My seven-year-old daughter is a huge Nancy Drew fan. I have fond memories of reading Nancy’s adventures, even though I laugh at some of the writing.
Top rules for Nancy Drew writers of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s:
- Every verb must have an adverb attached to it. Nancy can’t just “say” anything; she must say it “excitedly” or “forlornly” or “quickly”.
- When in doubt, have the bad guy conk Nancy on the head and knock her out and tie her up. And gag her, lest she scream for help while knocked out.
- If there’s a racial minority in the book, this person must meet all the stereotypes of that race.
My husband drew my attention to that last point. Little Cecelia begs him to read to her, and so he’s been forced to read about the blonde-haired Nancy, pleasingly plump Bess, boyish and athletic George, and perpetual boyfriend Ned. Last night, he mentioned the racism in one Nancy Drew book.
“All the African-American characters talk in stereotypical ways, and they’re all servants to the white people. Racist.”
(Then he had to define “stereotype” and “racist” for Cecelia’s benefit.)
I flipped through the book. Sure enough, the servants are called “Mammy” and “Pappy”, address Nancy as “Miss Nancy”, and practice voodoo. Nancy’s swamp tour guide, an older man named Rufus, refers to his “ka-noo” and refers to himself in third person, like this:
“Want ol’ Rufus to tell ’bout the time–”
Yes, I know this was written in 1957. Yes, I realize that the (presumably) white author thought she was capturing the dialect of African-Americans living in New Orleans.
But this is 2015. I know my daughter knows that African-Americans don’t speak like this. One of her best friends at school is black, and she’s had black teachers and neighbors and classmates. Absolutely none of them speak in this way.
But she didn’t see the racism in the text. Is that too much to expect from a seven-year-old white girl? My husband and I feel the need to point out the prejudiced attitudes we see.
We’ve had similar experiences when reading older books, where the racist attitude is casual and acceptable. For example, in the Little House books, Ma hates the Native Americans and is shocked that young Laura wishes she could have an Indian papoose as her own. At one point, a character says that “the only good Indian is a dead one.”
So we tell the kids, “Is that a Christian attitude for Ma to have? Is that kind?” To which they shake their heads and say no, of course not.
That’s how we handle it. But what if we weren’t white?
What if my seven-year-old were an African-American girl reading Nancy Drew? Would she notice the racist undertones? Would she wonder . . .
- Why Nancy has no friends that look like her?
- Why Nancy herself is blonde and drives a convertible and has daring adventures while the novel’s African-Americans are servants?
- Why Nancy doesn’t look like her?
- Where are the mystery stories that have a black girl as the main character?
A recent Writer Unboxed post addressed the issue of diversity in fiction. Grace Wynter, a guest blogger, wrote,
As a teenager and later as a new adult, I devoured romance novels. But as much as I enjoyed those stories, something was missing. I read about blondes and brunettes, blue and green-eyed girls who, in the end, always found love, but there were no stories about girls who looked anything like me or my friends. In my school library and at my local book store, there were no stories about nerdy, fat, black, skinny, Latina, Caribbean, or Asian girls getting the guy. There were no stories where girls like me got to be the heroes. Where just for a little while, in the pages of a book, someone’s world revolved around them.
That’s sad to read. It’s also disheartening to read on and acknowledge the truth of what’s she’s written: if a romance novel features a black protagonist, it will be shelved with African-American fiction (a small part of a bookstore) rather than with other romance novels (where it belongs). I don’t even care for romance novels, and this saddens me.
But I think there’s hope. More people appear to be acknowledging the need for diversity, and writers can definitely help with this. I may not be a racial minority, but I can do my part. Grace has three suggestions:
I can read widely. (This one is hard for me, actually. I have a helter-skelter attitude toward what books I pull from the shelves, one based on titles and covers rather than author. So I end up with a grab-bag of novels that have caught my eye that may or may not be diverse in terms of author’s ethnicity/race/gender/orientation.)
I can recommend books, assuming that I’ve read and enjoyed them. (This might be easier for me. When I like a book–and especially if I love it–I will babble on and on and on about it online. But not at church. That’s an entirely different story!)
If we try, I think writers can make a huge difference in racial perceptions among readers.
So, do you have any minority authors you’d like to recommend? Share them with us!
On a tangent, I’d like to note that it took me more time to find a free and labelled-for-reuse photo of an African-American girl reading than it did to write the post. Why? I don’t know. It just took a very long time. PS: I just realized that the photo isn’t displaying properly. Sigh.