In a conference themed around “The Great Divide,” stories that bridge societal, economic and cultural gaps, the first session at this year’s Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference exclusively on race admittedly lacked diversity.
“This is indeed the panel when the white guy and the Asian guy talk about writing about race,” said Chris Vognar, culture critic at The Dallas Morning News and 2009 Nieman Fellow, when opening the panel.
Vognar led a conversation with Jeff Chang, director of Stanford University’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts and author of Who We Be: The Colorization of America. The book covers what Chang calls, “the return of the culture wars.”
It was published just a few weeks before a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., decided not to charge a police officer with killing Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man. Chang said he worked on the book at a time when he thought the country lacked a national conversation about race.
“I think the conversation changed dramatically because the #BlackLivesMatter movement,” he said. “It’s a very difficult thing to get at and there’s a defensiveness to it.”
Both writers said that reader backlash on stories about race can be especially intense. Chang said that after the violence in Ferguson, attention about his book turned to hateful discourse on social media.
“People took the time to write hate postcards,” Chang said.
“That’s thoughtful,” Vognar said.
“Yeah, ‘Wish you weren’t here!’” Chang said.
Chang did say, however, that social media can have the power to bring attention to under-reported stories.
“Without social media, we wouldn’t know who Sandra Bland was. Without social media, we wouldn’t know who Trayvon Martin was,” Chang said. “Out of that change happens.”
At the end of the panel, Vognar steered the conversation toward writing craft, asking Chang how he develops source relationships in neighborhoods and environments he’s not directly a part of – like the hip-hop scene in New York City.
“In order to really be there, I had to really show up,” Chang said. “Ultimately it’s not just about showing up, it’s about returning.”
It’s a give-and-take, he said, between reporting everything a source tells you and knowing which stories are part of a culture’s “sacred knowledge” and should be kept out of publication.
“The work that I’m interested in is to explore stories that haven’t been told in order to shed light, to obviously work my craft … but also, straight up and frankly, change things,” he said. “In that regard, if you have to weight a story versus a relationship you’re building, the relationship will always win.”