The first very black faces I remember seeing were on the street corners of Morgantown, West Virginia, when I was very young. One day they disappeared. My mother explained the men were still present, going home from work, but they looked and dressed like everyone else after showers were installed at the coal mines.
I wouldn’t dress as an old-time coal miner for Halloween. Even a blackened face that isn’t blackface carries too much baggage. Nor would I play on other people’s suffering as a refugee, terrorist, prisoner, or Nazi; or an ethnic or marginalized group not my own; or what I know someone else to hold as sacred.
Most Halloween costumes of my childhood were homemade and represented not individuals but generics: witch, pirate, cowboy, Indian, princess, Gypsy, lion, ghost. In later years I learned that “Indian” wasn’t so cool—they are real people, still among us—and even later that the same held for “Gypsies,” or Roma. We rarely dressed as hayseed hillbillies in my Appalachian childhood, and that caricature still irks me.
Writers and readers play at being someone else all the time. Our scope may be wider than Halloween costumes, but the ground rules still apply. Avoid stereotypes, show respect for other people’s trauma, and take great care in portraying a culture not one’s own. Within these boundaries, reading about people of many sorts and backgrounds can not only show but even increase true empathy.
Image: Children in Halloween costumes at High Point, Seattle, 1943, Seattle Post-Intelligencer staff photographer
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.