True story: several of the rejections that I got for Super Justice Force made mention of how difficult it was for certain editors to relate to my hero, Darius Logan. None of them came out and said they couldn’t relate to him because he was black, just that they couldn’t relate to him. Fair enough, I suppose. But I can’t help but wonder exactly what it was about Darius that they couldn’t relate to. Was it the fact that he was an orphan, like Harry Potter, Spider-Man, Tarzan, Superman, or Batman? Was it that he found himself stuck in a violent world not of his own making, like Katniss Everdeen? Was it that he was a tortured soul struggling to stay survive like…well…like many characters in some of the most popular stories of all time?
The fact of the matter is that aside from the recurring “teenage boys don’t read” and “this isn’t girl-friendly enough” responses that accompanied every single rejection of Super Justice Force, one of the most common complaints editors had was that they couldn’t relate to Darius. Honestly, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around what that means, and unless it meant that my book was so poorly written that Darius was an unlikeable jerk, then it most likely meant that some people couldn’t get behind the fact that he was black.
When I was a kid growing up—and this was about a million years ago—I spent too much time watching television and reading comic books. On any given day I wanted to be either Batman (as in the Adam West version from television), Captain Kirk from Star Trek, or Col. Steve Austin, The Six Million Dollar Man. As you can see by their pictures above, all three of my childhood heroes were white. I also idolized James Bond (also white), Starsky and Hutch (white), and Bruce Lee (not white). But as far as black heroes went, they were few and far between. I wasn’t into sports, although I thought Muhammad Ali was super cool, I wouldn’t discover the heroes of blaxploitation movies until I was a bit older, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not find myself looking to Jimmie “J.J.” Walker on Good Times as some sort of role model.
The point I’m getting at is that when I was a kid, I took my heroes where I could find them, and for better or worse, most of them were white. It didn’t seem like that big of deal back then, but looking back, it had a profound impact on me. When you are a child of color, and nearly all of the heroes you see on television and in films don’t look like you or anyone in your family, it messes with your mind and feeds into myths of inferiority and superiority that fuel the fires of racism and discrimination. The same is true for books. I grew up reading the Hardy Boys adventures and the Three Investigators and all those other books young boys read in the 1970s. And there were seldom any black heroes solving mysteries or saving the day. Sure, you had books like A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich, but that wasn’t fun escapist reading. That was depressing.
I find it interesting that nearly all of the popular Young Adult fiction that delves into the realms of the fantastic, horrific or the action-packed, always features white heroes (with the occasional black supporting characters), and we all have no problem relating to anyone. But when it comes to black characters in YA, it seems like they must be relegated to tales of the ‘hood, sports, slavery, or Civil Rights in order for people to relate to them. And that to me is unacceptable, which is part of the reason I created The Adventures of Darius Logan—I needed a hero. If a reader, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity can’t relate to Darius, then it is my fault as a writer. It means that I’ve created a character lacking in humanity. But if the real reason someone can’t relate to Darius is because he’s black (or perhaps because he’s male), then that’s not my problem to deal with.