be wonderful.

We'll talk.

Jeanine--Thank you. I would love to have a bunch of books about the Tulsa Race Massacre--written by black writers--on book store shelves. Hopefully that will happen soon.

I know things have improved slightly. There are black authors that people (like me) froth at the mouth over. Jason Reynolds. Nikki Giovanni. Jacqueline Woodson. Christopher Paul Curtis. Sharon Draper. Sharon Flake. Leonard Pitts, Jr. Colson Whitehead. And I know that surrounded by an ocean of white writers, the slight improvement is barely able to be discerned.

I hope you're right. I hope I'm doing justice to Henry...

Renee Roberson said...

Sioux--I understand your sadness and frustration over receiving that type of response from this expert. I would feel the same way if I was in your shoes. I don't agree that you need to wait 10 more years to get Henry's story out. I know that you are already angry that more people aren't aware of what really happened in the Tulsa Race Massacre. I was also one of those people unaware of the details until you educated me! I know you are not writing this book to become a millionaire. My opinion is that when you begin to do publicity for this book, you face any criticisms head on. Tell people that as an educator, you were frustrated that this important (and devastating) piece of history is not one that is in the current history books. You wanted to shed light on this horrible time, not so long ago in history, and how it affected an entire city. You can even say that it was Henry's voice that spoke to you, and not one of some other older white female character. I think that by letting people know your "why," and finding a worthwhile cause to contribute proceeds from book sales to, you will be fine. I think this e-mail may have been your indicator that there are national experts out there who may be hesitant to back this project because of #ownvoices, but that doesn't mean you aren't meant to tell this story and that your heart isn't in the right place. You know I will read and happily be part of your "street team."

Sioux Roslawski said...

Renee--I plan on being totally transparent and honest. Margo is already the dream publisher, and it's clear she is going to help me make arrangements for this book's proceeds be used to do some good.

Knowing you're on my "street team" makes me so grateful... and it ain't even Thanksgiving yet. ;)

Cathy C. Hall said...

Yes, I agree that Angela has an excellent idea re: proceeds from the sale of the book. I also think Renee touched on what I was thinking. Be prepared for the pushback when it's published with your very excellent reasons for why YOU can tell this story.

Ironically, big publishers can't afford to take major public criticism but smaller publishers are standing tall; you and your publisher believe in this book. And I believe that you're publishing for all the right reasons. Don't wait, Sioux, kids need to read this book now.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--I love what you said about big publishers versus small ones. You're right. And since I so often get myself into sticky situations (technological screw-ups at work), I'm used to throwing myself in front of the bus (before someone else can throw me ;)

Thanks for the encouraging words.

Linda O'Connell said...

You have poured your heart and soul into this book. Henry spoke to you, and through his story you have educated me. Why hasn't this horrific event been told through the eyes of many Henrys in order to educate our youth? You are filling a void, and your reasons and justifications are heart felt. As you prepare to defend yourself, stand proud and tall. Your book will make a difference. THIS IS THE TIME in America to address the issues. Success comes in many forms, not just monetary.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Linda--I consider it a success that a publisher was (finally) interested in my book. My dream was only to see it printed and in the hands of students and teachers. Thanks for your encouragement. You were the beta reader who read it in less than a day and gave me hope that it had some value. Thanks again.

Suo said...

Hi Sioux, I’m sorry to be the nay sayer in this. Like you I am an older, white person and more than a little frustrated that suddenly writers can only write about their own lived experiences. I thought the whole point of writing was trying out other experiences and expose readers to other lives, different to their own.
Having said that... can you say that if you gave your manuscript to a young black male that he would write the story in the same way? Not just in style or language but the things that you see as important, would those same things be important to him and likewise things of insignificance to you may be huge to him. I understand that you are outraged by the misrepresentation of the true story, and as a human being you are sympathetic and supportive of the victims and their community. However, I feel that is the only lens that you will be writing this story through... not as someone who feels it’s impact in the same way. Can you adapt your darling rather than kill it? Is there no way you can become the narrator in the story, watching it unfold, and witnessing the outcomes as you watch Henry’s life? You say that you want to use it as an education, is there a danger that your readers will read it and believe that it is a black perspective, and that despite all your research it maybe emotionally off the mark? To do Henry justice, can you really know what it was like to be him... the things he has encountered every day of his life that you don’t ever have reason to think about?

Sioux Roslawski said...

Suo--Thanks for your honesty. Also, thanks for stopping by The Muffin.

I am hoping I did justice to Henry's voice... to his life. I don't imagine it will ever happen again, but when writing the second (and third, and fourth) draft, I felt like a medium, like I was bringing a dead person back to life so they could speak.

Suo, I hope when my book is published, I hope you give it a try--and give it an honest review. That's all a writer can ask for.

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