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Why I Only Wrote Stories About White People
Savannah Milton
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The first time I noticed that I wasn’t white was in 2nd grade. I loved Disney stories, particularly “Beauty and the Beast.” Belle and I both liked books and learning and were sometimes teased for it. I felt like the only differences between us were our skin and hair. Her skin was porcelain colored, while mine was warm brown. Her hair was straight and mine was dense, curly and kinky. This made me feel sad because I wanted to be just like her. But I couldn’t because we weren’t the same race.

I liked to draw, so I drew myself as a white person in my notebook. I had blue eyes and straight blond hair. Above my head a talking bubble said, “Hi! I’m Savannah!”

I identified more with the fully developed white characters I admired in the books I read and the television shows I watched. Usually black people were just the funny sidekicks to the main white person. The black characters weren’t developed, had no love interests, no motivations, no goals, almost no life. This made them seem like afterthoughts to me, or just cast for diversity’s sake.

In 4th grade, I began to write partly for fun and partly because my grandmother, who had been an elementary school English teacher for 30 years, encouraged me to write by paying me 25 cents a day to do so. I wrote mostly fantasy stories about superheroes or princesses. Without realizing it, I only created boys and girls with white skin, straight red, brown, or blonde hair, and green or blue eyes.

I shared these stories with my friend. She’d read them and give me feedback. One day while we were in the cafeteria she said, “Why do you always write about white people?”

I was shocked. I hadn’t realized that. I couldn’t grasp what I was feeling and didn’t know what to say. “Well, it’s OK if you do,” she said. “I was just curious.”

She started talking to me about something else, but the question was burning a hole in the back of my mind. I thought about it for days afterward.

I was so angry with myself and confused. When I tried creating black characters, it felt forced. I worried about creating racist clichés. For example, I thought about creating a character named Gia as the foster mother of a white character my story focused on. But after reading over the story one day, I felt that Gia seemed like a magical Negro.

The Magical Negro

In movies, a magic Negro is typically an idealized version of a black person who is subservient to and is grateful for the white main character’s benevolence. They are often wise or possess mystical powers, guiding the white person through the story to help them achieve their goals. These characters are almost never developed any further than this, and are never helped in return. I think an example of a magical Negro is the character Minny Jackson from “The Help.” Minny helps the white woman she works for by showing her how to improve her life, but is rewarded with being made the white woman’s lifelong servant.

I had written another story about superheroes, and there was a black girl in it but I also managed to make her a side character. Then I thought I made her too sassy. I began to fear that what I produced was a negative representation of how all black people acted and looked. They felt too much like caricatures.

I feared that anyone reading the story would think the same and get angry. I was scared that my family and friends would judge me and think I’m a race traitor because I made my own people look bad.

image by YC-Art Dept

I eventually stopped writing because I couldn’t create black characters without overthinking how people would view them. I thought, “They are human beings and I am too, and I’m even similar to them, so why can’t I write about them?”

I Finally Feel Connected to a Black Hero

Then in 6th grade, I read the book, Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba, by Patricia McKissack. She was the first black character I felt a strong connection to. I think this was because we are around the same age and I admired her strength, bravery, and persistence in the face of challenges.

The book is historical fiction and tells the story of Nzingha, a young girl who’s the daughter of the king of the Matamba and Ndongo kingdoms. The story is told via her diary. She wants to lead her people against the Portuguese slave traders who seek to take over her kingdom. When I got to the part in the book where she loses her kingdom to Portuguese colonization, I was devastated. She seemed so invincible to me that I couldn’t fathom something like colonization stopping her. Reading about this young woman made me feel particularly proud to be black.

Black Girl Magic

Still, over the next couple of years I suppressed my feelings about my racial confusion. And I still no longer wrote stories or drew pictures.

Then, during spring break last year, my grandmother came back from the library with a book called Black Girl Magic, by Mahogany L. Browne. I was immediately drawn to the book. It was actually a poem made for children of all ages affirming how black girls matter. As I was reading, three particular lines stood out to me:

“You ain’t posed to love yourself Black Girl.”

“You ain’t posed to find nothing worth saying in all that brown.”

“You ain’t posed to know that Nina Beyonce Tina Cecily Shonda Rhimes shine shine shine.”

These words described the feelings I harbored as a child. It brought me back to a time where I remember feeling small and insignificant. But I hadn’t even known I’d had those feelings until I read this poem.

When I spoke to my grandmother about this, she told me that when she was a child, relatives told her lighter skin was better than her dark skin. At school, she knew that being light-skinned allowed privilege; those students were asked to do teachers’ errands and got to be on the cheerleading team. They were desired by boys, specifically black men, and praised.

image by YC-Art Dept

Unlike me, my grandmother didn’t want to be different. She accepted and embraced her brown skin. Later, as a teacher, she gave her darker skinned students opportunities in the classroom. She gave them added responsibilities, or gave them positions in her class to make them feel important.

Jim Crow Still Feels Present

Although our experiences are different, I think there are similarities. My grandmother and I both saw that privilege is given to those who are whiter. I saw the way white people were treated and I wanted to be treated the same way.

We’re not treated like we matter. Companies don’t create makeup for us, they don’t build new apartments for us, and they don’t repave streets for us. We’re left out of conversations; people pretend we can’t do things without their help. Maybe all of it was too much for me to take. Maybe things like job discrimination or being a victim of police brutality seemed too real to me and I decided somewhere in my mind that I’d rather be someone else than to be hurt because of something I can’t control.

As a child I was taught about slavery and Jim Crow and how they both happened so long ago. I was taught that racism ended when laws ending segregation were passed. But the reality is that Jim Crow is still present and I am stuck in a body that I wished for a long time was white.

But after I read that poem, something inside me began to change. I think it helped me learn to appreciate myself and my blackness. I also began to say affirmations to myself. Each morning I would tell myself: “You’re beautiful.” I did this for about six months before I stopped due to forgetting. That change in how I viewed myself made creating black characters easier.

So I am writing again. Right now I am working on a story about three sisters who are witches. They are being paid to teach the daughter of a prominent politician how to use her newfound witch powers. They must also show her how to keep her abilities hidden so she isn’t accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death. They all live in a country I made up. (I’ve created other countries too and have even drawn maps of them.)

None of these characters are white. I am so happy that I finally feel comfortable creating black characters. I continue to be aware of avoiding racial stereotypes. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still write about people who aren’t black. I do, but I understand the importance of writing characters who look like me for me, and for others like me.


Savannah’s Black Girl Book List

Black Girl Magic, by Mahogany L. Browne
A journey from girlhood to womanhood and an invitation to readers to find magic in themselves.

Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba, by Patricia McKissack
Historical fiction based on the diary of a real African queen who lived from 1582 until 1663.

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, by Marvel Comics
The comic book adventures of Lunella, a 9-year-old African-American girl who is described as the smartest character in the Marvel Universe.

The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl, by Issa Rae
A funny essay collection on being an awkward introvert.

Promise of Shadows, by Justina Ireland
A teen who is half-god, half-human must own her power whether she likes it or not.

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(NYC-2019-01-03)

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