Racism in the history of the United States has always existed, in many forms—all of those forms just as ugly, just as damaging, just as deadly, and just as pervasive as it is purported to be now. Former Union general Philip Sheridan is reported to have said “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” Read some of the letters sent home by Union troops about what they NOT fighting for when the Emancipation Proclamation was revealed. Jim Crow laws held on in the Deep South until well into the mid-1960s. Let’s not forget the signs in New York City when a large wave of starving Irish immigrants arrived in the 1800s. “No Irish Need Apply.” Even as recently as the 1960s many stated they wouldn’t vote for John Kennedy because he was an Irish Catholic.
As a writer of historical romance (hint—it’s fiction), I still attempt to be as historically accurate as possible. That means revealing the prevailing public sentiment of the time, the mores of the period—warts and all. History is not and never has been clean or pretty or even just—but it is history. Were there those who defied the dominant public sentiment, bucked the mores? Of course. History is rife with those who refused to believe that “this is as good as it gets” or would not accept “this is how it’s always been done.” Our own national history is founded in the hope that there was a better way and the belief that tradition wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. We fought a Civil War and almost destroyed this beautiful experiment because of “tradition” and the hope that there was a better way.
I believe there is a better way, that the best is still to come, and only by viewing history through a dual lens that looks back and forward—NOT the mono vision of today’s standards—can we move forward. History is unchanging. Only the interpretation of it changes, much to the detriment of those who fail to understand attempting to define history by modern standards is a dangerous trap.
As an author who does her homework and fully researches a time period, the lives of those who lived in that period, who attempts to understand the prevailing social and political thought of the time (without bringing my own modern judgements to those thoughts), I would hope that I can write a character unlike me—a character who isn’t a white, middle-class, straight female—and do those characters justice.