I grew up in Abington, Massachusetts during the 1990s. My family home was not the standard. I didn’t really have neighbors. Yeah, there was a house semi-close to us but it only held an elderly couple – nice people but not the best playmates. On the other side of my house? A graveyard…quiet neighbors, really.
So I spent a lot of time in the woods, which surrounded most everything else. It was a great back then, the deer population hadn’t quite blown up yet so deer ticks were still few and far between. It was also fairly young, for a woods. Maybe 150 years old?
It used to be farmland and you could tell this as you walked through it. Stonewalls stood, long abandoned, cutting through the woods every few hundred yards or so. They’ve held up surprisingly well, despite not being cared for in over a century. While the landscape has definitely changed, these walls remain – as does the occasional farm antiquity.
When I walked in those woods – then and today – I am reminded that history does not have clear cut endings. Periods don’t end, get obliterated, and replaced with something new – not usually. No, instead the new typically grows over the old. It disguises it, but it does not remove it, not without effort.
Some of you may have guessed where I’m going with this. The woods I grew up in can be seen as society. They grow, they change. Species settle in and get pushed out (plants and animals). Vernal pools form, marsh deepens, only to have both dry in the summer.
But the bones of the land change much more slowly. The stone walls are still there and may very well be hundreds of years from now…unless someone makes the effort to pull them down.
Let me say a few quick things before we dive in. This article is not intended to be your last stop on this topic, but your first. This topic is worth researching as it reflects a shift away from Tolkien’s more simplistic fantasy archetype, as well as an important examination into issues that we as a society still struggle discussing. I’m also (with a couple exceptions) going to focus on prejudice portrayed in writing – not in the author. All righty, here we go.
Racism, prejudice, bigotry – whatever you wish to call it – has been reflected in the fantasy fiction genre for many years. Part of this comes from the simplistic nature established by the Tolkien archetype. Orcs are evil because… well, they just are. Their whole race was made from black magic with ill intent. You can read every extensive page of Tolkien lore and never find a good orc, Tolkien never envisioned one.
And that’s fine. Middle Earth is not ever intended to be a one-to-one comparison with our actual Earth. Its larger-than-life heroes without flaw are proof of that. The Lord of the Rings has much more in common with Greek mythology than modern day fantasy. After Tolkien, however, the problems really started. Writers, influenced by the grand epic nature of Tolkien’s world, sought to flesh out and humanize their characters… while still maintaining Tolkien’s simplistic world view.
The Unknown Prejudice of Brian Jacques
I grew up reading Brian Jacques‘ Redwall series. Books like Mossflower, Mattimeo, Mariel of Redwall – I loved them all. I was a big fan of mixing epic fantasy with local woodland creatures, somehow it helped make it more believable for me (I say this as someone raised surrounded by woods). As I grew older and the series continued, however, I began to notice things.
Marlfox was the novel where I first really noticed it. It seemed like certain races – rats, foxes, cats – were just destined to be evil. Wickedness appeared hardwired into their lineage. Born a fox – well too bad, you’re a monster! Every good character in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series was relatable. The mythological, Arthurian nature that was present in Lord of the Rings was nowhere here.
The problem manifested again and again with every new book – and perhaps this was the root of it. Jacques likely had never envisioned Redwall as a long-running series (22 main books when all was said and done). It is fine to have a group of murderous rats once or a thieving fox once – but as these character recur endlessly without contradiction, then an ugly commentary on racism becomes apparent.
I will not assume motive but the taint on the series is sadly undeniable. Whether intentional or not, Jacques has damaged the enduring charm of Redwall with, at best lazy and at worst racist, villains.
A Better Portrayal of Prejudice
There are many Brian Jacques (and unfortunately some H.P. Lovecrafts) in the fantasy genre. The inherent problem stems from a domination of white voices at the expense of minority ones. This is an issue that troubles multiple genres. A recent (2015) study found that less than 2% of science fiction stories published that year were by black authors. The odds of that happening by chance are practically non-existent.
We need to do better. If literature is as mind-opening as we claim than we have to make sure it is a medium owned by everyone. I say we because last year I attended a writers of color event and discovered – with incredible dismay – that I really had never read books that weren’t from a white author.
While there is nothing wrong with reading white authors, it is innately limiting. That meant that there was a whole perspective, whole dimensions of understanding that I was missing. It was unacceptable to me so I resolved to change it.
The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin is a marked improvement in the examination of prejudice in fantasy literature. Jemisin presents a world where those gifted with earth-related magic (here called orogeny) are treated with distrust, abuse, and torment. Stripped of their humanity, they are seen as less than people and too dangerous/stupid to be left on their own. They must be shackled for the good of all humanity.
Of course, The Broken Earth is told from the perspective of one of these “less-than-human creatures” and the reader can learn firsthand how nightmarish the whole system is. The lazy black-and-white nature that writers like Jacques relied on is gone. The Broken Earth Trilogy sparks thought without hitting very real issues expressly on the nose.
I believe it is incredibly important to discuss issues like racism and slavery outside of the real world. Trapping them in history confines the reality of what happened and is still happening in the world. While books like Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing may be fantastic – and it is fantastic – they can be too easily ignored. Sometimes the best way to talk to people on tough subjects is to do so indirectly. It, at the very least, is likely to expand the audience.
I am optimistic that more new voices will enter the literary space and that genres like fantasy will deepen and improve. The presence of writers of color can only strengthen us. They will bring to light issues and ideas that we may have not thought of before and we will strengthen each other by having, for the first time, truly open exchange. Prejudice is a literary topic begging for new and better voices that offer real examination and do not simply attempt to emulate what has come before.
In the past week I had the good fortune to enjoy some incredibly humorous episodes of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. A focus of their satire rested on none other than Megyn Kelly, a “newswoman” from Fox “News” who made the following statements in regards to Santa Claus:
“Santa Claus just is white.”
Now, maybe I am taking this out of context. I could very well be. In the interest in fairness, here is a clip to her official website of not only her initial comments but her defense of them as well. See, I’m letting her have the first word. Now, go take a look (really you have to see this).
Did you watch it? Okay… she’s had her say.
I am not joking now. So Megyn Kelly (by the grace of my good fortune), if you are reading this site I want you to know: you represent everything I hate most about my country. Not to say I hate the United States. Not in the slightest, I believe firmly that the USA has the potential to be the greatest nation on the planet. But what stops it? People like you.
For the record, it’s not her initial statement that annoys me. Everyone makes mistakes. I put my foot in my mouth at least a third of the time I open it. We’re all human: we all say stupid and potentially offensive things from time to time. It’s her “apology” that is so infuriating. Here is a how-to in proper apology etiquette:
1) Accept responsibility for your actions.
2) Express regret for said actions.
3) Be sincere in above statements.
It’s not a complicated process, that’s why we teach it to children. Notice how there is no “express feelings of victimization/persecution” step? Too bad, because that’s all Megyn Kelly’s “apology” was. When someone actually apologies for something he/she did wrong, the offended party shouldn’t feel like it owes an apology as well.
In the United States, there is an atmosphere of self-righteous. This is true of any country and humanity in general. Everyone wants to believe they’re the good guy. Sure, it’s an understandable notion. America is no different, everyone born in this country is raised to believe that America is “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. That is a pretty awesome description. We’re also raised with the knowledge that we were founded on liberty, revolted against oppression, destroyed the nazis and declared war on terror. In short: we’re raised to believe America is pretty bitchin’.
I’m not going to go into whether the USA actually is or not. There are plenty of valid opinions on both sides of that issue. Just let the record show that, while I personally believe my country is flawed, I am still proud to be from it. However, it is when this attitude of “I am American, I can do no wrong” is carried too far, that Americans unquestionably become the arrogant assholes that other parts of the world stereotype us to be.
Megyn Kelly and most of Fox News represents this attitude. Just look at how Bill O’Reilly defended Kelly’s statements. He brings up a valid point of “it doesn’t matter”… while taking the time to defend it, rather than simply saying that Megyn made an erroneous statement (which everyone does occasionally).
So f*ck it, if both of them feel that they have to be defensive, maybe it does matter. And if it matters then the answer obviously is: Santa Claus isn’t just white. But why stop at Santa? From now on, the tooth fairy is gay, the Easter Bunny is Muslim and Jesus was a Jew (yes, I’m aware that last one is an actual fact). Anything that makes the omnipotent Megyn Kelly feel that she has to make more “jokes” to feel comfortable. Because, for you kids reading at home, Megyn Kelly just is a racist bigot, and that’s a verifiable fact.