Interview for Geek Dad/Geek Mom on Racism and Diversity in Speculative Fiction

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St. Maurice

On April 11, 2017, I was interviewed by the blog Geek Dad/Geek Mom. We talked about racism and diversity in speculative fiction, about the state of the art in historical research, and how to locate trustworthy sources when you do your own historical research when writing speculative fiction.

And of course, I recommended some books. And referenced Stargate SG-1.

You can check out the interview here.

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

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People of Color in the Middle Ages: A Primer to Promote Diversity in Fantasy

On February 6, 2017, I published the following post on Book Riot.

People of Color in the Middle Ages: A Primer to Promote Diversity in Fantasy

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St. Maurice

A recurring topic of debate within the SFF community is the issue of historical accuracy in medieval fantasy fiction. Claims are repeatedly made that there were no people of color in medieval Europe. Therefore, the argument goes, medieval fantasy fiction with all white, Christian characters is historically accurate. Any inclusion of people of color or other religions is a distortion of history in the name of political correctness.

In actual fact, medieval Europe was a complex society where several different cultures, religions, and linguistic groups coexisted under the umbrella of the omnipresent Catholic Church.

As Jonathan Hsy shows in his book…

If you’d like to read the post in its entirety, please click here.

Fresh Off the Boat Put in Context. Asian American Representation on American Network Television, 1965–2015

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[This post was edited on March 1, 2015.]

As the first TV show with an Asian American main cast in over two decades, much is at stake for ABC’s sitcom Fresh Off the Boat. So much so that before the pilot had even aired, the show was described as “historic.” The reason for this description is the fact that because of the lack of Asian American characters, regardless of being in leading or supporting roles, the success of Fresh Off the Boat will potentially determine Asian American network representation for years to come.

As an historian I take an interest in the description of Fresh Off the Boat as “historic.” Whenever something is described as “historic,” my initial reaction is to object to the use of that word. Looking to the past to make predictions about the future goes against everything that historical research is about. The only way we can say anything about the significance of an event is by relating the event in question to other similar events that have already taken place. In other words, the way to determine the significance of Fresh Off the Boat from an historical perspective is to contextualize it within a discussion on how minorities in general, and Asian Americans in particular, have been represented on scripted network television shows over the years.

In the following discussion, I will focus on scripted TV shows with a diverse main cast broadcast by the three major networks of American television, i.e. NBC, CBS, and ABC. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, these three networks are the oldest of all the TV networks available to the American public today. Therefore, they provide a time span long enough for performing an historical analysis. Secondly, these three networks reach the most viewers on a daily basis. With the exception of AMC’s The Walking Dead, the most watched shows on American television are broadcast on these three networks.

Some of the TV shows mentioned below are problematic in how they portray the minorities they set out to represent. My discussing these TV shows does not mean I endorse these portrayals in any way.

NBC
NBC was founded in 1926 as a radio network. In 1939, NBC expanded into television. On February 18, 2015 I completed a survey of the shows stated as current on nbc.com. Of these shows, one had a diverse main cast—Saturday Night Live. In the past, NBC has been the home of several iconic diversely cast TV shows, e.g. I Spy (1965–1968), Star Trek (1966–1969), Sanford and Son (1972–1977), Diff’rent Strokes (1978–1986), The Cosby Show (1984–1992), A Different World (1987–1993), The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990–1996), and Community (2009–2014). Several of these shows had an African American main cast. As far as I have been able to determine within the scope of this investigation, NBC has never broadcast a TV show with an Asian American main cast.

71ZBGKzqLXL._SL1058_CBS
In 1927, CBS began as a radio network and branched off into television in 1941. In the survey I did on February 18, 2015, of the current shows listed on cbs.com, I identified twelve shows with a diverse main cast. However, of these twelve shows only three had a person of color as the lead actor. Two of them were African American (Halle Berry in Extant and LL Cool J in NCIS: Los Angeles) and one of them was Asian American (Lucy Liu in Elementary). For the past few decades, CBS has been the home of several TV shows with a diverse main cast, e.g. Hawaii 5-0 (1968–1980), Good Times (1974–1979), The Jeffersons (1975–85), and Martial Law (1998–2000). Good Times and The Jeffersons had an all African American main cast and Martial Law had an Asian American leading actor. Meanwhile, Hawaii 5-0, both in its original and its rebooted (2010– ) form, stars a diverse main cast that include Asian Americans.

ABC
Youngest of the three major networks, ABC launched as a radio network in 1943 and went into television in 1948. In the February 18, 2015 survey of abc.com, I identified thirteen shows listed as current and with a diverse cast. Of these thirteen, nine had one or more persons of color as lead actors (Blackish, Cristela, Fresh Off the Boat, Galavant, How to Get Away with Murder, Agents of SHIELD, Modern Family, Scandal, and Selfie). Moreover, three of these nine shows had a main cast consisting only of persons of color (Blackish, Cristela, Fresh Off the Boat). Over the years, ABC has had several TV shows with a diverse cast. Unlike NBC and CBS, these shows have predominantly been cast with Asian American actors, e.g. The Green Hornet (1966–1967), Barney Miller (1974–1982), Mr T. & Tina (1976), Gung Ho (1986–1987), All-American Girl (1994–1995), and Lost (2004–2010).

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Three conclusions can be drawn from the survey done on NBC, CBS, and ABC. First of all, NBC seems to have relinquished its role entirely as a network where diversely cast TV shows can find a home. Instead, ABC seems to be carrying the torch at present. Second, the diversely cast shows on NBC and CBS were predominantly African American. In the case of NBC, the number of African American shows does not seem to be because of a network policy, but rather because of the network’s collaboration with Norman Lear and Bill Cosby, respectively. After NBC and CBS stopped producing shows with all African American casts, the number of persons of color in supporting roles seems to have increased. The number of leading roles for persons of color has not. At present, the diversely cast shows on ABC represent several minorities, both as leading actors and as supporting actors. On the other hand, in the past, ABC seems not to have produced any African American TV shows of lasting significance. Third, the absolute majority of all known TV shows starring Asian Americans as leading actors have been produced by ABC.

Where does this leave Fresh Off the Boat? If you put Fresh Off the Boat into a network television context in general, the show is indeed something of a rarity. Asian Americans as a group are poorly represented on television. However, put Fresh Off the Boat into the context of ABC over the past fifty years and it becomes the network’s latest attempt in representing the Asian American community.

Several of these previous attempts by ABC to represent Asian Americans have been failures. The characters were played according to stereotypes and as a consequence the ratings suffered which resulted in early cancellations. However, with 6.1 million viewers and a 1.9 rating in its third week, Fresh Off the Boat could very well be the show that will survive.

Bearing in mind that the last TV show with an Asian American cast aired in the mid-1990s, Fresh Off the Boat being broadcast on one of the biggest networks in the United States is of great significance. However, only time will tell if the show will turn out to be historic.

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

 

 

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– )

Happy First Anniversary, The Boomerang!

On June 5, 2013, I published the first post on my new and first-ever blog, The Boomerang. The post was a short but sweet thought-piece about Rihanna’s album Rated R, the songs of which have spawned several science fiction stories revolving around a recurring group of characters. Hopefully, you will soon be able to read these stories in some kind of publication near you.

The Boomerang got its name from a catch phrase used by a Swedish comedy team in the 1990s. Each episode ended with the host sitting in an armchair, holding a boomerang. He said, “In the words of my friend, the Australian, I will be back.” I have taken that catch phrase, changed it slightly to not sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, and made it my sign off phrase after each blog post I publish.

I chose the name and the catch phrase because I love these comedians and because my blog was intended to be a place to where I could return to express my thoughts.

So, how has The Boomerang been doing during its first year?
Here are some stats that might be of interest.

Number of views June 2013: 131.
Number of views May 2014: 708.

The Boomerang experienced a spike in views when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, separating the region from Ukraine, and information on the history of the region was scarce. I was happy to see that The Boomerang could fill a part of that void.

Over the course of this first year, these are the three most popular posts on The Boomerang.
Most popular post: HG Wells The Time Machine and the Issue of Race.
Second most popular post: Iron Maiden and the Crimean War.
Third most popular post: Five Reasons You Should Go to Mississippi.

I started The Boomerang as a place where I could find my voice as an historian and as a writer. I am grateful to all of you who have decided to give me and my posts a piece of your time and your thoughts.

I am looking forward to a second year with The Boomerang.
I hope you will join me.

In the word’s of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

HG Wells The Time Machine and the Issue of Race

We can all agree on the classics, right? The classics are great pieces of literature that show us the true nature of the human condition. The classics are classics because their content stand the test of time. Right? Well, actually it’s not that easy.

Many of the classic literary works of our canon were written during time periods when the ethics, morals and values differed from ours. For example, the sexism of classic literature has been discussed on numerous occasions. But what about race?

Over at Book Riot, Amanda Nelson analyzed the issue of racism in classic literature, using the example of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Nelson points out that Gone with the Wind is a novel which portrays slavery as a non-problematic institution and the KKK as an organization valiantly defending the values of the South, something that is rarely mentioned when discussing the novel.

Nelson’s post falls in line with the thoughts I’ve had since I read the science fiction classic The Time Machine by HG Wells (1866–1946). The Time Machine (1895) is a story about a man simply called The Time Traveler, who has built a time machine. He arrives back from an adventure where he has visited the far future just in time to sit down and tell his friends about it over dinner at his house.

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HG Wells (1890)
Source: Fredrick Hollyer/Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science

The Time Traveler tells his friends that he visited a future where a peaceful, docile people, called the Eloi, lived above ground, and a brutish, carniverous people, called the Morlocks, lived under ground. The Eloi lived in fear of the Morlocks who after dark would arrive on the surface to capture Eloi individuals, bring them down and devour them.

In his foreword to the Signet Classic edition of The Time Machine, Greg Bear chooses to interpret the relationship between the Eloi and the Morlocks as an expression of the Victorian class struggle:

For Victorian England, the picture of humanity divided into the diminutive, weak, and sun-dwelling Eloi and those technological dwellers in underground darkness, the Morlocks, must have seemed particularly grotesque— mirroring as it did the tottering class system: quite literally, Upstairs and Downstairs. (p. viii)

In one way, I agree with Bear that the relationship between the Eloi and the Morlocks can be interpreted as a class struggle. The idea of the time was that if the working classes are not kept in check they will rise to devour the middle and upper classes. Wells himself touches upon this theme when he lets The Time Traveler say out loud to himself that the future world he sees looks like Communism (p. 32).

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Upstairs Downstairs (BBC, 1971–1975)

However, the way Wells describes the two groups makes it evident that the relationship between them is just as much about race, as it is about class. When The Time Traveler for the first time meets an Eloi, he describes the individual as follows.

He was a slight creature—perhaps four feet high […]. He struck me as being a very beautiful and graceful creature, but indescribably frail. His flushed face reminded me of the more beautiful kind of consumptive—that hectic beauty of which we used to hear so much. (p. 25)

Meanwhile, the Morlocks are described as dull-white monsters with greyish-red eyes that either runs on all fours or with their forearms very low. The Time Traveler describes them as something between a monkey and a human spider (p. 53) and later refers to the first Morlock he spotted as a Lemur (p. 54).

Just as well as the relationship between Eloi and Morlocks can be described as a class struggle, the relationship can also be described as the fear of the inferior creature rising to take revenge on the superior creature, an idea that is ingrained in racism as an ideology as well as in slavery as an institution. Whether we’re discussing class warfare or racial warfare, the only thing that prevents it from happening according to this way of thinking is the strength of the resolute white man. What Wells lets The Time Traveler see in the future is what will happen if that strength wavers.

So what do we do with The Time Machine? Do we throw it to the side because it is archaic and racist? No, I don’t think so. The Time Machine was first published in 1895, when Imperialism was at its peak. India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire and the agreement at Fashoda between France and Great Britian where the two nations divided Africa between them was only three years in the future.

In my opinion, The Time Machine by HG Wells can be called a classic for two reasons. First, the book is a groundbreaking work of science fiction that  in the twenty-first century still appeals to readers of the genre. Second, it is a document of the frame of mind of the Victorian Age at its height. It provides us with an opportunity to try and understand the world view of the citizens of the British Empire, a worldview that still to this day shapes the world we live in.

A Brief Explanation of the British Empire

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

Sources:
HG Wells The Time Machine (Signet Classic, 2002)
Encyclopedia Britannica United Kingdom Late Victorian Britain
Book Riot Amanda Nelson Let’s Talk About Racism in the Classics

Note:
This post is featured at Suvudu Universe.