3 min read

Tanesha - or race and fiction.

At the desk, 7:09 a.m.

When the Denver Cereal was about a year and two books old, I went to a few of book clubs here in town. I wasn't well prepared for the book clubs. I went because I was invited and because it was supposed to be a great thing for authors to do. I learned a lot about authors, readers, reviewers, and book clubs in those few hours.

One thing that stands out is that in every book club, people asked me about Tanesha.

"Why isn't there more about Tanesha?" they'd ask. "She's left out of the story. She should have a larger role. The whole story is about white people."

They beat around the bush for a while before eventually someone came out and said it:

"There's only one black person in Denver Cereal and you don't tell her story at all. You are/look like/might be/must be a racist."

Don't think it was just the book clubs. I've received emails to the same effect. Tanesha is a peripheral character for most of the Denver Cereal. She appears when the girlfriends are together, shows up when her powerful presence is needed, and disappears to her own clearly overwhelming life.

"Tanesha has a complicated story," I'd say. "She deserves a chance to have her story told in it's entirety."

I could tell  by the look in people's eyes that no matter what I said, they'd already decided I was a racist.

"Why are there so many white people in Denver Cereal?"

Because there are so many white people in Denver. The City and County of Denver was run by grand masters in the KKK until sometime in the mid-1950s. (The state too, but that's a longer more complicated story.) The African American population in Denver is less than 30%. In fact, there are more Hispanic people in Denver, and in Denver Cereal, than African American people. And Denver is a segregated city. People tend to keep to themselves.

"Give it time," I'd say. "When the time is right, Tanesha will have center stage. We'll learn everything you could possibly want to know about her and her history. I'm not going to rush it. I'm going to give her all the time she needs."

They'd squint at me and look away. I could almost hear them remind themselves not to read anything that racist white girl wrote.

Tanesha has the center stage right now (finally). Her story is complicated. Her father was incarcerated for a murder he didn't commit. Her mother still works as a prostitute. Her boyfriend/husband, the son of Bumpy (a character based on a world famous base player who lives in Denver), has a serious drug and sex addiction.

And she wants to be a doctor. She starts classes this week at the School of Medicine (assuming she gets there).

Through it all, Tanesha does her best, tries her hardest to be a good person, and to achieve her goals. She has a lot of obstacles in her path. But she's tenacious enough to climb over them. When she falters, she has good friends who help pick her up, dust her off, and keep her moving forward. As with everyone's life, there are tendrils of her life that spread to other parts of Denver Cereal.

Personally, I like her. I like her tenacity. I like her willingness to try. I like her 'wait and see' attitude. I like how self contained she is, and yet so vulnerable and real. She's a tough girl and great friend who expects nothing and gives everything.

And now, of course, people are complaining that she has the center stage. They want to hear how Jill is doing. (She's pregnant with twins. You really want to hear her complain about her swollen ankles?) Or Valerie. (She just gave birth to Jackie. You want to hear her talk about not getting enough sleep and starving off her baby weight?)

It's Tanesha's time now.

Are people uncomfortable with Tanesha because she's black? Because the life of a modern African-American family is completely foreign to most people? Are they racist?

I have no idea.

In my experience with Denver Cereal, when one character has the center stage, people squawk. People were unhappy when Delphie had center stage. I heard complaints when Seth and Ava were solving the serial murder. Aden and Sandy? Same thing. When Jill was in school? Complaints.Jacob's trouble with the secretary? Complaints.

This is not to say that people are not more than generous with their compliments. Denver Cereal is very well loved by a lot of people. And yet, there's always an undercurrent of dissatisfaction.

When does that general dissatisfaction reflect my racism? When it has to do with an African American character.

All I can say is that I'm only the storyteller. I can only tell the story. I can't forge it's edges, make it this or that, or force a character to center stage when they'd rather you not know about their swollen ankles (thank you very much!).

Tanesha's story will end someday and she will shift to a tertiary stage to finish out where ever we leave her. Six months afterwards, someone will ask why she's not at center stage anymore. That's just how it works.

I wonder if they'll call me a racist.