Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Whiteness of Science Fiction: Should Octavia Butler Replace HP Lovecraft in the Sci-Fi Canon? And Avery Brooks Breaks Down the White Gaze

I would like to thank the folks who have donated to our annual fundraising drive. We are at the end of the second week of the fundraiser. I would like to thank those of you who have donated so far...and especially those folks who sent some wonderful material support to We Are Respectable Negroes and on Friday of this week. 

If the fundraiser continues at this rate, I can pull back in the begging bowl by Monday or Tuesday. You will then be freed of my NPR fundraiser voice. 

Next week, there will be two posts here on the site. One of them is last week's planned episode on ancient aliens, UFO's, white supremacists, and Afrocentrists. I will post that on Tuesday. Thursday's episode is something special. Careful readers already know who the guest for that episode of the podcast known as The Chauncey DeVega Show will be. 

I also have a third treat to share next week.

My effort to grow and develop the podcast by making some forays into new territory is a direct result of the positive energy that the friends and fans of my online work have sent to me. My third quasi-surprise fits within that dynamic.

If you can, and are able, please do support We Are Respectable Negroes and by throwing some change into the virtual donation bucket.  

As is our routine and habit, please do treat this as our semi-open weekend thread.

I just watched Chris Rock's new movie Top Five. I may write up some comments on the film if there is interest from the readers and friends of the site. My drive-by comments are as follows: Chris Rock has made a very smart movie that has funny--if not brilliantly genius--comedic moments.

Top Five is a very inside Hollywood movie about comedy and the world of comedians.

It is not the amazing achievement that is Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance).

But, Top Five is still a very good movie. However, if you aren't someone who is patient and has the context for why it is so damn great to see Whoopi, Jerry, and Adam show up in Rock's movie, you may not fully appreciate the awesomeness you have beheld.

The few folks who walked out of the movie during the screening I attended on Friday night most certainly are not in that cohort. The sleeping 12-year-old who was dragged to Top Five by his parents reminded me of myself, dragged by mom and dad at a younger age to see Jo Jo Dancer. At that age, I did not have the context for what I was shown--in hindsight that is probably a good thing.

In all, Top Five is public therapy for and by Chris Rock and financed from the pockets of Jay-Z and Kanye West with a soundtrack by Questlove. Chris Rock does not care if the public likes this movie. I enjoyed Top Five because of that fact, the always compelling Rosario Dawson, she who is my baby mama that I will never wifey in this world but am married to in an alternate reality, and the confidence of Chris Rock to be naked before the world. In many ways, Top Five is Chris Rock's Richard Pryor moment. 

We have talked about the the colorline and science fiction on many occasions here on WARN. 

On that theme, there was a very provocative and smart essay at the Guardian.

The successful and excellent science fiction author and all around creative type, Daniel Jose Older makes the following intervention about the overbearing Whiteness of science fiction:
Earlier this summer, the old guard of fantasy got very uncomfortable over a petition I started asking for the World Fantasy Award to remove the bust of HP Lovecraft as its statuette and replace it with Octavia Butler. Lovecraft was an uneven craftsman at best – his stories clunk along, overburdened with adjectives and stale characters. It’s his world-building and imagination that helped solidify his legacy, but even that is tainted by a failure of craft and humanity. He detailed his rabid, paranoid racism in many letters, and it permeates his mythos. Lovecraft peopled his fiction with hordes of swarthy, child-killing and abjectly stupid black and brown people, while women are almost non-existent. 
Supporters of the Lovecraft statue point out his influence on the fantasy genre, and they’re right: today, we’re still struggling to unravel the legacy of racism and erasure with which he and other early speculative fiction writers permeated their work. Mainstream science fiction and fantasy narratives continue to center on white saviour narratives, as we saw recently on Game of ThronesVillainous, sexualised or helpless, rarely are non-white characters presented with the same humanity and depth as white ones. As Imran Siddiquee points out at the Atlantic, teen dystopias tend to have a glaring blindspot when it comes to talking about more complex issues of power and privilege: “While recent dystopias warn youth about over-reliance on computers, totalitarian rule, class warfare, pandemic panics and global warming, very few ask audiences to think deeply about sexism and racism …The results feel false, and undercut the films’ attempts to comment on the present day.”
The problematic Whiteness of science fiction is very real even in a multicultural, globalized, and post civil rights era United States.

Older continues on this point:
“Why Butler?” people asked me when the petition went up, and I remembered how entrenched we all get in our own corners within the genre. Butler’s prose soars where Lovecraft’s stumbles. Her characters live and breathe, confront complexities of power and privilege amid fantastical, terrifying dreamscapes steeped in history and nuance. 
My SFF community is mostly black and brown, and Butler inspired many of us to start writing in the first place. These folks congregate more often than not in online communities like the Nerds of Color,Black Girl Nerds and the Fan Bros, because outside of ComicCon, SFF cons have historically not been safe spaces for women and people of color. These are the online communities that signed the petition in the thousands, which is what transformed it from being just another attempt at dethroning Lovecraft as the face of one of fantasy’s highest awards (there have been several) to a global conversation with coverage in Salon, the GuardianNPR and countless blogs. 
Ultimately, the Lovecraft statue must go. He may be replaced by Butler, or Carrie Cuinn’s sea serpent wrapped around the world idea or any of the many other options, but the fantasy community cannot embrace its growing fanbase of color with one hand while deifying a writer who happily advocated for our extermination with the other. Read Lovecraft, be inspired by his wild imagination, repelled by his heinous worldview, learn from his mistakes – I certainly have. But the lionizing, sugarcoating and kneejerk flurry to defend and silence uncomfortable histories has to stop if we are to move forward.
Canon and the separation of one's person and professional lives as criteria for inclusion in the rarefied air of "the greats" in any field of human endeavor are recurring questions. These questions transcend science fiction. Example of the moment: the accusations that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist who makes very special cappuccinos (if you do not "get" that allusion do read black supermodel Beverly Johnson's account of her supposed Cosby masher horror show experience here) who also happens to be a genius comedian.

The ability to discount a given person's moral shortcomings in order to create a cognitive and emotional space in which to enjoy their work is a personal decision. 

Systems of power, and our relationship(s) to them, heavily influence how this calculation is likely made for most self-reflective and considerate individuals. The dumb, dim, ignorant, stupid obsessive, and fan boys/fan girls likely do not care. 

If one is a member of an oppressed or marginalized group in a given society, then it is likely to be much more difficult to discount a given artists' bigoted attitudes--especially if they are of the dominant group--than for the member of the privileged group who would assume such attitudes to be mere inconveniences and complications in their personal regime of taste.

One must also acknowledge how the Whiteness of science fiction can blind both liberals and conservatives alike. Colorblindness by white folks who are defending the "canon" and science fiction's habit of dealing with the "race question" by ignoring race in a white male centric imaginary reproduces white supremacy via racial erasure.

This move is made by both conservative-libertarian science fiction fans and authors as well as liberal and progressive ones. 

The latter, in accordance with liberal "aversive racism", play a cousin to the game of furthering white supremacy and white privilege through racial erasure by focusing in on the hyper-visibility of non-white characters as a means of suggesting that racism (and sexism) in the future are problems that have been conquered. This is problematic because the hopefulness about an imagined future where race does not apparently matter is used to further an argument that the justice claims of non-whites are "emotional", "imposing", and illegitimate because the future will be okay as we have learned to not "see" race.

To point. At a recent convention, Avery Brooks offers a (white) science fiction fan a subtle yet direct and unapologetic clinic in the White Gaze and how it misreads the relationship between race and his performance in Deep Space Nine

The whole conversation is a wonderful example of Brooks' intelligence, range, and directness. He affirms the humanity of black people without giving an overbearing "race talk": this is an art and skill.

[A bonus. Here is a great panel with Samuel Delaney and Avery Brooks.]

Black humanity is real for Brooks; it does not require any qualification or to be overwrought in its explanation.

The humanity of black people simply is.

The racism of the Left and the Right in the United States is centered within an institutional and systemic order that is dedicated to protecting and reproducing white privilege. Of course, there are relative, and in many ways, very significant differences between the two camps in their methods and means of advancing that goal; there are also many overlaps in the modus operandi for white supremacy between the two groups.

What are your thoughts on matters of canon, the personal, the political, and the artist? Are there any folks whose personal lives have so diminished their public work that you no longer appreciate or respect it?

And as always, please do share any interesting thoughts on matters of public or private concern that you deem worthy of our humble salon.


Shady Grady said...

For me it depends on if I discovered the art before I discovered the person's political, personal or criminal history. There is a tremendous amount of creativity that would be off limits if I decided to impose my own non-artistic rules on whose art to appreciate.

There are of course times when I have done that anyway but those are rare.

Lovecraft was a racist and not a very good writer. He also changed the path of horror and other speculative fiction. Jimmy Page wrote a beautiful ballad in "Ten Years Gone". He also had sex with thirteen/fourteen year-old girls. Ike Turner was an abusive husband and junkie. He's also one of the founding fathers of rock-n-roll. And so on. It's hard for me to separate all of that. Humans are too complicated.

Lisalis said...

Thank you for sharing the conversation about Octavia Butler and the video of Avery Brooks. As someone who enjoys Butler's and Brooks' work without being an enthusiast of their respective genres, I would have missed these. Thank you for regularly sharing your take and others on subjects that reflect my humanity.

chauncey devega said...

What sincere words. Thank you. Avery is one hell of a thinker and performer. He deserves much more visibility. He is on my dream list of folks to have a conversation with. I have a chapter for a project that was thrown down the publishing memory hole by a press that shall remain nameless on Brooks, race, and Trek that you may find of interest. Here is a short excerpt:

I will keep on sharing as best I can. The friends and smart folks who comment keep me going.

chauncey devega said...

I won't let you get out of this one so easily.

Butler or HP?

Black Sci-Fi said...

You might also enjoy the Brooks interview in the documentary: "The Captains". It's available on Netflix. It features all the actors who have played a captain on a Star Trek spinoff. The interviews are done by ...wait for it....William Shatner..AKA Captain Kirk. Again, for someone who thought it woudl be a mess, it was a well made series of interviews. I must admit that there was a lot about Brooks I knew prior to his interview that was enhanced by the interview taking place in his home among the things he values. He's quite a well rounded individual..

chauncey devega said...

Great interview. I was still taken aback at how mean and cruel Shatner was to Malgrew.

Shady Grady said...

Stephen King once wrote that "H.P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale."

Was he wrong?

Like him or not HPL has had an influence on speculative fiction that Butler simply hasn't had yet. And that is what the award is about. HPL was a through going white supremacist. His views were reflected (sometimes subtly, often not) in his creations. Sometimes art grows from s***. Butler was a better writer and better person than HPL was but he "wins" in inspiration and world creation. IMO.

Black Sci-Fi said...

Most of the fiction I've read is morality tales. I would consider it a HUGE social failing if the "future" I "chose" to "create" was void of diversity.
That's the problem with most of the sci-fi today.
I would also ask you to consider which sub-genre of sci-fi is the most popular among young white males. I'm fairly certain that would be the military/exploration sub-genre. I'll let you draw your own conclusions about the future we are creating by subversion of our youth. How different are we, really, than the "P.K.Dick" version of our furture as he portrayed it in Starship Troopers.
Kids didn't really understand the political nuance of Alice in Wonderland "either" until they were much older

balitwilight said...

I'm sorry - I sincerely don't understand your point. I spoke about a close friend whose mother is Swedish and whose father is Tanzanian. I spoke of a necessity to see TRUE human diversity, and not to FLATTEN everything in to the racism-originated pseudo-racialist-diversity of "black OR white".
But maybe I misunderstood your response, in which case I apologise.

Pam_L said...

I 'discovered' H.P. Lovecraft's work when I was in my late teens, and I still read and enjoy his stories to this day, in spite of my finding out about his disgusting racist attitudes when he was living. I've found the Lovecraft 'universe' too compelling and interesting to abandon, even though I clearly see his racism reflected in some of his work and I definitely do not like the person he was.

balitwilight said...

Samuel R. Delaney has an interesting anecdote about how Isaac Asimov whispered to him "you got this because you're black!" - after Delaney was called to receive a Sci-Fi award.
Edgar Rice Burroughs was a good author too - but look at the "Race" issues there. I think that Science Fiction is going to be no different from any other kind of fiction produced this culture - from Young Adult, to Romance Novels, to Detective Fiction - to Fantasy. All pickled in the same racism and "race" mythology that the rest of American culture is.
Consider Germany. Before their humiliation in WWII, Germany was a world-center of music, literature and science. And all this culture was also steeped through and through in "race" mythology and anti-Jewish hatred. You could read Goethe or listen to Wagner - and know that racism was in there somewhere. Same goes for everything produced in American culture.

John Atwood said...

The problem with a lot of sci-fi is the narrow view the (nearly all white) authors impose on their scenarios. There was a recent post by the Scottish sci-fi author Charlie Stross that addresses this ( While not addressing racism specifically, it is implicit in his complaint about authors that create suburban white 20th century communities in their visions of the far future. This may make white teenage boys feel comfortable, but really makes their stories trite.

I've read three novels by Stross, and find his work broader than most contemporary sci-fi writers, with plenty of "estrangement". I'm also a big fan of Samuel Delaney. Science fiction has a lot more story space and parameters than regular fiction and can be used to paint interesting and complex social interactions - its too bad that a lot of it doesn't.

D. Wright said...

Race is a lie, a social construct enforced by power structures. But so are laws, and borders, and the nations that create them. Whether you call it Race or Tribe, Nationality or Ethnicity, Culture or Creed, as a species we have created, expoited, and embraced these illusionary categorizations to impose oppression, organize resistance, and create new societies throughout history.

A science-fiction future without division and conflict is a future without humanity as we always have been, and I'm not interested in a utopic vision that doesn't detail the bloody costs that come with creating that future.

balitwilight said...

This is Exhibit A of the kind of problematic thinking that I have been pointing to. This is like arguing with a German Race Scientist about Aryans/Untermenschen/Ubermenschen - and being told that life wouldn't be worth living without these "divisions".
There is nothing in my position that attempts to create a utopian world without division. I am trying to get Americans (and many "Western" cultures) to realise that they have divided the world based on THEIR version of Aryanism - "black/white". Are you afraid that without "black/white" 17th-century racial categorisation, humanity would turn into a colourless and mono-cultural dystopia? That Tanzanians and Swedes and Irish and Germans and Nigerians and Burundians and pale-skinned and brown-skinned people or brown-eyed and blue-eyed people would all suddenly vanish? What makes you think that all human distinction would vanish if we abandoned the ridiculous one-drop rule?
The fact that it is so heretical to some to even conceive of questioning these 17th century slaveholder categories - just shows how desperately important it is to start the questioning, and not to pass this bankrupt CASTE system onto our children and their children.

D. Wright said...

Cultures and creeds are the product of socialization by one's family, friends, and peers. Tribes and Ethnicities are greatly extended families at best, a euphemism for Race at worst, and most often people whose ancestors where in the same place at the same time fighting another rival Tribe/Ethnicity. Nations are most fictitious of all; the product of socially engineered cultural homogeneity and loyalty to a piece of land and those who live upon it. They are all fictional, otherwise tenuous connections given meaning by historical events. E.g. it is because of the violence of slavery and Jim Crow that the descendents of numerous warring African tribes became a new ethnicity that can call each other "Brother" and "Sister". In a similar vein, people create Nations, like Tanzania, more often than not to resist Imperialism, Colonialism, and/or the Nationalism of others, crimes that are justified using the same logic as Racism. How is one connection anymore real than the other?

There will always be phenotypic diversity, but Ireland, Tanzania, and Germany are not eternal. Niether are the Irish, the Tanzanian, nor the German. They were created, they are fictions (my Father is the same age as Tanzania), and they will be destroyed. Race, Nation, Tribe, and Ethnicity are all drawn from the same logic; that we are what our parents are, and that's where are identities and loyalties lie. I don't think that their disappearing is a bad thing at all, I just think it'd make a bland read (we are talking about SF, remember) and fall into the same Colorblind trap you are trying to avoid. You assume Race, as a social construct, is going to disappear. You assume that people in the future will be more enlightened than us, so why write of Blacks and Whites. I don't think racism will go down so easily. I believe that at the very least America would have to go the way of Carthage; to be destroyed so utterly that future archeologists wouldn't be sure where to place its cities and borders on the map. Modern History would have to become a Dark Age with most artifacts of American and Western culture wiped off the Earth so that racism as we know it could never resurface. In short: The End of the World as We Know It. THAT's the bloody story I alluded to, and I wouldn't mind reading it. It's a much more plausible death of racism than the enlightenment of mankind.

Still, even if Race as we know it dies, that still leaves Nationalism, Tribalism, Ethnocentricity, Cultural chauvinism, and other vices as old as recorded history. Short of bioengineering these behaviors out of us, why should we assume the future would be any different?

joe manning said...

Like the GOP the popular dystopias such as the Hunger Games, Sin City, and Battleground L.A. trot out token people of color to mask their intrinsic racism. In Ideology and Utopia USA H.L. Horowitz points out that the classic utopias Brave New World, 1984, and The Road to Serfdom are actually counter-utopias which reinforce the current ideology and condemn utopian conceptions.

Learning IS Eternal said...

Just left the theater supporting Chris Rock's Top Five. It is extremely good. He's able to have some good fun/comedic moments while landing some great kidney shots to the political machine. I won't dwell. #NoSpoilers #aMustSee

chauncey devega said...

It is all about Rosario the Goddess and hot sauce.

Wild Cat said...

Ursala K. Le Guin's dystopic later writings (where whites are generally enslaved and tortured by a majority-black population) may be redemptive of her earlier SF writings, where racial tensions have been conquered. She's worth a read. (Le Guin is quoted as saying: "It's absurd to have a majority white population in the universe when on our own planet, whites are a minority of the population.")

Don't expect much from SF---like Sabremetrics, it's an autistic's field. Like sports and C&W, it attracts the right. I'll produce a few SF novels each year; they're generally awful and tired and inbred. Hard to believe I once enjoyed the genre. The major SF imprint I've worked with (but refuse to now, not based on ideology but simply based on my annoyance with autistics) has zero people of color in any editorial capacity. This is true of publishing in general. (And if you're African-American, you'll be expected to acquire or develop horrific Urban Fiction.)

HP Lovecraft was loathsome. I've gathered some Butler novels, but I've yet to crack them. Check out a review of Lovecraft's worldview on the NYRB website.

Wild Cat said...

Isn't Hayek's 'Road to Serfdom' an economic manual for putting us back into serfdom? And wasn't it absurd how madman white supremacist Glenn Beck brought it out of the garbage heap and made it a best-seller?

Learning IS Eternal said...

Can't lie. She looked other worldly with good meaning. I knew she'd blossom something awesome seeing her in Kids, the same w/Meagan Good in Eve's Bayou (I wish never fixed her teeth. I blame Nas.) CDV, you know damn well hot sauce will never be the same. LOL

Anticipating your piece on Top Five so us here @WARN can name our top five on any and everything. Definite potential for new learnings and discoveries.

Wild Cat said...

White miliartarist welfare queen and gun fondler Robert Heinlein wrote "Starship Troopers," not the talented but disturbed schizophrenic Phillip K. Dick.

Mike Hawk said...

What's with the "either/or"? You can't deny HPL's influence, and his racism is obvious so it becomes a point of discussion. I have students read his stuff and discuss the 1890 census, the rise of "race science" and eugenics in the USA, and the Immigration Act of 1924. This isn't a "mere" anything; it's a historically determined reality from which an artistic movement emerged that's influenced a lot of people. Isn't it better to read the stuff and understand it?

Are we punting Poe as well? Conrad? No more Heinlein?

You might hack through "Lenin, Critic of Tolstoy" in Macherey's A Theory of Literary Production. You're never going to solve problems by turning away from history.

To be honest, having read a lot of HPL's personal correspondence, I think he was a closeted gay man with more demons in head than Pickman's basement. And I haven't formed any meaningful rational assessment based on that observation, just a weird sense of how tormented he was.

DanF said...

Lovecraft is a terrible writer. I avoided him for much of my youth as I'm simply not a fan of the horror genre - even wrapped in sci-fi or fantasy - it just holds no appeal for me. When I was 23 I picked up a book that had a bunch of his short stories just to see what the big deal was. I think I made it through a third of the book. All I can remember was rolling my eyes at how many time he employed the phrase, "which is too horrible to describe!" Just awful.

As for the award... I don't know. He was a big influence and helped create the genre, but I'd be for removing him just to save other people from reading his crap. Leave him to the historians.

joe manning said...

A counter-utopia for mass consumption that would make Goebbels blush.

Wild Cat said...

I'm confused by your analogy.

"BNW" and "1984" are dystopian novels (and both have more humor than generally given credit for). "Road" by Hayek is an Austrian School of Economics screed against communism/socialism/humanism.

Back to Orwell, the fascists have always exploited his writings, as he died before he could explain his particular devotion to socialism.

But for all three of these well-known authors, none really gave a rat's ass about racial issues.

joe manning said...

Counter-utopia is more explanatory than dystopia. Counter-utopian fiction, including the more academic nonconspiratorial works of Hayek and von Mises (Theory and History), compare current social good against future evil, thereby supporting the status quo. Ignoring the function of race and white supremacy is essential to their propagandistic function.

chauncey devega said...

Do share something about his private memoirs. I liked Heinlein until I found out about his white supremacy. How to manage?