Who Gets to Tell Black Stories, Anyway?

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I can't decide if I want to applaud journalist Mac McClelland or verbally backhand her. Both reactions to McClelland's Good-magazine essay, "I'm Gonna Need You to Fight Me on This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD," are visceral and near involuntary.

Depending on whom you ask — another journalist, a feminist, a native of Haiti or all three in one — the 31-year-old human rights reporter is either a hero or a villain. She's either a courageous chronicler of issues often kept quiet or a typical colonialist, hijacking a devastated country's narrative to advance her own agenda.

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What's at issue for those who fall on either side of McClelland's crucifixion or beatification is the ownership of story. Do the stories McClelland captures as a journalist, and the subjects trapped therein, belong to her to do with as she pleases, for as long as she pleases and for whatever publication she pleases? Can McClelland tell her own story about overcoming PTSD without the third-person details that prompted that disorder in the first place? Should she?

To answer those questions, first you have to know the story behind the two stories. Two different pieces of writing are battling each other in this debate over who has the right to tell what. One is a reported "dispatch from the tent cities" that McClelland wrote for Mother Jones after being sent to Haiti on assignment in September 2010. The second is the personal-narrative essay that she wrote for Good about her adverse reaction upon returning from Haiti.

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In February, Mother Jones published McClelland's cover story about postearthquake Haiti entitled, "Aftershocks: Welcome to Haiti's Reconstruction Hell." A year after the disaster, she wrote specifically about the high incidence of rape in the more than 1,300 camps occupied by those rendered homeless by the 7.0 earthquake. In that same issue, Mother Jones ran a "special report on Haiti" that included more than 10 articles, most of which were written by McClelland. 

McClelland's personal essay was published in Good last month. In it, she recounts her struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder on her return from Haiti. After spending a substantial amount of time with very recent victims of violent rape, and after being personally threatened with unwanted sexual advances, McClelland returned to her home in San Francisco mentally shaken.

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"I cried in the shower. I cried through most of a 1.5-hour yoga class," writes McClelland, who unconventionally "cured" herself with the help of a therapist and by having "incredibly violent sex" with an ex-boyfriend. Her ex agreed to physically restrain her during sex and even went so far as to cover her face with a pillow — all the better to punch it with.

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.

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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."

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.

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