I’m a lifelong fan of true crime and trashy docudramas, so of course I watch the Investigation Discovery network on occasion. Lately, my favorite show of theirs has been True Nightmares, a very dramatically narrated show that presents three horrifying true stories from the past. I often recognize one of the three cases from each episode, but it’s introduced me to a great deal of historical nightmares I’d never heard about until then, such as the starvation “sanitarium” run by Linda Hazzard during the early 1900s as well as a former Brazilian politician and police officer arranging murders in order to increase ratings on his variety crime show Canal Livre.
The episode I watched last night featured a “Ouija board murder” from 1930 New York. The irresponsible manner in which the story was told has me on the edge of being done with the show.
In a nutshell, Seneca tribal healer Nancy Bowen’s husband Charlie passed away and she was deeply distraught. Due to her inability to read or write, she used a Ouija board with rez schoolteacher and fellow Seneca woman Lila Jimerson so she could talk to Charlie. Jimerson used that opportunity to manipulate Bowen into murdering Clothilde Marchand, wife of an artist Jimerson had been modeling for and having an affair with. Then Jimerson could romance the widower. When hexes failed, Bowen used a hammer to do the job. Both women were maligned in the press because they were Native American and the Marchands were white. (One link said the women were Cayuga in addition to Seneca.)
I only found out about that when I looked up the case for more information. True Nightmares didn’t mention even once that the women were Native American, let alone tribally enrolled Seneca. Apparently, being manipulated into murder by your friend is a nightmare, but racism isn’t?
Talking about this case the way True Nightmares did is like trying talk about Emmett Till’s murder without any discussion of race. You’re not telling his story at all if you omit the fact his skin color is why he was murdered! Jimerson’s affair began because she was a Native American woman and the artist, Henri Marchand, found that his Native American models were more willing to bare their breasts for him if he seduced them. The case gained so much attention because the women were Native American.
I don’t want to have to fact-check every single show I watch on television. If I Google something I saw on the program, it’s because I’m interested in learning more! One of the first damn links I found related to the Ouija board murder made it clear that Charlie, Lila, and Nancy were Native American and members of the Seneca tribe. If I can do that with a Google search, surely everyone involved in the episode’s writing process can do better.
I even looked up the biographies and backgrounds of the actresses who played Lila (Mikayla S. Campbell) and Nancy (Cheyenne Camille). If either woman has publicly stated their tribal enrollment, I haven’t found it. Campbell’s biography only makes note of her Greek, Spanish, Finnish, and Korean background.
If neither women are in fact tribally enrolled Seneca or even Native American women from any other tribe, we can add “irresponsible casting” to the list of the show’s crimes. God knows there are Native American actresses out there who could and would play those roles, but the casting people either don’t look for those women or the women didn’t have the resources to know those roles were even available. That’s systemic racism in Hollywood.
It may seem odd to post about this on my bookish website, but everything I just complained about plays into how I read books now. It’s part of why I decided to rate books on both their overall quality and the quality of their diversity. If an author only describes the skin of POC characters, readers notice. It sets white as the default and POC characters as the Other.
When someone tries to explain it away by saying “well, of course this white person won’t describe the skin of another white person, they don’t see the skin color of someone who looks like them,” I call bullshit. I’m whiter than a girl in yoga pants and a sorority T-shirt holding a pumpkin spice latte screaming “I can’t even!” If I have to describe a white person to anyone of any skin color, I note their skin color like I note their hair color and what they were wearing.
When writers only describe POC skin, their books lose the racial nuances present in everyday life. I have so much more I want to add to this, but I simply don’t have the words for it as a white woman. Because I don’t have the same experiences as people of color–especially women of color–I probably never will. I can only do my best to listen to their experiences and be their ally when they both want and need me to be.
Whether you’re writing a novel or writing for television, please write responsibly.