Reveals the diversity crisis in children’s and young adult media as not only a lack of representation, but a lack of imagination
Stories provide portals into other worlds, both real and imagined. The promise of escape draws people from all backgrounds to speculative fiction, but when people of color seek passageways into the fantastic, the doors are often barred. This problem lies not only with children’s publishing, but also with the television and film executives tasked with adapting these stories into a visual world. When characters of color do appear, they are often marginalized or subjected to violence, reinforcing for audiences that not all lives matter.
The Dark Fantastic is an engaging and provocative exploration of race in popular youth and young adult speculative fiction. Grounded in her experiences as YA novelist, fanfiction writer, and scholar of education, Thomas considers four black girl protagonists from some of the most popular stories of the early 21st century: Bonnie Bennett from the CW’s The Vampire Diaries, Rue from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Gwen from the BBC’s Merlin, and Angelina Johnson from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. Analyzing their narratives and audience reactions to them reveals how these characters mirror the violence against black and brown people in our own world.
In response, Thomas uncovers and builds upon a tradition of fantasy and radical imagination in Black feminism and Afrofuturism to reveal new possibilities. Through fanfiction and other modes of counter-storytelling, young people of color have reinvisioned fantastic worlds that reflect their own experiences, their own lives. As Thomas powerfully asserts, “we dark girls deserve more, because we are more.”
Earlier this week this book won a British Fantasy Award. I ordered it the same night, while I was watching the awards on YouTube. It does not disappoint.
I love fantasy but the books, series and films that are the focus of this book came along in the early to mid 2000s and later, and I was doing something else at the time. I tried reading the Harry Potter books, but I didn’t get on with the writing and the films didn’t appeal either [bad writing, post-hoc fan service changes by the author (JKR totally made Dumbledore ‘canonically’ gay because the fans were already shipping him and Grindelwold, and had read the subtext – she pinched fan ideas) and blatant racism didn’t help either]; I missed the Hunger Games entirely; I read part of one of The Vampire Diaries books (the first one, I think) in about 1999, but didn’t get far – romance has never been my thing and it was a bit too white middle class Yank for my tastes – so obviously I haven’t seen the series. And I watched half an episode of Merlin sometime in 2010 and gave up because Arthur is an arse and Merlin is a wuss. They just did not appeal. But I can see how other people might like them.
Look, no-one ever said I had to be nice about this stuff – being ‘nice’ is polite lying and I don’t lie, politely or otherwise.
This being the case, I never really thought about the characters, so reading this book has been an interesting experience, and a disappointing one. The authors and writers, show runners and film directors could have done so much more with the characters and material. Thomas focuses on the treatment of the black girls in each book/series, and they are all found wanting. (For clarity, I’m disappointed by the authors etc., not with Ebony Elizabeth Thomas.)
I’m not surprised, if I have learnt anything in the last few years of being part of the book world, even peripherally, it is that the big publishers are in Europe and America and they are very, very white. If you want books with sympathetic, well-written people of colour as main characters you have to go to indies, with some exceptions. Authors with a big following, usually, can get published by the Big Five if they are POC and have POC main characters. Even as a white person I can see how this isn’t fair, especially as sometimes authors of colour or from marginalised groups still get told their characters aren’t relatable, or if they write a character who doesn’t have the same ethnicity/disability/gender/sexuality etc. as themselves that they should do that instead. Yeah, catch-22. But don’t expect huge advances. Even now, after a few years of people pushing for greater diversity in publishing (as in, greater diversity of people working in the publishing industry) and in authors and book characters and settings, it’s still a slog. I have a stack of books I’ve bought in the last two years, deliberately supporting authors of colour as well as disabled and queer authors, because if we don’t show there’s a demand then publishers will continue to get away with their ‘unrelatable’ and ‘unlikeable’ excuses.
Thomas’ thesis in this book is that black characters, especially very dark girls, are pushed to the side-lines and forced into following a set arc where they might get within reach of a happy ending only for it to be pulled away, and that the reason for this is the racism inherent in the publishing industry and society as a whole. She uses the concept of the Dark Other to position the black girls in these books/series/films as a ‘monstrous’ element that has to be ‘defeated’ by the white main character.
Sounds about right. I’m not enough of a literary scholar to pick holes in her argument. I can see where she’s coming from and her use of the source material and references to fan culture and literature support her argument. Honestly, a lot of stuff has been going over my head recently, some of the reading groups I’ve started attending have shown me just how ignorant I am in the Humanities and Social Sciences, so it’s entirely possible I’ve read Thomas’ arguments wrongly or misinterpreted them. I know my limits, but I’m still going to keep reading and try to self-educate on subjects I don’t understand.
I found her discussion of Rue in The Huger Games quite affecting, especially her interpretation of Rue as the first Mockingjay. After Thomas’ explanation of the meaning of the mockingbird in Black American culture it makes sense. I also found the fan reaction to the film portrayal of Rue, which is loyal to the book description, quite disgusting. Fandom can be a horrible place at times, which is why I tend to stay away from it. Everyone reads a different book, and builds images in their own minds; however, if an author clearly states that a character is dark skinned and in the subsequent film or TV adaption they cast an actor of colour, you can’t get stroppy about it.
I have a couple of issues with the Harry Potter chapter. It’s the only chapter I had any issues with, the others were well reasoned and strongly supported with evidence, and the Harry Potter chapter was not weak on those points either.
However, (deep breath), some of her discussion feels like resentment about the way she was treated before she left the fandom, but I can hardly blame her; accusing someone of plagiarism in 2006 for a work written before the conventions of fanfic had been finalised and written by a relatively new fanfic writer (in 2000) and then forcing her out of the fandom where others were supported is a bit harsh. A simple edit acknowledging the use of passages from Virginia Hamilton’s retelling of the traditional Black American fable The People Could Fly added to the uploaded fanfic should have been the end of it.
Secondly, Thomas is from the U.S., she sees everything through the context of how people of the African Diaspora got to the U.S. – the Middle Passage and chattel slavery. I can see why, if your entire cultural milieu and education sees that as the primary cause then you see everything coloured by that. Entirely reasonable, but it does mean that when she talks about being confused by how Black British people have British names it is rather jarring.
Thus her fanfic about Angelina Johnson (as mention in point one). Not having read the books, I am indebted to Thomas for the knowledge that Angelina Johnson is the only named Black British character in the Harry Potter books; she ends up married to one of the Weasley twins (the one who didn’t die, although she was in love with the one who did die, it seems like rather sloppy writing by Rowling to me), and who Thomas somehow supposes is the descendent of African magical slaves in the Americas who somehow ended up in Britain and acquired a British name.
I am confuse.
It’s not impossible, certainly after the abolition of slavery in Britain and during the Victorian period, free and freed Black Americans did come to Britain to seek support for Emancipation in the U.S. and some did settle down here. Given the different histories of Black British people and Black people in the US, and the fact that we’re working with an alternative world where MAGIC exists, her question ‘how do you enslave magical people?’ that spawned the story isn’t really a necessary one, if you think about it logically. Can I just repeat the salient part – the Potterverse is a world with MAGIC – history would NOT have been the same.
Of course you wouldn’t enslave magical people, they can escape and fight back. Even if magic is secret in Europe there would be nothing to say it had to be elsewhere. Can you imagine people who fought not to be enslaved in the first place, having the means to escape and not using it? I think not. I don’t think, had there been magic in the world, slavery, especially the vile chattel slavery that characterised the slave trade from the 16th to 19th centuries, would have happened or would ever have been a thing. At least not for people lucky enough to have access to magic or protected by people with magic. There would have been epic battles, maybe the wizards of Hogwarts and the one in France would have got involved in the colonial project, secretly, or maybe they’d have refused? Who knows, it’s fiction!
Thomas’ premise assumes everywhere else in the world is just like the US, when it isn’t. [Cuts out long digression about the history of Black British people – see David Olusoga‘s book or TV series on the subject. Same goes for the tits in the Merlin fandom who got stroppy about Gwen.] So yes, it’s entirely possible for a Black British person to have a ‘British’ name. The context of media (books or TV) set in Britain is different to the context of material set in the US. I’m sure a respected scholar like Ebony Elizabeth Thomas knows this, and yet she doesn’t apply it to the material she discusses. It’s a minor matter but one that might stretch her argument if applied to other fantastic material.
I think it is a very timely text, given that it is 2021 and most children’s books and media aimed at people under 25 are still mostly white and everybody should be able to see themselves in the media they consume, as well as people different to them. This is a point Thomas makes several times, usually in more eloquent words.
Read it, this book will help you see the fantastic in a new way.