• kiddwadsworth

Racial Bias in Fiction

Updated: Mar 27


When I sent my first novel to a beta reader, she flagged several passages, including the one below, as “racist.” The brickwork discussed in this passage still stands at Fort Gaines—built in 1821—on Dauphin Island off the coast of Alabama. My intent had been to convey my respect and admiration for the craftsmanship of the slaves who laid the bricks. After receiving my beta reader’s comments, I rewrote the passage to both remove the bias and to focus the narrative on one of the main themes of the book which is: truly seeing the many choices in front of us and choosing the right path. Lloyd is African-American and Anthony (the speaker) white. Both are twelve years old.


The Original Passage:


We inspected the fort's buildings, the bakery, the latrines, and the armory. “Hey, these were built by slaves,” Lloyd said, reading a plaque.


“Yup, look at that arch.” I (Anthony) pointed upward at the gorgeous brickwork. “Dad took me here when I was five. I remember him holding me up, showing me this brickwork saying, ‘Son, you've got to respect a man who does an excellent job, even when he's a slave. He didn't get paid, in fact he probably got whipped, but he did a good job anyway, obviously took pride in his work’.”


Rewritten to (hopefully) more accurately portray Lloyd and the African-American experience:


We inspected the fort's buildings, the bakery, the latrines, and the armory. “Hey, these were built by slaves,” Lloyd said, reading a plaque.


“Look at that arch.” I (Anthony) pointed upward at the gorgeous brickwork. “Why do you suppose the slaves did such a good job? If I’d been a slave, I would have died rather than build my master a fort.” I drew my knife. “I’d have taken some of them with me, too.”


Footsteps came our way. Quick, I sheathed the knife and pulled my sweats down over it. Two little kids, one chasing the other, raced by.


Lloyd ran his hand over the curving side of the archway. “My daddy told me that slavery wasn’t homogeneous.”


“You mean like milk?”


“No, that’s homogenized.”


“Oh.”


“What he meant was that each person experiences slavery differently. One person might escape. Someone else might get depressed and never want to do anything.”


“Are we still talking about bricks?”


Lloyd gave me a mean look. “My daddy had a boss that always took credit for my daddy’s work.”


“Why didn’t he complain to the boss’s boss?”


“Those two bosses were brothers.”


“He should have quit.”


“He couldn’t quit. He needed the money. So, he decided to keep doing the best job he could.”


“Why? That was just playing into his boss’s hand.”


Lloyd shook his head, “Don’t you see? It wasn’t about his boss. That’s what my daddy figured out. He could choose who he worked for. So, he decided to work for God.”


“What?”


“Anthony, I don’t know why those slaves did a good job. But I guess I’m hoping that they did it for God.”


“Lloyd, these bricks were laid in 1821. All those men probably died slaves. They were never freed, they never even got paid, and their masters got all the credit.”


“Did they?”


I glanced over at him.


“The Old South is gone, Anthony. But hurricane after hurricane this fort has survived.”


I looked again at the beautiful brickwork.


Lloyd whispered, “Maybe God did see.”


Your comments and suggestions are welcome. I’d like to get this right.

Background photo by Brandon Morgan on Unsplash