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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So that’s her story, which is different from “the story,” which is about the high incidence of rape in Haiti. Standing center stage in both stories is a Haitian rape victim whom McClelland calls Sybille, whose violent reaction to seeing one of her attackers in public triggered McClelland’s own violent reaction months later.

In an open letter to the editors of Good, 36 female journalists who have lived and worked in Haiti took issue not with McClelland’s right to express her own personal story but with the backdrop on which she chose to present it. According to the letter, McClelland “paints Haiti as a heart-of-darkness dystopia, which serves only to highlight her own personal bravery for having gone there in the first place.” Marjorie Valbrun, a regular contributor to The Root, was one of those journalists.

“Still, feeling depressed about the state of the country is entirely different from using its suffering to advance one’s career,” wrote Valbrun on The Root. She describes McClelland’s PTSD essay as an “overly self-aware article.”

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.”