Storytelling is undoubtedly a powerful art form. Acclaimed films like The Help, Amistad, and most recently Detroit centers around black people’s narratives but are told through the lens of white artists. This sort of storytelling raises the question: who should tell stories around black experiences?
While freedom of speech includes the art of storytelling, how authentic can stories by white creators about black experiences possibly be? Are these artists robbing black voices of a story that should be their own? I remember, going to see a play about the black experience with my brother as a teenager and I loved it. As the predominantly black cast took their bows in front of a predominantly white audience, I turned to my brother and asked his thoughts. He immediately replied, “it was okay, but you could tell the writers aren’t black.” He was correct.
This is not a new dilemma. Co-opting stories of marginalized voices has always been a very real issue. To be clear, I am not saying white artists can not have stories featuring people of color (POC). However, issues arise when these stories are told irresponsibly.The black experience is filled with so much generational trauma that is still being unpacked. Therefore, when narratives feel disingenuous or clumsy it’s easy to take offense. After all, this problem is not just about black experience(s) and who owns that narrative. It’s also about the American experience, and who traditionally has held power. To fully understand the black experience there must be voices of color who are present at the table.
I do believe that artists should be able to express themselves, even if that work is controversial. Art can make people feel uncomfortable as it stirs up a lot of emotions. But, something that needs to be called out is privilege. A white artist can much easier tell the narratives of POC, while POC rarely get the chance to share their own stories, let alone the story of another race.
If we really want to hear authentic narratives, those groups should be encouraged to share their stories. The act of questioning where a narrative comes from is not about cutting down an art form. Instead, it’s about giving voice to people who often feel oppressed, and ensuring that no one is forced to play bystander in their own historical experience.