African American novelist Zora Neale Hurston’s final work, Seraph on the Suwanee, is set among poor southern whites. It’s often dismissed as a “whiteface” novel because the lives and diction of the white characters seem too “black”. “I too thought when I went out to dwell among the poor whites in Dixie County that they were copying us,” Hurston wrote. “But I began to see that it belonged to them”, that there was a way of speaking “common to white and black”.
The debate articulates the fraught relationship between ideas of “authenticity” and “identity”. Poor whites are not supposed to speak as they do, because that is “black speak”. If a novel captures their speech, it appears inauthentic. The irony is that to be “authentic” to an identity, one must not necessarily be authentic to people’s lives as lived. The relationship between “authenticity” and “identity” is more difficult to negotiate today than when Hurston’s novel was published in 1948. The meanings of both are more fiercely policed. Hence the stream of controversies over “cultural appropriation” or the nature of “diversity”. The latest skirmish is over BBC police drama Luther. The BBC’s head of diversity, Miranda Wayland, apparently thinks Idris Elba’s lead character is not “authentic” enough, as he does not eat Caribbean food or have black friends. Whether a Luther sharing jerk chicken with black buddies would be more authentic is moot, but defining authenticity through trivial marks of identity is itself a mark of our times.
“We take our shape… within and against that cage of reality bequeathed us at our birth,” said James Baldwin, “and yet it is precisely through our dependence on this reality that we are most endlessly betrayed.”
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist