'Magical Disadvantaged'

So, I finished reading Dune recently, and I want to emphasize that this is not a review of Dune. I love Dune, it's a fascinating, complex book, full of strange considerations of the nature of human history, the relationship between state and faith, and the mixture of banality and magic that goes into making someone a hero-messiah. So there.

But, reading it now, as I'm older, some of the issues in it arise (this happened when I reread Lord of the Rings now that I'm older, too), and one of these issues is something that I've heard talk of elsewhere, when someone referred in a movie review (maybe it was was Roger Ebert?) to the 'Magic Negro'. The Magic Negro or the Wise Old Negro is the stereotypical old black man that appears in many movies, films, etc, and whose main purpose is to say wise and itnelligent things, despite being poor, undeducated, usually a janitor or something. Well Dune doesn't have any African Americans in it (there's no America anymore, either, mind you, though some of the characters I suppose may very well be black). But there are magical women, and magical (future approximates of) arabs, and magical arab women, and etc, etc, etc. Dune has a taste for the isn't-it-awesomeness of the exotic, and when the exotic are rather close parallels to actual human groups, this can get tiresome and feel a bit stereotypical. Like the 'Magical Negro' thing.

But, if I were only venting about this, I wouldn't write a post - I still love this book, remember, and I do think he lays out an interesting case (though one I don't agree with) for the magicalness of these groups. But more than this, beause it bothered me, I wanted to think about why these characters get written.

The reason this interests me, in fact, is because there is a part of me that feels bad for hating the magical minority writers - because, in some part of me, I know the feeling. It's a natural reaction, and in some ways even a positive one. When you have a disadvantaged group, members of the privileged group are taught largely to take the inferiority and disadvanatage of these groups for granted. So, when one does the work of stepping out of one's shell to examine the relationship with the disadvantaged group more honesttly, there is a natural tendency to become fascinated. I've done this, for instance, with the Romany - growing up, the tacit message is that Romany aren't, like, REAL people, they're just gypsies, characters in films that do spooky things and make for good villains. So, at one point, a part of me said 'you know, this seems to convenient, that there would be a group that acts like this' (of course this oversimplifies the process of facing one's inbron biases, but I hope you won't think my parents just taught me to be a raging bigot), and so the easiest way to love a group is to study it. So I did some reading, and of course, the Roma are FASCINATING as a people, historically, culturally, all of that.

At this point, one is tempted to lionize and make up stories about the group - not because one is trying to put them in a 'wise old negro' box, but simply because one has just learned how fascinating a group is - one has learned as it were the wisdom that one MIGHT have from living the life of a poor african american, or a Roma, or a woman, or whatever the disadvantaged group. And so one assumes this sort of sageness on everyone.

A good example of this would be Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn. It's HORRIBLY racist, with it's crude word-drawings of a 'noble savage' African prince, with a fancy sounding exotic name, and with all the amazing and inhumanly extrmee characteristics of his nobility. But. It's also one of the least racist books of it's time, or at any rate, the most anti-racist. To an extent, in the attempt to learn about a new culture, mistakes were made. A perfect knowledge (in Behn's case, even a functional knowledge) of a group that is traditionally separate from you involves forming a narrative of that people, and forming a single narrative of an entire people by definition gives a fairly skewed idea of what individuals in that race might look like. This is why, for instance, people discussing the Old TEstament can say things like 'You know, the Jews in Sinai under Moses could just be so stupid and selfish'. Consciously, of course, one knows that these Jews were individuals, and that there was variety in these individuals. But it's the story of a race, and so the individual humans just become drops in a sea - and looking at individuals as drops in a sea makes one predisposed to forget their humanity in one way or the other.

So, yes, it's very frustrating to look at these magic negro, or magic woman, or magic arab, or magic gypsy narratives - but it is a sign that people VERY IMPERFECTLY are TRYING to grapple with the idea that there is something beautiful in the group their culture is ignoring or opressing, something is there worth preserving. PErhaps, sometimes the effort towards telling this blinds the teller. It's difficult to tell stories about a group to which one does not belong. But does that mean we should fault people for trying?


Emily said...

Yes, I think the idea that something can be very racist and actively anti-racist at the same time is quite useful. So many examples - Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Oscar Hammserstein, etc. I think it would be good if we could stop processing the label of "racist" as meaning "this is worthless and offensive and we shouldn't be reading it" but instead as just one, albeit problematic, aspect of a work that we could continue to value and discuss.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Emily - Thank you! I think your comment put it better than my long spiel :D. It's funny, right now I'm listening to 'Clotel', usually considered the first novel by an African American man: and it's very, very racist. But, nonetheless, extremely anti-racist, as one might expect. And at the same time interesting, because he POINTS out how the system of slavery taught slaves to be racist, viewing darker slaves as inferior to lighter ones. It makes one realize we're all probably tremendously racist as well, and looking back in 50 years what we write will look cringeworthy in turn.

Trapunto said...

I salute you for rereading Dune, and liking it! I haven't done so pretty much out of cowardice. I wasn't afraid of finding anything so specific as the magical disadvantaged characters, just had a vague sense that it was one of those oh-so-very teenagery books, only I missed the fact at the time because I *was* a teenager, and now there would be uncomfortable surprises. I want it to be okay to have liked it back then, however transparently it was whatever-it-was. As an adult, I feel a little defensive on its behalf, but not confident enough to mount a defense of it to myself while I read it. You have a good way of looking at these things.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Trapunto - It still a very well constructed, complexly thought book. If it wasn't science fiction, I think it would be considered a classic at large. If oyu can still stomach Tolkien, I would be surprised if you couldn't stomach Dune (though it IS a remarkably different experience from reading it as a child). I didn't know you ever read it! St. Alia is one of thos literary moments that has haunted me since the first time I read it and crawled into all the corners of my imagination - most of the narratives I write have some little traces of Alia in them.

Trapunto said...

A good choice for something to be haunted by. I just looked at the entry for St Alia on something called Dunepedia (*cringe* it's exactly the kind of teenageriness I was thinking of) to refresh my memory, and discovered she met a bad end. Did you read the other Dune world books? I tried to read the second, that's all.

I am sitting on a true first edition of Dune by the way. It's in poor shape, I found it at a library book sale, but still. I think of it the way some people think of gold jewelry. I'll grab it and stuff it in my luggage for ready money if I ever have to flee the country.