Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me takes its title from a Richard Wright poem, but its more direct inspiration is James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time. Coates’ book is in the form of a message to his son, Samori—but his prose throughout is also inspired by Baldwin’s rhythms, and sometimes even by Baldwin’s turns of phrase. “…the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and distinct sadness well up in me. The answer to the question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.” The construction “those Americans who believe that they are white” comes from Baldwin; the Chuch cadence of that repeated “The answer” comes from Baldwin, the way that careful qualification becomes emphasis and exhoration is Baldwin. For Baldwin fans, to read Coates’ prose is to experience a delightful recognition; here is someone who loves the same person you do.
Coates takes a risk drawing such a strong comparison with America’s greatest essayist. In trying to capture Baldwin’s power, for example, he sometimes resorts to repetitive capitalized portentous abstractions —”the Dream” or “the Mecca.” The strain is visible and distracting; a reminder that Coates (like just about everyone else) isn’t as sure-footed as his model.
But Coates isn’t using Baldwin to demonstrate his own sure-footedness. Literary influence is often seen in the context of anxiety; Melville throwing his spear into the eye of Shakespeare, or Baldwin wrestling with Richard Wright. Coates, though, rejects that vision of adulthood via beating your parents. He recalls his grandmother telling him that his son would “one day try to ‘test me'”. He responds, “I would regard that day, should it comes, as the total failure of fatherhood because if all I had over you were my hands, then I really had nothing at all.” Fatherhood is about love, not testing—and that’s Coates’ relationship with Baldwin as well.
And not just with Baldwin.
Though The Fire Next Time may be the most obvious blueprint for Coates’ work, Between the World and Me is filled with other fathers and mothers. The schools he attended in Baltimore were “concerned with compliance”, not teaching, Coates says, but despite his dismal experience with public education, he developed a lifelong passion for learning. He listened to Malcolm X’s speeches over and over, “because Malcolm never lied, unlike the schools and their façade of morality…I loved him because he made it plain.” He played Ice Cube’s Death Certificate “almost every day.” He went to Howard where he hoped to find a coherent Black nationalism and instead was gifted with “a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just as often marching away from each other.” And from his wife he learned, among other things, how to raise a child without the belt his father used. “Your mother,” he tells Samori, in a quietly heart-breaking passage, “had to teach me how to love you.”
Most reviews, positive and negative, have focused on the heartbreak in Coates’ writing, and there’s good reason for that. Between the World and Me is a painful book. It starts with Samori crying in his room when he learns Michael Brown’s killer won’t be indicted; it closes with Coates talking to the mother of one of his Howard friends, Prince Jones, who was murdered by a policeman who was never held accountable. These aren’t isolated incidents, Coates’ book makes clear. They’re part of a pattern of terrorism and violence stretching back to slavery, through Jim Crow and redlining, and on up through the neglected, violent streets of Coates’ Baltimore childhood. Police brutality isn’t an accident, or a few bad men acting recklessly. Rather, police, Coates says, are “enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy.” In order to keep thinking of themselves as white, Americans who think of themselves as white kill black people. So it has been, and so, Coates suggests, it shall be, if not for always, then at least as far into the future as you can see from here.
Mainstream reviews at the Economist and The New York Times were quick to chastise Coates for his refusal to acknowledge How Much Better Things Have Gotten, and his lack of hope. And Coates certainly doesn’t have much hope that white people will give up pretending to be white, or that they’ll start treating black people as human beings.
Coates doesn’t offer absolution to white people for the crimes they’ve committed, or, more importantly, for the crimes they’re continuing to commit. But that doesn’t mean his is a hopeless book, or even, for all its hurt, a sad one. On the contrary, Between the World and Me is filled with love—for Coates’ son, first of all, but also, in its language and structure, for Baldwin, as a particular mentor, and as an iconic representative of black heritage and struggle.
“…black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors,” Coates writes. He’s not a Christian, and mentions many times throughout the book that (like Baldwin) he does not find the comfort in God that many black people have. But he finds comfort, and strength, in black people themselves. “Struggle for the memory of your ancestors,” he tells his son. “Struggle for wisdom… Struggle for your gradmother and grandfather, for your name.” The cadences are still Baldwin’s, because Baldwin is Coates’, just as Coates is Samori’s. “We have made something down here,” Coates says, and what he, and his son, and his teachers have made is struggle and love.
Between the World and Me isn’t just a letter, It’s a tradition and a community, a set of tools and voices which Coates found, and which he’s passing on. The book is a gift, and you’d have to be in the grip of a particularly bleak delusion to think that it’s given in despair, rather than in joy.
Today gospel performers, like Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples, are widely respected not only for their music, but for their association with the civil rights movement and the black liberation struggle. Jackson is even thought to have prodded Martin Luther King, Jr. to launch into his “I Have a Dream” speech. But gospel’s status, and respectability, was not always so secure. In fact, according to Robert M. Marovich’s new study of Chicago gospel, A City Called Heaven, there was a time when gospel was seen as decidedly unrespectable — as a scandal and a disgrace.
In 1920s Chicago, Marovich explains, religious worship was centered in mainline Protestant churches, and the music was decidedly refined. “The community’s preoccupation with classical music training and performance was prompted by not only middleclass upward mobility,” Marovich writes, “but also the expectation that the world would at last recognize that blacks could write, perform, and appreciate classical music.” The inrush of Southern migrants, with a more demonstrative form of worship linked to blues, jazz, and to West African traditions, was greeted with uncertainty. Marovich quotes one Cleveland resident declaring that God “doesn’t want us to be jazz band pilots or jazz babies and be filled with the devil’s spirits. He wants us to be clean and holy and be filled with the Holy ghost.”
The skeptics were eventually won over, of course, and gospel greats like writer Thomas Dorsey and singer and performer Roberta Martin became revered mainstays of Chicago’s African-American religious and musical life. But at the same time, the concern with a certain kind of cleanliness and respectability persisted. Mahalia Jackson, for example, had a number of offers to perform as a vocalist with jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, but she refused, on the grounds that to sing secular music would be an abandonment of her calling. And yet, despite such precautions, Jackson did not avoid scandal. In 1944, she and gospel pioneer Rosetta Tharpe were photographed next to the Rhumboogie nightclub. An erroneous caption said the two had actually attended a show there — causing much consternation. “A significant mandate in the gospel music community,” Marovich says, “especially at that time, was not to ‘backslide,’ or cross over from a clean lifestyle to a sinful life” — and nightclubs were certainly part of the sinful life. As a result of the photo, Jackson was banned from some churches, though her career was already firmly enough established that she suffered no lasting harm.
Marovich’s book isn’t about gospel respectability per se; it’s a history of the music, focused on cataloguing and honoring the many groups and performers — from Jackson to relative unknowns — who contributed to the city’s gospel legacy. But still, the issue of respectability, or authenticity, runs through his narrative. Gospel was an expression of African-American religion and community. But it was also a commercial enterprise, and different artists negotiated those commercial and religious tensions in different ways. Roberta Martin, organizer of the famed Roberta Martin Singers, refused to play the Apollo theater in New York because she believed it would be a betrayal of the gospel. Sam Cooke, on the other hand, left the Soul Stirrers to become a massively successful pop star, boosting his earnings from some $400 a week to more than $100,000 a year. Gospel singer Betty Lester heard Cooke singing pop on the radio and said, “I was so hurt that he had switched over, but as I got older, I began thinking, well, he has a family to support.”
The contradiction is that, in some ways, Cooke’s crossover success was actually in line with the dreams of the old line Baptist churches, which had looked down their noses at gospel. Cooke achieved the kind of mainstream success and accolades that the Baptist worshippers hoped to snare with their classical training. And so, for that matter, did Mahalia Jackson, who shifted her repertoire from gospel towards pop spirituals like “Rusty Old Halo,” and appeared in 1958 on the Dinah Shore show — the first black guest on the program. Jackson even had her own television show in 1954, though it was cancelled in 1955, because or “sponsors feared offending southern white customers” according to Marovich. Despite such ongoing racism, at least some (though by no means all) other gospel performers also managed successful careers. Singer Sallie Martin, for example, established a hugely lucrative music publishing house, becoming one of Chicago’s leading African-American business women.
Gospel, then, had numerous cultural and social meanings. As a form of specifically African-American communal expression, it served as a way for people such as Roberta Martin to show their loyalty to their community and their faith. As a commercial endeavor, it served as a platform for at least some black people to break barriers and accumulate power and influence in the teeth of racism. And, of course, as Marovich details towards the end of the book, gospel became, during the civil rights movement, and even before, a vehicle for social protest and an expression of struggle. Jackson’s rendition of “I’ve Been Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” at the March on Washington was part of a tradition stretching back to the spirituals, in which black religious music was used to describe and protest against injustice. “Although only a handful of singers, such as Jackson, the Staples, Inez Andrews, and the Gospel Harmonettes’ Dorothy Love Coates, were Christian soldiers on active duty for the movement,” Marovich writes, “Most artists recognized the importance of lifting their voices in song to help the cause.” Many volunteered on gospel programs to raise funds for the civil rights movement.
Though here too, inevitably, numerous gospel musicians were accused of not doing enough, or of failing to commit sufficiently to the cause. Marovich’s book is in many ways a chronicle of gospel fans, performers, and devotees telling each other that they are in one way or another doing it wrong — performing too demonstratively, or in the wrong venue, or in the wrong way, for the wrong people. The criticism can seem excessive and narrow-minded at times, but it reflects, perhaps, how much has been at stake for gospel, as a music and a community. Gospel has, and has always had, a relatively small audience as American musical genres go, but in part because of that it’s born outsize hopes, dreams, and prayers. Keeping the faith — whether by refusing to appear at the Apollo or appearing with Dinah Shore — is a complicated process. A City Called Heaven honors those who devoted themselves to the gospel by showing how various, and how important, that devotion has been.
Sean Penn as Matthew Poncelet in “Dead Man Walking”
On the surface, the film Dead Man Walking, which is 20 this year, doesn’t seem to focus much on the racial disparities of the death penalty. Black people are vastly overrepresented on death row; 34% of those executed in the U.S. have been black, 8% Latino, and 56% white, though African-Americans are only about 14% of the population. In Dead Man Walking, though, the death row inmate is played by Sean Penn, whose character, Matthew Poncelet, is not only white, but an outspoken white supremacist.
The 1993 memoir on which the film is based is also about white inmates. Sister Helen Prejean, the author, was a spiritual advisor to two white men executed in New Orleans, Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, the latter of whom was in fact a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. But the book is attentive to the racial bias of the death penalty — a racial bias which, it explains, affects even white death row prisoners.
Prejean explains early in her book that “In Louisiana, it’s unusual for a black man to be executed for killing another black man.” She adds that “Although the majority of victims of homicide in the state are black (90 percent of homicide victims in New Orleans in 1991), 75 percent of death-row inmates are there for killing whites.” When inmates do go to death row for killing black people, the victims generally fit a profile which makes the crime especially heinous, or likely to sway a jury — the victims are children, or security guards, or, less often, women. The death of a black person, in itself, doesn’t warrant an eye for an eye; some other factor must be added.
The dynamic Prejean discusses hasn’t changed. A Think Progress article shows that in 2013, as in 1993, the death penalty is rarely inflicted on those who kill minority victims. “While 32 of the 39 executions [in 2013] involved a white victim, just one white person was executed for killing only a black man,” and that white person deliberately waived his appeals, effectively “volunteering” for execution. In Louisiana — where Prejean’s advisees were executed — the death sentence in 2013 was 97 percent more likely to be handed down for those whose victims were white than for those whose victims were black.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement has mostly focused on police brutality and violence against black people. When African-Americans are killed by police, as in the case of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, our justice system seems to find it impossible to indict, or to hold the police accountable in any way. The death penalty dynamics that Prejean highlighted decades ago, though, suggest that the devaluing of black lives occurs in other parts of the justice system as well. It is not just that the prosecutors and juries are unwilling to punish police. It is that black lives are literally seen as being of less worth, even when those lives are ended by convicted criminals — and even, for that matter, when those lives are ended by convicted black criminals.
One response to this imbalance might be to demand equality. The death penalty, you could argue, needs to be handed down for those who kill black victims just as often as it is handed down for those who kill whites. As anti-police brutality activist Mariame Kaba points out, “…a lot of the conversation around justice, as it relates to police torture and violence and death, is to posit the very same criminal punishment system that already is harming and creating death in so many different ways. So you’re going to indict and then you’re going to convict killer cops, and do the same for any number of actors in the state system who you want to punish.” There’s an impulse to try to fix the problems with the justice system through the existing justice system.
But a more equitably, and more frequently, administered death penalty is not Prejean’s preferred policy solution. On th econtrary, Prejean has spent the past two decades working against the death penalty on every front — from writing the 2004 book The Death of Innocents about wrongly convicted death row inmates to, most recently, speaking out against the reinstitution of firing squads in Utah. Prejean points out the racist disparity in the death penalty not to argue for a more equal death penalty, but to show that the death penalty is part of a system that is fundamentally flawed and unjust. And part of the way that system is fundamentally unjust, she argues, is in the way it treats victims.
Prejean discusses working with victims, and organizing a victims rights group. Even the families of white victims were treated poorly by the authorities. Elizabeth Harvey, whose daughter was murdered by Robert Lee Willie, tells Prejean with some bitterness, “In dealing with the D.A. and the police…you could probably get more information when you get your car stolen than if your child is killed….” Another white family member of a murder victim who tried to apply for victim compensation funds was told by a deputy, “Don’t know nothin’ about these funds. Why don’t y’all write to Ann Landers? She helps people.”
But as callous as law enforcement personnel can be to the families of white victims, they are exponentially more indifferent and vicious to black victims’ families, in Prejean’s experience. She cites the Chattahoochee Report, which looked at the treatment of murder cases in several counties in Georgia, and found that in many such cases the D.A. never visited victims’ families. The report added that for black victims’ families “not only did none of the murders of their relatives lead to a capital trail, but officials often treated them as criminals.” Prejean highlights the case of one man who came home in 1984 and found his wife had been killed. “His only contact with officials,” Prejean says, “occurred when he was briefly jailed on suspicion of her murder.”
Stories of police indifference to victims in sexual assault and rape cases are familiar (here’s one about New Orleans police from last year, for example.) But Prejean’s work with victims indicates that the problem is broader than just one type of crime. The justice system that Prejean describes cares little about those harmed by crime. Convictions are pursued as a political matter, rather than out of concern for justice. The head of the parole board with whom Prejean deals, Howard Marcellus, is later convicted on corruption charges. The board was selling pardons for political favors, and withholding pardons based on the governor’s estimation of the political effects. “‘I did these things,'” Marcellus admits to Prejean. “I sat in judgment on these men like that — the guilty and the innocent. But who was I to sit in judgment? It still bothers me. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”
Prejean’s argument in Dead Man Walking is that the death penalty devalues life. As Robert Lee Willie says just before he is executed, “Killing people is wrong. That’s why you’re putting me to death. It makes no difference whether it’s citizens, countries, or governments. Killing is wrong.” The deaths that are central to the book are deaths of white people: Sonnier and Willie’s victims, and Sonnier and Willie themselves. But Prejean’s book also point out that these deaths are allowable, or enabled, because of a system of racism, and of classism, which says that certain people’s lives are more important than others, and that, therefore certain deaths are acceptable, or even virtuous.
A system that is built on white supremacy will always care more about enforcing the power of white supremacy than about justice or victims, black or white. Critics of #BlackLivesMatter sometimes complain that the movement ignores the fact that all lives matter. But Dead Man Walking suggests that no lives can matter until black lives do.
When Beyoncé sang “Precious Lord” at the Grammy’s this year, numerous commenters declared that she had taken the awards show to Church. On my Twitter feed at least, those commenters were met with thorough skepticism. “I have been to church,” my Twitter feed said, “and Beyoncé at the Grammy’s is not it.”
The skepticism reminded me of Anthony Heilbut’s great book, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. First published in 1971; the paperback edition, with addendums, is 40 this year. Heilbut, a Jewish atheist, is a passionate advocate of the classic gospel sound, and a keen critic of the way it gets watered down for and by pop. He’d no doubt see Beyoncé as falling prey to the “gospel-gargle” — “the overly busy, annoyingly mannered style” that was common in gospel even in the 70s. “The excessive virtuosity defeats its own purposes,” Heilbut says, “whether of expressing spirit or asserting self.”
In contrast, Heilbut champions the older singers: Mahalia Jackson, of course, but also performers less familiar to the mainstream, like Sallie Martin, Dorothy Love Coates, R.H. Harris, Julius Cheeks, and Heilbut’s dear friend, Marion Williams. The Gospel Sound is about their artistry and how that artistry has been forgotten even as its created vast swaths of the pop landscape.
Many critics of Beyoncé’s Grammy performance argued that the mega-star had essentially stolen or usurped the performance of Ledisi, a less well-known soul singer who performed “Precious Lord” for the film Selma. That story — of gospel’s innovations being taken into the spotlight, while the original performers languish — is repeated theme throughout The Gospel Sound. “The white man robbed me all my life,” Heilbut quotes Dorothy Love Coates as saying, “and now the black man’s doing it. They all treat us like dogs and puppies, like we didn’t have no sense.”
R.H. Harris is almost forgotten today, but Heilbut argues that his falsetto trills, which Harris picked up by imitating birdsongs in his native Texas, “traveled from gospel to soul to the Beatles,” — showering money and mass popularity on everyone but Harris himself. Ira Tucker of the longtime quartet the Dixie Hummingbirds “anticipated all the frenetic workings of souls music;” Heilbut argues, and Tucker himself adds, “Shoot, what James Brown does, I’ve been doing.” Marion Williams gave Little Richard his “oooooo!”; Rosetta Tharpe taught Chuck Berry how to play guitar. Mahalia Jackson and the church taught Elvis to dance —originally, Heilbut recounts, “Some churches exiled [Mahalia] for her rocking beat, others for her “snake-hips.”
Jackson did of course enjoy great success. But she was only able to do so, Heilbut says, by abandoning her snake-hips for a less raucous performing style, and by sprinkling her real gospel songs with numbers from what Heilbut calls the “inspirational dung heap” like “Rusty Old Halo.” To take gospel to pop is to lose gospel; Beyoncé can’t take the Grammys to church without losing the church. For Heilbut, gospel is “simply the only music sung by people in terrible conditions about those conditions, in an attempt to get out of them.” In comparison, “rock and soul are for the children. Gospel, like blues and jazz, is the music of grown-ups.” Gospel is the real thing; the spirit inspiring American music — though that spirit is often abandoned, and its proponents and singers forgotten.
For Heilbut in The Gospel Sound, then, that gospel sound is authentic, pure, and simultaneously treasured, threatened, and disdained by the secular world. His book, though, also has a quiet counter-narrative, one perhaps less inimical to Beyoncé and what she was trying to do at the Grammys. Because, while Heilbut presents gospel as an origin, he also sees it as part of American music more generally.
Classic gospel didn’t spring out of nothing; on the contrary, its creators were very familiar with other contemporary styles, especially jazz and blues. Thomas Dorsey, the composer who wrote “Precious Lord,” started his career as Georgia Tom, a pianist who performed often off-color blues with Ma Rainey and others. Later, Dorsey occasionally preferred white country renditions of his songs to those of gospel performers. For their part, great gospel singers like Mahalia and Willie Mae Ford Smith were familiar with, and inspired by, great blues singers like Bessie Smith. Heilbut notes that Ira Tucker’s performances with the Dixie Hummingbirds often echoed jazz variations; Tucker himself says that B.B. King personally introduced him to the recordings of Django Reinhardt. R. H. Harris may claim that birdsong was his primary inspiration, but he also listened to Texas blues and hillbilly music. Sister Rosetta Tharpe recorded a rousing hillbilly boogie with country singer Red Foley — rockabilly before Elvis.
Heilbut is not entirely on board with some of the latter examples of musical cross-pollination — he sees the Staple Singers’ mix of blues guitar, quartet harmonies, and pop as “an appealing novelty, if not the stuff of gospel legends,” and seems a little regretful when talking about how the new (circa 1970) choirs “sing Motown tunes and Thelonius Monk chords.” But like it or not, there’s no getting around the fact that gospel and the wider world of music have never been mutually exclusive. Someone out there — James Brown, the Beatles, Duke Ellington, Johnny Cash (performing a Dorothy Love Coates tune) — is always taking pop to church. And, for its part, the church is always listening to jazz, blues, soul, and even rock for new ideas and new ways to worship. The Grammys certainly wasn’t the first time that Beyoncé went to gospel for material.
Heilbut’s goal in The Gospel Sound is to shine a light on a group of immensely talented singers and performers who are often erased from music history — to try to return gospel to its rightful place at the center of the story of American music. In doing that, he honors the music’s accomplishments, its uniqueness, and its difference, whether Sallie Martin’s quick jerk in performance as the spirit moves her or Marion Williams’ amazing run from deep voiced bass up to falsetto “ooooooh!” But returning gospel to American music also means revealing what’s not different about it — showing how it fits within a musical landscape where jazz and blues and soul, and country and pop and rock too, blur into each other at the edges, influencing each other and being influenced by each other. Beyoncé’s Grammy’s performance had a Vegas showbiz feel to it, it’s true — but, as Heilbut chronicles, Clara Ward and the Ward Singers were tearing up Vegas in sequins before Beyoncé was born. On television, at Vegas, at the Grammys, and in church too — the gospel sound is everywhere.
Longtime Hyde Parker Mikki Kendall is best known as an online feminist activist and social media force; her hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen became an international phenomenon, generating an intense conversation about the ways in which feminism has ignored and erased the voices of women of color.
Before Kendall was on Twitter, though, she was in fandom. “I am a nerd,” she told me. There are some unfortunate pictures of me where it’s very clear; I have terrible bangs, and my grandmother dresses me funny, and I have big, ugly purple glasses.” She posted to the Voy message boards on Buffy back in the late 1990s, “Pre-Twitter, pre-blogging — it was all black and white; we didn’t have colors, and we liked it.” She was a Dr. Who fan, and read “everything from C.S. Lewis to Aldous Huxley to Marvel — I read all the X-Men and Incredible Hulk.”
These days, Kendall isn’t just a fan; she’s a creator. She’s planning a nonfiction book about the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag, but she’s also got other projects, including a Black Chicago steam-punk radio play and serving as co-chair for the feminist WisCon in May of this year. She’s also written a script for the Gail Smone-edited Swords of Sorrow comic series from Dynamite Comics. “I’m working with some serious heavyweights,” she said, with barely restrained excitement, “so my first comics project is also a class in comics writing.”
I talked to Kendall by phone about feminism, race, and diversity in science-fiction and fantasy
How does your interest in social justice and feminism fit with your interest in fantasy and sci-fi? You could see someone arguing that sci-fi isn’t real, and that therefore it’s not really related to social justice or feminist issues….
I actually get really into talking about race and representation in sci-fi and fantasy. In terms of feminism I don’t think that has to be separated. It’s one of those things where, women are writing sci-fi, women are finding their voice a lot of times in fiction. Sci-fi owes its existence to women. We talk about Mary Shelley as the first women, but there are novels before her — The Tale of Genji, all of these things. Fairytales were stories told largely by women talking to other women, which is why so many of them are about princesses. So I feel like story-telling and feminism just go hand-in-hand, and racial justice issues too. Because when we speak up for ourselves and about ourselves, and include ourselves in these fantastical worlds and visions of the future, we’re basically saying that we refuse to be erased, that we refuse to be silenced, we refuse to be squashed.
I’m one of the people that back in 2009 — there was this thing called “RaceFail,” where a bunch of sci-fi authors basically ate their feet — they just shoved their feet whole into their mouths, and one thing that came up then was — “Write your own.” Well, we are writing our own. We have been. How are you saying “write your own” to people who write things, when the reason that people don’t know those things exist is that we get to the publishing house, and you’re not publishing it? Not because it’s not good — because I’ve seen more than one set of editors say they “find something hard to relate to.” And then when you read it, what’s hard to relate to is that it’s just not about white people. It’s not centered in white social norms.
So what does diverse sci-fi or fantasy mean? Is it more actors who are people of color? Is it more creators who are people of color? Is it different kinds of stories?
All of the above. I have a hashtag I occasionally trot out #WeNeedDiverseMedia. And I say that because we’ve already seen that, even if you have a creator who includes diversity, getting that onto that book cover to reflect what’s inside the book is difficult. I mean, Ursula K. Le Guin — when she sold the television rights to A Wizard of Earthsea, I don’t think it occurred to her that someone would eventually come along and erase all the brown people from a book that was clearly about brown people. But that’s exactly what sci-fi did. We’ve seen this happen with Drive, where the director said they cast a white girl because she looks like someone you’d want to protect, even though the story was about a Latino woman. Or Exodus, where Ridley Scott came out and said, well, if I cast someone named Mohammed, I couldn’t get funded. Really? Okay.
Meanwhile, diverse projects are putting up ridiculous numbers. They’re selling well; they’re doing well in ratings. But we somehow have the same conversation every few years, where — like right now, I think Empire is one of the top rated shows period. And you keep seeing these articles, “Oh my god, we can’t believe the ratings are this high.” Well actually if you look, the ratings have been that high for other properties focusing on people who aren’t white.
Laurell K. Hamilton, though I don’t like her books all the time, had a Latina vampire hunter. L.A. Banks has a black vampire hunter— all these things. But what people think of is Buffy. Which was crap…or at least the movie was. The show was better. I have Joss Whedon issues, but we won’t get into that.
Most of the better-known sci-fi and fantasy creators are white creators, so I wonder how you see yourself fitting into that tradition, or whether there are other sci-fi and fantasy traditions that are less well known?
So, first, I think that genre lines kind of lie. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it’s a ghost story, but we call it lit [literature], and make it eligible for certain prizes because it’s not genre. Because it’s a black woman who wrote this ghost story that went into lit, it doesn’t “count” as horror or sci-fi or fantasy. But I feel like a lot of the lines are artificial anyway.
There are plenty of people who didn’t know that Chip [Samuel] Delany wasn’t white, despite the fact that Chip Delany’s never hidden that he’s not white. People tend to assume a lot of things. You have sci-fi writers who end up in romance because they have a romance element in their stories. So you now have paranormal romance as a genre. Paranormal romance is just sci-fi with a romance plot, really. So I think it’s hard to say that there’s a white male tradition to fit into. I don’t think there is actually a white male tradition.
You’ve got Dwayne McDuffie in comics, and everyone sort of acts like Dwayne was the first black man to really write a comic, and that’s not true. He is the first one to become a name, but that’s very different from being the first one to do the work. Because for a lot of this, it’s not that we aren’t there, it’s just that you don’t really know who wrote what, or what was involved. And then you factor in the reality that some of the stuff that black people are writing gets shelved differently. If Beloved were in horror, would you know about Beloved? Octavia Butler is the best known female black sci-fi writer, but she’s far from the only one.
I was curious what fantasy or sci-fi writers would you recommend to people?
N.K. Jemison. Nnedi Okorafor, who writes a lot of what I guess you’d call magical realism now, because again we’re back to the genre descriptions. Daniel Older. And there are any number of people writing short stories — Lashawn Wanak, Cheshya Burke.
I will say this. I think it’s important to incorporate into our entertainment kids of color, because we talk a lot about kids of color and reading, but we don’t talk about the age at which they look up and find that they’re not in any of the fun things to read. How do you enjoy something that doesn’t incorporate you at all, or that makes you a villain or a victim, period? But if you go to the YA (Young Adult) section, how many of the books when you open them have any kids of color inside, much less boys of color or girls of color as the heroes? I think that’s an important part of this. I think people think of comics and sci-fi as frivolous, but when you read for pleasure, that’s how you improve your reading skills. The better you can read depends on how much stuff you’ve been reading. And most kids want to read for pleasure if they’re going to read.
What did you think of the Percy Jackson books?
So my oldest son really got into them at first, but then he faded on them towards the end. He and I had quite a few conversations because he’d read stuff that I write and my friends write. A lot of the things that do incorporate him are either things I wrote or that someone I know wrote. He’s definitely a reader, but he started to feel that as much as he liked Charly Bone and Percy Jackson, the diversity is not super strong in any of that stuff. Percy Jackson is better than some; it’s certainly something that he enjoyed, but as he got older and more critical about media, he started to think to himself, “in a bunch of these books, the guy who looks like me has 2 or 3 parts.” He also started to reach an age where he started to participate in online fandom and that kind of soured him, because a lot of the fandoms are racist. They’re not super-racist really, but there’s always someone.
Like, for Harry Potter, when she made Blaise Zabini— who’d only been a name in the books — when she made him in the movies visibly a boy of color, there were actual posts written by teenage fans [saying], “OMG! I’m so sad, that beautiful boy is black.” And I think you see that same thing with the Vampire Diaries or True Blood or whatever. And he’s looking at the imagery, with game art and fan art, even when characters are of color, the art that fans make represent them as white, because that’s what fans have been trained to think of as attractive.
Or the backlash for Rue in the Hunger Games. That was largely teenagers. She was black in the books; she was black onscreen, but…
So was there a series your son liked that was diverse?
Not for YA. He’s gotten into reading Andrea Hairson’s Wildfire which is really too old for him — but he’s 15. I’m working my way through the fact that “too old for him” is quickly becoming a thing that doesn’t matter anymore. He likes Salsa Nocturna, Daniel Older’s first book. And he was planning on Older’s reading Half-Resurrection Blues.
Wherever possible he does read as much as he can that is diverse — it’s just that now it’s mostly adult books, because it’s a weird gap. You have a lot in kid’s books that try for diversity. Comics — he reads a lot of comics. You can read Teen Titans and see Cyborg, or read Spider-Man and see Miles Morales. Do you keep trying with YA books? Or do you just stop?
Comics are better than YA books?
Oh my god yes. And book lists for school are also mostly white, and even when there’s diversity, it’s not like it’s fun diversity. Like they’re history lesson books. For your average 15-year-old boy of color, there’s not a lot where they’re the hero.