Previously on My Origin Story: I put away my Irish novel after years of creating another world and tried to live in this one for a while.
My fifth novel started from a discussion at a party with a group of radical activists. The question: Who is more oppressed, white women or black men? We didn’t solve the riddle. But the idea stuck, especially the tricky problem of how anyone could ever gauge such a thing. I started dating a black man and, even though I was expecting hate stares, it was still shocking to be on the receiving end of one. I could walk away from my boyfriend and the race hatred would stop for me. What was it like, what was it REALLY like, to not be able to walk away from your own skin? And what would it be like for him to see through my eyes, to be white but female? I did what White People Who Went to College often do: I read books about the subject.
Black Boy and Native Son by Richard Wright. Soul On Ice, Eldridge Cleaver. The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison. Alex Haley’s Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. And of course, Black Like Me, white reporter John Howard Griffin’s account of going undercover as a black man in the deep South in the 60s.
Hey, at least I read some great books.
I came up with the idea of a body swap novel. A couple, a black man and a white woman, wake up with their bodies switched through some MacGuffin. I had my imagination and some great books and a lot of conversations to guide me, but I wanted more. First, I wrote the Man Questionnaire, 17 pages of extremely intimate questions about the mysteries of man-ness. Sample: Section One–Let’s Talk About Your Penis.
I had just finished five years of working at the Rape Crisis Center and, probably relatedly, didn’t know many men. But a few of my guy friends were good sports and tried to fill it out.
Q: What’s it like to make love to a woman?
A: Impossible to describe.
I also had a conversation at a party with some guys who were looking over my questionnaire. One answered the question “What’s the worst thing about being a man?” rather angrily (he’d had a few beers.) “Having to prove yourself every goddamn day!” I didn’t understand this then and don’t really now, but it seems to be a big deal in the life of a dude. I made it a factor for my characters.
Cross-Dressing for Fun and Research
Enough gathering. Time to commit. (Sorry there are no pictures.)
Points of difference between myself and a black man:
Skin: Dark theatre make-up for my face and neck.
Soft skin: Hair clippings from a Halloween wig and spirit gum to make a trim beard.
Hair: I couldn’t find an African-American wig anywhere, though I had an amusing detour where I miscommunicated with a pair of Korean wigmakers. Solution: A black knit cap over my short hair.
Hands: One of the girliest things about me. I wore work gloves.
Adam’s apple: I didn’t worry about it too much because my larynx is thicker than average for a woman. I figured with the dark make-up, no one would notice and they didn’t.
Boobs: I strapped the girls down with two ace bandages wrapped tight. (Sorry, Black Man Chris. No deep breathing for you.) Flat-chested me was a whole bizarre transformation in itself–I’d been busty since grade school. Small-chested columnists have gone undercover as D-cups and written about it, and it’s true: It’s a different world out there depending on cup size.
Hips: I added padding around my waist to off-set the curves.
Clothing: Here, I had to ask myself–what social class is my black man? My boyfriend had been middle-class and dressed in suits and ties for work. I’d always been lower class and those were the kinds of clothes I had. It was the androgynous 80s so I could use my camo pants, black tennies and black coat.
The person in the mirror didn’t look exactly like a black man, more like a fine-boned, green-eyed Arab. But I didn’t look like a white woman either. I talked to Black Man Chris in the mirror, trying on different voices, mostly of my classmates at Manual High School and Richard Pryor. I kept cracking up and I learned something; I had no idea how to smile as a black man. A smile looked all wrong in the dark face. And the whole effect was blown when I laughed. My laugh was impossibly feminine. But as it turned out, there wasn’t much opportunity to smile or laugh for Black Man Chris.
Taking Back the Night
Like almost all women, I avoided going out by myself at night. I lived alone a block from Colfax. Mostly the only women out were hookers and women who got off work late and had no choice. As I stepped out into the world for the first time as a black man, the hardest thing was remembering I wasn’t in danger, or at least not female danger. Night time was male privilege time and they could walk to the 7-11 without constant vigilance against sexual assault. My mantra: “You’re not a woman. You’re not a woman. You don’t have to be afraid.”
I’d gone about two blocks when a woman dodged me. She veered off the sidewalk and snuck between two bushes into a well-lit parking lot. I felt so bad. Gave me a taste of what it must be like to be a nice guy and have a woman run in fear from you. According to black men and John Howard Griffin, this sidewalk dodge is a common reaction to black men.
I passed a black man with a little boy. As a woman, I would have smiled and nodded, maybe said something about how cute the kid was. But the man looked straight ahead, looked right past me, and had such a hostile expression on his face, I didn’t try to interact. I remembered my guy friends talking about how you weren’t even supposed to smile at other men or you might be labeled gay.
A group of four white guys stopped talking when I walked past. And there was this strange dichotomy to the reactions of the others I encountered. Like they were aware of me–very aware, wary even–but they wouldn’t really look at me. They kind of looked right through me. I wasn’t supposed to be there. As a woman, you get all sorts of attention, wanted or not, flattering or not. But people see you. Black Man Chris walked around in a much colder, much more solitary world than White Woman Chris. Griffin wrote about the constant effort of keeping all expressions off his face, showing no feelings but especially not anger or resentment. Whites were so hostile and fearful of him even neutral that he didn’t dare.
I only went out a few times. I regret not doing more, riding the bus, going to Five Points in the black neighborhood, going mall shopping in the rich district. I didn’t immerse myself like John Howard Griffin, and of course, I could take a shower and wash off Black Man Chris anytime. But I did feel like the experience was illuminating in at least giving me a small taste of what it would be like to wake up in a black man’s body.
And oh yeah, the novel. As you might guess, it wasn’t as interesting as the research. I basically imagined if my boyfriend and I switched places and played it out for about a hundred pages. But it never took off. It was better suited to a screenplay, and I didn’t write screenplay format at the time. And there was no B plot. Like some of my earlier work, I let it peter out.
But I absolutely recommend the Method approach for writers in order to do character research. It was an experience, that’s for sure.
So, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done for research?