Robert A. Heinlein- Letter from the Dean

“Nor do I feel responsible for the generally low state of the Negro—as one Negro friend pointed out to me; the lucky Negroes were the ones who were enslaved. Having traveled quite a bit in Africa, I know what she means. One thing is clear: Whether one speaks of technology or social institutions, “civilization” was invented by us, not by the Negroes. As races, as cultures, we are five thousand years, about, ahead of them. Except for the culture, both institutions and technology, that they got from us, they would still be in the stone age, along with its slavery, cannibalism, tyranny, and utter lack of the concept we call “justice.”–Robert Heinlein

Well at least he didn’t use the n-word…

The excerpt above is from a letter by the late Robert Heinlein, the deemed “Dean of Science Fiction” who occupies a hallowed place in the great science fiction pantheon–somewhere alongside Asimov and Clarke. I ran across it at the fantastic World SF Blog, whose dedication to looking at speculative fiction from a global perspective often has them analysing issues of race, gender and all those other pesky issues that make much of SF geekdom (particularly the white-American-male-dominated kind) rather uneasy. So leave it to them to find this wonderful gem and, with only the slightest hint of snarky commentary, reprint it for us to see. Some choice excerpts:

…I don’t have any prejudice for Negroes, either. I don’t feel any guilt over the fact that slavery existed in this country from 1619 to the Civil War. I didn’t do it. Nor did any of my ancestors to the best of my knowledge (which is pretty complete) own slaves. I had many relatives and one grandfather on the union side during the Civil War, none that I know of on the Southern side other than one cousin we aren’t proud of—Jefferson Davis. But I’m not accepting any guilt on his behalf, either—I didn’t do it.

…one of the sacrosanct assumptions is that the two races, white and black, really are “equal” save for environmental handicaps the Negro has unjustly suffered. Is this true? I don’t know, not enough data observed by me, not enough reliable data observed by others, so far as I know. Obviously the two races are different physically, not only in color but in hair, bony structure, and in many other ways—blood types, for example. Must we nevertheless assume that, despite obvious and gross physical differences, these two varieties are nevertheless essentially identical in their nervous systems? I don’t know but I do know that in any other field of science such an assumption would be regarded as just plain silly even as a working hypothesis, more so as a conclusive presumption not even to be questioned.

…“Equality before the law”—Is it right to force white children to ride buses halfway across Manhattan in order that a kid in Harlem can sit next to a white child in second grade? I don’t think so; I think the white child is being discriminated against because of his color.

Oh joyous is the penned word, for it somehow always manages to survive the ravages of time…thank you ancient Sumerians, Egyptians and Chinese for this bit of technology you helped bestow upon us.

The letter is part of a recent 2012 series put together by the Robert A. and Virginia Heinlein Prize Trust and the Butler Library Foundation on the prominent science fiction author and his works. According to the editors, the letter was written sometime between 1964-1965 and was intended as a reply to fellow writer Francis Marion Busby. Throughout it, Heinlein notes that he has known Negroes and holds no prejudice about them, but nevertheless leaves open the door to black inferiority. As the editors note, the letter “may never have been sent, possibly due (in part) to its racial contents, still incandescently incendiary forty-five years later.”

Oh you don’t say…

Yet this is no lone aberration. In his science fiction, Heinlein’s racial imagery and depictions have brought sound criticisms from detractors and have long sent diehard fans into tongue-twisting convulsions of explanations. Farnham’s Freehold (written in 1964, interestingly right around the time of this letter), tells the story of a white family whisked away to a post-apocalyptic future where African overlords keep whites as slaves. And who can forget the earlier Sixth Column (1949), in which Asians conquer the white world and (naturally) enslave them.

Both stories have had their defenders make some thought-provoking arguments. Some claim that Farnham’s Freehold may be a role-reversal take on American slavery–and that the Africans are actually stand-ins for historical white slave masters. Yet, where modern takes on this like Steven Barnes’ Lion’s Blood manage to tackle the issue with complexity, Heinlein’s Hegelian master-slave dynamic switch-up is clumsy and wince-worthy to the extreme. Similarly, defenders have pointed out that Sixth Column was written in the wake of World War II, Pearl Harbor and the war against Imperial Japan–which I suppose is supposed to make its racism uncomfortable racialized tone “understandable(?).” Of course, the problem here is that it was also written in the wake of Japanese detainment camps and Yellow Peril—and the choice of racializing the invaders as purely Asian (why not Germans?) remains questionable. In light of this letter, one has to wonder in these stories of POC power dynamic reversals (in which whites end up as victims of non-white brutes) just what fears Heinlein was exorcising in his writings?

In a foreword, the editors ask readers to take the following into account:

It should be noted that this letter was written before the Civil Rights Movement, already well under way, made its biggest public impact and changed the way we speak and think of race relations in this country and so reflects a “hard common sense” approach dating before that cultural watershed. Much of the material it deals with was completely submerged at the time, though some details (i.e., the mechanics of “blockbusting”) became common, public property later. The entire text thus provides context for placing the letter in a historical context. It is also worth noting that most of Heinlein’s arguments are of a sort that would later be identified as “hard core libertarian.”

I certainly understand the delicacy with which they’re trying to handle this. And I actually applaud that they decided to publish the letter rather than omit it from series. But…really? Is that what the Civil Rights Movement did? It baptized white identity politics and whiteness in a sea of universalism that wiped it clean from the souls of its believers? So Heinlein supposedly must have become a born-again anti-racism Crusader once the Civil Rights Movement taught him better? Gee. I wonder how come he never penned that letter of his life-altering experience? Besides, the letter wasn’t written “before” the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest impacts. Nor was the movement just “well under way.” It was written right in the mid to latter years of it. The Montgomery bus boycott had happened ten years previously. The Birmingham bombings and Bull Connor’s use of high-powered water hoses on children had just occurred in 1963. The violence of Selma may have been unfolding on the television before Heinlein’s eyes. The moment for life-altering change was as ripe as it was going to get.

If anything, Heinlein’s letter seems more a reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. It was that other effect of the era–the rise of a white societal backlash, part of a frustration with a changing world that those who held power (particularly the Don Drapers at the top of the food chain) could not understand. It’s rather unlikely Heinlein fashioned himself a racist, certainly not in the mold of Bull Connor or the revived Klan. In his letter, he is self-congratulatory of his prior attempts (though unsuccessful) to help blacks. And in part, it is this belief in his inherent white-male goodness that appears to leave him so disaffected by the social upheavals about him. In his mind, the Negroes of the day appear to be ungrateful and unappreciative of the gifts already bestowed upon them by the white world–slavery and civilization.

As for associating Heinlein’s arguments as part of an extremist libertarianism, that’s not at all far-fetched, as I’ve seen much of the “hard core” libertarian perspective on race previously in our modern times. However, I’m not certain that reasoning helps out either Heinlein or libertarians.

Let’s just be frank here. Robert Heinlein wrote a letter espousing some of his innermost thoughts. They were so innermost he decided, as we often do when we look into that part of ourselves we’re not always comfortable with, to not let them see the light of day. He seemed to know well enough what he was writing wouldn’t be viewed favorably even in his day, and certainly raise eyebrows in the times to come–he was a “futurist” after all. Yet, curiously, he never destroyed the letter either. Nor, to my knowledge, did he ever return to it as a topic where time and experience had taught him better.

In the geek-o-sphere, dealing with issues of race or gender or any issue of identity becomes problematic–mostly because geekdom either relishes in its perceived white-male dominance (so inherent to the genres) or (worse) it doesn’t think there’s a problem to begin with, because geekdom somehow transcends the issues of exclusion that plague the rest of the mundane world. When the heroic white fathers (from Tolkien’s racialisms to HP Lovecraft’s outright racism) are brought to light or questioned, the response is silence, uneasiness or outright hostility. Still, if Heinlein could be honest (ugly yes, but honest) in his own self-reflections, the least we can do is be honest in placing them into the context of what it says of his work and legacy.

To read this letter in its entirety and full context, see the sample of the series it was taken from, which can be found here.

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5 thoughts on “Robert A. Heinlein- Letter from the Dean

  1. Thank you for posting this historical document. It is important tool in our current understanding of literary figures of the past. And it gives those of us who strive to deepen that understanding a new perspective.

  2. Thanks again for another thought-provoking blog. The only Heinlein I’ve ever read was Starship Troopers, which I appreciated for his take on the idea of the “social contract”. And though I’m not surprised, I am disheartened by the increasing list of sic-fi/fantasy writers ( and geekdom as it progesses) that I admired, who would have been less or absolutely against my desire to be part of the genre.

    Not saying that I’ll give-up my pursuit, but as my heroes dwindle and God becomes more a trickster than a provider of hard truths, my armor becomes more elaborate and bedecked with spikes.

    Still, thanks for the blog and the information it contains. Great stuff. I wonder if I should drop down to DC and take a course in your class.

  3. Brother Clark: reading this sort of thing about a fellow writer (One held in high esteem at that!) makes me very angry. And I agree with you: Heinlein’s words were probably in reaction to The Civil Rights Movement. Look at all the racism that’s emerged since President Obama took office.

  4. It is odd this fellow sounds distinctly as his current ilk mirroring the “I wasn’t there but I support their viewpoint.” mentality. I almost read the widely used “More black in crime statistic/crime rhetoric” of today. Almost. A literary giant, indeed.

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