It’s Not Always About Intent

Posted: August 22, 2012 in Books, General Musings
Tags: , , ,

If Victoria Foyt’s novel Revealing Eden: Save the Pearls were a pot of boiling oil, Weird Tales would most certainly be the frozen turkey.  The most polite way of describing Foyt’s reaction to the allegations that her YA novel is a racist one: bad. A less polite way: WTF were you thinking? To think that Weird Tales would not only choose to enter the foray by publishing the first chapter of her story but also by defending its “thoroughly non-racists-ness” with an argument that amounts to, “It’s not because it’s not and you’re just too stupid to see it,” is just mind blowing.

Before I go further, I’ll disclose that I have not read the novel in question. However, based on substantial reviews and analyses (here’s a good one) from writers and readers whose opinions I respect and find in common with my own, I feel confident in saying the charges of racism are supported to the hilt. That being said, I also don’t wish to demonize Foyt, who is clearly repulsed by the idea of racism, even if she has unwittingly perpetrated it. What I find problematic is the story, not the author. Having not read it, I’ll restrict my opinions to the things that I do know about the novel.

The Premise

  • An environmental disaster has devastated the earth and inadvertently made whites a racial minority (I’ll save the discussion of how sheer numbers do not a minority/majority make for a different post) because their lack of melanin made them particularly susceptible to the more cancer-causing properties of the sun. Because blacks were better suited to survive this new environment, they’ve become the new privileged class and the oppressors of this world. Essentially, blacks and whites have switched social roles.

Some Details

  • The protagonist uses blackface to pass. (Seriously?! OMG WTF?!)
  • Whites are called Pearls; blacks are called Coals.
  • The black males are described in bestial terms while simultaneously being fetishized.

First the details, which almost speak for themselves. Given the history of blackface, and considering the real-world connotations behind the words “pearl” and “coal” (i.e., that one is good and pretty and shiny, while the other is bad and dirty and disagreeable), wonder why Foyt is surprised that others have read them as anything but ironic. Simply wanting a word to be read with the opposite connotation and meaning of what it really has doesn’t automatically make that happen. Others have said that her defense of these words only exists in her HuffPo articles and nowhere in the actual novel. I cannot speak to the veracity of this assertion, but I have read excerpts in which “coal” was explicitly used as a racial slur, not as the desirable designation she insists it is.

And if bell hooks is at all acquainted with this debacle, I’m sure she’s gnashing her teeth (or at least sighing in exasperation) regarding the descriptions of the black men. As well she should. Foyt may well be ignorant of the dialogue surrounding the long-standing fetishization, visual dismemberment, and dehumanization of black men in media. Her text appears to be ignorant (or at least dismissive) of the history behind the other racist details and the kind and level of offense they carry, so being ignorant on this front is likely. Her ignorance would acceptable if she’d owned up to it; as it is, she denies her ignorance, which only adds insult to injury.

But let’s put aside the details. Honestly, you don’t need them to point to a pulsating undercurrent of racism in the text. You need only the premise.

Seen in the best light, a simple role reversal is (usually) uninspired. It takes little imagination and does not advance the discussion of race and racism in any substantial way. Seen in the worst light, the premise of this story is insidious and divisive.

Here’s the basic idea behind the role reversal: Let’s take the real-world group already subject to harmful, deep-seated social prejudice, that’s has been seen historically as embodying and being responsible for the dregs of society, and make them the bad guys.

Okay. Demonizing an already-oppressed group by making them through literature is not empowerment; it’s just oppression all fancied up. The best I can make of this approach is, “How would you like it if it were done to you?” Unfortunately, what it also says is, “Well, they would do it to us, too, so we should get ours.” Which is the real problem and the true poison in this story. It is a story that acknowledges and (I’ll give Foyt the benefit of the doubt) inadvertently supports a dangerous notion: that enfranchising an oppressed group necessarily and proportionally disenfranchises the privileged group—as if there were only so much enfranchisement to go around*.

Foyt has succeeded in at least one way: getting people talking about her book. I’m sure she’d prefer they weren’t talking about it quite as negatively as they are, but she’s at least getting sustained attention. There are some people who think she deliberately chose an inflammatory topic for the attention. This may be essentially true, but I don’t think her aim was to be publicly castigated for racism. As an unpublished author, I imagine I would be mortified to find myself in a similar situation so early in my career. But her response to the criticism has been lacking in maturity, dignity, and professionalism, which is unfortunate. Readers will remember this debacle when/if she publishes again and won’t likely give her their money again.

That Weird Tales decided to throw its weight so vehemently behind such a highly problematic story without any kind of intellectual engagement with a readership that has loudly voiced its disapproval is baffling to me. It also tells us a great deal about Marvin Kaye’s literary taste and discrimination, not to mention his editorial vision for the magazine. The magazine has retracted its support for Foyt, but the damage is done. The new direction and editorial management makes me sad because I had wanted very much to be published in that magazine. Now I don’t want anything to do with it. I’d prefer not to be part of an organization that can’t see a racist text (or any other overtly prejudiced text, for that matter) for what it is and refuses to accept or acknowledge criticism for it.

*There are people in the real world who truly believe this. There are elected officials who insist that women should not get equal pay for equal work because “money is more important for men”—because women making more money obviously requires men making less money. And those officials pass legislation informed by these reprehensible ideas. Scary.


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s