There’s an interesting article up at Strange Horizons on the stereotype of the “Magical Negro” in fantasy fiction. Author Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu looks at this white-written type in the novels of Stephen King (Dick Hallorann in The Shining, Mother Abigail in The Stand, John Coffey in The Green Mile, etc). There’s some discussion about the problems facing lily-white genre writers (such as myself) trying to write more protagonists of color without falling into such stereotypes over at Vandermeer’s discussion board.
This is something that’s been bugging me for a long time in my fiction, particularly after I started reading up on my core feminist books. That’s about the time I started poking my head out of the sand and looking around at all of my assumptions. Trying to break them down, in real life and in fiction, has been one of the more difficult things I’ve ever tried to do (and I’m not so arrogant as to believe it will ever be done – I’ve been raised in and embedded with cultural symbols. I can be aware of my biases, and try and squash them, but they’ll always be there. I’m not stupid enough to believe they’ll go away if I just stop thinking about them).
Because I’m a white woman, I haven’t been as aware of the Magical Negro stereotype as I have been of the Helpful Slave Girl type in all the Conan novels. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of the old Howard novels because I find them so incredibly non-PC that they become ridiculously funny. The sexism and racism are overt – there aren’t even any Magical Negroes. There are only Primitive Black Beasts and/or Savage Natives. The Magical Negro stereotype hadn’t come into fruition.
Interestingly, the Magical Negro type (as mentioned by someone at Vandeermeer’s board) sounds like an evolution of the “Uncle Tom” character. Uncle Toms, ironically, were created by people like Beecher-Stowe – they were to be sympathetic characters to convince white voters (still all men at this time) of the evils of slavery. They were to show that having black skin meant just that – having black skin, and did not negate a person’s humanity. When you’re trying to talk to people who’ve been hammered with the thinking that personhood is based on color/blood, Uncle Tom was a way of a white writer trying to show a white audience that a person’s color didn’t make them Evil.
Following from that, the Magical Negro (I think) is a white writer’s attempt at giving a character of color a viable place in the story – that of a character instead of a set peice. What Okorafor-Mbachu didn’t mention about Hallorann in The Shining was perhaps the most startling part about the actions of his character – he saves the white woman and her child. The white husband dies. The black guy runs off with the white guy’s wife and kid. After I read the end of The Shining, I actually flipped back to the front and looked at the publication date (1975). I was impressed that King had gotten away with doing that (especially in 1975). Sure, there’s no romance between the Magical Negro and White Woman, but hot damn, the black guy saved the day! You’ll note that in the Kubrick movie version, Hallorann dies and the white woman and the child go off on their own. A reading audience may have been ready for the leap of the black-man-saves-the-day, but not a movie audience. Unfortunately, creating a “type” of character – best intentioned as it may be – can backfire, particularly after everybody else starts picking it up and using it as shorthand.
Maureen McHugh mentioned that one of the reasons she chose a gay male protagonist in China Mountain Zhang was because she was tired of seeing the “Magical gay man” character who had to be sacrificed in order to save the protagonist. The old Conan novels do great things with the Helpful Slave Girl who Suddenly Appears before Conan, and is so irristitably attracted to him that she 1) doesn’t serve him the poisoned wine her master wanted to give to him 2) gives him a key to get out of his prison 3) tells him vital information about how to get out of the palace/destroy the beast/find the power center of the evil lord/magician/etc. Then she 1) runs off and is never seen again 2) asks Conan to take her with him, which he does, though she’s never again seen in other books.
The Helpful Slave Girl, like the Magical Negro and Self-Sacrificing Gay Man, is/was an easy shorthand. Writers are naturally lazy. If we can get away with shorthand, we likely will.
So, it’s a problem.
So, how do white writers (like me) move outside the box? I’m aware of these stereotypes, and after reading the SH article, started ticking off my recent stories and novels in my head, trying to find evidence of my guilt.
I was doing OK for awhile: particularly with Jihad, where the token White Guy is actually the only one of the gang with magic powers, but he’s just one of the cronies, not even a main character (I have effectively reversed this stereotype, though he won’t be sacrificing himself for anybody, and he’s not really all that magical. Well, Ok, he’s a low-level magic-user, but he doesn’t have any great Gandolph-like knowledge). Everybody else in the book is black and brown, and none of them is particularly gifted. It’s Firefly in the desert, with Islam, racial tension (between black and brown, not non-white and white) and it just so happens that yes, there’s a token whitey. My biggest worry is that I’m going to get offensive on the playing-with-Islam front.
I’m likely most guilty of the Magical Negro stereotype in the fantasy saga (To the Wall being book one), where Lilihin is a too-pale scullery drudge (everybody else in the country is tawny, and the country to the north is a mix of Greek/Arab culture shared by a race that’s tall and black). Unfortunately, her mentor ends up being from the Greek/Arab culture, meaning she’s nearly white, and he’s black.
Criteria of the Magical Negro as outlined by Okorafor-Mbachu:
1).He or she is a person of color, typically black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.
Yep. Tiernan’s black. But no, the story’s main characters are 2/3 tawny.
2) He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
3) He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.
No, I don’t think this will happen, unless his time is counted as a great sacrifice. The idea is that *he* needs *her* for something, not the other way around, though he tries to frame it that he’s in he best interests.
4) He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.
Uh-oh. He’s an outcast.
5) He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.
I probably have a Magical Negro on my hands.
But. This is where things get tricky.
I’m writing a fantasy world as a white woman living in a hetero-patriarchy. I’m writing about fantasy cultures with fantasy racial characteristics, which include skin color. I’m also writing about fantasy social and sexual arrangements, fantasy customs, and including some fantasy gestures. Because I’m tied to this world, they’re all coming out of this world, being shaken and stirred, and vomited back out into something a little more different.
But I think they’re still going to be white.
I’ve done a lot of traveling, and I’ve tried to pick up as much as I can, but I think if somebody in another country picked up my book, they’d be able to tell I was white and American (much like someone picking up a Michael Moorcock book or a Mieville book would likely be able to tell they were from England, and had great affection for London). I don’t know that I have any solution to falling into stereotypes while writing, except that you need to be aware of them… and you need to start spending a lot more time with people who are very, very different from you.
Ideally, we wouldn’t have to question a character’s color, a character’s sexuality, as being significant at all. Yea. Right. That would be great. But we’re not there yet, and until then, we’ve got to look closely at our subtext. Whether or not I was consciously making Tiernan a Magical Negro, I’m more aware of how he could be cast that way, and I can take steps to alter him if necessary.
I’ve taken to interrogating many of my female characters as well, particularly after a reader said, “I thought the subtle misogyny in that story was interesting.”
Holy crap, I thought. I totally didn’t mean to do that. I was caught out again when I created a completely passive female lead for the fantasy saga, and had to go back and retool her. Again, when I first concieved the character I pictured writing her as very strong-willed. Instead, she came out like a rag doll. I’m working with pre-established notions about the way a certain “type” of person acts. Yes. Me. The crazy-wacky liberal feminist hippie. We all come from our own unique blend of cultural biases. We’ve all got embedded shit.
I was also caught out on a sudden short-hand assumption when a first reader asked me why, in the second section of my fantasy saga one of my characters had suddenly become “a slut.” Oops. It happened to be a gay male character. I had been writing quickly (about 5K-10K words a day), and went against the actual person I’d created in the first 150 pages and started to write a shorthand stereotype instead. Needless to say, I went back and rewrote those sections.
We’re going to approach projects with assumptions. I’ve been lucky in that I have really good first readers who tag me when I’m being lazy. I’ve started to learn how to interrogate what I’m writing a little bit better, and I’m hoping I won’t trip up as much.
But I know I’ll trip up. It’s a constant process writing and rereading and trolling through subtext. I won’t catch everything, but dammit, I’m trying.
Is that the best we can hope for?