Sleepy Hollow and the Issues of Diversity and Antisemitism

MV5BODk0Nzg3OTAwMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDM0OTIzMDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_At this time last year I was elated. I had a new favorite TV show—Sleepy Hollow on FOX. Based on Washington Irving’s stories The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, Sleepy Hollow is a TV show with a humorous, yet respectful, take on the American Revolution in the 21st century. What made Sleepy Hollow stand out from other shows was the updated premises of these three narratives by introducing a diverse cast, unparalleled on TV.

Sleepy Hollow‘s season one was fun, exhilarating, and groundbreaking. In contrast, season two has lost its direction, white-washed its core cast of characters, and given air-time to antisemitic prejudice.

The Issue of Diversity
The two main characters of Sleepy Hollow are African-American police officer Abigail Mills (Nichole Behari) and Caucasian Oxford history professor Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison). Ichabod and Abigail have been chosen as Witnesses who need to work together to stop the End of Days. With a team of allies, Ichabod and Abigail take on the demon of the week to prevent evil from taking over the world.

In season one, the people surrounding Ichabod and Abigail were
Jenny Mills (Lyndie Greenwood). Abigail’s sister who, unbeknownst to Abigail, for years had been working on preventing the End of Days by becoming an artifacts expert.
Frank Irving (Orlando Jones). Police captain of the town of Sleepy Hollow and Abigail’s superior.
Luke Morales (Nicholas Gonzalez). Abigail’s colleague and ex-boyfriend.
Andy Brooks (John Cho). Abigail’s colleague who has joined the dark side and is working towards the End of Days.
Katrina Crane (Katia Winter). Ichabod’s wife who is imprisoned alive in purgatory.
Henry Parrish (John Bishop). A Sin Eater who helps Ichabod and Abigail solve mysteries. In a plot twist typical of season one, Henry turns out to be Ichabod and Katrina’s son.
Cynthia Irving (Jill Marie Jones). Frank’s ex-wife.
Macey Irving (Amandla Stenberg). Frank’s daughter, confined to a wheelchair after being hit by a drunk driver.
The Headless Horseman (several credits). The first horseman of the Apocalypse, the Horseman of Death.
Of these characters four are African-American, one is Asian-American, one is Latino, and two are Caucasian.

Jenny Mills (Lindy Greenwood)

Jenny Mills (Lindy Greenwood)

From a point of view of diversity, my two favorite episodes of season one are Necromancer and The Vessel. In Necromancer, Ichabod and Abigail work together with Jenny and Frank to capture the Apocalyptic Horseman of Death and convince Andy to be the Horseman’s interpreter. In The Vessel, Macey is possessed by a demon. Jenny and Abigail perform an exorcism that frees Macey of the demon, while Ichabod, Frank, and Cynthia stand watching.

In season two, the people surrounding Ichabod and Abigail are
Katrina Crane, who has been liberated from purgatory.
Henry Parrish, who has become the second Horseman of the Apocalypse, the Horseman of War.
Frank Irving, who is incarcerated at a mental institution for a murder he didn’t commit.
Jenny Mills, who has joined Ichabod and Abigail’s team after reconciling with Abigail in season one.
Leena Reyes (Sakina Jaffrey). Sleepy Hollow’s new police captain.
The Headless Horseman/Abraham van Brunt (Neil Jackson). The first Horseman of the Apocalypse, The Horseman of Death. Also, Ichabod’s best friend and Katrina’s former fiance.
Nick Hawley (Matt Barr). An expert in occult artifacts.
Of these characters, four are Caucasian, two are African-American, one is Latino, and none is Asian-American.

Frank Irving (Orlando Jones)

Frank Irving (Orlando Jones)

Throughout season two, each episode centers on Ichabod, Abigail, Hawley, Katrina, Henry, and Abraham. Jenny, Frank, and Sheriff Reyes are pushed to the side. More energy is spent on the love triangle between Katrina, Ichabod, and Abraham than on the actual fight against evil. Hawley becomes the go-to person for artifact expertise instead of Jenny. Frank manages to escape from the institution where he is held only to be shot and killed in the mid-season finale.

In other words, Sleepy Hollow has turned itself into a white-washed soap opera where persons of color are disposable spectators.

 

The Issue of Antisemitism
Frank’s death is not the only issue that needs to be discussed regarding the mid-season finale of Sleepy Hollow‘s second season. Because not only is the only black man on the cast killed, the words and deeds of Henry Parrish are steeped in classic antisemitism.

The mid-season finale was divided into two parts. In the first part, the demon Moloch enters our world from purgatory. In the second part, Moloch attempts to take over the world.

Moloch enters our world when Henry, in accordance to the Book of Revelations, sounds a trumpet. In Sleepy Hollow, the trumpet that Henry sounds is in fact a shofar. A shofar is a ram’s horn used during the synagogue service on Rosh HaShana.

A Temani (Yemenite Jewish) style shofar makde from a horn of the greater kudu. Photo: Olve Utne

A Temani (Yemenite Jewish) style shofar made from a horn of the greater kudu. Photo: Olve Utne

In Judaism, the blowing of the shofar symbolizes many things. For example, it symbolizes the human heart calling to God and God hearing that call. The shofar also symbolizes calling for the future and the arrival of the Messiah. The fact that the shofar is made from a ram’s horn alludes to the Biblical story of the Binding of Isaac, admittedly one of the most controversial and difficult to understand passages of the Bible. Instead of sacrificing Isaac, God gave Abraham a ram to sacrifice. In other words, the shofar symbolizes the close connection between the Jewish nation and God.

When Henry blows the shofar to summon Moloch, the symbolism of the shofar is perverted. Instead of the human heart calling to God and God hearing that call, Henry’s evil heart calls to Moloch and Moloch hears him. Instead of calling for the future and the Messiah, Henry calls for the end of the world and a demon.

In the second part of the mid-season finale, Henry speaks of the Binding of Isaac. He twists the story and speaks of the Hebrew God as being a cruel God unworthy of the faith of human kind.

The actions and words of Henry Parrish call upon centuries-old antisemitic prejudice and hate-speech towards Jews. Using the shofar to summon Moloch is an example of the antisemitic myth that Jews practice black magic. Sleepy Hollow is not the only example of this happening in entertainment. For example, Ingmar Bergman used this myth in the movie Fanny and Alexander, where a Jewish father and son practiced voodoo-styled black magic on a doll to rid Fanny and Alexander of an abusive stepfather. But seeing it in Sleepy Hollow, a show that has made its name from being culturally and ethnically diverse, is shocking.

Henry’s twisting of the Binding of Isaac and denouncement of the Hebrew God stems from the antisemitic interpretation of the Christian idea of the Second Covenant. The First Covenant happened at Sinai, when God gave the Jewish nation the Ten Commandments and the Torah. This covenant was annulled with the arrival of Christ, whose death for the sins of mankind marked the beginning of the Second Covenant. The core idea of the Second Covenant is that the God of the Jews is cruel and damning, while the God of the Christians is loving and caring. It is the idea of the Second Covenant taken to its extreme that lies at the roots of the pogroms in Europe throughout the centuries, including the Holocaust.

Henry’s blowing of the shofar to summon Moloch and his twisted interpretation of the Binding of Isaac, combined with the white-washing of the cast and the shooting of Frank Irving, has made Sleepy Hollow one of the most racist shows on American television.

Season two of Sleepy Hollow picks up again in January 2015. What do I think about that? Well, to continue on the theme of racism in entertainment, let me quote Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources
James Carroll Constantine’s Sword. The Church and the Jews. A History (Mariner Books, 2002)
The Meaning of the Shofar Part 1
The Meaning of the Shofar Part 2
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Sleepy Hollow (2013– )

Advertisements

What the Dickens! Poetic License in Historical Fiction

How accurate does an author need to be when writing historical fiction? This is a question I have wrestled with for quite sometime, on Twitter and here on The Boomerang. This third installation in my ongoing discussion on history and historical fiction came about after reading Peter Damien’s book review of Lynn Cullen’s Mrs. Poe on Book Riot.

VirginiaPoe
Water color painting of Virginia Poe (1822–1847)
Source: Midnightdreary, Wikimedia Commons

The novel Mrs. Poe is a story about Edgar Allan Poe’s wife, Virginia, and the relationship between her husband and one of his admirers, a poet named Frances Osgood. Damien’s review of the book is a positive one. However, he does a double-take when Cullen lets Poe discuss Charles Dickens.

According to Cullen’s portrayal of Poe, he is not impressed by the writings of Dickens, even sneering at his portrayal of England’s less fortunate classes. Damien, who is obsessed by Dickens, notes here that Poe, too, was obsessed by this author. In other words, Cullen has given Poe opinions that contradict Edgar Allan Poe. As a consequence of this, Damien understandably begins to question the accuracy of the entire novel.

3a52078r  Charles_Dickens_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_13103
Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)                  Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
Source: Library of Congress                    Source: Tagishsimon, Wikimedia Commons

Here lies the crux of historical fiction. The genre is called historical fiction. In other words, what you read is made up. However, the genre is called historical fiction. This means that what you read also has a basis in events that once took place.

As I stated in the blog post Living Vicariously Through Ichabod Crane, historical fiction is necessary to make historical research accessible to the general public. Historical research needs to be made sexy and historical fiction is a nifty way to do it. To make the story work some poetic license is needed or there would be little difference between fiction and research and the value of entertainment would be accordingly.

The problem with historical fiction is how an author can use poetic license and still call it historical fiction?

My answer to this question is that as long as the author does not change important facts or the essence of a character, poetic license can be applied quite freely.

The problem with Cullen giving Poe a negative view of Dickens is that in so doing she makes the fictional character of Edgar Allan Poe contradict the essence of the historical character of Edgar Allan Poe. This is where historical fiction leaves history behind and just becomes fiction.

According to Damien, the scene where Poe discusses Dickens is a minor one. But, as the saying goes, The Devil is in the details.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Previous posts on the topic of the relationship between history and historical fiction are
Living Vicariously Through Ichabod Crane
Five Reasons Why You Should Get a PhD and not an MFA

Living Vicariously Through Ichabod Crane

That Sleepy Hollow‘s Ichabod Crane is a fish out of water with a close relationship to history is a well-known fact. For an historian with an interest in supernatural entertainment this makes Sleepy Hollow one of the most exciting shows on TV right now. Not only does Crane present a different view on the twenty-first century, but by being more than 200 years old he has the authority — and the audacity – to do something every historian at one point or another wishes to do. He calls out the inaccuracies of the historical tour guide.

sleepy-hollow-09
Abbey Mills (Nicole Beharie) and Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison)
Source: tvguide.com

In the episode “The Midnight Ride” (Season 1 Episode 7), Abby brings Ichabod to the Sleepy Hollow Historical Museum. When they arrive, a guide takes a group of children on a tour around the museum, telling the story of Paul Revere’s infamous ride to warn the populace of approaching enemy troops.

Listening to what the tour guide is saying, Ichabod is so upset by the amount of inaccuracies that he runs after the group and in a loud voice interrupts the tour. And corrects the guide.

Believe it or not, but so far – headless horsemen, Sin Eaters, undead police officers and walking bundles of roots to the side – this is probably my favorite moment of the show. As an historian, there have been so many occasions where I wish I had the audacity of Ichabod Crane.

Being a historical tour guide is something that can be done as a volunteer, as an extracurricular activity or for some extra money. The information the guide is supposed to convey to visitors is handed to him/her by someone at the museum and most likely hasn’t changed since it was first written.

Which is why the information the tour guide gives the group includes inaccuracies.

At the same time, tour guides do a great job. They bring history to life. They bring out the excitement in historical developments. But to do so they need to simplify and embellish. As a professional historian, I write historical research articles that would put most people to sleep. For the general public to be interested in the content of those research articles, it needs to become sexy. That’s where popular history, historical fiction and tour guides come in. However, when simplifying, embellishing and making something sexy there is always a risk of going too far.

Which is why the information the tour guide gives the group includes inaccuracies.

In my opinion, Ichabod Crane is a bit of a stickler. Yes, the tour guide was wrong in calling Paul Revere a dentist and claiming that he, as the only messenger, shouted his message all around the countryside and that the message contained the word “British” as if the British already in the 1770s was different from “Americans”. However, in regards to the general outcome of the Revolutionary War, these details matter very little. But they do make a great story to tell a group of schoolchildren.

Going all Ichabod Crane on a tour guide is justifiable (although perhaps the conversation should be done in private after the tour is over) when the guide changes information that is of importance to the understanding of the overall historical process.

Calling medieval castles built in the same region over a period of 500 years a Maginot line of military defense, is reason for a conversation.

Saying that a Queen was ousted for robbing the treasury when in fact she abdicated and converted to the religion of the enemy, is also reason for a conversation.

Saying that a king was a great warrior when in fact he lost the entire empire, is yet another reason to bring out the Ichabod Crane inside of you.

Even before the pilot aired in September, I anticipated that Sleepy Hollow would be a great show. And I was correct. For each episode the show reaches new heights.

But still, my favorite moment will always be at the Sleepy Hollow Historical Museum.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sleepy Hollow, Starbucks and the American Revolution

In the preview for the upcoming TV-show Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane, newly awakened from a slumber lasting more than two hundred years, reacts to the number of Starbucks there are. It is clear that what surprises him isn’t Starbucks as such, but the large amount of coffee shops on each block. The historian in me immediately asked, how plausible would it be for Ichabod Crane to be familiar with the concept of Starbucks? Then I realized the stupidity of my own question. Of course Ichabod Crane would be familiar with it. It’s a coffeehouse!

The TV-series Sleepy Hollow is loosely based on the story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, written by Washington Irving (1783–1859). Irving is best known today for two of his short-stories of which Sleepy Hollow is one, the other one being Rip Van Winkle. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle were first published in the same story collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819–1820), and are based on themes found in German folktales.

468px-Portrait_of_Washington_Irving_by_John_Wesley_Jarvis_in_1809
Portrait of Washington Irving (1809) by John Wesley Jarvis (1780–1840)

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow tells the story of the not-so likeable schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane, who moves to the small town of Sleepy Hollow. Being poor, Crane’s purpose in life is his own self-advancement. Therefore, he begins courting Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and heiress of a local, wealthy farmer. Crane’s rival is Abraham Van Brunt. Knowing that Crane has come to believe in the local lore of ghost stories, Van Brunt decides to play tricks on Crane. One late night, on his way home from Katrina Van Tassel’s, Crane is pursued by a seemingly headless horseman. This incident is so distressing for the schoolteacher that Ichabod Crane is never seen in Sleepy Hollow again.

The_Headless_Horseman_Pursuing_Ichabod_Crane
The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (1858) by John Quidor (1801–1881)

Washington Irving published The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1819-1820, but the story is considered to take place in the 1790s. Although not much of the original story seems to have been brought into the upcoming TV-series, the fact remains that the Ichabod Crane, who reacted to the amount of Starbucks on each block, is a man who lived during the eighteenth century. Him being able to relate to the concept of Starbucks is therefore not a surprise.

The reason for this is that in eighteenth-century North America, the coffeehouse was an integral part of the social life of free, white males. It was at the coffeehouse that such men gathered to gossip, to socialize, to debate, to do business and to receive the latest news.

The North American coffeehouse is part of a way of socializing, introduced into Europe with the introduction of coffee, which came from the Middle East and North Africa by way of Venice. Not long after coffee had been introduced in an area, coffeehouses began appearing and came to play an important part in politics and business. For example, the world’s largest insurance company, Lloyd’s, began as a coffeehouse in London.

800px-RoastedCoffeeBeans
Roasted coffee beans
Source: GOELE

The North American coffeehouses were important during the struggle for Independence from the British Empire (1776–1784). Because of their function as arenas for politics, debate, business and socializing, it was at the coffeehouses that decrees from the British government were read to the public. And it was at the coffeehouses that the public voiced their concerns regarding these decrees. Moreover, once the Declaration of Independence had been signed, it was first read to the public at the Merchant Coffee House in Philadelphia.

Today, the continuation of the tradition of the North American coffeehouse as a public arena for business and socializing can be witnessed in places such as Starbucks. When you walk in to order your hot beverage of choice, you will see people engaged with their laptops, college textbooks or attending a business meeting. If the North American coffeehouses of the twenty-first century will become arenas for the initiation of a revolution is doubtful. However, drinking coffee is in itself a revolutionary act. The Patriots of the eighteenth-century chose coffee over tea to demonstrate their opposition to the British Empire.

I will watch Sleepy Hollow when it begins airing on September 16. The preview looked interesting enough to give it a shot. Also, John Cho is part of the cast, which of course is a bonus.

If you are interested in the role of coffeehouses as meeting places for revolutionaries, go to the blog post Lenin Never Lived in Vienna.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Benjamin L Carp Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution (Oxford, 2007)
Britannica.com Washington Irving
Britannica.com The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Britannica.com Ichabod Crane
Britannica.com Coffee
International Coffee Organization The Story of Coffee
Sleepy Hollow

Note:
The images in this blog post have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.
This blog post is featured at Suvudu Universe.