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01.04.06


shame

by Pam Noles

 
 

 

Ursula K. Le Guin said this:
"I have received letters that broke my heart, from adolescents of color in this country and in England, telling me that when they realized that Ged and the other Archipelagans in the Earthsea books are not white people, they felt included in the world of literary and movie fantasy for the first time."
— Speech to the Book Expo America children's literature breakfast, June, 4, 2004.



Back then there was UHF and VHF, and you had to manipulate two different dials on the tv to make the channels come in. That's where they put "Star Trek" and "Space: 1999," and on weekend afternoons ran movies like "Colossus: The Forbin Project." On Saturday nights The Ghoul would take over, a spazz in a lab coat and shock of frizzy blond wig, showing "Voyage the to Bottom of the Sea" but with added sound effects of flushing toilets. In between, he'd take his puppet friend Froggy and stuff him into a huge vat of SPAM, maybe, then blow the whole thing up. Over on one of the regular channels, late Friday night belonged to Houlihan and Big Chuck, who mostly showed horror movies. In between scenes they ran skits about 'Soulman', the black superhero, or about 'a certain ethnic' who loved polka, or a woman named Bertha Butt, whose butt was so big it could catch the rain. After Houlihan found God and went to Florida, Big Chuck was joined by Little John. A new skit was added: "Fallacy Island," with Little John as Cuckoo and Big John as Mr. Roarke. Little John also made a great caveman, and with a blonde wig he was the cutest little girl with a beard you've ever seen.

Usually it would be just me in the basement sprawled on the floor surrounded by snacks, Legos and books to read during the commercials. If he was off shift, sometimes Dad would come down and join me in his leather recliner by the stairs. Every once in a while Mom called down from the kitchen Are you letting her watch those weird things? And we'd lie in unison, No. If she came down to check for herself, Dad would get in trouble.

Dad had his own names for the movies.

What's this? 'Escape to a White Planet?

It's called 'When Worlds Collide.' I'm sure I sounded indignant.

'Mars Kills the White People.' I love this one.

Daaaaad. It says it right there. 'War of the Worlds'. I know I sighed heavily, but was careful to turn back to the tv before rolling my eyes.

Once he asked me which was more real, the movie or the skits between. I didn't get it, and told him that they were both stories, so they were both fake. He didn't bring it up again until a skit came on. I can't remember if it was a 'Soulman' skit or one of the caveman gags (the cavemen were multicultural — basic white, Polish, Italian, and black). But I remember Dad saying, how come you never see anybody like that in the stories you like? And I remember answering, maybe they didn't have black people back then. He said there's always been black people. I said but black people can't be wizards and space people and they can't fight evil, so they can't be in the story. When he didn't say anything back I turned around. He was in full recline mode in his chair and he was very still, looking at me. He didn't say anything else.

Mom was in on it, too. I'd see her frowning at the books I left trailed throughout the house. Their covers were almost all the same: white men with swords, white women draped across dragons, their golden hair flowing in the breeze, white men stepping from gleaming ships onto fantastic alien landscapes. Sometimes she'd ask what the story was about. As I rambled through the plot and raved about the heroes, she might interrupt with a question in code: what color was his hair? What kind of eyes did she have?

There were times when she didn't bother with code. How come there's only one kind of hero in those books? I would get upset, then.

You think we're being racist, Mom would say. It was an accusation.

But she was the one who taught me how to read before I even got into kindergarten. She was the one who let me read practically anything I wanted to.

You're not being fair, was usually all I could think to shout back.



Ursula K. Le Guin said this:
"I think it is possible that a good many readers never even notice what color the people in the story are. Don't notice, maybe don't care. Whites of course have the privilege of not caring, of being 'colorblind.' Nobody else does."
— Commentary on Slate, Dec. 16, 2004.



When she was young, Mom was very active with CORE. She remembers thrilling to the voice of The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. that spring of 1966 when she traveled to Washington, DC to stand. This one wasn't as big as the other march on Washington that often gets its own section in the history books, but that didn't matter. She was surrounded by regular black people just like her from all over the country, standing next to the reflecting pool of the Lincoln Memorial, it's sheen blurred by the tears in her eyes as she listened to Dr. King speak hope and faith over the loudspeakers. Even when marriage, family and the pressures of juggling a household while holding down a day job came along, she worked with the NAACP and for social justice efforts through her church.

By the time he was a teen, Dad was the mascot for his neighborhood fire station. In the days before liability concerns, they used to bring the truck over to his house and pick him up. He'd ride with them back from calls, eat with them in the station. In 1965, just before he was to be discharged from the Air Force, Dad flew home to take the fire department's qualifying exam. He aced it, but was told his background check didn't pass muster. As an Air Force veteran, former Boy Scout and yes, an actual altar boy, this didn't make sense. He retook the test in 1966 and twice again in 1967, holding down other jobs while he pursued his dream of being a firefighter. Each time they came up with something new — his nose was too flared, putting him at risk for excess smoke inhalation. He had a bad heart. His feet were too flat and broad, bringing into question whether or not he could physically do the job. He had to go get medical clearances for each of these allegations. A couple of times they just said you did great on the test, but we're not hiring you. In all, they turned him down eight times. By 1972 he'd had enough and went to the courts. The city settled. He joined the department the next year, where he played a role in what eventually became the landmark Headen lawsuit, a discrimination case that made it all the way up to the Supreme Court. Dad served 21 years with the fire department. Dramatic career highlights included catching a jumper in mid-air as he plunged past the floor Dad was on, and being blown out through the top floor of a house after having thrown two rookies to safety down a flight of stairs because they didn't yet know how to spot a backdraft flare. When Dad retired as a captain, the city named a day after him. He's now chief of his own department in a city that is not his hometown.



Robert Halmi, Sr. said this:
"It's usually a European and middle-European world (in fantasy). Because 'Earthsea' comes from America, it comes with all those American traditions. That's why it's multicultural, multiracial. You never see wizard movies done in England that has any kind of color in it, because that's a different world. We have no mythology, so we create our own."
— Interview with Zap2it.com, Dec. 8, 2004.



You think we're being racist, is what my Mom accused.

I've never told my parents that, in a way, they ruined these books and movies for me. Nor did I ever tell them that gradually, during near-weekly pilgrimages to the neighborhood branch library, I'd started asking the librarian if she had books with magic and spaceships and dragons and stuff in them, but with some black people, too. Black would be the first choice, but anybody kind of brown would do. It seemed the answer, for my age group anyway, was no. When I got older, there would be a few.

A kid can feel the loss from something taken away, even if they don't have the words to say exactly what it is or define the nature of this new pain. All a kid can do is try to find what caused it all, and blame.

Then "Star Wars" came out. I was 11, and in the car with the seat belt fastened on that Saturday of its opening week before Dad even managed to find his keys. I spazzed all the way through the screening, my first science fiction movie on the big screen and with everything so huge, it made a big difference. When Dad returned after the movie and managed to cull me from herd of Jedis-in-training blitzing around the courtyard, I launched into it. Han Solo had this ship that he flew upside down! Darth Vader even breathed scary!! And there were robots!!! And Luke had to fly into the canyon on the Death Star with the other ships shooting at him and he had to get the bomb into a tiny hole and then he turned off the machine thing and he prayed to Obi Wan and bomb went in. And then they got medals. Also there was a giant teddy bear with stringy hair and a gun.

He said it sounded as if I liked it. I said I mostly thought it was absolutely great. And it was, really. Don't get me wrong. But it was like most of the other stuff I had seen. I explained to him about the planet where Luke came from, a desert with two suns? And how here, where we only one sun, in the desert the people are black. I told him how there wasn't even one black person in the whole movie, even in the background, and I had looked.

Back then I didn't understand enough why part of me felt an empty echo even as the rest was hyper-jazzed. Over the years I realized my expectations were not in line with reality. I thought a movie made in the modern time, not one created back when black people didn't exist, would reflect the reality of the world. And if there had been at least one brown person in "Star Wars," someone besides the unseen rumbling black baritone voicing the ultimate evil, then I would have at last one thing to point when I felt I needed to justify. But it turned out this fantasy set in a far-away galaxy a long time ago operated under the same old rules. Not even the force of two suns could do a thing to change who was allowed to exist in the universe.

Later that summer, during the weekly hajj to the library, the librarian gave me a copy of A Wizard of Earthsea. She told me it had just come in, that she held it special for me, and that she knew I would like it a lot.

I know I didn't start reading it that day. But I was deep into it before the week was out. And because Le Guin snuck up on it, let us thrill with Sparrowhawk as he made his way, the Revelation came as a shock. I do remember bursting out into tears on the living room couch when I understood what was going on. And the tears flowed again when Mom came home from work and I showed her the book while trying to explain. Sparrowhawk is brown. I think he's like an Indian from India. And Vetch is black like from Africa. There's a bunch more and they have real power. Not the girls, though. But still they are also the good guys. It's the white people who are evil. And Sparrowhawk is also Ged, and he's going to be the most powerful one of them all, ever.

Mom had no idea what I was talking about. But being used to the non sequiturs that come with having a high-strung child, she knew just what to do. She took the book away from me and had me lay down on the couch for a little bit. I got it back, later, and read it a few times more before I had to return it to the library. I probably overdid it with the thanks to the librarian. When she gave me the next one, I flew home.

All I can say is this is how I remember it, but I know that in this part memory and fact don't match. Earthsea came out almost 10 years before "Star Wars." I don't know why the book wasn't put into my hands before that summer. I don't know why I clearly remember the librarian telling me that the book had just come out when she gave it to me. I don't understand why my memory of first reading the book is intricately tied to my memory of that "Star Wars" summer. For some of us geeks who were there that night, with Arthur, the king, life is kind of divided into BSW and ASW — Before "Star Wars" and After "Star Wars." Maybe that's it. Not sure that I actually care, though. What matters most to me is that same summer I decided I was going to be a Jedi, no matter what they said on that screen, was the same summer a genre work showed me for the first time that my people can have the magic and be the heroes, too.



Robert Halmi, Sr. said this:
"Legend of Earthsea, the miniseries, was cast completely colorblind, as any of my productions have been. We searched for the right actors for the roles and brought in diversity to the cast as a result. There was no decision to make Ged blond and pale-skinned."
— Interview on Scifi.com's Ask Robert Halmi, Sr. feature on its 'Legend of Earthsea' website, July 20, 2004.



Sometime in spring 2004 I saw the first casting notices about the SciFi Channel's "A Legend of Earthsea" miniseries blurbed in a film industry trade. What I read was hurtful to my heart. I wonder how many other FoPs (Fans of Pigment) lunged to their bookshelves and snatched down their copies to make sure they didn't imagine what they had read all those years ago. Did they also make character charts on a legal pad, three columns labeled "Character," "Original Color," "Hollywood Color"? And when they finished filling out the boxes, did they sit there staring at it, stunned at the truth? Those Hollywood People took all of the key heroic players and shifted them down into the paler end of the spectrum. And they were obvious about it. Yes, they knew enough about the rules to keep at least one Magical Negro around to help the newly blond haired, blue eyed surfer Ged through his Journey Of Transformation To Save The World, because lord knows white boys can't do something like that on their own.

What is that? That's spit. Gobbed right between the eyes and dribbling down.

In this reality, the hip-hop kids come from every ethnic group on the planet. At the big comic book convention in San Diego, white, black, Latino and Asian kids are heaped around the Tokyopop booth speaking in their own special manga language. My dental hygienist, a Red Sonja-type with curiously delicate hands and frightfully blue eyes, can link Tupac to Zora Neale Hurston to Ozo Motley, with a seamless detour to Parliament Funkadelic. While in line for a sneak peek of "Bubba Ho-Tep," I listened to a clutch of teen white and Mexican boys passionately debate the heroic nature of Blade. (Blade is the black, half-human vampire hunter portrayed with cartoon efficiency by actor Wesley Snipes.)

It continues. In one of the most acclaimed fantasy books of last year, a white woman put a black man on the fairy throne, and nobody screamed murder. When I went to a chain bookstore to buy another copy of My Soul to Keep as a gift, the white male hipster clerk corrected my pronunciation and spelling of "Tananarive." I should have been humiliated, but as he walked me to the stacks explaining I didn't have to special order one because he made sure her work is always kept in stock, I was too busy resisting the urge to hug him. A couple of years ago a white man writing about the gods of America made the fate of the universe hinge on the courage and smarts of the child of a Nordic god and a black woman.

I don't have the luxury of not noticing this type of thing. Given all that reality, I cannot understand why The Hollywood People remain such cowards. Why does that industry still feel it is still too dangerous to allow a genre hero with a brown face?

The pass I granted to the movie makers and writers who lived and created in the time devoid of brown people has long expired.

You think we're being racist, my Mom said so many times as I was growing up, when we went round and round about these weird books and movies. I heard an accusation. But what she and my Dad were trying to make me hear was their question: Why do you love a thing that won't even let you exist within their made up worlds?

How many other FoPs were driven to tears by this question they could not answer, despite painful struggles to do so? Am I the only FoP forced to develop a veneer of denial in order to function at the gaming tournaments, at the conventions other than the comic book fest in San Diego, or while watching "Buffy" and wondering if The Hollywood People who had ever actually been to Sunnyvale? Because, you know, if they had, there'd be five Asian/Pacific Islanders and at least three Latinos in the background. Am I the only FoP who was reduced to searching the people in the background because the people in the foreground were always a given? Am I the only one to wonder why the Los Angeles of "Angel" looked a lot like the New York City of Woody Allen's films?

What the hell did it say about my Blackitude that I just kept coming back for more, no matter how many times genre, in words and pictures, broke my heart? Any day now, the HNIC is coming for my membership card.

Le Guin's racial choices in "A Wizard of Earthsea" mattered because her decision said to the wide white world: You Are Not The Whole Of The Universe. For many fans of genre, no matter where they fell on the spectrum of pale, this was the first time such a truth was made alive for them within the pages of the magical worlds they loved.



Ursula K. Le Guin said this:
"I wonder if the people who made the film of The Lord of the Rings had ended it with Frodo putting on the Ring and ruling happily ever after, and then claimed that that was what Tolkien "intended..." would people think they'd been 'very, very honest to the books'?"
— Statement on ursulakleguin.com, responding to an article with the filmmakers in the December issue of SciFi Magazine, Nov. 13, 2004.



The Hollywood People will adapt anything they think will sell, and they'll do whatever they feel they must to the source material to ensure a high box office or advertising return. We know this. The record is filled with lamentations from authors who got the money but then got done incredibly wrong. The Hollywood system is not set up to benefit anyone outside of the family. So every time something like this happens to the creator of the source material, our hearts go out to them.

Le Guin isn't the one who should have raised the stink about what The Hollywood People did to the racial stance she deliberately made in her books. In her Dec. 16, 2004 commentary on Slate Magazine, she termed this "The Whitewashing of Earthsea."

The genre news outlets should have been out front on this story. Their silence during the months SciFi Channel's adaptation was in production was appalling.

We admit that Fan often equals Obsessive. So you are not surprised to hear that from the day I spotted that first blurb in a Hollywood trade, the one that said We Made Them All White, I began tracking the genre news outlets. I expected they would bring what Le Guin also hilariously called "Earthsea in Clorox" to the editorial pages. But I found only scatterings of comments from other fans on the occasional message board and blog. In the genre news outlets, there was nothing. Except for the ones that were running "A Legend of Earthsea" contests in collaboration with Scifi.com.

This is what it feels like to put your fingers in a gob of spit on your face so you can wipe it from your eyes: Eeewwww.

The primary function of media is to inform about issues within a community. Editors and reporters must notice what's going on, look into it and put it out there for examination. Conclusions don't have to be drawn, concrete action does not have to be outlined, but the fact of the events should be noted for the benefit of the target audience. A media that consistently fails to notice issues or topics of potential import within the community or industry it is covering is a media that is either lazy, corrupt or stupefyingly ignorant.

This I believe: If Hollywood has taken a groundbreaking, universally acclaimed, multicultural novel that has been in print for over thirty years and turned it into a white-boy romp, that is a news story. The cooperation of the author of the books is not needed to write that news story. If the genre news outlets exist to serve their subculture in a way more than pimping for the publishers and the production companies, the deliberate omission of characters of pigment in the Hollywood adaptation of Le Guin's Earthsea is the sort of news story a genre news outlet should notice and write about.

But they did not. When we live in this reality where a redhead white woman can throw down about Tupac with a hip hop Asian kid who can walk into a bookstore and get briefed about the proper pronunciation of Tananarive from a hipster white guy who first learned about the Beast of London from a Chicano low-rider. It's a crying shame.

Shame, too, on The Hollywood People for making me cry again, even though here I am all grown.

It's about scope, reach, and percieved value. The difference between an issue being discussed on a blog or message board and the that same issue showing up on the front page of the New York Times (or even the Podunk Tribune for that matter) is vast. As producer Julia Phillips once wrote, what's the difference between television and movies? "The size of the fucking screen." Adapting that just a bit, what's the difference between a message board and a news outlet? The size of the fucking reach. One message board poster can say to another 'wow, what's up with this?' and have a nice conversation that precious few others will know even existed. But one news outlet can say to the world 'wow, what's up with this?' and by doing so, put the issue on the table for wider examination. By doing so, that media outlet is saying to their target audience we noticed this. This is important. Be aware. Discuss.

Not a single one of our primary news outlets in genre used their space to ask 'what's up with this' in the many months leading up to the broadcast of the SciFi Channel's Earthsea adaptation. I believe the first strike questioning why heroes of pigment were deliberately omitted from the filmed version of this landmark multicultural work should have come from within our genre's news outlets. This is news emerging from their turf. This is news directly related to the long standing problem of genre's severe lack of diversity. The Earthsea adaptation was an obvious example that could be used to explore an issue critical to the state and form of the genre industry. Our media should have been on top of this story, not the mainstream media. But our media ignored it.

Le Guin's commentary appeared on Slate because a fan asked her what she thought about what was done to the racial message in her books. And the mainstream media, once made aware of the issue, recognized the value of the larger story and ran with it. The mainstream media broke this story, while our media played catch up by linking to Slate.

What this says to me is My People Still Don't Get It.



Ursula K. Le Guin said this:
"I was a little wily about my color scheme. I figured some white kids (the books were published for 'young adults') might not identify straight off with a brown kid, so I kind of eased the information about skin color in by degrees-hoping that the reader would get 'into Ged's skin' and only then discover it wasn't a white one."
— Commentary on Slate, Dec. 16, 2004.



It was a relief to learn that The Hollywood People had excised Le Guin from their process when they adapted her books. I bet FoPs all over the world, and a good chunk of the rest of them too, exhaled when she told us what had actually happened. It was glorious to see the outpouring of outrage, sympathy and protest petitions blaze across the planet on her behalf. Because of the reaction when Le Guin spoke out, because of the number of people who said "Yeah, why couldn't they stay brown?" I believe there is hope.

I also believe that our media's failure to take note of the whitewashing of Earthsea and its related issues - along with genre media's continued failure in general to tackle topical, thorny topics - is in part my fault. For all of the responsibility a media outlet has to bring issues of importance to the attention of its masses, so do the masses have a responsibility to make sure their media is adequately serving them. If evidence indicates editors and reporters for genre skip, ignore or are not aware of what seems to me to be an obvious story, then perhaps I, and news consumers interested enough to make the attempt, should bring topical, potentially difficult issues to their attention. Even if the suggested topic is declined, the attempt must be made. Perhaps such attempts have not been made in the past, or maybe this level of engagement between media and consumer is an unusual concept within the traditions of genre media. I don't know. I have a hypothesis, but I'm keeping that to myself for now. I do know it's far easier to bitch after the fact than try to make a direct attempt at altering the landscape. Figuring out when to speak out, and where, and how best to do so will be an evolving adventure.

Over the years, my parents have listened to me complain and delight over issues related to being of pigment in this genre. When I brought them up to speed on my feelings surrounding the Earthsea adaptation, after urging me to calm down a little bit they wanted me to explain why I was so surprised. They reminded me that nothing changes until the culture changes. They reminded me that it is a mistake to assume the majority is even paying attention or aware of whatever it is upsetting me, let alone interested or motivated enough to do something about it. And the smaller and more specialized the culture, such as the array of fans, pros, publishers and media that comprise genre, the wider the gulf between that majority and any special interest within it.

If I haven't "left these people after all this time," my Mom said, then what I need to do is accept that I'm stuck with the way things are. I can look at this current world of genre and keep whining, or I can take note of the positive changes that have come down over the years and hope that more will come in the future. And if it matters that much to me, I've got to figure out what I need to do to bring that future into being rather than just waiting for it to magically appear. What those actions are, she can't say. That I'm trying to figure it out pleases her in a way, even though "when it comes down to it, you're still talking about that weird stuff." But since it's this weird world I've chosen, she's glad I'm trying to make it my own.

Dad's advice was cryptic only if you fail to understand that he knows precisely what it means to look directly into the face of what you love while saying you are wrong.

"I think you should try," my Dad said to me. Then he added a caution. "Be ready."

I am.


Pam Noles is a journalist and writer. Her latest work, 'Stagecoach Mary,' appears in the Gunned Down comics anthology from Terra Major. Her novella 'Whipping Boy' received an an Honorable Mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Eighteenth Annual Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin Grant. The story first appeared in Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, edited by Sheree R. Thomas. Other work has appeared in Andrew Vachss' Underground and Pulphouse magazine. A graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop, 1992, she lives in southern California. You'll find her blog at And We Shall March.

Pam is currently (2006) an adminstrator for the Carl Brandon Awards, which is actively soliciting nominations for published long and short print speculative fiction in English. The Society presents two juried awards recognizing excellence in speculative fiction by or about people of color. Each award comes with a $1,000 prize. See the Carl Brandon Society website for complete details. Anyone is welcome to nominate stories for these awards. If you are interested, please participate.

The above essay sparked a number of lively discussions in the blogosphere. To get an overview, or to charge in, start with Pam Noles's followup essay, which has links to others.

 

 

 

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