Every February, we celebrate Black History Month. Still, we haven’t yet heard many stories—stories that deserve to be told because they are part of our collective history. Understanding the complexity of the human experience requires inclusivity.
Resetting how we learn history
As a History major at the University of Texas, I took a writing seminar on the American Southwest. That seminar opened my eyes in a way I never expected.
The professor was a charismatic, blue-eyed Mexican-American man. We started with the history we had all heard before: the cowboy and Indian history written by white, straight, cisgendered men. Then, each week, he introduced us to a different perspective on the same source material: a white woman, a gay Mexican-American man, a Native American man, an African-American woman. With each reading, the view of the American Southwest became more nuanced, more tangled, more human.
In my second graduate program, I took a China Studies class. My professor wanted to bring real world policy making into our class. As an illustrative example, he noted the trip then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was taking to Asia. She wore military-style clothing when visiting a U.S. Army base on her way there, and visited Japan before China, which some Chinese leaders viewed as insulting. In using her insensitivity as a teachable moment, he entreated us to “put on our Chinese ears and eyes” and consider how her actions looked from their perspective. Always good advice, and it stuck with me.
Writing inclusive historical fiction
Putting on someone else’s eyes and ears is what we must do as writers. Historical fiction is often centered on the Western world and the “winners.” I set my work in the Western world, but the whitewashed history we have been taught is not what I write about.
Diverse societies are not exclusive to the recent past. Ancient Rome was a multicultural, multi-ethnic society. Africans worked and lived in Tudor society. Georgian England was a dynamic society with men and women of color living their lives, some of them pushing for the end of the Transatlantic slave trade. White abolitionists never would have found success without the help of black men and women, many who had escaped from slavery themselves. People of African origin were leaders, artisans, musicians, merchants, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. Though many of these people have been erased from history, as writers, we can write them back in.
Nathaniel Wells, Georgian Gentleman
In my novel set in Georgian England and Wales, one character is a historical figure named Nathaniel Wells. He was the son of William Wells, a Welsh sugar planter and merchant in St Kitts, and his enslaved house servant Juggy, who took the name Joardine Wells upon her manumission.
His father had at least six illegitimate children and several legitimate daughters, but Nathaniel was the only son and inherited the bulk of his estate on the death of his father in 1794 – three sugar plantations and money estimated at £200,000. His father sent Nathaniel to be educated in England, and later Nathaniel bought an estate in Wales.
Nathaniel was an integral part of Monmouthshire high society, becoming Justice of the Peace in 1806 and Sheriff of Monmouthshire in 1818—in those positions, he sat in judgment over white people. He also served as a church warden. All of that would have been denied to him had he returned to St Kitts. Through his second wife, he was brother-in-law to William Wilberforce, a leader of the abolitionist movement in Britain.
He must have been a complicated man, the son of an enslaved woman and her owner, who continued to keep slaves, though there are indications it disquieted him. For example, an abolitionist case named one of his overseers, highlighting the harsh treatment of enslaved people in the West Indies. We don’t know what action he took, but records show he did not censor or suppress the information in the courts. Regardless of his feelings, the financial implications of outright freeing enslaved people on his plantations would have been dire. Indeed, he waited until Britain abolished slavery to free them, and was compensated for the economic loss.
According to English Heritage, a nonprofit that cares for historic homes and buildings in England, Nathaniel is not identified in the records as a person of color. Since the vast majority of slaveholders were white, we can assume record keeping did not note someone’s race, and therefore we do not know whether he was unique in his position.
History is not black and white. What fascinated me about Nathaniel Wells was the nuance of his life and how high he rose in society. Although some contemporary sources comment on the color of his skin, all note his elegance and manners, requirements of a Georgian gentleman. His race and background seemed to matter less than his wealth – class beat race in his case.
Writers Can Open Historical Discussions
Writing historical fiction requires a monumental amount of research. It also requires a lot of detective work when traditional histories have left out stories such as Nathaniel’s. He left no memoir, so I don’t know what he thought of his life and the twists and turns he must have made in his mind. But learning about him led me to dive into legal documents related to slavery in the early years of the 19th century, and what other men and women of African descent said about their experiences in Britain at the time.
It takes effort to find these histories, but it shouldn’t – and writers can play a role in bringing to life these characters and making their stories more accessible. History is complex and fascinating, full of people who do terrible, wonderful, and mundane things that are worthy of our time and attention. As readers, we should seek out writers of color. As writers, we put on others’ eyes and ears to make them fully fledged characters. When we write in ways that encompass and reflect the fullness of history, we invite readers to see that too.