SEPTEMBER 28, 2019
PERHAPS IT SEEMS inconceivable to consider the fantastic when this is reality: an unarmed pregnant Black woman murdered by police, Brown children torn from their parents and imprisoned in squalid detention camps, a Black boy killed for holding a toy gun in a park. In spaces where Black and Brown children should feel safe (their mother’s womb, a park gazebo), the authorities designated to protect them instead view them as threats. But what is stranger or more upsetting than racial violence seeping into the places we should feel most unafraid? And when else is the fantastic more urgently necessary than amid a reality so inhospitable that we can’t help but dream of other worlds? Maybe that’s why we remain enchanted by the weird or the fantastic despite and even because of our problematic moment — for what it reveals about our psychology in our deepest traumas. Maybe an N. K. Jemisin novel flings us into a world that forces us to resist and survive, or a Janelle Monáe or Tierra Whack performance brushes our eardrums with a magic that helps us thrive.
Over the last 20 years, new critical frameworks have emerged for considering and developing SF narratives that center PoC voices and experiences. Key examples include the Afrofuturism of Mark Dery, Alondra Nelson, Sheree Renée Thomas (among others); the Africanfuturism described by Nnedi Okorafor; Catherine S. Ramírez’s Chicanafuturism; Kinitra Brooks’s fluid fiction; Grace Dillon’s Indigenous Futurism and Native Slipstream; Harry Garuba’s Animist Realism; and Reynaldo Anderson’s Afrofuturism 2.0. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s brilliant The Dark Fantastic poses essential questions about what happens when these voices are absent. What happens to our imaginations when Black and Brown voices in fantasy are strangled, reduced, sacrificed? What do we lose?
Thomas’s investigation leads to one of the most radiant and thought-provoking descriptions of the potentials of fantastic literature. In particular, what Thomas terms “the dark fantastic” — fantasy that includes but hinders or stereotypes people of color — is problematic. Still, if we’re to write what Thomas terms “an emancipatory dark fantastic” — stories that break the cycle of the tragic, sacrificial Dark Girl, and instead, reveal her as complex, defiant, central, and vibrant — we may ultimately succeed in “decolonizing our fantasies and our dreams.” And, as Thomas suggests, the ability to reconsider and reinterpret “the crisis of race in our storied imagination has the potential to make our world anew.”
Thomas’s clear, cogent theory of the Dark Fantastic encompasses a range of popular films and television shows including The Hunger Games, Merlin, The Vampire Diaries, and Harry Potter. Thomas focuses specifically on girls or women with African ancestry, and she suggests that characters such as Lady Guinevere of the Arthurian legend or Bonnie Bennett of The Vampire Diaries are viewed as less valuable once they are reimagined as Black. For example, Thomas argues that when mixed-race actress Angel Coulby is cast as Lady Guinevere (Gwen) on the television show Merlin, she is criticized by viewers as being too servile and not beautiful enough to play the legendary Arthurian queen. (While Thomas notes that some fans were simply hoping Merlin and Arthur’s relationship would turn romantic, she makes a strong case that the criticism directed at Gwen was due, in part, to her race.)
Similarly, The Vampire Diaries’s Bonnie, who as an “auburn-haired witch of Irish descent” in the novels was a central character with a love interest, becomes a side character whose “life is tethered to the fate of a beloved White protagonist.” These characters — Thomas refers to them as “the Dark Other” — undergo a cycle of “spectacle, hesitation, violence, and haunting” through narratives that encourage seeing them as visually different (spectacle), separated from collective memories and histories (hesitation), unprotected and killed or sacrificed for a White protagonist’s well-being (violence), and as the unresolved tension “haunting” the narrative, removed from their own spiritual or mental reconciliation.
The idea of writing Black girls or Dark Others who are both complex and vulnerable may not seem radical until one considers fans’ rage upon discovering a character’s blackness or otherness. Thomas points out that when a mixed-race actor was cast as Rue in the film version of The Hunger Games, a slew of angry comments ensued. Among them: “Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture,” and, “Call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad.”
Thomas explores this perception of a Black Rue as less “innocent” than a White one, and she also suggests that racial difference allows Rue (and also Bonnie Bennett) to die so that the White protagonist can live. To prove this argument, Thomas gets personal. Her complex, academic readings and analyses are balanced with frank discussions of her niece’s and her own experiences with fandom as well as their genuine passion for the fantastic. When Daija, Thomas’s niece, informs Thomas that “just because I’m Black doesn’t mean that I only want to read about Black girls,” we understand what she means. Daija, like other readers, is capable of falling in love with characters of any race who are interesting, who have adventures, who face challenges and overcome them. What’s problematic, Thomas reminds us, is the asymmetrical production of these narratives and their usual positioning of characters of color as in service to the White protagonist’s spiritual or mental growth. Too often, writes Thomas, “Black girl characters in mainstream science fiction and fantasy do not offer agency but are marked by the narrative for death and haunting.” Further, an emotional investment in almost entirely White fantasy worlds showcasing the one character of color, the Dark Other, in restricted ways has psychological costs: “This may be why even Black girls might find themselves drawn toward White protagonists, instead of Black sidekicks; overidentification with Black storygirls often leads to heartbreak that is not unlike the pain found beyond the page and the screen.”
Some of this heartbreak may be healing as a result of ever-expanding artistic movements, such as Afrofuturism and Chicanafuturism, led by creators of color. Thomas writes hopefully of an “emancipatory Black fantastic” capable of “interrupting the dark fantastic cycle in order to create new paradigms,” even as she describes a painful and pervasive anti-Blackness and the necessity of writing against it. Thomas mentions that while many of the characters she discusses have African ancestry, they are also of mixed race. Subtly, Thomas reminds us of the tragic mulatta tropes in literature and film (who died and haunted texts), and our society’s historical anxieties involving any hint of Black ancestry. For instance, as Thomas details fans’ animosity toward Gwen, she includes comments from viewers who argue Gwen “looks very very mixed and may be playing a different European ethnicity with darker skin” or that “she could pass as a number of European nationalities namely Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek.” The mere suggestion of Blackness or darkness, Thomas suggests, is enough to make viewers uncomfortable and question “Gwen’s beauty and worth, her relatability and likeability, and her historical accuracy and authenticity.”
Thomas makes several persuasive arguments about race and gender, and while she recognizes that Black boys are also denied innocence and protection, her specific focus on girls and women allowed me to understand how our readings of the fairy tale are, for better or worse, complicated by race. In one of the book’s most compelling sections, Thomas describes how many songs geared toward women of color (think: Bunny DeBarge and variations from Mary J. Blige, Blackstreet, and 2Pac; songs by Anita Baker and, more recently, Lianne La Havas) reject the concept of the fairy-tale princess. Fairy-tale princesses are of course problematic. Maybe Black women and other women of color have been expected to be self-sufficient, and our rejection of princess tropes could be celebrated as an assertion of our independence. Still, happiness, in this culture, is often associated with partnership (living “happily ever after”), and the songs, particularly Bunny DeBarge’s “A Dream,” suggest Black women as alienated from lasting happiness and companionship. Thomas explains how DeBarge’s song “deconstruct[s] the fairy dreams that George Lucas, Jim Henson, and Walt Disney have sold to billions,” while reinforcing the idea of romantic love as “a dream” and a hopeless and “simple fantasy.”
Thomas is an expert in children’s literature and well known and well respected as both a fan (The Dark Fantastic includes conversations with laypersons in online communities) and an authority on SF (Thomas weaves in references to significant literary and film criticism). Her references are purposeful and help us understand the lineage of her ideas. For example, an examination of Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark reminds the reader that no one is truly invisible — ideas associated with people placed in shadow (people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community) can continue to haunt a text. A reference to scholar Moya Bailey’s concept of “misogynoir,” the “mistreatment on the basis of both race and gender” reminds us of how the characters within the dark fantastic could potentially resist or challenge racism and sexism. As Thomas examines the use of misogynoir, she suggests that attitudes surrounding the mistreatment of “Black girl characters” in fiction and literature carry over into the “real world” and generate broader conversations about race and privilege. And a discussion of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Monster Theory provides a framework for Thomas’s strongest arguments: while the monster may represent difference, “the monster is only different from the perspective of those who have labeled the monster as monstrous.” In other words, Thomas wants us to consider difference as relative and circumscribed by power. Who has the power to label someone as different or monstrous? And what happens, psychologically, to those declared monsters?