Recently there was a bit of a blow up on Twitter when a white author questioned the historical accuracy of an Afro-Latinx author’s upcoming series. Because the questioning author was not aware of travel from Latin America to Europe during the period the books are set, she likened them to historical fantasy.
Twitter blow-ups aren’t unusual, but I thought I’d write a post about this one because it hits close to my own heart. Specifically, the use of the phrase “historically inaccurate” to discredit stories from authors of color and keep us from having a seat at the table.
As an author of books featuring people of color in historical settings, I’ve faced these kinds of remarks many times. I’ve received 1-star reviews stating my book is historically inaccurate because a Black woman and white man wouldn’t get married in the past. And when I don’t write about the townspeople making a fuss about it that’s too unbelievable.
I’ve had conversations with other authors of color about having to put a bibliography of their research in the back of their books as a means of heading off the comments about an educated Black character being historically inaccurate and I have to admit I was shocked at first that this was a thing. We write fiction. Why on earth do we need to put a bibliography in our books? But now I see.
The major problem I have with the “historically inaccurate” term is that in many cases it is based on the bias and perceived knowledge of the person using it. If Jane Reader doesn’t think something happened, then she quickly makes sure to say so.
Or even if Jane Reader looked up the laws pertaining to a situation (for example interracial marriage in the 1880s) and sees it was illegal in some states, thus decides to wield the mighty historical inaccuracy review. She still might be wrong because she is not taking into account the complexities of society and human nature that have always existed. For example, maybe back then like today, people bucked convention and married the person they love with a ceremony, not filing formal paperwork if they couldn’t do so legally. Most recorded history is about major events and sometimes written with a slant from the victor (but that’s another topic). No one knows exactly what did or didn’t happen in the lives of most everyday people. To say that something 100% never could have happened is a rather arrogant presumption.
My secondary issue is we write Fiction. If you toss the word into Google it will give you a bunch of definitions that all read something like this, “literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people.”
These stories aren’t real, even historical fiction. As writers we ask readers to suspend their beliefs as we take them on a specific journey with our words. Which begs the question why can a reader suspend their beliefs about some storylines and not others? Maybe it has to do more with their own personal biases.
For example, when Jane Reader says a book about a Duke marrying a Black woman isn’t historically accurate, yet reads a book about a Duke marrying a poor governess and swoons at how amazing it is, having nothing to say about historical inaccuracies, what she is saying is one reality could never happen while the other could.
However, this isn’t entirely true. There were never anti-miscegenation laws in the UK. And historians such as David Olusoga and Miranda Kaufmann have revealed in their work that mixed-race relationships, families, and people in Britain are documented as early as the sixteenth century. A more notable example is Colonel Edward Marcus Despard was an Irish soldier who served in the British Army married a Black woman Catherine in about 1785.
A Duke’s lack of willingness to marry a Black woman or governess had more to do with status, society expectations, etc. and both situations were equally unlikely. So, when Jane Reader is unable to accept one reality over the other, that’s rooted more in her bias than the true realm of possibility.
I like any other writer want to let my imagination roam free and tell whatever story I want. Being limited by the color of my characters skin is a principle I will never prescribe to. If an author says that Paris is in New York not France, that’s one thing. Other than that let’s check our biases and make the publishing world a little more inclusive for all stories.
G.S. Carr is the author of a series of historical novels that take place during the Civil War. Her most recent title is Lady of Secrets, Ladies of the Civil Ware, Book I.
She is a person of many faces. One day you can find her crunching numbers and gushing over spreadsheets. The next you will find her indulging in her inner Picasso (she can finger paint with the best of them). One thing is certain, she loves to constantly create. She adds that she is allergic to vegetables, but a lover of thinly sliced fried potatoes and is a nerd who would love to build a website, as much as, write a book.