Monday, February 25, 2008

Some excuses for The magical negro

Recently, I did an interview with Geralyn Beauchamp about her book, Time Masters: Book One, The Call.

Then, later, in yet another discussion among black specfic writers, I actually found myself defending the magical negro. Ah gee, how did that happen? Actually, it's not as if I defended that type of character. I just kinda excused white writers who use them. Yes, i do groan whenever this kind of character pops up in a book written by a white character. But I don't get...well...as bent out of shape as some of my black colleagues do.

Okay, okay, I've heard the arguments against these characters:
1) characters like these pretend to be making us minorities look like good people but it's just another way of dehumanizing us and taking away our individuality.

Yeah, yeah...

As I said to my black friends -- and I was resoundedly challenged and put down for this-- sometimes white writers are trying to do a quota thing. In an email recently with Sylvia Kelso, she mentioned that Connie Willis did not mention any black people in the novel Lincoln's Dreams. Sylvia thought a black character was needed. I, on the other hand, thought... heck, if there was no room for a black character in the story... why put a black character into the story?

And yet, I DO kinda have patience with white writers who feel they need to put a person of color into a book. I remember hearing a Jewish author talk about how annoying it was to see Jews pop up in books merely to "mean" something or to be a symbol. I have seen so many books in which black folks and Jewish folks and Hispanic folks are in books simply to "mean" something.

So there are two reasons for this Magical Negro inclusion bit:

One, a white writer needs to symbolize a triumphant, noble, suffering person...and who best to put in to "mean" this kind of thing but a black person or a Jewish person or a spiritual Native American tree-hugger?

Two, the white writer sometimes needs to put in a black person because the white writer wants to say something about racism. Okay, sometimes it's done badly. Sometimes we're stuck with a poor starving black child of a drug-addicted black mom and they are rescued by a liberal kind-hearted white person. That is the "we as whites are put on earth to raise up the blacks" mentality. Of course this kind of thing is offensive. The "take up the white man's burden" kind of liberality or the "take up the white female's burden" type of liberalness and feminism does make a minority woman of color (whether the white woman is "helping" an Iranian women wearing a hajib or a poor little suffering latina escaping to El Norte or a deluded innocent Christian woman who has been oppressed by the evil patriarchal Christian world or a poor little uneducated black woman with great faith).

But what if the white writer wanted to do something against racism? Stephen King, for instance, is from Maine. I have no doubt -- no doubt, whatsover-- that he does these magical negro types because he lives among folks in Maine who well....may or may know any real Negroes...and who may very well have racist ideas about us. (One day I'll tell you my story about a trip I had in New England. Right now, sufficeth to say, Stephen is probably doing a great job of enlightening certain folks.) I mean...some groups have actually benefitted by being shown as magical. I have yet to hear a gay person complain about the use of the magical gay person in movies, TV, and books. That magical, funny, quirky, witty, idiosyncratic, and just-so-cuddly eccentric magical gay person and the suffering, noble, triumphant gay person has done a lot for making homosexuality more acceptable in modern society. And I have no doubt that all those wise-cracking jolly fat women who roam television have also helped (in some weird way) the black cause. And I am sure that all those movies in which an illegal alien from Mexico is shown as a sweet-faced oppressed person...have colored our view of the immigration degate. So there is some kind of benefit in these portrayals. Heck, even if they can't see us as humans, they at least see us as objects of humor or pity.

But back to my point...reasons for possibly excusing the magical negro. There is the question of honoring a person. By which I mean...what if the white racist actually did come from some lily-white town and actually knew a lovely kind black or minority person who was a symbol of strength and peace. Folks, this kind of thing still happens in this country. This is what Geralyn mentioned in her interview. In her small little town in the west, she had a black teacher. There are black folks all over this country doing the magical negro stuff in their daily lives. (Okay, in real life, they probably are as weak as anyone else...but in their public life as the only black person in the middle of nowhere, they dang well are triumphanting nobly.) What do we do with a black writer who wants to honor such a person?

So, I dunno.... I'm still kinda on the fence when it comes to whether I actually think magical negroes are a totally bad thing. Or maybe I just think that white writers who use them are not so very bad. And honestly, I'm not gonna jump down the throats of any white writer who includes in her novel something that makes me cringe. Of course, I do kinda groan when I see how religious people are treated in books by secular writers. And I'm hoping that whether my books are overtly religious (as in Wind Follower) or subtly so, that those who read my books will finish the book saying, "I know now what a real black person is like. I know now what a real religious person acts like. I will never again indulge in stereotyping them...as magical people, as stupid-in-need-of-enlightenment people, or as evil people." IF I can do that, then I will have succeeded. -C
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