Colour – why does it matter?

Posted on 21 January 2010. Filed under: Rant and Rave Time | Tags: , , , , , , |

Browsing Twitter yesterday I was directed to a blog which I found absolutely fascinating, I followed some of the links and was forced to confront some of my assumptions about books. When you read a book do you automatically assume the protagonist will be the same colour and have the same background as you? Well, I discovered today I do and I’m not exactly excited by it. I’m going to be challenging myself to examine the background much more closely and see what clues I can pick up as to the ethnicity of the characters. Let me give you the links to the blog and some other thoughts.

This is the first one, the jumping off point. Uncreated Conscience. It talks about Bloomsbury Publishing ‘whitewashing’ covers, creating a cover with a white person rather than a person of a certain ethnicity as is mentioned in the text. It’s rather misleading and very annoying. If you follow the links within the blog you will find more discussion on this topic and it’s very interesting. Part of the discussion centres on where books with an ethnic protagonist should be placed in a book store.

The part I’m going to look at focusses more on society and the fact that things do change. There was a time when all lead characters in movies were anglo-white and any coloured people were slaves or servants and not listened to. You could look at Gone With the Wind as a famous example. The lead characters played by Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh were both white while their servant played by Butterfly McQueen was coloured. This continued until quite recently. I can remember back to the eighties when it was still happening. I don’t quite know who was the first actor of colour to get a leading role, but Eddie Murphy was certainly fairly prominent in Trading Places in 1983 and has also stayed prominent. Ben Vereen was doing some pretty good stuff around that time as well. There are still more anglo-white lead characters than there are leads of colour or other ethnicity. Things are not that much different in Australia to America. We have very few Aboriginal actors, I can actually count the ones who do get the lead roles on one hand. Most of the lead roles go to Anglo-whites, I’m struggling to think of any examples where the lead role has an ethic background, supporting roles yes, but not lead roles.

The same thing was happening in the music industry. If the singer was coloured then it made no difference how absolutely fantastic they were the recording company did not dare put their photo on the cover of the record as they knew it would not sell. Motown was a very important part of changing these things within the music industry. It was founded by Berry Gordy Jr in 1960 and was the first record label owned by an African American. I do recall seeing a documentary on this a while ago and there was one particular singer who insisted her face be on the record label, unfortunately, I don’t recall either the name of the documentary or her name. This person broke down so many barriers – I do wish I could remember her name.

What I’m wondering is when the barriers will be broken down within the publishing industry? When will the publishers feel it is not financial suicide to put an Anglo-white on the front cover of their book and therefore depict the protagonist correctly? Here is where I have to make mention of an iconic Australian author, Arthur Upfield, the author of the Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte series of books. Boney was part white and part Aboriginal and he was not shown on the front covers of the early editions but he was in the reprints. In fact, when the series was produced in 1972 to 1973 they tried very hard to put a half-Aboriginal in the role but failed and instead placed, James Laurenson an actor from New Zealand, in it instead. They did look for someone of the right ethnicity but failed to find someone suitable. In 1990 a telemovie by the name of Bony, based on the same books, was produced with Cameron Daddo in the title role which caused some controversy as Bony was now white, a although under the tutelage of ‘Uncle Albert’ played by Burnum Burnum.

Now, talent has no barriers, it doesn’t matter whether a person is black, white, yellow or green with purple spots, if they have talent then it should be nurtured and promoted. At some stage this world needs to realise that we’re not all white and learn to live with all the different permutations of ethnicity that are around.

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