I teach a graduate course on race issues in reporting at American University and had long planned to focus one of my recent class sessions on a New York Times article titled, “Who Gets to Tell a Black Story?”
The piece, which was part of the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning series, “How Race is Lived in America,” is about David Simon’s and David Mills’ writing collaboration on the HBO miniseries “The Corner” — a precursor to their partnership on “The Wire.”
We didn’t know at the time that just hours before our class, Mills had died from an aneurysm at age 48. The sad coincidence added new weight to the discussion we had about the politics of racial authorship and the life of Mills, who is black, and Simon, who is white. Why, when Simon approached HBO executives about adapting his book about the drug trade in a black Baltimore neighborhood, did the executives strongly encourage him to team up with Mills?
Does our race matter when it comes to telling stories, especially stories about people of a race other than our own? It shouldn’t matter, but it does, we concluded.
It mattered to Charles S. Dutton, who was hand-picked by HBO to direct “The Corner,” in part because he was black. Reading the Times story, we learned that Dutton protested that the crew was too white. He initially had mistaken Mills for being white. (Mills himself wrote a blog called “Undercover Black Man” in reference to his light-skinned complexion.) One HBO executive, characterizing attempts to remedy the problem, told Scott, “It’s not enough that we have people who are black. We have to hire people with dark skin.”
Journalism graduate student Marcus Shorter, 24, said that reading and discussing this in class made Mills’ passing and the realities that marked his career more poignant.
“As a black man, I find it sad that Mills became a part of ‘The Corner’ due to his race and not his skill, from an executive standpoint anyway,” Shorter said. “HBO needed a black person to sell a ‘black product.’ … In fact, he was one of the best writers working in television at the time.”
As journalists, we are constantly telling stories about people who are not “like us” in some way. Sometimes, being like our sources can help; trust is more easily established, and we may understand things about their experiences or culture that others would not. But being unlike our sources can provide other advantages, such as a greater distance that lets us notice or conceptualize things that someone closer to the subject might miss.
Journalists perceived as insiders by sources can find their reporting complicated by intra-race tensions (such as the question of dark-skinned vs. light-skinned) or expectations of loyalty.
A more recent controversy over race and authorship revolves around “The Help,” Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel about black maids in 1960s Mississippi.
Natalie Hopkinson, The Root’s media and culture critic, noted in a recent commentary: “In the world of publishing and Hollywood, it helps to be talented, as Stockett clearly is. But it also helps to be white.”
Many critiques of “The Help” have been aimed at Stockett’s rendering of the maids’ dialect. “Stockett’s attempts at black dialect consistently miss the mark,” Hopkinson wrote.
Incidentally, in 2008, Hopkinson had tried to recruit Simon to write a humorous political advice column in the voice of corrupt politician Clay Davis, an iconic character from “The Wire” known for his unique delivery of a profane word.
But, Hopkinson told me, “he had reservations about being this white person writing in the black voice,” and he suggested that Mills write for Davis instead. Mills passed on the offer, but Hopkinson said she was impressed by Simon’s awareness — something which clearly guided the authenticity of the black dialect in “The Wire.”
As journalists, whether we are insiders or outsiders, we should always ask questions. The insiders’ assumption that they already “get” their sources and don’t need to ask are as dangerous as the outsiders’ reluctance to ask questions that may make them look naïve or dumb. Race may matter more than it should, but it’s the storyteller’s openness and ability to learn about their subjects that matter most.