Who Gets to Tell Black Stories, Anyway?

Journalist Mac McClelland's essay about how violent sex cured her post-Haiti PTSD unleashed a torrent of criticism. Some say she doesn't have a right to the stories of Haitian rape victims.

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I agree with Valbrun's assessment of McClelland style but not with its placement. Reading her original article for Mother Jones, I, like Valbrun, found McClelland the Reporter "overly self-aware." That article seemed to be more about McClelland's reactions as a white Western reporter to her black Caribbean subjects than an unfiltered view of tent life.

I wondered then if McClelland's position as a white woman was clouding my view of her views, much like the adverse reaction some readers have had to Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help. Adding to that frustration is my intense admiration for journalist Rebecca Skloot's nonfiction masterpiece, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. White people can write incredibly well about black people, and yes, that is a statement that needs occasional emphasizing.

Still, I'd argue that McClelland's work for Good magazine, which Valbrun takes issue with, was not what one traditionally would call an "article." It is an essay -- a column or an opinion piece in which McClelland stepped out of her role as an unbiased journalist and began writing her own story. She is allowed to be, and should be, "self-aware" when writing about herself.

McClelland said as much in a recent interview with Ms. magazine. "This was not my Haiti coverage," she said about her Good essay; " … this was about me." She described the subsequent controversy as "some sort of ridiculous Twitter war about whether I'm an insane racist narcissist who's unfit to do my job." She also mentions being "slut-shamed."

I agree that McClelland has a right to her own story. But if that's true, then so does "Sybille." According to Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat, who knows Sybille personally, the woman expressly asked McClelland to stop writing about her in a letter dated Nov. 2, 2010.

"You have no right to speak of my story. You have no right to publish my story in the press. Because I did not give you authorization. You have no right. I did not speak to you," writes Sybille in a letter Danticat received permission to reprint on Essence.com earlier this week. The woman has a lawyer.

Mother Jones' editors, who were aware of the letter when the cover story went to press, are defending their story-vetting and -editing process. McClelland has apologized for "any suffering or anxiety" she may have caused Sybille or her family.

Stories are messy. They are a complex weave of subjects, narrators, facts and perspective. But knowing that the woman she calls Sybille felt so strongly about keeping her own story private, McClelland could and should have found a way to keep Sybille out of her PTSD story.

True, both women's stories are indelibly linked and often kept quiet. Rape is a subject that both First World and war-torn countries overlook equally. Reporters can and will be affected by the lives they come in contact with. They are not robots. But they should be responsible.

Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.