Reading While Black: The Kids Lit Edition

When I was a child of ten or so, I wanted to be a writer (and illustrator) like the authors idolized. I decided to read as many “classic” children’s books as possible, mostly using the Newbery Award Winners as a reading list. One of the books on that list was Doctor Doolittle, by Hugo Lofting. I had seen the (1960s) movie and assumed that the book would be similar, if not the same. Not only wasn’t it similar, it came with a heaping dose of open racism. In one scene, the good doctor bleaches a black man white so that he can marry a white woman. I was so disturbed by this scene that I did not finish the book. At ten, I wasn’t “woke,” so I just filed the racism away and lowered my expectations of becoming a Famous Author. I learned that Famous Authors were white people.  I also learned that Famous Authors could get away with blatant racism.

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Doctor Doolittle, of course, was not the only book that had blatantly racist messages. There was the Victorian fairy tale novel The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, which outright stated that black people were ugly and stupid. (I hunted down this book after reading Alistair Gray’s novel Lanark, which references Kingsley’s book). There was a passage in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel The Secret Garden where the spoiled brat heroine blithely claims that people of color aren’t even people. (I loved the Burnett book anyway). I had to stop reading A Cricket in Times Square by George Selden because one Asian character spoke in pidgin English. (By the time I encountered that book, I had read Laurence Yep and could spot harmful stereotypes).

The Association for Library Service to Children recently removed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from its award because of racism in the Little House books. I never read the Little House books; I did like the television show with its plucky tomboy protagonist and her nemesis, the campy villainess Nellie Olsen. Apparently, the books have some moments of severe values dissonance, with racist portrayals of Native Americans (who were displaced from their land by the Homesteading Act) and in one scene, Pa and a bunch of his friends put on a minstrel show, complete with blackface. Of course, naysayers are screaming about how such an action is on the slippery slope Book Banning and Burning, and how this is tantamount to censorship and another attack by the Tyrannical PC Snowflakes.

I think about all the Native and black children who come across these stereotypical portrayals, and the racist message they absorb.

 

The Elephant in the Room: On the Hugo Awards

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 9.02.14 AM

Much has been written about the current unpleasantness in the Science Fiction and Fantasy fan community. The TL;DR version is that two groups of right wing blowhards ballot stuffed the Hugo Awards. The first group uses dogwhistle language—they are against “Affirmative Action Fiction” (works that feature trans or gay or ethnic minorities characters, and believe that women should be a hero’s reward). The other group is not subtle about about their contempt. They include a White Supremacist editor and an author known more for his unhinged homophobic rants is nominated six times(!) The message they are sending is quite clear.

Other people have written about this issue—including George R.R. Martin and John Scalzi and Mary Robinette Kowal. I agree and support their efforts and suggestions.

But here’s the thing for me. and frankly, the elephant in the room.

I don’t feel safe. I’ve been called the n-word and the f-word in public more times than I can count. And where I live is perhaps the bluest of blue cities—Washington DC. I have no desire to pay my hard earned money for the pleasure of being insulted by a bunch of people who despise my very existence.  Elimination rhetoric is only a hairsbreadth away from violence. I’ve seen it way too many times. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. I’ve got to wonder about how many gay people, or fans of color will actually show up to Worldcon, and frankly, any other con as long as these toxic people are going to attend.

Unseeing is Believing: Further Adventures in Limnality

For some people, unseeing is believing.

Earlier this morning, one of my Facebook friends was trying to convince a woman on her FB wall about the failure to indict the officers in both the Garner and Brown cases. The person she was arguing with is incapable of seeing any wrongdoing by the officers involved. To this woman’s mind, what Brown allegedly did (stealing cigarillos, roughing up a store owner and sucker punching  an officer) and Garner’s crime—of selling loose cigarettes—were worthy of the death penalty—immediately. She can’t see that these misdemeanors become, when the perpetrator has dark skin, high crimes, akin to murder. She believes that having a badge renders any decision enacted against black and brown skin to be free of accountability. What is monstrously unfair, what preys on poor, black and other marginalized people is good, just, right and proper.

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The recent infuriating events in Black America (Brown, Rice, Garner) are a stark reminder that we live in two very different nations. The two nations occupy the same space, but the dominant one can’t see—or chooses to unsee—the subordinate one. I’ve talked about the subject of gas lighting racism before: the phenomenon of (mostly) white people seeking to rationalize racial micro-aggressions (e.g, “Taxicabs always pass me by, too!”; “Maybe the store clerk is just over eager”; “Racism is over because of Oprah!”).   It’s a way of unseeing the struggles that people of color face, even when they are right there, out in the open.

This inability to see injustice, even when it’s right there in your face, reminds me of an episode in Season 5 of the X-Files called Folie A Dieux.  In the episode, Mulder becomes a negotiator in a tense hostage situation, where a seemingly mad man at a telemarketing company has held his co-workers at gunpoint . He is convinced that his boss is a monster who has vampiristically dehumanized some of his co-workers. Mulder initially thinks the man is mad, and shoots him. As the mad man is dying, he implores Mulder to look, really look at situation through the mad man’s eyes. Mulder, full of empathy, does see. The boss is, indeed, monstrous, insectoid and some of the employees are zombies, with chalk-white zombie skin and pure black eyes. Mulder sees behind the dominant narrative after he empathizes with the seemingly “mad” man. He sees behind the facade, the distraction and is witness to a terrible truth. His life depends on Scully being able to see behind the facade—to share his “madness”— as well.

For some people, injustice against black and brown bodies is the status quo. Even when the proof of injustice is on video. Even when the victim is a child. Blue=always correct. Black = the mark of criminality. To them, we are the mad people seeing invisible monsters.

“He looked like a demon”: the distorting mirror of racism

When I was 14-15 or so, I only cared about writing. I devoured fiction in all forms, and had an attachment to the works of the Southern Gothic writers: Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor. I wrote a story in that vein, about two older women, one white, one black. The plot had the two of them remembering the reason that both became friends during segregated times. The white woman was turned out of her house for her romantic dalliance with a black boy, and her subsequent pregnancy. The boy’s family took her in, and the other woman was the boy’s sister. I don’t have a copy of the piece—the draft was done on college ruled notebook paper. I imagine that it was a jejune attempt, bit of Southern Gothic fan fiction.

I submitted the piece to the high school literary magazine, and it was accepted. And almost as soon as it was accepted, it was pulled. The school vice principal, who I’ll call Mr. D, objected to the content matter. It was immoral, and ‘ghetto.’ Mind you, I heard this second hand from the teacher who edited the literary magazine. Now, the school I attended was nominally a Christian Academy, and you were required to take religion class. Even so, the line of what was and wasn’t acceptable. For instance, we were required to read works by Wright and watch films about lynching—not exactly warm and fuzzy fare. I recall being kind of shocked that Mr. D had characterized it as ‘ghetto,’ as the story occurred in a rural small town. Then the light turned on in my head. It was ‘ghetto’ because it was about black people and I was a black person. Therefore, black = ghetto. So, the story about immoral, scary black people (and their white friends) was pulled. As a consolation, the editor/teacher published some of my poetry. (Thank God, I can’t find the literary magazine!)

I was never called a demon or a thug. You see, I was one of the ‘good ones,’ from a Talented Tenth in-tact family that lived in Washington’s Gold Coast. At five feet two inches tall, no-one is going to mistake me for a super scary black man. But even when you’re unthreateningly diminutive, and have a bonafide bourgeois pedigree, sometimes all people can see is your black skin.  Blackness that, in the white supremacist imagination, has corrosive properties.  See, racism is a funhouse mirror that distorts reality. It turns a gentle story about friendship into a lurid story about debased moral values.

That funhouse mirror turns a black boy into a demon or thug. It turns a slightly drunk young woman ringing a doorbell (because, doncha know, thieves always ring the doorbell) into a threat. A boy, carrying a toy gun in an “open-carry” state, becomes a threat. And on it goes.

Tamir Rice
Tamir Rice

Anyway, the magazine came out, and it had a story written by white girl. The story was about a young, unwed welfare mother who kills a john with lead pipe to feed her hungry son. The story begins with the words, “Momma, I be hoooongry.” The story had prostitution, murder, illegitimacy and actually was set in a ghetto. But, it was written by a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white girl; she could publish a fantasia no doubt inspired by Reagan’s mythical welfare queen. Somehow, that piece got past the moral crusader, but my piece, set in the rural South, was ‘ghetto.’

Microaggresion, explained in the style of Sophia Petrillo.

Picture it: Bethesda Maryland, 1984. A (handsome) black youth of 15 is sitting in the homeroom in tenth grade in a religious, conservative-leaning mostly white school. Homeroom has a radio, which is played before the class begins. The radio is on, playing the shock-jock known as The Greaseman. The Greaseman is doing one of his schticks: racial humor built around the fact that urban black people often have different naming conventions. (“This my daughter, Sy-Phyllis; and here’s her sister Gon’Norhea. Yuck! Yuck! Yuck!”)

Our hero is usually quiet. But this is just too much. He stands up, and turns off the radio, much to the consternation of his classmates. “You’re too sensitive,” they cry. “Don’t you have a sense of humor? YOU have a normal name, why do you care?”

Our hero, somewhat cowed, replies, “I was offended. I think is was” (little voice) “racist.”

Voices are raised; it is the beginning of an adolescent war.

The battle is thwarted, because the teacher stops everyone and says, “He was offended. End of discussion.”

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The black youth was…. Sophia Petrillo me.

When I heard about this latest fracas, I was immediately reminded of that incident.

The similarities are downright uncanny.

Tokens or Intruders: The issue of Diversity at SF Conventions

The talented and provocative Jim C. Hines posted a thread on his Facebook about increasing diversity at SFcons. The responses to that thread were for the most part positive about the issue, but, predictably, there were a few ‘trolls’ who raised the de rigueur whining about quotas, political correctness, and, most egregiously, the notion that ‘urban blacks’ don’t read, most of all, speculative fiction.

To that last claim: I live in a largely black city (Washington, DC) and I take public transportation. I can assure you: ‘urban blacks’ read. On buses and subways, a book-reading black person isn’t a Unicorn who only comes out during nights when the moon is blue. If someone is reading something I’ve read—and they aren’t completely tuned out to the world—I will say something to them. “Great book!” or “Have you read <insert name of author>?”

a unicorn who only comes out during nights when the moon is blue
a unicorn who only comes out during nights when the moon is blue

Anyway, I don’t know what strategy would work to get a more diverse demographic to attend. (But I have some ideas—more about that in a later post). But I do know what will drive ethnic and sexual minorities away.

It’s not that cons are whites-only spaces, per se. Rather, they give off the vibe of Stuff White People Like. Stuff White People Like, in case you didn’t know, is (or was) a popular website that snarkily/ironically listed things that ‘code’ as White. Such as, “White people like paninis!” or nonprofit organizations or organic markets. I freely admit, the hipster-modulated joke that website is predicated on is lost to me. Again, I live in a largely black city (though the population dynamic is changing). Seeing black people eating paninis or working for nonprofit organizations or shopping at Whole Foods is just banal. But that isn’t enough to drive people away, in my opinion. A nuisance? Yes. But I and my fellow PoC are made of sterner stuff. That vibe, in my opinion, provides a fertile ground for both macro- and microagressions. It’s the subtle message ‘one of them is here?!!?’ that cause reactions that range from the overly enthusiastic to the downright hostile.

I’ll give some examples.

I was at a con a few years ago (which I won’t name) where my hair was touched and complimented on. The person who did it meant well, but you can’t but help feel like the Hottentot Venus when that happens. I believe the person came from the overly earnest school of liberalism where Othering, rather than meanness, is the form racial microagression takes.

More recently, at Arisia, there were reports of a white male walking into a party hosted by the Carl Brandon Society and informing the group there that slavery wasn’t all that bad. This, of course, is open hostility.

Both examples are unpleasant things that would make most people wonder about the value of spending an expensive weekend where you’re considered either a Token or an Intruder. I love Game of Thrones and China Mieville and Ursula LeGuin, but there are limits.

And here’s another thing. When a ‘troll’ shows up on a message board forum (or Facebook thread) and spews ignorant/hostile/covertly hostile garbage, the Abstract People of Color hordes they’re talking about? They use the Internet, too. They even read entire websites dedicated to Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror. A 15 year-old me, reading stuff like ‘urban blacks don’t read SF’ would sooner go to a Daughters of the Confederacy cotillion than a SF convention. (The food would probably be better there, too.) Whitesplaining is another form of micro-aggression that will push someone away. There is a long and storied history of racism in the SF community that whitesplainers ignore or pretend doesn’t exist.

I am ending my temporary exile from convention-land by attending the 2014 World Fantasy Convention that will be in my own backyard—in DC. I want to bring my younger cousin to it, as well, since he has firm geek credentials. Maybe our presence will make other PoC feel less alone.

On Diversity & Dogwhistles

A couple of years ago, the online zine Expanded Horizons published a short piece of fiction that I’m immensely proud of, entitled “Conjuring Shadows.” The story is about a transgender conjure-woman in the Harlem Renaissance.  Expanded Horizon’s mission statement is this:

The mission of this webzine is to increase diversity in the field of speculative fiction, both in the authors who contribute and in the perspectives presented. We feature speculative fiction stories and artwork, as well as essays about speculative fiction and fandom from diverse points of view.

So that is my dog in the current fight.

I hate drama. I really, really do. It’s toxic to me. I don’t like confrontation. But there are times when you have to take a stand. Every now and then in the speculative fiction world, some person will write an article about how Diversity/Political Correctness etc. is horrible. They think they’re taking a stand against didactic Aesop-styled fiction. What they are really doing is dog-whistling, save that the dog-whistle is as loud as a klaxon.

What I, and other minorities hear is: “You don’t write good fiction,” or “Why are black/gay/feminist/trans people harshing my squee?” Is it any wonder that POC don’t go to cons? I’ve pretty much stopped going to cons BECAUSE of the lack of diversity. And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way. THAT is the effect of these jeremiads.

Twelve Years a Slave: The True American Horror Story

If the American spirit were to be personified, she wouldn’t look like Lady Liberty. She would be a woman of color with scars on her flesh, calligraphic tattoos of pain and suffering. All of the progress and expansion of the U.S. has been gained through the genocide of the indigenous population and slavery. (Not to mention the initial hazing period that many immigrants still go through). This sordid history is sometimes hidden or romanticized.  When I was a student at a mostly white high school, I distinctly remember my 10th grade history teacher made a point that some masters loved their slaves and treated them like family. Mind you, I was not militant back then. Far from it. But I knew that I was being feed a line. I recall thinking to myself, why does she want to believe that so damn much? This desire to turn the matter of slavery into a Gone With the Wind fantasy of crinoline hoop skirts, palatial mansions and sassy, loyal mammies most recently surfaced during the Paula Deen affair.

12 Years Post
Yesterday, I saw Twelve Years a Slave with my mother. That movie should be required viewing for all Americans. The scenes of torture are beyond horrifying. They are soul-destroying. I found myself wishing that the black characters would all commit mass suicide. The movie goes beyond the whippings and dehumanization. It illustrates the mindset and the methods to bolster the Peculiar Institution. The enslaved had to be constantly terrorized and believe that their lives were expendable in order to maintain the status quo. The beatings in this film are relentless and graphic. Solomon Northup encounters two masters during his enslavement. The ‘kind’ master simply lets his overseers do his dirty work. In the end, Northup is sold to the ‘bad’ master, who has a more hands-on approach. Both masters are nominally Christian, with the second one given to bouts of religious mania, even as he abuses his ‘property.’ The mistress of the house wears outfits to rival Scarlett O’Hara’s, sumptuous gowns of silk, velvet and lace. But beneath the surface trappings of grace, she has a sadistic streak. Black people were things, beasts of burden to these ‘people.’

A recent article in the Guardian had a critic questioning why yet another film needed to be made about slavery. It was an article steeped in privilege, blithely unaware of how slavery is is belittled in the American discourse.

I wish that my 10th grade history teacher had watched this movie.

Racial Discrimation in the DC LGBT Community: A Game of Cards

Last night I attended a panel discussion about racial discrimination in the DC gay bar scene, put together by the Rainbow History Project. (The discussion was held in the Thurgood Marshall Center, that had formerly served as the “Colored” YMCA back in the day; Langston Hughes used to room there).

Thurgood Marshall Center/ 12th Street YMCA
Thurgood Marshall Center/ 12th Street YMCA

Many bars and clubs used the practice of “carding” to deny entrance to African-Americans, transgender people and women. “Carding”  = demanding multiple forms of I.D. for one set of customers, while the desired demographic gets to enter with only one (driver’s license).  One  bar, the Lost and Found, was sued over this practice and the court testimony included bar employees recounting a staff meeting where they were instructed not to serve “n*ggers.” Another club, Badlands, reached a settlement after that accusation. Eventually a law was passed whereby drivers/ non-drivers licenses were the only required identifications needed to enter bars. Many of the panelists and the audience members also recounted their experiences in those days. One older gentleman said that he would be let in when accompanied by white friends, but would be denied entrance when he was in a group of fellow African Americans.

The inside of the Lost and Found, courtesy of the Rainbow History Project digital archives
The inside of the Lost and Found, courtesy of the Rainbow History Project digital archives

A few years ago, I was on an online forum where a couple of white gay men were talking about how Black Pride festivals were “reverse racist.” When I brought up the issue of “carding,” they all vehemently denied the mere possibility of such a practice. Before leaving the forum, I posted a link to the article that showed that such things happen even today.