Race, gender, and responsibility: the face of Billy Mudd
the troubling lack of actors of color in the nominations its for this year’s Oscars (#OscarSoWhite). And this month, the VBC have been talking (among other things) about the race of Billy Mudd in The Murder of Mary Russell.
In the Conan Doyle stories, most of the characters have no specific ethnic identity. Since Conan Doyle was British, and wrote for a British (and American) audience in Victorian times, it’s fair to say that he, his publishers, and his audience generally assumed that the characters were white/British, except when the story required a wicked Lascar, a mixed-race child (“The Yellow Face”), or the occasional stereotyped villain from America.
The problem is, Britain hasn’t been a completely white nation for a very long time.
I admit that as a writer, I tend not to think about what racial component goes into many of the people on my pages. In fact, although Mary Russell, Kate Martinelli, and some of the others have a certain amount of physical description, when it comes to the characters who are not given any clear indicators, I don’t think it matters much if the reader visualizes that person as Nordic, Nigerian, Filipino, or whatever that reader sees in the mirror each morning.
Sometimes race does matter in a story. If that’s the case, as a reader I expect to be told, either explicitly or by knowing that the character’s name is Chu, Singh, or Katanapoulis. If the author intends a Chu of Nigerian heritage or a Jim Jones who is female, that needs to be made clear fairly early on. (Although it’s part of the charm of Hilary Tamar that we don’t know which gender s/he occupies—and remember when the part of Lawrence Block’s burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr—a Jewish man’s name if ever there was one—was played not by Bruce Willis, but by Whoopi Goldberg?) Neil Gaiman’s Shadow Moon (American Gods) is consistently described as mixed race, with light grey eyes and a swarthy tone to his skin, and his mother having had sickle-cell disease would suggest African-American rather than Romany, Mediterranean, Native American, or any of the other shades of brown.
(Aside: That doesn’t mean there isn’t some justification for the confusion when Ricky Whittle was cast in the part. When Shadow spends the winter in a small town in the northeastern US, I don’t remember any particular mention being made of his standing out to any degree, which [particularly when I first read it, fifteen years ago] I’d have expected. Not in a city, maybe, or in the South, but in a small northern town? No doubt that lack of any passing comment on the part of the town sheriff, or a shopkeeper, or Shadow himself, rather… er, colored my perception of just how dark his shade of skin would be.)
If the author has provided no hints, often the case with minor characters, I’m like most readers in that I assign the character my own skin by default: white.
But about Billy Mudd. Writing a series as I do, I’m forever discovering things about my established characters. Who knew Mrs Hudson was Clarissa? I sure didn’t, until I wrote The Murder of Mary Russell. And did I know Billy was black, or at any rate, mixed race? Had no idea. And although that’s something Conan Doyle might have mentioned in his stories—might have—nothing in the Holmes canon says he’s blonde or freckled. So when I came across the following descriptive sign in the Museum of London—
—I realized that this was where Billy came from. (Sorry it’s blurry, it describes the image as: “An African crossing sweeper, St Martin’s Lane, c1830. In the 1780s there were about 5,000 people of African origin living in London….” Click on it to see it larger.)
Does it matter, that Billy’s skin has more melanin than mine? No—and yet it does. Just as it doesn’t matter that a number of characters I’ve written are gay and lesbian, and yet at the same time, yes, it does. (And again, if the character’s orientation doesn’t come up in the course of the story, I figure that some ten percent of the reading public is gay, so probably ten percent of the characters are, too. Have fun choosing which ones!) Just like, who cares if a white actor plays a role that, in the book, is unspecified? But when all those unspecified roles are filled with white faces, it very much does matter.
We’re a world of many peoples, all kinds of colors and shapes. Sometimes we writers need to remember that, and celebrate the variety.