Fiction can foster empathy for Black lives
Nakeya Brown for TIME
June 30, 2020 6:04 PM EDT

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I love being the center of attention. But for my fifth book, Party of Two, I was compelled to write about a character who shies away from the spotlight. Yes, she’s a Black woman like me, and yes, she’s a lawyer, which I was. But just because Olivia and I are alike on the surface doesn’t mean we’re the same.

The five Black women at the heart of each of my books are all different from one another, and from me, which means I’ve had to discover their histories and quirks one by one. For Olivia, caught by her love of a man whose life as a public figure threatens to derail her own ambitions, I had to figure out what she was scared of, what brought her joy and how to balance the two. In other words, I needed my empathy.

Writing fiction helps me relate with people who have inner and outer lives different from my own. Reading fiction can do the same thing. To find that kind of empathy for Black people—for Black lives of all kinds—we need look no further than fiction.

As antiracism books fill up the best-seller lists, I’m thrilled that people want to learn more about racism, white supremacy and their own role in both. But when we say Black Lives Matter, we mean the whole of Black lives—not just when we die at the hands of the police and not just when our lives intersect with white lives to our detriment. Racism is not the only thing to know about what it means to be Black. Our joys, our sorrows, our love, our grief, our struggles to fit in, our families, our accomplishments and our triumphs—these things also matter. Black children matter, and not only the ones killed before their time. You may think you already know that, but history has proved otherwise.

Black lives are not a problem to be solved or an academic text that can be studied. To recognize Black lives as ones to celebrate, empathize with and care about, here’s your antiracism work: read more fiction by and about Black people.

Multiple studies have shown that reading certain types of fiction increases a reader’s empathy for others in the world. Fiction gives you a window into both lives you know and recognize and ones you don’t. It helps you to put yourself in the shoes of those characters, even when you have a different perspective when it comes to race, gender or sexual identity. I’ve read so many books about people who are nothing like me—often by necessity, since I can think of only one book I was assigned to read in my entire K-12 education that was about a Black girl or woman—and I’ve learned something from many of them. As characters confront events and situations we’ve never experienced, fiction helps us imagine how we would deal with them.

My second book, The Proposal, starts with the main character, Nik, refusing a public marriage proposal at Dodger Stadium with thousands of people watching. I knew that I—as a consummate people pleaser who has to work up to correcting a mispronunciation of my own name—would have never been able to say no under that much pressure. So I had to get into Nik’s head, learn what kind of person she was and how and why she wouldn’t hesitate to turn someone down on a Jumbotron. That work helped me understand people in the world who make bold, fearless decisions. It made me envy them—and sympathize with the blowback they inevitably receive.

When we read heartbreaking reportage that includes the numbers of dead, sick, enslaved or impoverished—they can feel like just that: numbers. But fiction brings out recognition in a way that nonfiction doesn’t; when it does its job, you are engrossed in the story, feeling everything the characters do. When I read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, which tells the stories of the descendants of two half-sisters—one line raised in Africa and one in slavery in America—I viscerally understood the pain that the Fugitive Slave Act caused. When I read Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone, about a mother, daughter and grandmother living in present-day Brooklyn, I understood the lifelong, generational effects of the Tulsa massacre.

But fiction can also make you smile from ear to ear, and thrill in the wonder of new discovery, magic or love. When I read One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia, about three little Black girls who lived with the Black Panthers, I felt how much fun they had, even amid family struggle and revolution. When I read Leah Johnson’s You Should See Me in a Crown, I knew in my soul what it was like to be a Black teenager growing up in a small town in Indiana and falling in love for the first time.

I hope that when people read my romance novels, and those of other Black writers like Farrah Rochon and Alexa Martin and Kennedy Ryan and many more, they feel the joy of Black women who are happy and desired and accomplished and loved. White media rarely portray Black women as worthy of a happily ever after. Too often, we’re rendered as objects, created to carry out another character’s purpose. We can be sexual, yes—but not for a relationship, not to fall in love with. We can be maternal, yes—but for white children, not our own. We can be funny, yes—What a great, sassy best friend character that woman was—but never the star.

In the pages of the romance novels I read and write, I see the Black women I’ve seen my whole life. They are successful, respected and involved in loving, fulfilling and happy relationships. I want the world to know not just about our pain, but the whole of our lives, and especially our joy.

Jasmine Guillory is the best-selling author of five books. Her latest novel is Party of Two.

This appears in the July 20, 2020 issue of TIME.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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