Realities Created, Maintained and Destroyed, WHILE-U-WAIT!

Monday, December 06, 2004

A Buddy Holly Moment

Some years ago I was hanging out at the home of my friend Steve Barnes in Southern California, doing what we always do when we get together (plotting to take over the world).

This was when Steve lived in Canyon Country, a sleepy bedroom community on the edge of the desert about an hour's drive from LA.

There was a point when I was waiting for Steve to get dressed, as we were going out to do something. I saw an interesting brochure laying on his coffee table and picked it up and started reading it.

The brochure was about an African American Writers Conference that was going to be held in a few weeks. I noticed that Steve was going to be one of the speakers, which I thought was one of the things that would make this conference a lot of fun. Steve is a very engaging speaker.

As I sat there reading through the list of presenters, I noticed that another speaker that was listed was Steve Perry. I found this interesting, as Steve Perry is a white guy.

When Steve came out, I half jokingly asked if Perry had been invited as the token white person. Steve looked a bit confused and said "Steve Perry?" "Yeah" I replied, "See, right here", and I gave him the brochure. Steve read over the speaker list, and said "How odd, this was supposed to be an all black event, I wonder why they invited Steve?" I thought for a moment and then said "I bet it is because of Dirisha Zuri."

Now Dirisha is one of Perry's most engaging, delightful characters, and one of the major protagonists in his Matadora series. She is also Black.

After thinking for a minute, Steve picked up the phone and called the organizers of the conference.

When he got the person he needed to talk to he said something to the effect of "I noticed that you have listed Steve Perry as one of the speakers. This is good news because Perry is an excellent writer and great guy, but you know he is white. Right?" I could hear through the phone's hand set "What do you mean, he's white?" "You know, pale, melanin challenged, not the descendant of African slaves"..... "Oh." ..."OK, thanks" "click".

Steve turned to me and said "I think we just avoided a Buddy Holly moment."

Steve was of course referring to the famous incident at the Apollo Theater where Holly and his Crickets were booked as a "Black band" because the bookers had heard his music but never seen his picture.

Track back to 1978, "The Buddy Holly Story" with Gary Busey (in his only role as a thin person) standing on stage at the Apollo, gazing out onto a sea of silent black faces and saying "believe me, we are just as surprised as you are." And then proceeding to Rock the House Down.

This little miss-assumption was in the same category. The conference promoters thought that if a writer created a powerful, sympathetic, competent black hero who had an inner life and did not get himself killed saving white people, then the writer must be black.

Now I have to admit that in most cases this would not be an inaccurate assumption, but it is obviously not a law of nature.

It does serve however to point out an odd little quirk in human nature, we like our heroes to look like us. Sometimes we can have difficulties connecting with "The Other".

The publishing world knows this, and since it plays to a certain audience, (I suppose that no one has told them that people of color can in fact read) it is very difficult to find people of color in true protagonist rolls in books. (and when they are, they are often "crippled" in some way)

Another example of the unfortunate situation can be found in one of Steve Barnes first books called "Street lethal" the protagonist, Aubrey Knight is a black man, but on the cover of the first edition paperback, Aubrey is portrayed as being white. (I am not kidding, this really happened)

As you might imagine, this was a real slap in the face to an up and coming black writer.

I don't know if Steve Perry ended up speaking at this conference, I hope he did, because he would have been able to impart some useful information.

Perhaps the most useful thing he could have given the group is the idea that anyone, regardless of who they are can empathize with "The Other" to an extent where they can understand the feelings of someone who is "not like them". That would be a trait I think we would find useful in today's world.

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