When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.
–H.P. Lovecraft, On the Creation of Niggers (1912)
This has been an odd Lovecraftian week for me. No, I didn’t run into Cthulhu, or go swimming with the Deep Ones. But on two occasions, the celebrated author of horror and fantasy, who has been dead since 1937, has been summoned from some infernal nether realm to haunt my thoughts.
The first was on a forum where someone was discussing Lovecraft’s story The Rats in the Walls, where one of the characters is a cat called “Nigger Man.” It so happens that Lovecraft owned a “beloved” feline by the same name. Feeling the need to explain after dropping the N-bomb, the post made it clear that quite likely Lovecraft was just using some politically incorrect colloquialism “of his times,” and probably did not mean to demean anyone’s race. While acknowledging that Lovecraft had some “disturbing notions on race,” the post went on to state this was likely an unfortunate result of the author’s isolated upbringing.
Seriously? That’s the argument we’re going with now? H.P. Lovecraft was just channeling his inner Mark Twain? He was isolated? His “notions” of race were “disturbing?” He really wasn’t trying to demean anyone? Talk about your accidental racist!
It’s always perplexing to watch the gymnastics of mental obfuscation that occur as fans of Lovecraft attempt to rationalize his racism. Yes. His racism. Not his “disturbing notions.” Not his “peculiar thoughts.” Not his “racialisms.” His unabashed full frontal racism. Lovecraft was a racist. Period. No qualifiers necessary. Sure he was other things as well–among them a fantastic writer with an amazing imagination. But he was a racist too. And he was very good at it.
I’d come to believe that by now Lovecraft’s racism was a settled matter–like declaring Wrath of Khan the best film in the Star Trek franchise. Arguing against such a thing should be absurd. I certainly thought so after the matter was thrust into the spotlight in December 2011, when author Nnedi Okorafor won the esteemed World Fantasy Award–whose statuette is none other than H.P. Lovecraft’s disembodied head. Okorafor had been unaware of the depths of Lovecraft’s
pathologies fully self-aware cognizant issues, until a friend sent her his 1912 poem, On the Creation of Niggers, where blacks are fashioned by the gods as “a beast . . . in semi-human figure.”
This is no one-off, some “misspeak” by the author. Lovecraft’s
pathologies racial biases ran deep and strong, as evidenced by his stories–from his exotic locales with tropic natives lacerating themselves before mad gods in acts of “negro fetishism” (Call of Cthulhu), to his description of a black man as “gorilla-like” and one of the world’s “many ugly things” (Herbert West-Reanimator). This was not merely an abstract part of his creative process, where he was trying to imbue his work with some hint of realism. Rather, these were expressions of his foremost thoughts, a key part of his personal beliefs, most notably his virulent xenophobia towards an increasingly diverse American society emerging outside of his Anglo-Saxon New England.
In his 1919 short The Street, the United States is represented as being colonized by “good, valiant men of our [Anglo-Saxon] blood who had come from the Blessed Isles across the sea” until ominous newcomers arrive,”swarthy, sinister faces with furtive eyes and odd features, whose owners spoke unfamiliar words….” They brought with them alien thoughts, and had come to “tear down the laws and virtues that our fathers had exalted; to stamp out the soul of the old America – the soul that was bequeathed through a thousand and a half years of Anglo-Saxon freedom, justice and moderation.” These swarthy men living in “rotting edifices” were “the brains of a hideous revolution” and “at their word of command many millions of brainless, besotted beasts would stretch forth their noisome talons from the slums of a thousand cities, burning, slaying, and destroying till the land of our fathers should be no more.” Eventually, the sinister hordes are destroyed when their squalid homes (referred to as an infested “nest” filled with “stench”) collapse, burying and killing all their kind in a genocidal apocalypse.
A similar story of foreign contagion, The Horror of Red Hook, goes full tilt into the race-baiting, with such wonderful descriptive characters as “an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth.” Charming. One only needs look at Lovecraft’s personal letters to catch the influences for these fantastic tales of race-war and extermination. In them he recounts a 1920s trip to New York, where he is repulsed by being jostled in the subway by “sneering, greasy mulattos” and terrified at the sight of “hideous negroes that resemble gigantic chimpanzees.” Similar to his stories, he goes on to rail against what he sees as the real-life “mongrelization” of America’s finest cities:
The New York Mongoloid problem is beyond calm mention. The city is befouled and accursed—I come away from it with a sense of having been tainted by contact, and long for some solvent of oblivion to wash it out! … How in Heaven’s name sensitive and self-respecting white men can continue to live in the stew of Asiatic filth which the region has become—with marks and reminders of the locust-plague on every hand—is absolutely beyond me. … There is here a grave and mighty problem beside which the negro problem is a jest—for in this case we have to deal not with childlike half-gorillas, but with yellow, soulless enemies whose repulsive carcasses house dangerous mental machines warped culturelessly in the single direction of material gain at any cost. I hope the end will be warfare … In New England we have our own local curses … in the form of simian Portuguese, unspeakable Southern Italians, and jabbering French-Canadians. Broadly speaking, our curse is Latin just as yours is Semitic-Mongoloid, the Mississippian’s African, the Pittsburgher’s Slavonic, the Arizonian’s Mexican, and the Californian’s Chino-Japanese.*–Letter from Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, August 21, 1926.
Disturbing notions indeed. During a visit to Chinatown in 1922, Lovecraft declared it a “filthy dump” filled with sub-human “swine … a bastard mess of stewing Mongrel flesh without intellect, repellent to the eye, nose and imagination.” He goes on to wish for a “kindly gust of cyanogen [cyanide]” that might “asphyxiate the whole gigantic abortion, end the misery and clean out the place.”
America’s black inhabitants presented Lovecraft with a most peculiar problem–a group too numerous to wipe out with a whiff of poison gas, and too entrenched to send packing. He ruminated on this on more than one occasion:
Now the trickiest catch in the negro problem is the fact that it is really twofold. The black is vastly inferior. There can be no question of this among contemporary and unsentimental biologists—eminent Europeans for whom the prejudice-problem does not exist. But, it is also a fact that there would be a very grave and very legitimate problem even if the negro were the white man’s equal. For the simple fact is, that two widely dissimilar races, whether equal or not, cannot peaceably coexist in the same territory until they are either uniformly mongrelised or cast in folkways of permanent and traditional personal aloofness. . . . . Just how the black and his tan penumbra can ultimately be adjusted to the American fabric, yet remains to be seen. . . . Millions of them would be perfectly content with servile status if good physical treatment and amusement could be assured them, and they may yet form a well-managed agricultural peasantry. The real problem is the quadroon and octoroon—and still lighter shades. Theirs is a sorry tragedy, but they will have to find a special place. What we can do is to discourage the increase of their numbers by placing the highest possible penalties on miscegenation, and arousing as much public sentiment as possible against lax customs and attitudes—especially in the inland South—at present favouring the melancholy and disgusting phenomenon. All told, I think the modern American is pretty well on his guard, at last, against racial and cultural mongrelism. There will be much deterioration, but the Nordic has a fighting chance of coming out on top in the end.–Letter from Lovecraft to James F. Morton, January 1931.
We could do this all day. Lovecraft wrote in copious amounts, and seemed to have no filters. His words. No need to take them out of context. No need to puzzle out their subtle meanings. He could be quite blunt and forcefully direct. Still, label Lovecraft a racist and some in the geek-o-sphere waver, erupting into spasms of denial and a plethora of excuses.
“Keep in mind, he was just a man of his time” goes the most familiar argument, ignoring that victims of racism were also men and women of those times. Privileging the perpetrator by trying to reason away his/her actions doesn’t mean one whit to those on the receiving end, then or now. Further, we’re well aware that white thinking of his era was backward and retrograde. So quit with the
Caucasian white-splaining already. Early 20th Century America was no doubt a time where white supremacy reigned supreme. But let’s be clear. Lovecraft was no average guy who happened to go see Birth of a Nation or spoke in quaint terms about the “Negro’s propensity for music.” He went above and beyond the more normalized requirements of whiteness, veering into the hateful and obscene. Most whites of his day likely held poor views of ethnic and racial minorities; however, most did not speak (quite repeatedly) in such vile and at times frightening exterminationist language.
Or there’s the, “well we have to separate his personal life from his works” defense. Yes, because as writers we slip out of skin, wipe our brains blank and pluck ideas from some non-personal non-reality based ether. In reality, understanding Lovecraft’s personal bigotry sheds profound insight into his writings. His racist fanaticism, eugenic pseudoscience and xenophobia lay behind the many horrors and unknown encroaching fears in his works, all lurking on the edge of human existence and threatening utter destruction.
Apologists look for any sliver of hope in Lovecraft’s life that might point away from his rampant biases, such as the fact that he married a Jewish woman. To which I reply, and? Strom Thurmond, segregationist and believer in black inferiority, fathered a child with a black woman; Lovecraft’s random act does little more than prove that racism is illogical, contradictory and filled with psychosexual complexities of Freudian proportions. Besides, one of the reasons cited for the eventual divorce from his Jewish wife, according to her letters, was his virulent anti-Semitism. She claimed he enthusiastically devoured Mein Kampf in one sitting, and often had to remind him that she herself was Jewish whenever he launched into one of his diatribes.
The more desperate defenders, grasping at the fine straws, point out that Lovecraft disavowed Nazi doctrines and were he to have lived to see the Holocaust, he most certainly wouldn’t have agreed. Of course, what’s left out is that Lovecraft’s initial thoughts on Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were much more complicated, veering between a displeasure with tactics but admiration of their goals:
[Hitler’s] vision is of course romantic & immature, & colored with a fact ignoring emotionalism … There surely is an actual Hitler peril–yet that cannot blind us to the honest rightness of the man’s basic urge … I repeat that there is a great & pressing need behind every one of the major planks of Hitlerism–racial-cultural continuity, conservative cultural ideals, & an escape from the absurdities of Versailles. The crazy thing is not what Adolf wants, but the way he sees it & starts out to get it. I know he’s a clown, but by God, I like the boy!–Letter from Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, November 1936.
There’s no evidence Lovecraft ever declared himself a Nazi. Nor was he a member of any of the Nazi parties that sprang up in 1930s America. In fact, his moderate Hitler praise appears to have dropped off abruptly in the last year of his life, after a German acquaintance (recently returned from the country) told him of seeing Jews beaten in the streets. Still, if one’s measuring stick of racism is where one draws the line in praising Adolf Hitler, something is seriously wrong with your argument. Besides, as Lovecraft’s personal letters remind us, his very hate-filled and raging anti-Semitism predated the Nazis:
The mass of contemporary Jews are hopeless as far as America is concerned. They are the product of alien blood, & inherit alien ideals, impulses, & emotions which forever preclude the possibility of wholesale assimilation… On our side there is a shuddering physical repugnance to most Semitic types…so that wherever the Wandering Jew wanders, he will have to content himself with his own society till he disappears or is killed off in some sudden outburst of mad physical loathing on our part. I’ve easily felt able to slaughter a score or two when jammed in a N.Y. subway train.–Letter from Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, January 1926.
When properly riled, Lovecraft could let his white supremacy freak flag fly with reckless abandon:
Of course they can’t let niggers use the beach at a Southern resort – can you imagine sensitive persons bathing near a pack of greasy chimpanzees? The only thing that makes life endurable where blacks abound is the Jim Crow principle, & I wish they’d apply it in N.Y. both to niggers & to the more Asiatic type of puffy, rat-faced Jew. Either stow em out of sight or kill em off – anything so that a white man may walk along the streets without shuddering nausea.–Letter from Lovecraft to A.E.P. Gamwell, February 1925.
And we’ll leave it there shall we?
So what was the second incident that drew Lovecraft screaming from the mouth of the abyss and into my life this week? On May 1st, sculptor Bryan Moore launched the The H.P. Lovecraft Bronze Bust Project on kickstarter (notice how I didn’t link to it there?), dedicated to “the preservation and celebration of the famous author’s literary legacy.” The life-sized bronze, when completed, will find a permanent home at the famed Providence Athenaeum Library. As Moore notes, Lovecraft’s “cosmic imagination has influenced every region of pop culture including video games, comic books, music and film,” and he urges contributors to give “the Dark Prince of Providence the bronze monument he so rightfully deserves.”
Yes. He really said “Dark Prince of Providence.”
I’m not really against the Lovecraft bust. This is America. My predominantly African-American and Latino middle school was named for a Confederate commander. And the guy who wrote that Declaration of Independence and came up with such great ideas like the separation of church and state, was not only a slave owner and believer in black biological inferiority, but once fantastically wrote that “the Oranootan [orangutan]” was sexually drawn to black women “over those of his own species.” Not sure what that made him. I have stood in the shadow of long dead and celebrated racists and endured it my whole life. It is what it is. Conflicting. Vexing. Dubois. Double-consciousness. All that.
Neither do I have to devalue Lovecraft’s literary and imaginative genius, in order to name him a racist. He is without a doubt one of the “greats,” a giant whose influence cuts across varied genres of speculative fiction. It shows up in my own writings, either directly or indirectly–as it has been source material for everyone from Joss Whedon to Mike Mignola. Being a POC and into geekdom, you are bound to have some rather disgusting white racist grandpas; don’t really have a choice. Figure that goes for everyone else. But I ain’t sugar-coating who and what he was. And I don’t take kindly when someone tries “splaining” to me why I’m “misunderstanding” his work. Lovecraft spoke loud and clear. If you can’t hear him, you’re just not listening.
Last I checked, the kickstarter project for the Lovecraft bronze managed to surpass its $30,000 goal in little over two days. Impressive. Obviously a lot of Lovecraft fans out there. A national treasure this guy. I just hope when the bronze is unveiled the engraving reads:
Beloved Racist & Anti-Semite
Also wrote stories.
Lots of books on Lovecraft. Here are some worthy online discussions:
Nicole Cushing, Lovecraft, Racism, & the “Man of his Time” Defense (2012)
Bruce Lord, The Genetics of Horror: Sex and Racism in H.P. Lovecraft’s Fiction (2004)
Nnedi Okorafor, Lovecraft’s Racism & The World Fantasy Award Statuette (2011)
Roundtable, Revolution SF Watercooler: HP Lovecraft and Racism (2012)
Update 5/6/2013- The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft. a Lovecraftian tale of eldritch horror by Nick Mamatas and Tim Platt in pseudopod fashion, that draws on Lovecraft’s imaginative genius AND his virulent racism–without omission or apology.
Update 5/92013- Thanks to Jaymee Goh over at the fantastic blog of steampunk, race, feminism and postcolonial theory Silver Goggles for reminding me of Innsmouth Free Press. How could I forget to mention them?! Innsmouth is dedicated to exploring Lovecraftian themes of cosmic horror and openly confront Lovecraft’s racism by inviting marginalized groups to participate in creating more diverse Lovecraftian tales in diverse geographic/cultural settings. Editor Silvia Moreno-Garcia has a wonderfully written article on just this topic from 2011 titled: Lovecraft: Racism and Literature.