Thursday, August 16, 2007

Where Are the Black Elves?

David Anthony Durham (author of Acacia) has a very lively debate going on in his blog about whether readers who claim to be color blind (in terms of what they read and whether or not they will read books from authors of color) really are as color blind as they think. The response didn't surprise me. People have been ruminating over the books that they have purchased and reflecting on whether or not they have been color blind. Many have been willing to admit that most of what they have read has been for whites, by whites. I would have to admit the same. This is not a conscious decision. I gravitate toward the science fiction aisles, where I make my selections.

I don't check the skin color of the author, but when I crack open the book I invariably find a novel about white characters. To be sure, most of these settings are like northern Europe, in a medieval world, where you would indeed expect there to be mostly white people. I have never read about a black elf (except the drow, which I don't think really count). Rarely do I come across novels set in an Egypt-like setting for example, or perhaps Central American. (Tad William's Otherland is a notable exception.) I suspect that this is because, for the most part, people write what they know. Indeed, that is advice that most would-be authors hear.

As soon as I heard that David was black, I wanted to purchase his book. Why? I wanted to read a fantasy from a black point of view. I couldn't recall ever reading a fantasy by an author that I knew to be black. Therefore, David's race prompted me to purchase his book instead of, say, David Bilsborough's The Wanderer's Tale. I'd read plenty of fantasies by British dudes. A black guy? This was the first.

* * *

Now I'd like to take this post a bit further. According to the trackbacks from David's post, this subject is being discussed in a lot of different places. And some of you may be wondering why such things still need to be discussed.

It's a good question, I think. But I also think that many people still feel a need to discuss racial issues, which is reason enough in itself. This is why David has had over 40 responses to his post so far. However, I think most white people feel held back most of the time. I hate to generalize, and this may not be true in your particular case, but for the most part, I think this is true. For evidence, I point to this page on Walter E. William's website. It seems to me, in reading his "amnesty and pardon", that he has encountered this a lot over his long life.

Why do we feel held back? Because many of us are waiting, with the utmost respect, for our black friends to open the way.

Let me compare this with a conversation that myself and my co-workers once had with a Mormon. He knew that we were curious about his religion, but we refrained from speaking out of respect. Then one day he said, "Go ahead. Ask me anything." And we did.

David has said (not literally), "Go ahead. Talk about it." And so we are. The floodgates have opened, to use a tired metaphor. And because we are talking indicates that there is still a need to talk about it. This need will probably take another generation or two to become sated.


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Never read Harlan Ellison, then, huh? Not just black, but gay, too. And absolutely freaking brilliant.

I only know the skin color and sexual preference because of a class I took in grad school. Other than that, I'll read pretty much anything if it sounds good. Author's skin color shouldn't matter. What matters is a well-written, interesting book.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I often have no idea about any of these details when I buy a book. But once I start reading, I can guess.

Anonymous said...

I think that traditionally sf has been quite white. Of the classics basically only Earthsea has black protagonist. Other than that of the prominent sf authors Nalo Hopkinson and late Octavia E. Butler are black. Haven't read Hopkinson, but Butlers books are well worth reading.

Kinda sad that racial debates are only slowly finding ground in sf, considering that for example feminism has been prominent subject in quite a few books.

Tia Nevitt said...

Welcome! Butler is on my reading list. I have not heard of Hopkinson.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I often have no idea about any of these details when I buy a book. But once I start reading, I can guess.