Will Fantasy Ever Let Black Boys Like Me Be Magic?

From Tor.com:

My first book on magic was A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. It was a single story which expanded into a long-standing series about Ged, the greatest wizard known to his age, and the many mistakes made in his youth which inspired a battle against his dark side, before he righted himself with his darkness.

As a Black boy, I always had a fascination with stories of boys with more to offer than what the world had the ability to see in them. Le Guin offered something along that line—the fantasy of untapped potential, of surviving poverty, of coming to terms with one’s dark side.

However, Ged’s story isn’t what substantiated my attachment to Ursula K. Le Guin’s world; it was Vetch, the Black wizard of the story and Ged’s sidekick. In A Wizard of Earthsea, Vetch is first introduced through a bully named Jasper as a heavy-set, dark skinned wizard a few years older than Ged. Vetch was described as “plain, and his manners were not polished,” a trait that stood out even amongst a table of noisy boys. Unlike the other boys, he didn’t take much to the drama of showmanship, or of hazing and—when the time finally came—he abandoned his good life as a powerful wizard and lord over his servants and siblings to help Ged tame his shadow, then was never seen again.

Black wizards have always been an enigma. I picked up A Wizard of Earthsea years after Harry Potter graced the silver screen and of course, I’d seen Dean Thomas, but there was more to the presentation of Vetch than illustrated in Dean’s limited time on screen.

. . . .

Fantasy has a habit of making Black characters the sidekick. And yet, years after Ged journeyed away from his closest friend, Vetch’s life did not stop: it moved on, prosperously. Representation of Blackness has always been a battle in Fantasy. It isn’t that the marginalized have never found themselves in these stories, but there was always a story written within the margins.

Writing from the perspective of mainstream demographic often results in the sometimes unintentional erasing of key aspects of a true human experience: where you can be angry, internally, at harmful discrimination and you can do something selfish and negative, because its what you feel empowers you. If to be marginalized is to not be given permission to be fully human, then these Black characters (Vetch & Dean Thomas) have never escaped the margins; and if this act is designated as the “right way,” then no character ever will, especially not the ones we see as true change in our imaginations.

Link to the rest at Tor.com

4 thoughts on “Will Fantasy Ever Let Black Boys Like Me Be Magic?”

  1. I saw that when it was posted. There are lots of comments to it pointing out that the author missed a great many things. I think the one that got it right was the one that said the author is looking for portrayals of his experience of being black in [whatever part of] America in fantasy, not just main characters with melanin.

    i see enough of this sort of complaint to grasp that it’s real, but I don’t understand it. I never looked for someone like me as characters in stories. I wanted to see anything else.

    ps. scrolling through the comments over there I snickered at this opening to one: “u know, if you’re worried about being published by traditional publishers because your stories have American black protagonists involve themes of racism and bigotry, you might try getting yourself a different platform. They’re going bankrupt anyway and they’re too concerned about profit to be anything but conservative. “

  2. If to be marginalized is to not be given permission to be fully human, then these Black characters (Vetch & Dean Thomas) have never escaped the margins; </i?

    So go ahead and be human. Click the Amazon KDP upload button. You don't need anyone's permission. Zillions of humans have done it.

  3. In most of the fantasy books PG has read, the characters don’t have anything equivalent to race.

    Fantasy characters who are not all alike are much more likely to be of different species or subspecies without having any characteristics analogous to the human idea of race. Elves, dwarves, fairies, unicorns, dragons, etc., etc., etc.

    Gender is more likely to be carried over from real life into fantasy than race or ethnicity within a given fantasy species. Male or female elves happen all the time. PG seems to remember far more green elves than black, brown or white elves.

    PG has observed the same pattern in most sci-fi he has read as well. In Star Trek, was Worf a person of color? PG always regarded him (gender again) as a Klingon.

    • Star Trek plays with species’ appearance both as plot points or out of disregard for canon.
      The Klingons have had the biggest visible changes but Romulans and Vulcans have had lesser changes. (Spock was half human but he was supposed to have a very light greenish cast as a result of his green blood but after the original series that went by the wayside. And then there was Tuvok, a black Vulcan.)
      The original series Klingons were swarthy humans but not particularly different and the more recent series, Discovery, made them so dark as to be almost literally black. Except when surgically altered to pass for human.


      They also have blue Andorians (with antenas), deep green Orions, lizards and bugs. With that much diversity among their sentients, melanin deficiency or abundance isn’t particularly significant.

      They have even more exotics in the animated show; six limbed Edosians like Arex, and the tigerish Kzinti. It is only in the more recent years that hollywood bean counters have forced the show to focus mostly on humans with make up and brow prosthetics for their alien races. Too bad. It would be fun if the movies at least, featured a few true aliens, say Edosians, in speaking parts.

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