Zora Neale Hurston wrote “What White Publishers Won’t Print” for the April 1950 issue of Negro Digest. It is an article on what sort of stories about people of colour (and Jews) are aimed at White Americans by white publishers and Hollywood producers.
Hurston says whites think people of colour have no inner life:
It is assumed that all non-Anglo-Saxons are uncomplicated stereotypes. Everybody knows all about them. They are lay figures mounted in the museum where all may take them in at a glance. They are made of bent wires without insides at all. So how could anybody write a book about the non-existent?
In short, whites think the stereotypes are true to life!!! That seems mad to me but, come to think of it, even Mark Twain thought minstrel shows were true to life. And how often do whites use hip hop videos to prove some point about the True Nature of Black People?
That means the reason middle-class blacks on television are noble but boring and have little in the way of a love life is because that is just how they seem to white screenwriters! It is not some bad habit Hollywood has fallen into or some kind of racist plot: they are trying to be as true to life as possible!
Or take “Shaft” (1971): the hero, “a sex machine to all the chicks” as we are informed in the opening song, has sex with three women but loves none of them – he even pointedly avoids the L-word. I thought it was because he is just a dog. No, Hurston would say, it is because he is black:
[It is] impossible for the majority to conceive of a Negro experiencing a deep and abiding love and not just the passion of sex.
Unfortunately she is right, because it is not just Shaft: think of how few good, serious black-on-black love stories there are in the mainstream. Paramount Pictures, for example, has not made a single one in the past ten years (if ever).
Since the stereotypes are seen as true, blacks and other people of colour might be good enough for comedies and action films but for the most part they are not deep enough to carry a drama as the main character. Even Larry Fishburne’s black Othello was sidelined by Kenneth Branagh’s white Iago in “Othello” (1995).
Hurston says whites like only two kinds of Negroes in their stories:
- Quaint Negroes – those who fit the stereotypes.
- Exceptional Negroes – those who seem to break the stereotypes, the key word being “seem”: deep down they are still black, so they are always in danger of “reverting to type”.
Most living, breathing black people are nothing like either one. Which causes whites to misunderstand blacks and all that that means for the country.
Hurston thinks that serious stories about people of colour will help whites to see them as fully human. I disagree: stereotypes are driven as much by white self-interest as they are by plain old ignorance.
- Zora Neale Hurston: What White Publishers Won’t Print – PDF of the article
- The hearts of white people: the science
- Blacks according to American television
- Our Stories (My Sister and Brothers!) and Theirs (White People)
- The Bechdel Test and Race
- black actresses