HOME | CATALOG | DOWNLOADS | LINKS | EDITORIALS | DISCUSSION | CONTACT

Magical Negroes

Topics | Last Day | Last Week | Tree View | Search | User List | Help/Instructions | Log Out | Edit Profile | Register
Night Shade Message Boards » VanderMeer, Jeff » Magical Negroes « Previous Next »

Author Message
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

JV
Posted on Thursday, October 28, 2004 - 12:20 pm:   

I found this to be a very interesting essay:

http://www.strangehorizons.com/2004/20041025/kinga.shtml

I really *hate* all of those action movies where there's one token black guy and he winds up dying third from the last (although I know that's not what the writer is on about in this particular case, it's related). Ernie Hudson used to always be the guy who had that role.

Any thoughts about this essay?

JeffV
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

AliceB
Posted on Thursday, October 28, 2004 - 02:01 pm:   

The Magical Negro sounds a lot like an Uncle Tom character, fastforwarded a century or so. Uncle Toms were the "good slaves", the wise if uneducated slaves who were loyal and helpul to the white master. It's a racial stereotype used constantly with Native Americans--to devastating and belittling effect.

Very interesting article.

Alice
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

JV
Posted on Thursday, October 28, 2004 - 02:13 pm:   

I've also always wondered about short stories where some white guy goes exploring in some exotic locale. There's almost always a kind of implied racism in them, or a condescending tone. Or maybe just a laziness--the laziness of depicting as "unknowable" or "noble" someone who you'd otherwise have to spend some flopsweat on making a real person.

JeffV
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

AliceB
Posted on Thursday, October 28, 2004 - 05:54 pm:   

"I've also always wondered about short stories where some white guy goes exploring in some exotic locale."

I've always thought of these as the descendants of romanticized Victorian explorers who went off to exotic lands and, after many harrowing adventures, came back to the gentility of a scientific society to show off the "curiosities" they found. It's turning people/civilizations into curious objects--which, I agree, is very condescending.

Alice
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

ben peek
Posted on Thursday, October 28, 2004 - 05:58 pm:   

it was interesting, but a shame she spent so much time looking at king's novels, rather than the race of king himself, and the position that white characters can take in his novels.

i spent a portion of my time with race theory for my thesis, so i've been aware of what she's said for a while. it is a problem, naturally, and i wish the magic negro (or magic asian or any other non-white race) would disappear. but in the western countries, where white culture is dominant, this is probably not going to happen any time soon.

one of the reasons for this (and why i think it would have been served focusing on king's race and cultural background) is that in a white race dominated culture, white people are not taught to examine their own racial roll. indeed, for much of the time, the position of a 'white race' is one of absence, of suggesting, to paraphrase richard dwyer, that there is no cultural weight or importance to being white. that it doesn't exist at all. thus, for the white writer (and i'm just suggesting this as a theory) the concept of race in any of his/her characters only come into importance when they are *not* white. in a way, you can witness this is the writing styles, where white characters very rarely have it described that they are 'white'. it's very rarely approached and doesn't become a point in a story. you can have an entire story, for example, go by without reference to one characters race, and for the most part, the reader will understand that they are white, as this is the dominant racial culture in the community, and thus what will be represented.

anyhow, think i'm getting a bit off track. sorry if it didn't make sense.
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

Matthew
Posted on Thursday, October 28, 2004 - 07:33 pm:   

You know the thing about the "magical fill-in-the-blank-minority" stereotype is that it demeans both European culture and the minority's culture. Demeans the minority because, of course, it tries to force them into a box. It also assumes that a person European is in some area inferior to the minority.
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

Neal Stanifer
Posted on Thursday, October 28, 2004 - 10:26 pm:   

Taking a tip from Alice... Problem is, Uncle Tom (and other racial Others of the 19th C.) were attempts by white middle-class women to sympathize. However badly individual writers handled the chore, they at least tried, which is more than can be said of much film today. And the excuses are fewer... far fewer. Jeff is right to say that actors like Ernie Hudson end up being the tokens who are killed off to make way for the triumphant survival of the white couple (okay, I'm going farther than Jeff did, but hey...). And when the films permit the black guy to survive, it's a big point: "LOOK! A BLACK GUY survived! Cool, huh?" It shouldn't be an issue, a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

Minsoo Kang
Posted on Friday, October 29, 2004 - 12:04 am:   

As some of you and essay itself points out, this whole thing can be applied to any racial minority. I can't count the number of 'magical gooks' that keep appearing in American culture. Much like blacks, Asians too tend to be portrayed as either semi-supernatural, self-sacrificing sages (the Master from the tv show 'Kung Fu') or psychotic, power-hungry rapists (Fu Manchu). Asian women tend to get fetishized as obedient, libidinous sex objects, while Asian men are either infantilized as supernerds or just really evil assholes, unless they can do martial arts with some mystical mumbo jumbo, in which case they become magical, gravity-defying, ass-kicking gooks.

I was watching that new tv show 'Lost', when the Korean guy turns out to be another secretive (i.e. inscrutable), wife-abusing son of a bitch, and I said to myself - "For God's sake, why the hell does this culture hate Asian men so much!"

By the way, the guy playing the Korean man in the show is obviously a Korean-American since he speaks Korean with a thick American accent, while the Korean woman is also a Korean-American who actually got her acting career started in Korea, so now that it's revealed that her character in 'Lost' can speak English, she has to do so with a fake Korean accent since English is her native tongue. All quite comic really if you understand Korean.
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

StephenB
Posted on Friday, October 29, 2004 - 04:41 am:   

I agree with a lot of what you guys are saying and I think you've made some good points.

I just want to add to why the whole asian mystic thing.

Most people from the west are comming from a Judeo-Christian hard-wiring. Eastern religions and philosophies seem mystical, exotic, and alien to many in the west. This makes eastern mystisism both attractive and scary to those people. So in western-literature with magical elements, the east is often the source of the magical elements, both as positive and negative (black) magic. As western literature got sick of using christian and pagan elements of supernatural good and evil, they naturally looked outword for new sources. India with it's combination of Buhdism, Hinduism, Jainism ect. has been the source for much supernatural fiction in the west.

At the same time it is natural to fear the other, so that is why asians may seem like they are being portrayed in a negative stereotype at times. I agree that we should move past this fear the other, us vs. them attitude, and it can start with the stories and myths that we tell in our present.
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

JV
Posted on Friday, October 29, 2004 - 06:38 am:   

Ben:

This makes a lot of sense.

"indeed, for much of the time, the position of a 'white race' is one of absence, of suggesting, to paraphrase richard dwyer, that there is no cultural weight or importance to being white. that it doesn't exist at all. thus, for the white writer"

I'm interested in this whole issue not only in terms of cultural perceptions, but on the level of writing fiction, because we're really talking--on that quite selfish, limited level--about the application and eradication of cliche, with cliche or the familiar being the enemy of good fiction.

JeffV
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

StephenB
Posted on Friday, October 29, 2004 - 07:05 am:   

Jeff:

But aren't some of the most powerfull elements of fiction deeply familiar to us all on an unconcious level, regardless of the culture?
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

JV
Posted on Friday, October 29, 2004 - 07:34 am:   

I knew "familiar" was going to get me into trouble. :-)

Let's flense "familiar" from my sentence above.

Re the most powerful elements of fiction being deeply familiar to us all on a subconscious level--I'm not so sure that's true.

Doesn't that make a lot of assumptions about a common culture and common experience? It seems to me, that, for example, the US gets into the most trouble as a country when it assumes the rest of the world thinks as it does, has the same common experience. I think the same would apply to fiction and the comprehension of it by different cultures.

Isn't it possible that an event, or action, or revelation or epiphany that resonates deeply for a white, Anglo-saxon middle class citizen in the US would not do so for a moderate Moslem in Saudi Arabia?

Or is that just an indication said hypothetical fiction has failed to be truly universal?


JeffV
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

AliceB
Posted on Friday, October 29, 2004 - 07:57 am:   

Jeff, I see two sides to what you're saying.

On the one hand, is there such a thing as universal fiction? Yes. Gilgamesh was written thousands of years ago and the story still resonates around the world. Folk tales from numerous cultures are read worldwide.

On the other hand, there is a lot of good fiction written for specific audiences that will not have such a universal appeal. I can't assume that my cultural norms will resonate with others' cultural norms.

The annoyance generated by the Magical Negro is, in part, that unless the character is white, s/he is not the one the reader is supposed to sink all their hopes in. The Magical Negro is "other"--not part of the reader's cultural norm. Yet a lot of great fiction has this "other" character who is essential to the tale--folk tales frequently use animals for that purpose. I guess the trick is to not fall into another form of stereotyping while telling a compelling story.

Alice
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

AliceB
Posted on Friday, October 29, 2004 - 08:03 am:   

P.S. This reminds me of a magazine ad I saw recently for a bank which shows three baby teeth. Under them are printed: Mexico, Taken by the Tooth Mouse; USA, Collected by the Tooth Fairy; Japan, Thrown onto a roof.
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

JV
Posted on Friday, October 29, 2004 - 08:31 am:   

Alice:

You've just given me an idea for a story. Thanks!

JeffV
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

AliceB
Posted on Friday, October 29, 2004 - 09:14 am:   

You're welcome.

Alice
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

al duncan
Posted on Friday, October 29, 2004 - 09:26 am:   

Brief thoughts:

AliceB: Interesting that you should mention Gilgamesh. It just occurred to me that Enkidu, in that story, fits some of the "Magical Negro" characterisations, except that what makes him more "primitive", perhaps, is a hairy body rather than dark skin. He does become a similar "tamed noble savage", and, naturally enough, he doesn't make it to the end of the book.

More Magic Negroes: James Earl Jones in Field Of Dreams. The Oracle in The Matrix

A supposition: There are some extra characteristics that seem underplayed in the article to me and I wonder if they have a bearing. These characters seem to all carry a distinct sense of gravitas and dignity; they're older, wiser, more world-weary even. It makes me wonder if there's an element of the Jungian mana archetype at work here, the old, wise man. If there a sort of elder = ancient = primitive = ancestor = black symbolism at work here, maybe these are another mask for the hermit archetypes, the grandfathers and aged uncles who've long since abandoned all the adolescent heroics of having their own story. I'd guess in a psychodrama sense, you could see the role of the mana archetype as logically subservient to the experiencing ego - the hero. Which doesn't excuse the inherent racism of that symbolism, of course.

But, yes. Interesting article indeed.
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

Neal Stanifer
Posted on Friday, October 29, 2004 - 10:44 am:   

Jeff: "It seems to me, that, for example, the US gets into the most trouble as a country when it assumes the rest of the world thinks as it does, has the same common experience. I think the same would apply to fiction and the comprehension of it by different cultures."

I agree, but there's another side to this as well, as the article indicates. When we fetishize "otherness," we do just as much to rob a single human being of complexity as when we whitewash our differences. Negotiating between the two poles, between some kind of irreducible human nature and the differences born of cultural experiences, in an ethical and honest way is one of the hardest thing a writer (or any thinker) can do. One approach, that of universal humanity, can lead us to commit the error you mention above, of assuming everyone in the world desires what we desire; it's an error which, at bottom, takes ideology (or whatever you want to call cultural commonplaces) as "given." The other approach can lead by-and-by to a paternalistic guarding of difference, to a museumization of the Other and its reduction to cultural conventions (cuisine, dress, language, etc.). In both cases, the individual human being gets lost, and that's bad for literature, to say nothing of world politics.
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

JV
Posted on Friday, October 29, 2004 - 10:57 am:   

Neal:

I wasn't suggesting fetishizing otherness. I was suggesting *understanding* where the other guy is coming from. That's different.

JeffV
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

Neal Stanifer
Posted on Friday, October 29, 2004 - 11:03 am:   

I wasn't accusing you, Jeff. Sorry if it sounded that way. I was agreeing with you, but trying to take a stab at outlining the dangerous edges of sympathy. Reading 19th-c. Am Lit has got me thinking a lot about sympathetic characters in literature and the recurring dangers we face when we try to create them. I think it can be done (has been done), but it's a tightrope act. Too far to one side, and you have the "people are just people" bromide that plays into your own anxieties about US views of other cultures. Too far in the other direction, and you have people defined solely by their quaint (and already inferior) differences from the writer's own cultural experience.
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

JV
Posted on Friday, October 29, 2004 - 11:33 am:   

I just wanted to clarify what I meant.

And just to pick nits, "sympathy" is different than "understanding." (But I'm not arguing with you!)

The subject interests me because I'm reading Anonymous' Imperial Hubris right now and he does a good job, I think, of *understanding* radical Moslems without sympathizing with them undually.

We like to think that consumerism and *things*, even cell phones, for example, bind different countries and cultures together--the idea of Mickey Mouse and Coke being cultural ambassadors--but I don't think it's true. Beyond the basic needs and desires people have, there can be profound cultural differences.

And then, just as an aside, there are such lovely stories as Margaret Mead getting "played" by the people she was there to study.

JeffV

JeffV
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

ben peek
Posted on Friday, October 29, 2004 - 09:11 pm:   

"I'm interested in this whole issue not only in terms of cultural perceptions, but on the level of writing fiction, because we're really talking--on that quite selfish, limited level--about the application and eradication of cliche, with cliche or the familiar being the enemy of good fiction."

i don't know if i'd call the lack of cultural weight for white people in western fiction a cliche. that lack of weight allows for a vast range of depictions, and it's hard to find a central character that is linked to being white, int he same way that the magic negro and others is linked to an 'other' racial characterisation and thus cliche. (i see what you mean, though, so i've no problem following the logic.)

bringing it into fiction, however, is difficult. a lot of people react negatively to acknowledging that being white comes with a cultural weight. the first thing i usually hear when it comes up, is the response that i'm suggesting that they should somehow be sorry for being white. that's not the point, and indeed, not the response wanted. the point is to get an acknowledgement of it. to see that being white, in a western country has a weight to it, that it things happen in response to it, and that it causes things. to have that work its way through fiction... and then have it so that it settles into a work without being preachy is, i think, difficult for the writer of any colour. there's a lot of politics within it.

(that said, i do it with my own work. for better or worse, i guess.)

still, just because it is difficult doesn't mean that it's not important, at least to me. and there's a lot of ways it can be approached, ways that work against the familiarness that you indicate earlier. least that's what i've always figured.

the simplest of these, i figure, is just being consciously aware of the skin colour of the characters the author creates. to make sure it's noted if white, just as it is with black, or any other. to actively work against the few narrative positions that racial minorities can occupy in a story--by this i mean work against the magic negro, karate asian, and so forth.

EDIT: when i read over this before posting, it felt a bit like i was coming across as a self declared expert or some such thing, and i just want to add how much i'm not. i'm just some guy with an interest who reads on it and has written a bit. (and taken it into his own writing.)
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

JV
Posted on Saturday, October 30, 2004 - 04:40 am:   

Ben:

Just a clarification re this below. I didn't mean that I thought the lack of cultural weight for white people was a cliche. I was referring back to the original points on this thread re non-whites.

JeffV

"I'm interested in this whole issue not only in terms of cultural perceptions, but on the level of writing fiction, because we're really talking--on that quite selfish, limited level--about the application and eradication of cliche, with cliche or the familiar being the enemy of good fiction."

i don't know if i'd call the lack of cultural weight for white people in western fiction a cliche.
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

StephenB
Posted on Saturday, October 30, 2004 - 07:41 am:   

Re the most powerful elements of fiction being deeply familiar to us all on a subconscious level--I'm not so sure that's true.

Jeff:

Noticed that I said some of the most powerful elements, not the most powerful elements. There are many elements in fiction that are "powerful" obviously. But I think it is undeniable that SOME of those powerful elements go deep into our psyches, and have a huge emotional impact. This transcends culture and society and goes straight to what is to be human, and our primal nature. If we look at myths and stories from any culture we can see basic themes, concepts, and emotional underpinnings that resonate with all of humanity.
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

AliceB
Posted on Saturday, October 30, 2004 - 08:00 am:   

Someone pointed out to me that much of literature has the "Black Best Friend", who, although not magical and usually not bumped off, plays the role of wisdom for the white main character--a kind of bringing the main character down to earth or to his senses. This sidekick may have a quirk or two but is essentially played as ballast for the white main character's high flung adventures or heroics. This Black Best Friend, although more human, is no more developed than the Magical Negro--which, I think, is the core of the problem. The most developed character is white.

Note to Al: It's been a while since I read Gilgamesh, but I don't remember Enkidu as being a guiding wisdom for Gilgamesh. He is first his archrival, then Gilgamesh's best friend--the first person to make Gilgamesh think about others beside himself. Then his death is the catalyst for Gilgamesh's quest. The role of doling out wisdom I recall coming from other sources--the ferryman's wife, the immortal man. But perhaps my memory betrays me.

Best,
Alice
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

StephenB
Posted on Saturday, October 30, 2004 - 08:27 am:   

Some of Jeff's comments made me think of something:

What if we do encounter a sentient Alien species that is so completely different than us that its very definition of life could be alien to ours? What if they had some sort of literature, and we somehow translated it? Would we enjoy this fiction? Would it have any meaning to us? Maybe?
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

StephenB
Posted on Saturday, October 30, 2004 - 08:29 am:   

Also, a bit of basic irony: avoiding cliches in fiction has become a cliche.
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

JeffV
Posted on Saturday, October 30, 2004 - 08:51 am:   

Never, Stephen! :-)

Re the alien species. I think It is already amongst us. I believe William Vollman to be an alien being, for example.

JeffV
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

StephenB
Posted on Saturday, October 30, 2004 - 09:14 am:   

:-) I wish I knew who William Vollman is.....
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

JV
Posted on Saturday, October 30, 2004 - 10:55 am:   

I wish I knew if I spelled his last name correctly. :-)

JeffV
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

Nick Mamatas
Posted on Saturday, October 30, 2004 - 11:26 am:   

Vollmann
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

Neal Stanifer
Posted on Saturday, October 30, 2004 - 12:17 pm:   

Okay, let's not start chanting the names of alien species. That's how people get torn apart by the Hounds of Tindalos.
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

ben peek
Posted on Saturday, October 30, 2004 - 02:21 pm:   

jeff: cool. all cleared up.
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of page Link to this message

JV
Posted on Tuesday, November 02, 2004 - 07:08 am:   

Some very interesting thoughts on the magical negro subject:

http://brutalwomen.blogspot.com/2004/11/on-magical-negros-helpful-slave-girls.ht ml

Add Your Message Here
Post:
Username: Posting Information:
This is a private posting area. Only registered users and moderators may post messages here.
Password:
Options: Enable HTML code in message
Automatically activate URLs in message
Action:

Topics | Last Day | Last Week | Tree View | Search | User List | Help/Instructions | Log Out | Edit Profile | Register

| Moderators | Administrators |