In the bleakest of moments African-American writers have turned to literature to confront racial terror and the trauma it could induce–turning to poetry, personal narratives, plays and novels. Sometimes, they even dreamed of the fantastic.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as race science blended with the new colonial imperialism, “human zoos” became all the rage in the west. Placed into “natural habitats,” adorned in “traditional dress” and sometimes behind bars, people from “exotic” lands were put on display for a gawking public. All of this to prove the racial theories of the day–that people after all were not alike all over.
Someone asked me once to describe J’Ouvert (Jou-vay), the early morning ritual that ushers in the first day of Carnival, sometimes still called Old Years Mas on the island republic of Trinidad & Tobago. I fumbled for words. J’Ouvert is wild. J’Ouvert is frenzy. J’Ouvert is pounding bass on a big truck, steel pan, rattling cowbells or just the “ting-a-ling ting-a-ling” of bottle of spoon. J’Ouvert is masquerade with or without actual masks. J’Ouvert is whining and “back back.” J’Ouvert is sexuality both liberated and restrained. J’Ouvert is the sacred and profane, the humorous and the macabre. J’Ouvert is the warning hint of a riot that organizes itself into chaos. J’Ouvert is ex-slaves with flaming torches and chains threatening to burn it all down. J’Ouvert is rum. Lots and lots of rum. J’Ouvert is devils–red devils, blue devils, devils dripping black tar and spitting fire. J’Ouvert is baby powder and paint. J’Ouvert is MUD. MUD. MUD. J’Ouvert in the end, is magic. Wonderful, fantastic, dangerous magic.
*photo courtesy of the film After Mas, taken by Joseph Mora
Much of the mental imagery we conjure of the non-Western world in the past century come from endless photos–often of varied peoples in fantastic headdress, wrapped in “exotic” clothing and striking regal poses. For artists, creators and those looking for “authenticity” or understandings of cultures and peoples seemingly “lost in time,” these images are invaluable. But how authentic are such glimpses of the past? Especially when constructed through a colonial lens? Can photos…lie?
A minor kerfuffle on race and representation was kicked up following last Sunday’s season finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Most noticeably, the barely restrained tilt towards Orientalism and the “great white emancipator” finally crossed the red line with the episode “Mhysa.” By week’s end, more than a few articles appeared in criticism, most noticeably comedian Aamer Rahman who pointed out why the Khaleesi’s entire storyline has been “messed up” from the jump. The reactions to this were typical: Denials. Charges of political correctness run amok. And of course, lots’ o’ geek-splainin’. But anyone barely acquainted with modern fantasy literature knows that from black-veiled Haradrim to the Ever Victorious Seanchan to the slavers of Yunkai, the genre has had a long love affair with exotic and dangerous “others.”
So it’s happened. Matt Smith, the latest incarnation of everyone’s favorite Time Lord, will be leaving Doctor Who at the end of the year. Goodbye to the Fezes and Stetsons. Oh, and did you hear there’s a book coming out that calls the series “thunderously racist?” Ruh-roh! Get ready for some Racey-Wacey-Timey-Wimey stuff.
Sometime in the 1930s, a black journalist is kidnapped in Harlem by the charismatic Dr. Henry Belsidius, leader of the Black Internationale–a shadowy organization determined to build a Black Empire and overthrow the world of white racial hegemony with cunning and super science. Journalist George S. Schulyer’s fantastic tale was written in serials in the black Pittsburgh Courier between 1936 and 1938 under the pseudonym Samuel I. Brooks. It quickly found a loyal following among African-American readers, who saw in Dr. Belsidius and the Black Internationale a heroic, sci-fi tale of black nationalism, triumph and race pride. The newspaper was surprised at the serials’ growing popularity, and pushed for more–sixty-two in all. Yet no one was as surprised at the story’s success than George Schulyer who, disdaining what he saw as the excesses of black nationalism and race pride, had written Black Empire as satire.