“An emancipatory Black fantastic requires interrupting the dark fantastic cycle in order to create new paradigms. It requires mentoring diverse talent, actively acquiring new stories, and then moving toward culturally sustaining visions of editorship, marketing, reviewing, librarianship, book retailing, and literacy education. It requires publishing, Hollywood, education, libraries, and merchandising to acknowledge the ways that they have been complicit in reproducing the known world for every generation in the stories that we tell our children, teens, and young adults.
But, ultimately, emancipating the dark fantastic requires decolonizing our fantasies and our dreams.”
I think this quote perfectly summarizes what the problem is—and how to solve it. Or, at least, how to start trying to solve it.
So, it’s February and we’ve already had two major controversies about books and representation in the literary world. As much as I agree these are important conversations to have, I think we’re way past talking. It’s time for action. It’s time we actually listen to the voices the publishing industry pretends to respect but ultimately tries to silence over and over again. That’s why, as my first read in the Black History Month, I decided to pick up this brilliant book by the brilliant Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas.
This book is a lot. I feel like I went through it too fast, but I just couldn’t put it down. I’m certain this will be one I’ll be re-reading more than once.
At the very start of the book, Dr. Thomas talks about the crisis of imagination, the imagination gap, and the emancipation of the imagination. I didn’t really understand it, at first. It was (sadly) too foreign of a concept for me. It was only after the two first analyses that I started to get it—the problem with race in literature (and media) is not only one of representation, but one of imagination. We are unable to even imagine a Black hero, sometimes even when said hero is explicitly Black.
Thomas introduces us to what she calls the Dark Fantastic Cycle—spectacle, hesitation, violence, haunting, and emancipation (which is rarely achieved). Through her case studies, she demonstrates how Black girls are submitted to a series of narrative trials to prove they deserve their position within the story, to prove they belong, and, even so, oftentimes fail. There are no happy endings for the Black girls analyzed here—not when they’re central to the story, not when they’re on the background, not ever.
I found it fascinating, albeit infuriating, to see how different works, in different times, repeated the formula and trapped their characters in that cycle. I couldn’t help but start to think about every piece of fiction I consumed that did that with their Black characters and I didn’t notice. And how it certainly influenced the way I think about and interact with them. It was eye-opening, not only as a reader, but also as a writer—maybe especially so.
There’s a section where she uses a quotation from Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark that spoke directly to me. In it, she addresses the issue of ignoring race altogether as a form of leveling the field:
“To notice is to recognize an already discredited difference. […] To enforce its invisibility through silence is to allow the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body.”
I felt personally called out because this is something I have done. As I was writing Once in a Lifetime, I made a conscious effort to leave out any physical descriptions in an attempt to make my readers assume Becky is not white. Of course, I failed. Not only because my own whiteness certainly bleeds all over the text, but also because I failed to see that invisible is still white. I failed by ignoring cultural, linguistic, historical differences. I failed to acknowledge the imagination gap and my part in it. I failed to recognize what Ebony so brilliantly explains in this book—the problem runs much deeper than simply the skin color, and it starts way before any word is written on the page. So, if I want to write a black girl—and not trap her into the dark fantastic cycle—I must do better.
But that leads me to another question, one that I constantly ask myself as a writer and one Ebony evokes in her text: who gets to tell diverse stories? I’ve said to people before that I believe writing diverse characters is nothing more than a reflection of society in the real world. Yet, I’m increasingly convinced that this is not enough—and I think the previously mentioned controversies serve as proof to that. It’s not enough that we—white authors—acknowledge the existence of non-white (and any minority) people and include them in our stories. We need them to tell their own stories. We need to read their stories, we need to listen and learn and unlearn. We need to, in the most basic sense of the word.
The problem of representation is also one that starts before any text is produced. It starts with who has the right and means to write them. Talking about the problem is not enough anymore, we have to do more, we have to hold ourselves accountable. We have to champion change by listening, educating ourselves, and finding ways to actively be part of the solution.