(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.
One of the immediate counterarguments was that it’s unfair to judge Lovecraft by the standards of the present day. As Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi put it:
“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
10 Responses to “Men of Their Times”
While it’s true that people are people and thus more than the one thing they are generally remembered for, you also can’t use these other things in the opposite way: as some kind of an excuse to forget or discount their achievements.
So, yes, L. Frank Baum did write a couple of short editorials in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer in 1890 and 1891. And yes, they did advocate genocide of the Sioux Indians. When you say it that bluntly and even quote it, but without mentioning that this was about a week after Federal agents killed general Sitting Bull, that Aberdeen is in South Dakota, just a short distance from these events, and that prejudice towards the Sioux in that area was extremely bad at the time, and that the “Ghost Dance” movement was spreading causing these sorts of confrontations, then that’s what is meant by “putting it into context”.
Obviously, advocating genocide is bad. There’s no need for me to even write those words, it is so obvious. But this is an editorial, in a local paper, to local people who probably think much the same way, by a possibly fearful man in a fearful populace in a time of actual fear. Think of the terrorist threats of today. The massacre of hundreds of Sioux at Wounded Knee happened right between these two editorials Baum wrote. That was the time. That was the context.
Also his paper was failing, and he just had his fourth child, and would shortly thereafter have to cut his losses in South Dakota and move to Chicago. So, not in the best financial situation, probably quite depressed about his failure. This isn’t an excuse, it is context.
It’s also worth mentioning that this was 7 years before he would finally find success with a Mother Goose book, and a full 10 years before he would publish The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. How much did you change over the last decade of your life? Are you the same person now you were then? People do change over the course of their lives, and when considering the whole of them, then yes, people are flawed creatures, but that is to be expected. Celebrating the success and great works they achieved does not excuse their failings, but those failings do not diminish those works either and that should be considered as well.
It is never a good idea to treat people as one-dimensional caricatures, in either direction. Enjoying those good works and good things they produced in their time does not necessarily endorse or condone the bad ones either.
Jim C. Hines
I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make here. Yes, there’s always context, and like I said from the start, context does matter. You end your comment with a warning against treating people as one-dimensional caricatures, which basically repeats what I was saying in that section about Baum.
You say, “This isn’t an excuse, it is context.” But your presentation of Baum’s context comes across as rather defensive. Does having a fourth child make one more likely to support genocide? Does depression? (As someone who’s been diagnosed with depression, I can tell you it has many effects, but never made me want to wipe out an entire race of people.) This feels less like relevant context and more like an emotional attempt to create sympathy for Baum.
I’m also confused as to why you ask how much people change over a decade of their lives. It feels like that’s asked as a challenge, when actually it’s once again just repeating another point I made in the essay.
What is it you want people to take from your comment?
My point is that while I agree with your ultimate conclusion, you actually make the same mistake of presenting a “fact” without the associated context in the same way, just from the other direction.
On the face of it, saying somebody once advocated for genocide, while factual, still presents that person only in a single light. If we’re to accept the notion that people are complex beings with many facets to them, then we should also present the surrounding context of those facts rather than skipping or glossing over them. It is unfair to paint a person by only the bad things they did just as it is unfair to ignore those bad things in favor of the good ones. Both are only half-truths.
I wonder if the more important question is, “At what point does acknowledgement of the flaws of an historical great figure in the field justify removal of that figure from iconic uses in the field, and who gets to be part of the conversation?” I would assume that the goal would be to find a place where the accomplishments in the field are appropriately acknowledged but the flaws are neither swept under the rug nor shoved in the face of those at the receiving end.
It seems easier if there is another figure ready to step in – a modern Lovecraft, perhaps, in this case – because I sometimes think we honor figures of the past as much for the historical nature as for how they might actually compare to someone who advanced the field more recently. The conversation ends up coming down to relative merit in that case, with the accusations of “political correctness” able to be ignored as noise.
It is harder if the person whose name or figure is associated with the top work in the field actually is THE acknowledged master of the field. Is there a way to make the contributions the focus while acknowledging the flaws, or does the existence of the flaws irreparably damage the contributions because no one can think of anything but the flaws?
I would say that Bill’s careful narrowing of the question could help the SF/F community work its way through the issue of the World Fantasy Award. I would not be comfortable saying that it’s generally more important than the broader focus.
At what point does acknowledgement of the flaws of an historical great figure in the field justify removal of that figure from iconic uses in the field, and who gets to be part of the conversation?
From my own experience teaching in a college English department, I’ve wrestled with a similar question about how to introduce young people to the literary canon. Does Ezra Pound, notorious anti-Semite and fascist, have a place in a survey course on poetry? Does Milton’s Paradise Lost have a place in a course on myth and scripture in literature, in light of the text’s staggering misogyny? For myself, I had to conclude that the answer in both cases was yes. To omit Pound and Milton from my syllabus would have been to answer their hate with a lie, to distort deliberately my students’ emerging understanding of literary history, and to make the generations of texts written in dialogue with Pound and Milton harder for my students to understand.
It drives me crazy when apologists for bigots past talk as if the only alternative to enshrining hateful texts is to censor them. There’s no risk, at this point, that Lovecraft will be lost to posterity anytime in the next several centuries. His influence permeates SF/F, and popular culture generally. His stories are all still there. No long-form version of our genres’ history can be accurate without mention of him. And I haven’t heard anyone argue in earnest against that. It’s the veneration, the declaration that he represents all of us, that is the problem with the award as it was.
Surely somewhere in the history of fantasy literature we can find an writer we could all agree is worthy to represent us who has not declared any large subset of humanity to be subhuman. It can’t be that hard.
Jim C. Hines
“…as if the only alternative to enshrining hateful texts is to censor them.”
Yep. It’s another of those false binaries. Acknowledging someone’s flaws doesn’t mean erasing their existence.
As for the award, my personal preference would be to find a symbol rather than another person. But that’s a whole other conversation 🙂
Let’s start with Baum. Does his essay really matter to those who enjoy The Wizard of Oz? No. Neither does Lovecraft’s unpublished poetry (or published poetry) do anything to improve or demean my estimation of his other works. You wish to join the author forever to his works and burn him at the stake over and over again. If art cannot stand apart from the artist then all you have done is set up a new form of Inquisition, and your response to Otto above demonstrates you are inflexible and as bigoted as any caricature of the past you could summon up. I think readers are interested in art, and in the artist secondarily. Only your fellow bubble-dwelling SJW fellows are interested in these show trials.
You talk about avoiding exclusion, but those words are simply the palliatives of the oncoming literary safe space. Today a bust, tomorrow a book. It’s all part of the same continuum, and your desires are quite apparent. You Stalins and your iconoclast henchmen take issue with the dead as though their works will harm you. There’s a word for that: insecure. Those who don’t defend freedom to offend have already begun the downward spiral towards the putsch. Look to the college campuses – it has already begun.
There is a bubble waiting for you. Enter it and leave the adults to make their own decisions without the need of your SJW guidance.
Jim C. Hines
Okay, let’s start with Baum. You ask whether his essay matters to those who enjoy The Wizard of Oz. Since you provide a definitive no, I take it you’ve done the survey research to back that up, and aren’t just making crap up?
It seems clear that you wish to engage in sexual relations with cacti. Sure, you didn’t say anything to that effect, but like you, I possess the gift of ignoring what someone actually wrote in order to proclaim my own conclusions about their true motives and desires, no matter how absurd or simpleminded.
You are talking about art, but those words are simply the dog-whistles to your fellow SCWs (Secret Cactus Wankers). Today a disjointed comment that utterly ignores the arguments put forth in the essay, tomorrow a steaming affair with a hot prickly pear.
You pricker-pickers and your fellow SCWs take issue with those who don’t share your proclivities, as though our opinions offend and harm you. Those who don’t defend your freedom to sidle up to a saguaro have already begun the downward spiral that anyone can see leads DIRECTLY TO DEFLOWERING HITLER’S FAVORITE FIG CACTUS!
Look to the cactus porn section of Amazon – it has already begun.
There is a greenhouse waiting for you. Come out of the cactus closet and leave the rest of us to have grown-up discussions without your displaced SCW fear.
@Tenebrous — Whoa there, hoss. Let’s take just a moment here and slip down a notch or two.
I don’t know what essay you’re responding to — it certainly doesn’t sound like you’re responding to what Mr. Hines has written. I think we’re all adults here (we seem to be, anyway) and we can have a discussion without acting like a bunch of kindergarteners at naptime, no? (A metaphor that jumps to my mind because I happen to have a cranky kindergardener for a daughter at the moment.)
Nobody’s talking about stakes and burning. Nobody’s talking about Inquisitions (not even Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, that slightly watered-down modern version). I don’t even begin to understand why you’re bringing Mrs. Dzhugashvili’s hideously awful son into all this.
If I’m reading the essay right, and I think I am, nobody’s even talking about *exclusion* at all. I mean, I’m a fan of Lovecraft. I’m a particularly big fan of Lovecraft, actually — discovering his work when I was a teenager transformed my life. It was great. But I mean, as much as I admire him as an artist, he was both a profoundly strange human being (well, so are we all, but he got an extra helping) and — and, look, this is undeniable, as Hines says above — a profound, unapologetic, and vicious racist. You don’t even have to look into his personal life, although if you do, it’s there — it’s right there in the work. Not everywhere, thankfully, but it’s still there.
Now, what are we to do about that? I don’t think anyone’s seriously suggesting we mustn’t read Lovecraft any more because he was a racist dick who was terrified of anyone who didn’t match his idea of a real person (which seems to have been, roughly, “the palest possible humans who live within about twenty minutes walk from where I was born”). He made great art. That’s undeniable. But we can’t just laud him because he made great art — we also have to consider the full context, as here. He was a racist, and he was probably eighteen minor kinds of crazy (I exaggerate for effect here, but it’s basically true) and is perhaps therefore not the kind of person such a distinguished award should be associated with) but he still did great things. He still made great art. I can’t understand why these are irreconcilable ideas — fans and artists alike are perfectly well aware that artists aren’t saints. So the guy held some reprehensible views. So do we all, in one way or another. That’s life.
I have to admit, I’m still clinging to rejecting this stupid “You’re an SJW!!” argument. I’m not some kind of special snowflake, and I’m not going to have a snotty label hung on me because I think we shouldn’t unreservedly praise assholes, even *great* assholes. Their views, who they are — that’s part of who every artist is, in my opinion, and…. rrgh, I don’t know, man, I just think this whole set of arguments is such a waste of time. Shouldn’t we be having arguments about the relative merits of shared-universe SF or the impact of writers like Terry Pratchett on modern fantasy or why Charles Stross can come out with so many books that don’t work for, say, me (as a soft SF fan) but then comes out with two books (Saturn’s Children/Neptune’s Brood) that are some of the best SF I’ve ever read?
I mean… yeah. Surely we have better things to talk about, don’t we?
Late to the party (as usual) but hats off to the lovely responses–Sarah A and Falstaff, I’m looking at you! Boo Hiss to the Trolls (who knew they could read?) Take a bow, J. Hines for excellent use of alliterative plosives, although your ambivalent mockery of succulent abuse might warrant future generations decrying you as complicit in downplaying the seriousness of the crimes committed by what you lightheartedly termed ‘Secret Cactus Wankers.’ You almost sound jubilant in announcing the proliferation of prickly pear pornography. What will your defense be when the cacti overlords come for you? I hope you are truly repentant.