White Author, Black Paragons

When writing across cultural divides flattens characters

illustration of open book with person seeing an incomplete reflection of themselves on page, on pink background
Jamiel Law

It’s 2019 in Washington, D.C., and Theo is changing his art-history dissertation after finding a painting of a horse in his neighbor’s giveaway pile. He is 26 years old, a Black Londoner (his mother is Yoruba, his father Californian) and a former star polo player. He left the sport for academia because of relentless racist harassment, and now studies stereotypes of Africans in British painting. The working title for his dissertation is Sambo, Othello, and Uncle Tom: Caricature, Exoticization, Subalternization, 1700–1900. He jogs with his dog for exercise, careful to wear his Georgetown shirt because “his favorite run took him through lily-white Northwest Washington and Daniel, his best friend at Yale, had instructed him that a Black man, running, should dress defensively.” Because he’s from the U.K., he may not understand all the nuances of American racism, but he understands enough. When the lady across the street, from whom he got the horse painting, flinches as he approaches to help her, he feels “the usual gust of anger” and takes a deep breath, saying to himself: “Just a White woman, White-womaning.”

Magazine Cover image

Explore the July/August 2022 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.

View More

Theo might be chagrined to find himself a protagonist in Horse, Geraldine Brooks’s latest work of historical fiction, which braids his story with the narrative of Jarret, an enslaved groom of the horse in the 19th-century painting Theo finds. For one, Theo is skeptical of white artists taking on Black subjects. The original hypothesis of his dissertation is that the Africans in British portraits were rendered less as people than as objects: “His argument mirrored Frederick Douglass’s caustic essay, arguing that no true portraits of Africans by White artists existed; that White artists couldn’t see past their own ingrained stereotypes of Blackness.”

This is a self-conscious—and bold—inclusion for a novel with not one but two young Black male protagonists written by a 66-year-old white Australian woman. Brooks is a skilled journalist and an acclaimed novelist, and Horse is not her first foray into historical fiction set in part during the American Civil War. Her novel March is narrated primarily by the father in Little Women, and tells the story of Mr. March’s years as a chaplain for the Union Army. That novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. Neither is this her first time writing across cultural divides. Her first nonfiction book, Nine Parts of Desire (1994), was about the “hidden world of Islamic women.” Her 2011 novel, Caleb’s Crossing, is about a young white Puritan girl’s friendship with Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a character inspired by a Wampanoag man of the same name who was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, in 1665.

This kind of venture has become trickier in the past 10 years. The publishing world has been racked by overdue debate about cultural appropriation and whether and how white authors should write characters from other racial or ethnic backgrounds. Five years after Brooks published Caleb’s Crossing, the white American writer Lionel Shriver gave a notorious keynote speech—briefly donning a sombrero—at a Brisbane literary festival, ranting about the “clamorous world of identity politics” and the threat she felt it posed to literature: “The kind of fiction we are ‘allowed’ to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.” Retorts and replies followed. “It is possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division,” the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen observed. More recently, the blockbuster turned critical conflagration American Dirt (a novel about migrant trauma, for which its white author was paid a seven-figure advance) set off months of heated articles. Some pointed out that immigrants remain under-published and underpaid for their own stories in the American media market; others objected to the implication that any identity-based limits should be placed on a fiction writer’s license.

In putting Douglass’s argument so early in the book—on page 57—Brooks signals to us that she enters her latest project knowingly. She’s read up on the Discourse. A gauntlet has been thrown—white artists can’t do justice to Black subjects—and she will take it up. Despite her evident efforts, the book does not turn out to be the counterexample she might have hoped.

Horse started with a real horse: Lexington, who was one of the great racehorses of the 19th century and a prolific sire. When Lexington died, his skeleton became an exhibit but was later forgotten in the attic of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Brooks, a horsewoman herself, grew fascinated with the painter Thomas J. Scott, who did several portraits of Lexington, and she was especially curious about one of Scott’s portraits that remains missing. A description of that painting in a July 1870 issue of Harper’s magazine describes Lexington being led by “black Jarret, his groom.” Nothing else is known about the real Jarret, and Horse grew out of Brooks’s imaginings of the life he might have lived. She had wanted to write about horses, she admits in her afterword. But as she researched horse racing in the antebellum South, “it became clear to me that this novel could not merely be about a racehorse; it would also need to be about race.”

The structure of the novel is poly-vocal, occupying a loose, floating third person as its short chapters jump among its cast of characters. The story is bounded historically by 2020 in Washington, D.C., where Theo’s find is identified as a lost 19th-century portrait of Lexington, and the 1850s at several southern horse-breeding farms, where Jarret, a gifted and reserved young horse trainer, develops a spiritual, even psychic connection with a newborn foal named Darley, who will later become famous as Lexington. The boy and the horse become best friends and deeply bonded partners. “That horse about the only one thing I care for,” Jarret declares. Though his father, also a horse trainer, has bought his own freedom, Jarret remains enslaved, and his story line is fraught with vulnerability: Jarret and Lexington are sold together from one wealthy landowner to another, to another.

Occasionally, the book swerves to the 1950s in New York, where Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner make an appearance: Their friend, an art dealer named Martha Jackson, acquires one of the lost Lexington paintings from her maid, who seems to have inherited it from an ancestor connected to Jarret. (This third era’s plot, which is also based in historical fact, is notably less developed than the other two.) Sometimes Jarret’s perspective dominates in the novel; other times Scott’s or Theo’s vantage prevails—or that of Jess, a young white Australian woman who’s pursuing her fascination with zoological research at the Smithsonian in 2019; or that of Mary, the young daughter of the white emancipationist Cassius Clay and a frequent presence at the Meadows, the farm where Jarret and his father work. Intermittently, Brooks serves up a mix of multiple viewpoints over the course of a single chapter.

But in spirit, the book belongs to Jarret and Theo, with complementary foils in the form of the two young white women. (While there are several Black female characters in the book, none is granted complex interiority.) In 2019, Theo begins to date Jess, despite some ambivalence. In 1850, Mary likes to hang around the barns and talk to Jarret (who is two years older) while he works. Brooks has taken pains to make both women flawed: Whereas Jarret and Theo are carefully dressed, meticulous, and possessed of “impeccable manners,” these women are often careless, unkempt, emotionally fragile—and racist without quite knowing it. Jess and Theo meet because she assumes he’s stealing her bike. She’s then so embarrassed by her behavior that she tells him she found the incident traumatic. (“Typical, Theo thought. He’d been accused, yet she was traumatized.”) When Mary is angry, she reminds Jarret that he’s enslaved, and then feels hurt later when she tells him that she considers them friends and he is too incredulous at the idea to reciprocate.

Brooks clearly attempts to demonstrate self-awareness, to preemptively deflect any criticism that she has favored the characters whose life experience most resembles her own—but the dynamic she creates between Theo and Jess and between Jarret and Mary flattens all the characters. Theo and Jarret are described, at every turn, as exemplary, socially and spiritually. They are handsome, tall, gifted, and educated (Jarret takes an opportunity to learn how to read). Animals instinctively trust them (Theo and his dog are exquisitely attuned). They are constantly swallowing their rage. They are always patiently explaining something. Where others stumble, they are steady. Theo tells Jess at one point that he wants to help his old-lady neighbor even if she’s racist, because “ ‘whatever she might be, it doesn’t mean that I won’t do what I know to be right.’ Jess sighed, defeated, and smiled at him. ‘You’re just a better person than me, I guess.’ ”

Theo is a better person than Jess, no doubt, but Brooks grants Jess something that she denies Theo—and to a degree Jarret. Jess gets to fail; Jess gets to change. By contrast, Theo is static. Sometimes he reads like a caricature: “He was his own man long before any of his peers even realized that was an option. He’d embraced life as a rootless loner, at home in the world but belonging nowhere in particular. Comfortable with a wide range of people, close to very few.” He remains angry but patient, smart, gentlemanly, and gentle to the end.

Jarret, the most rounded of the many characters who take turns narrating Horse, changes less than you would expect given that the story tracks him from adolescence into his late 30s. His spiritual evolution is condensed into two formative episodes. In the first, he is saved by Mary and her father from an ill-conceived escape attempt, and he learns thereafter to control his anger and work within the constraints of his enslavement. The second leap forward—which is presented as his real moral maturation—comes when he is briefly forbidden to care for Lexington and is sent to labor in the fields, where he is whipped.

Startlingly, this is framed as a blessing:

He conceived, in those hard days, a renewed gratitude toward his father, who had endured hardship to rise to a measure of dignity that had extended its protective cloak over Jarret’s childhood. He learned, in those fields, what he had been spared. He felt a new understanding for the folk who bore it, and an admiration for those brave enough to risk everything to run away from such a life. An empathy grew in him. He began to watch people with the sensitive attention he’d only ever accorded his horses … Even as his world contracted and pressed in upon him, in equal measure his heart expanded.

When Jarret finally reunites with Lexington and leaves that plantation, he reflects that “he wasn’t sorry to have seen what he’d seen, and learned what he learned. Not just the book learning. He felt larger in spirit. There was a space in his soul for the suffering of people. He resolved to take account of their lives, the heavy burdens they carried.”

These passages call to mind the history of white people insisting that whippings under chattel slavery were an experience of moral training upon which the enslaved might reflect with sanguine gratitude—a history that Brooks is aware of but nevertheless echoes here. Jarret, an emotional teenager who doesn’t seem to lack empathy in the first place, is turned into a saint, floating somewhat above the action.

I keep thinking about Parul Sehgal’s elegant panning of American Dirt, in which she joins the novelist Hari Kunzru in arguing that “imagining ourselves into other lives and other subjectives is an act of ethical urgency.” Transracial authorial imagining, she writes, is a profound undertaking. “The caveat is to do this work of representation responsibly, and well.” Brooks’s attempt is made earnestly, but not well. In keeping with the character construction, the plot itself veers toward formula. Horse relies on ungainly cliff-hangers to pull the reader from chapter to chapter. (In one, Jess inspects Lexington’s skeleton in 2019 and concludes, “Something had happened to this horse when it was alive. Something dreadful.”) The romance is bland. (“Was it the wine, or was she becoming infatuated with this man?”) The details occasionally inspire a flinch (describing an enslaved young man as a “dusky youth”), and the moments when Brooks addresses racism more directly can read as self-conscious and pedantic. (“Look. It’s not your fault you get to move easy in the world,” Theo’s friend Daniel tells Jess after an act of violence. “We just can’t afford to.”)

Brooks is an accomplished writer, and many of her gifts are evident amid the clumsiness of the overall effort. The relationship between Jarret and Lexington is intimate and compelling. When they are briefly separated, the uncertainty of their reunion feels like an existential crisis. Brooks has a talent and passion for research that is fully expressed here—she writes beautifully about the anatomy of horses and the delicate work of “articulating” their skeletons, arranging every bone in its proper place. The descriptions of 19th-century horse racing, when the animals were bred differently and raced much longer tracks, are thrilling. Brooks has attended with equal care to the quotidian details of each era (corn pone in the antebellum South, bebop for Jackson Pollock, mid-century-modern furniture for Theo).

I read to the end wanting Horse to right itself, to be one of those books that achieve the creative and ethical intersubjectivity that signals great fiction. Brooks gives Jarret and Theo just enough spark to make us wish she’d also given them a more deeply imagined, nuanced, and substantial portrayal. Each ends as a trope: one a man who triumphs against all odds, the other a martyr. Brooks’s sympathies are evidently with them, and so are ours. But sympathy seems like an inadequate achievement in a project like this, which takes as its subject the worst consequences of white Americans’ failure to recognize the full humanity of Black people. Sympathy has a way of falling short, aesthetically as well as politically—it is a frail substitute for the knotty, vital insight that can emerge from sustained immersion in another psyche, another soul. If readers feel sorry for Theo and Jarret without really needing to believe in them as whole beings, what exactly do their portraits accomplish?

This article appears in the July/August 2022 print edition with the headline “A White Author Fails Her Black Characters.”