(Content Note for Racism and Racist Slurs: This essay includes examples of racist language and slurs used by certain literary figures in demonstrating the scope of their racism.)
At the World Fantasy Awards ceremony in November 2015, it was announced that the bust of H. P. Lovecraft would no longer be used as the award trophy. This came after statements from prominent authors such as Nnedi Okorafor and Daniel José Older, among others, who felt that Lovecraft’s racism made him a problematic symbol for the celebration and recognition of the world’s best fantasy.
“This shows a cultural intolerance and lack of historical understanding that is very discouraging… I daresay we will be judged harshly for all manner of derelictions a hundred years from now.”
This argument comes up so quickly and reliably in these conversations that it might as well be a Pavlovian response. Any mention of the word “racism” in association with names like Tolkien or Burroughs or Campbell or Lovecraft is a bell whose chimes will trigger an immediate response of “But historical context!”
Context does matter. Unfortunately, as with so many arguments, it all tends to get oversimplified into a false binary. On one side are the self–righteous haters who get off on tearing down the giants of our field with zero consideration of the time and culture in which they lived. On the other are those who sweep any and all sins, no matter how egregious, under the rug of “Historical Context.”
This false binary is, in academic terms, utter crap.
Historical Context Isn’t Homogenous
Samuel Bowers (1924–2006) was a co–founder of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. This is a man who was convicted of murdering several civil rights leaders. He was a product of his time.
You know who else was a product of that same time? Mister Rogers (1928–2003), host of the American children’s television show Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, a man the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously chose to honor for his “steadfast commitment to demonstrating the power of compassion, and his dedication to spreading kindness through example.”
Clearly it was possible to be born in the 1920s without growing up to be a racist murderer. Any given time and place in history will produce a range of people, from amazing, kind, compassionate human beings to frightened, hateful, bigoted cowards.
Let’s look at H. P. Lovecraft’s 1912 poem “On the Creation of Niggers,” which reads in part:
“To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi–human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.”
Lovecraft’s writing also referred to “subhuman swine” and the “negro problem” and “sneering, greasy mulattos” and how blacks are “vastly inferior” and “negro fetishism,” among other examples.
Did everyone in 1912 think such bigotry was acceptable poetic fare? It’s interesting to note that while Lovecraft wrote and shared this poem, there’s no record of it being published. Unlike some of Lovecraft’s other poems, this one appears to have been written and shared “on the down low.”
Of course, plenty of Lovecraft’s other problematic writing was published, such as the xenophobic “Providence in 2000 A.D.” In this, Lovecraft’s first published poem, he bemoans what “negro Bravas” and “swarthy men” and other immigrants will do to America.
Ignoring the fact that much of the poem’s sentiment isn’t restricted to Lovecraft’s time—indeed, they can easily be found in modern editorials and comment sections—when we argue that such attitudes were common and accepted a hundred years ago, we also have to ask: acceptable to whom? When we think about “prevailing attitudes on race,” are we limiting our thinking to the prevailing attitudes of white people? I suspect the majority of black Americans in Lovecraft’s time had very different opinions and beliefs about race than Lovecraft…
To look at Lovecraft in historical context means acknowledging this was the time period of Woodrow Wilson outlawing interracial marriage in the District of Columbia, but it was also the time of the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization that included white people such as Mary White Ovington and William English Walling among its cofounders. (I mention them not to ignore the work of the black cofounders of the NAACP, but to recognize that even among white people of the time, there were those who embraced and perpetuated racism, and there were those who fought against it.)
In an ideal world, I think most of us would like to believe humanity is growing wiser and more compassionate as a species. (Whether or not that’s true is a debate best left for another article.) If we assume that to be true, we have to expect a greater amount of ignorance and intolerance from the past. We also have to recognize that humanity is not homogenous, and every time period has a wide range of opinion and belief.
When we talk about historical context, we have to look both deeper and broader. Were Lovecraft’s views truly typical of the time, or was his bigotry extreme even for the early 20th century? Did those views change over time, or did he double–down on his prejudices?
Recognizing that someone was a product of their time is one piece of understanding their attitudes and prejudices. It’s not carte blanche to ignore them.
Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged
Another argument that arises is the notion that judging the bigotry of these figures from the past is a hypocritical exercise in smug self–righteousness. After all, won’t people in the future judge us just as harshly? “How will you feel a century from now when it’s your turn under the microscope, Hines?”
Since 100 years from now I’ll most likely be dead, I don’t imagine I’ll feel much of anything. But speaking hypothetically, I expect that yes, the future will look back and judge us, and the standards they use won’t be the same as the standards of today. I hope those standards will have continued to evolve toward greater equality and respect.
I welcome that future judgement and criticism. We all know the 21st century is far from perfect. I don’t want future generations to excuse the bigotry and prejudices of our times. I don’t want a free pass for my own ignorance and shortcomings.
I want them to recognize the historical context, yes—recognize that like any other period in history, my time period is a messy one. It’s full of conflict and struggle. There are those fighting to perpetuate inequality while others fight to overcome it, with so many more caught somewhere in the middle. And it’s rarely a neat, simple division.
Take, for example, author L. Frank Baum, who created The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, among many others. Many of his works were full of female empowerment. Baum also wrote an 1891 editorial supporting the genocide of Native Americans, saying:
“Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”
Keep in mind that recognizing and talking about the problematic attitudes and writing of historical figures is not the same as OMG ERASE THEM FROM THE CANON AND BURN THEIR WORKS AND STRIKE THEIR NAMES FROM THE HISTORY OF THE GENRE! The fact that Baum promoted genocide doesn’t mean he wasn’t a highly influential or important writer. Once again, it’s not the artificial binary of either/or; it is, in fact, possible for Baum to be both.
The same holds true of our work today. Everyone writing stories and making movies and creating art has flaws. Some of us have more than others, perhaps, but none of us are perfect. There’s no shame in acknowledging those imperfections. If anything, the shame lies in refusing to acknowledge them, because without that acknowledgement, growth is all but impossible.
One of the most infuriating responses I came across recently was the idea that yes, some of these historical figures had troublesome beliefs and attitudes, but we should forgive and move on.
This argument was put forth by a white man. It was immediately seconded by another white man.
In a conversation about racism.
Let me reframe this. Say I’m standing somewhere, and I suddenly spin around and hit you in the face. Maybe it was deliberate. Maybe I was fanboying about Pacific Rim and didn’t realize you were behind me. Either way, you’re now standing there with a bloody nose.
Fortunately for me, one of my friends claps me on the shoulder and says, “It’s all right, Jim. I forgive you.” Hooray! Having been forgiven, I continue geeking out with my friends, leaving you to deal with your messed–up nose.
I’m pretty sure forgiveness doesn’t work that way. You don’t get to forgive someone else for offenses they committed against a third party. As a white man, I don’t get to stand around forgiving racism committed against people of color.
Look at Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes. Imagine yourself as a young black fan who’s just gotten your hands on this “classic of the genre.” Imagine coming across the passage where Tarzan begins to use nooses to kill and terrorize and rob the black natives.
“…and so he commenced picking up solitary hunters with his long, deadly noose, stripping them of weapons and ornaments and dropping their bodies from a high tree into the village street during the still watches of the night. These various escapades again so terrorized the blacks…”
This is one of several such passages in the book. It should be noted that when Tarzan stumbles across a group of white people, his reaction is very different. His murders are reserved for dark–skinned humans only.
What does it feel like to realize this book—this foundational work that’s been lauded and reprinted and made into countless movies and shows—treats people like you as things to be hunted and lynched for fun?
What does it feel like to then see white fans forgiving Burroughs for his attitudes toward people like you?
It’s been argued that Burroughs’s later work gets better, and begins to treat black characters as people rather than things. And that’s great. The progression of an author’s views and writing is another aspect of historical context. Did their attitudes evolve over their lifetime? Or did they double down on their bigotry?
But even granting the growth and changes in Burroughs’s writing, who the hell am I as a white man to “forgive” Burroughs for the hurt his work has caused others through the years? How presumptuous. How arrogant. How utterly dismissive.
Context as an Excuse
I don’t actually see people arguing that we should ignore historical context. What I see is the argument that historical context isn’t an excuse. We shouldn’t use it to whitewash the past and pretend our historical figures were without flaws. We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to prejudice or hide from the facts.
It’s one thing to recognize that someone like Lovecraft was shaped by his historical and cultural context. Lovecraft lived in a time of segregation, a time when anti–immigrant sentiment was rampant, as were fears of miscegenation. Yet even Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi admits:
“There is no denying the reality of Lovecraft’s racism, nor can it merely be passed off as “typical of his time,” for it appears that Lovecraft expressed his views more pronouncedly (although usually not for publication) than many others of his era.”
Intolerance and hatred are not a unique effect of a particular time period; they’ve been with us throughout our history. Imagine those future fans and scholars who come across the bigoted writings of some of today’s authors. Should they excuse homophobia because same–sex marriage wasn’t even legal at the start of the 21st century? Should they excuse an American author’s hatred and bigotry against Muslims because the country was in the aftermath of 9/11?
To pick a rather extreme example, the Westboro Baptist Church is a product of our time. That doesn’t justify their hatred and bigotry.
Recognizing how history and context frame intolerance and bigotry is important, and helps us gain a deeper understanding of individuals and their time in history. But it’s not an excuse. It’s not a free pass for hatred.
The Importance of the Conversation
It sucks to realize your idols were flawed.
I love science fiction and fantasy. I grew up reading the books and watching the shows and collecting the action figures and playing the games. I love that my job today allows me to visit conventions and meet up with fans throughout the country and the world. I intend to be a part of this genre until the day I die, and I hope my work will continue to be a part of it for at least a while afterward.
But I’ve also learned that the thing I love is imperfect. It was built in part on works that were imaginative and exciting…and exclusionary. Works that proclaimed people of color had no place in the future, that women weren’t capable of heroism, that anyone not rigidly heterosexual was a genetic aberration to be eliminated. Whether intentional or not, some of those foundational works proclaimed to most of humanity, “You are not welcome here.”
When we use “historical context” as an excuse to overlook and ignore that exclusion, we perpetuate it.
We can’t keep running away from these conversations. We have to recognize both the brilliance and the flaws of our genre, and of the people who helped to build it. We have to look back through the mirror of history and accept what’s there, warts and all.
It’s the only way we’ll be able to move forward.
(Editors’ Note: This essay was guest–edited by Tanya DePass.)
© 2016 by Jim C. Hines