I was reading some research the other day and came across this article written in 2011: Why Wuthering Heights Gives Me Hope. I haven’t seen the last adaptation of Wuthering Heights and I haven’t read the novel in more than ten years, but the article’s point intrigued me because it’s related to my novel–
Why aren’t there black people in British costume dramas?
The article, by the way, was written by a black British actor. Apparently, in the version of Wuthering Heights that he mentions, Heathcliff was played by a black actor named James Howson. This isn’t a case of color blind casting, since Heathcliff is described as “dark” and “a little Lascar” and “gypsy-like” within the novel, so the casting could very well be a legitimate reading. Didn’t the father pick him up in Liverpool or something?
It made me think about a BBC TV show I was watching earlier this year called Garrow’s Law. The show was set in the Georgian era, the era in which my story takes places, with real Old Bailey cases providing the storylines. Stuff like the suppression of political societies, corrupt Bow Street Runners, sodomy and the bad treatment of sailors after they fought for Britain during the Napoleonic Wars were among the cases. Garrow’s Law also included stories about blacks during the time period–the Zong case and the story of Luisa Calderon, a free mulatto girl from Trinidad who was tortured under General Thomas Picton. Then, of course, there are the lives of famous people like Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, and the historical figure who helped inspire my fictional family, Dido Belle, Lord Mansfield’s mulatto niece.
From my research, I’ve learned that blacks in Georgian era England were largely servants (slaves and free), but also many were sailors. It seems that there were more black men than black women in Britain and that these black men sometimes married poor white girls. Due to the British East India Company connection, Indian men and half-Indian children of British officials also began to filter into Britain in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, they were poor and poor people are not, generally, the subject of costume dramas.
In the upcoming fourth season of Downton Abbey, there was a big hoopla because a black character is being introduced. Gary Carr is the actor and he is playing an American jazz singer. It’s about 1922. I’m not sure what his exact storyline is, but the writer Julian Fellowes had said that he wanted to introduce a black or Asian character on the show if it was “historically believable.” Which is as it should be, I think.
I once read a romance novel taking place in the late 1820s where the heroine was half Chinese. Her hero was a British lord. Naturally, I was thrilled at the idea–finally, something close to me (I’m half Japanese, but in terms of historical romance novels, I’ll take Chinese). And then the girl turns out to be a translator, who knows feng-shui and martial arts, does tai chi, quotes Confucius, and explains tantric sex to her lover. But she’s a good Christian girl, too.
To me, the Garrow’s Law episodes felt like they struck the right note in diversifying a cast–not only because they are based on actual historical figures of color–whereas the above book felt token to me.
I wonder about contemporary stories. When is a cast in a TV show or a book diverse versus token? Is it when there is that black character who dies in, like, the second episode? Or when the Asian character in the show (or the novel) is really, really good at math? (‘Cause my math is simply awful.)
Take USA’s Graceland, for instance. The leads are: a man of African-American ancestry (the actor is half black and half white), a white man, two white women, a black man and a Mexican-American portray FBI, DEA and Customs agents. In the course of their undercover work, we’ve met Nigerian drug dealers, Korean gangsters, Russian mafia and a Mexican assassin. In other words, they have everybody on the show.
I’m not militant about demanding more ethnic and racial diversity in movies or TV. ‘Cause, you know, more Asians, Hispanics and blacks on TV are great, but I still don’t see me on TV. I’m looking at you, Sullivan and Son. Awesome that there’s a sitcom based around a half-Irish, half-Korean comedian. Boo on the fact that the protagonist’s sister is obviously fully Korean. Dominant genes are not that dominant.
On the rare occasions that I write contemporary pieces (i.e., pretty much everything before this WIP took over my life), my characters have all kinds of backgrounds–white, black, Hispanic, Jewish, half Asian. It might seem token, but I’m reflecting my own reality. I honestly get confused by writers who say they don’t know how to write characters of other races in modern times. I realize that my experience is not typical. Maybe we don’t naturally write characters different from us. Maybe we’re worried we won’t portray them “correctly” or we worry that they come out “stereotypical.” I wonder where that diversity vs. token ethnic character line is.