My WisCon 39 Schedule

When I decided to be programming co-chair I swore to myself that I would not overload on panels this year. “Overload” seems to mean 8 panels. I’m on 5. Huzzah?

Misandry, Reverse Racism, and Other Imaginary Creatures (aka Drinking the tears of my enemies Part 2) Fri, 4:00–5:15 pm Assembly
K. Tempest Bradford, Tanya D., Mystery Guest, Isabel Schechter, Na’amen Gobert Tilahun, Michi Trota

Cultural Literacy or Cultural Appropriation? Sat, 2:30–3:45 pm Capitol B
K. Tempest Bradford, @SoosheBot, Sally Wiener Grotta, Andrea D. Hairston, Mikki Kendall

In our diverse culture all thinking and reading individuals are influenced by a wide range of heritages, histories, and mythologies. Let’s talk about how to articulate the boundaries and borders of what’s appropriative and what’s okay in fiction, dance, craft, and other art. In the end, who gets paid? And who gets propped up as an “expert”? In what ways can artists and creators engage with cultures without being harmful and destructive?

If you’re coming to this panel we’re collecting questions ahead of time here and will accept questions via Twitter while the panel is happening via the hashtag #LiteracyorAppropriation

THREE-PART TRILOGY BASED ON THE SINGLE BOOK OF THE NOT ANOTHER F*CKING RACE PANEL Sat, 4:00–5:15 pm Wisconsin
Sparkymonster, K. Tempest Bradford, Chesya Burke, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Mikki Kendall, Na’amen Gobert Tilahun

The seventh installment of this popular and amazing panel! Writers of color working in F/SF face unique challenges, it’s true. But, at the end of the day, being a “person of color” is only one aspect of what makes up our identities as writers. While it’s very flattering to be asked to be on panels, most of these panels never crack the ceiling of Race 101. With that in mind, wouldn’t it be nice for multiple writers and fans of color to sit on a panel that isn’t about race at all? Here’s our chance to do just that. So, what are we gonna talk about, instead? Practically anything! Presented in game show format, THREE-PART TRILOGY BASED ON THE SINGLE BOOK OF THE NOT ANOTHER F*CKING RACE PANEL brings together writers and fans of color to get their geek on about any number of pop culture topics—none of them race related.

Chips On Our Shoulders: The Wearable Tech Trend Sat, 10:30–11:45 pm Senate B
K. Tempest Bradford, BC Holmes, Stephanie Krislov, Neil Rest

One of fastest growing trends in gadgetry is wearable tech: not only expensive and well-known products like Google Glass but a huge variety of devices designed to be strapped on a wrist, clipped on clothing, perched on our head, or even worn on our feet. These gadgets are getting smaller, less noticeable, and literally woven into the fabric of our lives. In this panel we’ll explore the implications wearables have on health, personal interaction, privacy, and social issues through the lens of science fiction literature that addresses these themes and our real world experiences. 

How To Tell POC Apart: The Game! Sun, 1:00–2:15 pm Senate B
K. Tempest Bradford, Tanya D., Jackie Gross, N. K. Jemisin

So many POC writers these days—how can we tell them apart? This game-show format panel will sharpen your skills while earning you fabulous prizes! (Books!) Ted Chiang or John Chu? Nalo, Nnedi, Nora, or Nisi? You decide.

We’re still accepting contestants for this panel. Ping me in the comments if you want to play!

The POC Dinner @ WisCon – It’s A Tradition!

A few days ago Jaymee Goh asked me for some historical info on the POC Safer Space at WisCon, which got me wondering if there were any public posts chronicling the POC Dinner as well. Not exactly. The first formal dinner we did was in 2009, and with that we just met in the lobby and went out to a restaurant. However, that grew out of similar POC lunches and get-togethers that were mainly the result of coordinating the Safer Space.

Very quickly this event became an important part of WisCon for me and other folks of color. Meeting other people from the community in a welcoming and supportive environment is so important. As is meeting people you can go to if the con gets rough in a specific way. And, if you’re new to WisCon, the dinner serves to ease you into the con experience.

We eat, we talk, we joke, we introduce, we create community. It’s one of my favorite parts of WisCon. I want it to be yours as well.

This year’s POC Dinner will take place Friday May 22 at 5:30pm local time (the dinner break) in room 629. Who can come? People who identify as people of color, which is a pretty broad umbrella. We’re not about checking your POC cred at the door. We’re about creating community. Consider yourself welcome[1].

Important Details

If you plan to attend, please, please, PLEASE buy a ticket ahead of time. This allows us to not only know how many people are coming but how much (and what kind of) food to order. I’d love it if everyone bought a ticket today, but you can buy one up until 12pm local on Friday. That’s when we’re putting in the final order for food.

If you cannot afford the dinner price you can still come. Generous folks have already donated extra money to cover the costs for people with limited budgets. Your name will only be known to the dinner coordinators and will be kept confidential. Just nab a free ticket at this link.

The menu for dinner is at the link. If you don’t see any food you’re willing to eat, you can still join us. Just bring your own food. Also, nab a BYOF ticket at this link (it helps us to know how many people are attending even if you’re not eating so we get enough tables and chairs).

If you don’t buy a ticket ahead of time you can still come! Just bring cash to pay for dinner.

And if you know a person of color attending WisCon who might not know about this dinner, please pass this post along.

I’m so looking forward to breaking bread with y’all this year and many years to come.

Footnotes

  1. This is usually the point where obnoxious people will say “I have a color: white! So I should get to come!” If you’re that dedicated to being obnoxious, good on you. See how well that works out at the con.[]

Good Writers, Coasting, and How You Can Avoid Joss Whedon’s Mistakes

Joss Whedon sad

There are a ton of great articles examining Joss Whedon in the wake of Age of Ultron and plenty of crunchy debates to dive into because of them. In this piece, Sady Doyle illuminates something about Whedon that I’ve understood on a subconscious level but not been able to crystalize until now. To wit:

My ultimate take on Joss Whedon’s “feminist” screenwriting is that it’s a byproduct of good writing, period. The writer he most reminds me of is Charlie Kaufman: They’re both deeply personal writers, who clearly have a wide variety of sexual hang-ups, and to the extent that these hang-ups center on women, they probably do affect their perceptions of real-life women in many ways. Plenty of women have noted that Whedon’s fixation on emotionally vulnerable, eighty-pound teenage girls is disturbing and off-putting, and I would tend to agree. Charlie Kaufman’s apparent belief that a sexually awakened, self-realized woman wouldn’t need him, and would therefore abandon him to a hostile universe, is also kind of weird and upsetting, or (at least) a good reason not to ask Charlie Kaufman out on a date. However, because Kaufman and Whedon are good writers, who understand why stories work, when they sit down to write a story, they feel the obligation to make all of the characters identifiably human, including the women. This is, sadly, so rare that their female characters are often more well-rounded and interesting than almost any other characters out there, including a lot of characters written by people with better sexual politics.

When I read that a light shone down from heaven because YES. This is not just a Joss Whedon issue, it’s an issue with a lot of writers who hail from the land of privilege.

I (and others) have said many times that when you write stereotypical or downright offensive minority/marginalized characters, it’s almost always due to bad writing. If you’re a good writer, you don’t reach for the easy stereotypes, you don’t pull from the box of overused ideas, you aren’t a lazy thinker making lazy choices. And that often results in passable minority characters that might even be considered amazing and revolutionary[1]. Especially when compared to a sea of characters that are nothing but two dimensional offenses to all good taste.

Sometimes that’s even enough.

When you’re thirsty in a desert, even cloudy, contaminated water looks great.

However, it will not always be enough. That situation is a place to start from, not a place to kick back in and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Yet that is what many, many writers do. Whedon certainly seems to have done. As Ashly Nagrant points out, we’ve now had 20 years of Whedon doing the same thing over and over, coasting on his talent instead of building on it.

Joss Whedon has failed to evolve as a writer and a director. People who are longtime Buffy fans saw Age of Ultron and complained about how quippy the dialog was. That quality has always been part and parcel of a Joss Whedon project — it has long been one of his trademarks. When the question was how could people who loved Buffy be surprised by this, I could only venture a guess:

We are suddenly, sadly realizing Joss Whedon is a one-trick pony.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy those tricks and there is nothing wrong with that! I am in no way saying that I haven’t enjoyed Joss’s work and won’t continue to in the future. But it does hit a point where it is almost 20 years since the debut of Buffy and you suddenly realize Whedon is just writing the same thing over and over again. No matter how much you like garlic bread, you can’t eat it all the time or you’ll get sick of it.

What’s the solution? Continuously work on becoming a better writer.

Pay attention to evolutions of thought on representation and be aware of the kinds of tropes that most media properties–be they TV, movies, or lit–engage in. Listen when your readers critique your minority/marginalized characters, particularly if they are the same identity as said characters. Accept people’s lived experiences as valid and learn from them.

Read books and articles on this subject. Writing the Other: A Practical Approach is an excellent place to start. Invisible and Invisible 2 are also excellent resources for delving deeper into representation.

Take classes and workshops that address this specific skill. Yes, I teach them, and so do others. Both in person and online. (If you want to find one, I can help with that!)

Read fiction by authors who have a reputation for writing amazing, deep characters. Examine how they do it, absorb it, learn.

Basically all the things you’re supposed to do to become a better writer, anyway. All the things truly great writers do, even after they’re hailed as being great.

Footnotes

  1. This accounts for a lot of Steven Moffat’s success as well. He’s clearly a good writer when he’s on his game. And that good writing can distract you from some underlying problems. And because the writing is good you want to ignore the underlying problems. There comes a point for many of us when that’s impossible. Like Whedon, that point arrived when his popularity meant a large body of work to examine.[]

The Historical Accuracy Fallacy

historical accuracy on twiter

One of the more ridiculous aspects of this week’s discussion around Game of Thrones is how often people try to trump any complaints about (among other things) the abundance of rape or the dearth of POC characters with agency with: But Historical Accuracy! The number of people I’ve seen talk about how things were back then with all seriousness would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad.

Public Service Announcement: Game of Thrones is a fantasy novel, not a historical one. It does not take place in the past, it takes place in a fantasy world that shares some aspects of our actual past with many elements that are made up, including dragons, White Walkers, and people who can come back from the dead.

All of the elements in Game of Thrones are there because George R.R. Martin put them there. He, as the author, made choices and decisions and continues to do so. He uses history as a guide, but guess what: he’s allowed to do whatever he wants because he’s the author.

If a woman is raped in the story, it’s because he wrote it that way, it didn’t just happen because “that’s the way it was.” If all the brown-skinned people are slaves or savages[1], it’s not because anyone forced him to conceptualize them that way.

No speculative fiction author is bonded to historical accuracy, even when writing historical SFF. If you’e allowed to add magic and dragons and elves, you’re allowed to add brown people where folks think they didn’t exist[2] and you’re allowed to leave out the sexual assault.

Anyone who tries to argue otherwise probably has no real clue what’s historically accurate, anyway, and they also don’t understand how speculative fiction works.

The Grace of KingsWant an example of an author who gets this? Come here and let’s talk about Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings.

The novel is set in an alternate world in the island empire of Dara, a fantasy analogue for China. The series depicts a fictional, fantastic version of the fall of the Qin Dynasty and the rise of the Han Dynasty. There are several analogues to real people and real events in this first book. There are also major differences, especially in the technology available. And then there’s the treatment of women.

Minor spoilers ahead.

It’s easy to go with the default assumption that all past cultures were patriarchal in nature and therefore women have to be confined to certain roles and no man ever questions this or does anything about it. Liu doesn’t do that. He does the opposite.

At one point the two main characters are hunkered down in a town with an army waiting to destroy them outside. The army general can’t get them to come out and fight, so he attempts to lure them out with taunts. Flyers descend depicting the men dressed in women’s clothing and accusing them of being cowards with “feminine hearts.” The gendered insults are many and varied, but they all boil down to: these men are like women and therefore weak.

One of the main characters responds by asking “what is so bad about being compared to women? Half the world is women.” He later gives a speech about the courage of women, using events seen in the book up to that point as examples, and concludes:

“By custom, we wield the sword and wear the armor, but who among you does not know a mother, sister, daughter, friend, who exceeds you in courage and fortitude?

So let us no more think of being compared to women as an insult.”

Think this isn’t historically accurate? It might not be. But Ken Liu made a choice to give his character, a pragmatist, a logical reason to reject sexist nonsense.

This kind of thing happens more than once in the book. On top of that, all of the major and minor women characters get complex personalities and backstories. Some fit in to what might be considered traditional roles or types, many do not, all of them are well drawn[3]. I won’t say the book is some feminist utopia. I will say that the choices Liu made feel deliberate and considered. He didn’t let “Historical Accuracy” get in the way of creating characters that weren’t insulting to modern readers.

Every spec fic author has this option, this power. They are the creators of the world inside their books. Every aspect of a fictional world is a choice, even if the choice is “it was like that in the 1300s in England so it’s like that in my world, too.” That’s fine, but let’s not pretend that that isn’t what you chose and not something forced on you by God, History, or The Rules Of Writing.

Acknowledging this means that we have to stop responding to “There’s a lot of unnecessary rape in these books” with “That’s the way it was” and instead with “The author chose to include all that rape. Why? Is it really integral to the plot and character arcs, or is it down to laziness? Misogyny? A fondness for rape?[4]” Pushing aside that convenient excuse leads to a number of uncomfortable questions, doesn’t it?

And Historical Accuracy is an excuse, not a reason. Period.

Footnotes

  1. I’ll point out here that I don’t know if this is true, I’m saying if it’s true.[]
  2. And hey, guess what, they probably did.[]
  3. I have several specific examples but they are all spoilers and best discussed with folks who have read the book.[]
  4. I’m going to nip this in the bud right now: I am not accusing George R.R. Martin of liking rape or of being a rapist.[]

Further Discussions of Rape in Fiction and Media

Sansa wedding

Once again, the showrunners for Game of Thrones added a rape to the TV show that isn’t in the books[1] and, in doing so, managed to piss off a vocal slice of the fanbase. The reactions I saw on Twitter were vehement, with some even offering their condolences to George R.R. Martin for how the show has destroyed his creation[2]. The scene has re-ignited the neverending debate over the use of rape in fiction and media and specifically why Game of Thrones returns to it over and over.

One friend on Facebook[3] posited that Sansa’s rape is justified by the plot and characters and filmed in such a way that it’s not titillating. They asked: “If that’s not an appropriate way to handle a scene of sexual assault, what is?” My answer is: Not having it there at all, in this case.

I’m not convinced that the rape was justified by the story and character arcs, especially since the showrunners put Sansa in this situation where rape is now the only way to upset her so much that she allows Brienne to come rescue. The writers could have avoided it instead of making it seem necessary.

That’s really the crux of this: writers don’t always have to make rape necessary to the plot.

Writers can choose to do things differently. A few days ago I came across this post on Seanan McGuire’s Tumblr about her “No Rape” rule:

wordsandstrangeways asked:

I just wanted to say to you how grateful I am for your ‘no rapes’ clause on writing. My mum and I have very similar taste in literature and I found you about the same time she found Ilona Andrews so we’ve been swapping books to try them out and I’d never realised before how much the fear of assault hangs over me when reading fantasy. It’s shockingly common both in reference and in act and when dealing with anxiety it’s wonderful to have a safe book space to retreat into. Thank you.

seananmcguire answered:

That’s pretty much why it’s there.  I’m not saying “no one gets to write about this, ever,” but it’s not a tool I need when there are so many others for me to use.  Giving people a little peace is a joy. (If you wonder what this is in reference to, here: http://seanan-mcguire.livejournal.com/470626.html)

That reader’s reaction is key. It’s important to have fiction you can count on not to include rape because that element is so prevalent in other books and media. That’s a thing some people need.

All writers don’t need a No Rape rule. And I would never say that no one should ever include or talk about rape in their fiction. If you choose to do so, it should always be a considered choice. And even then it’s not going to work for every reader.

That tweet inspired this post by Kelly Robson, the author of the story in question. She explains why she included rape in her story and lists all of the ways in which the story does not engage in the problematic aspects I point out in this post. And she’s absolutely right in that. Her inclusion and depiction of rape is not about quick and cheap character motivation, is not there to titillate, and is a considered choice. I also understand her reasons for needing to write that story.

I didn’t have a problem with her story on those grounds.

Though she interpreted my tweet to mean her story wasn’t worth reading, I meant what I literally said: it wasn’t worth that rape scene. It triggered me, and I didn’t feel that the story offered enough to make how much it triggered me worth it. It almost got there–Robson is a good writer, which helps–and for someone not as triggered as I was or not triggered at all, that story likely works just fine. For someone who would be triggered, maybe not. From the responses I got to my tweet at the time it seemed as though folks who also have issues with being triggered were glad to know this.

Any writer who decides to include rape in their fiction has to take that into consideration. You can do everything right in terms of how and why you include and depict rape and still some readers are not going to want it. As long as you’re aware of and fine with that, just keep doing the best you can. Some writers, like McGuire, make the choice to just not include rape at all, which is just as valid.

Right now I would settle for a lack of rape that’s included due to bad and lazy writing. If we can just eliminate or minimize that, I think we could have a productive and meaningful dialogue about the rest.

Footnotes

  1. As some have pointed out, what Ramsey did to Sansa on the show he did to Jeyne Poole in the books so technically it’s not an extra rape it’s just the rape of a different character than expected. Not that it makes any of this better.[]
  2. I have some quibbles with this reaction, but that’s another post.[]
  3. No link because the status is locked to friends. You’re free to out yourself here if you wish![]

Unintended Consequences – A Post About The Hugos

There’s a fun irony in the fallout from the Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies Hugo thing.

There are now over 8,000 members of Sasquan (WorldCon). The con gained over 2,600 supporting memberships since March 31st of this year and about 350 attending memberships. I think it can be safely assumed that several of the 1,948 people who bought supporting memberships before March 31st were slate voters and GamerGators. Not a majority, perhaps, but a sizable chunk. And some of the post-March 31st folks might be puppy supporters. However, I’m fairly sure that an overwhelming majority of these new members are anti-slate or anti-puppy.

That’s thousands of people who don’t think that diversity is a dirty word, who don’t consider the larger number of women and authors of color on previous year’s ballots to be affirmative action or diversity for the sake of diversity or political correctness gone wrong.

That’s thousands of people eligible to nominate for next year’s Hugos, and with a big incentive to do so.

Uh oh. *giggle*

Let’s back this up. Back in 2007 when the list of Hugo nominees came out, folks quickly noticed a problem with them: almost every single nom in the literature categories went to white men. The only woman to be nominated for a work of fiction was Naomi Novik. The other woman nominated in a non-media/fan category was Julie Phillips for her Tiptree biography in Related Works. The only person on the list who identifies as POC[1] is Samuel R Delany, nominated in Related Works for his book About Writing.

This was cause for much discussion. Not only about the Hugos, also about the deeper issues is SF/F publishing that led to a nearly all white male Hugo ballot that year. There was a wide-ranging discussion of gender bias in publishing as well as conversations about the lack of racial diversity that simmered for a couple of years before becoming RaceFail09.

I participated in a lot of the conversations, and one of the things I remember very clearly was that many people felt the solution was to get more lovers of SF/F actively involved in Hugo voting. Those who couldn’t go to WorldCon were encouraged to buy supporting memberships. There was even talk of attempting to establish a fund for people who couldn’t afford the $40 or $50 for supporting memberships, though I think it was scrapped because certain people said it would be buying votes and soooo wrong[2]. Still, the solution was always presented as: there are amazing works of fiction by women and authors of color out there that deserve recognition from this award, so let’s get more people voting, more people discussing and recommending fiction, and let’s get magazine editors thinking about diversity in new ways.

Don’t take my word for it. Read posts from the time and see for yourself[3].

And then a funny thing happened. Things changed.

Not right away, but over time[4]. The next year there were four women nominated in the fiction categories. Two years later nine women ended up on the ballot. The number kept going up. 2014 was a weird blip, but there were 7 or 8 women and that’s not horrendous. I don’t have the numbers for authors of color or other minority groups, but I would guess that those numbers have been rising as well.

hugo nominations from 1990

click to embiggen[5]

This happened for a lot of reasons. Many of those seeds were planted in 2007 in online conversations about gender bias and racism. It took a while for some of them to take root and grow strong. Because even with all the shouting and discussion, the larger world of fandom didn’t participate or even know about it. Did some WorldCons gain more supporting memberships after 2007 due to these issues? Maybe dozens, maybe hundreds–thousands? I doubt it.

No, that took puppy power[6].

A much wider group of people are paying attention now. What’s going to grow from these seeds, I wonder?

Footnotes

  1. as far as I know. corrections welcome.[]
  2. And yet this year some people did this exact thing. Yes, some people cried out VOTE BUYING but those people were quickly drowned out by all the clapping from enthusiastic supporters.[]
  3. I could only find a few representative links because my Google-fu is not that strong. Plus, it looks like several blogs and forums where much of the conversation happened don’t exist, anymore. Where are the archivists when you need them!! If you wrote or remember a post about this stuff from the time, please post links in the comments.[]
  4. Numbers from this paragraph come from Jed Hartman’s analysis[]
  5. Something to notice about this chart: in the 90s there was a pretty decent showing for women nominees, then we get to 98 when there’s only 1 and throughout the 2000s there’s a huge imbalance. Why we lost the gains of the early 90s I’m not sure. Clearly gender imbalance was a problem for several years before 2007.[]
  6. This is further proof that the way to enact change is to forcefully get people’s attention and knock their heads together a bit. Unfortunately for the puppies, the attention they brought to themselves dissolved more than it reinforced their position. Ah well, can’t have everything, I guess?[]

In Which I Engage In Multiple Multimedia Projects

Keen eyes on social media may have noticed that I quietly began a new vlog called The Tempest Challenge in which I recommend books to read if you’re interested in taking up my reading challenge. The first two episodes are up and subsequent ones go live on Saturdays.

I created a landing page here on the site with info on the challenge, including the official hashtag for recommending books: #KTBookChallenge. Once I get a few more episodes going I’ll probably create a Tumblr for the vids and reblogs of book recs.

I don’t mind telling you that Alethea Kontis is to blame for all of this. She has an ongoing web series where she rants about fairy tales (because she writes amazing books that weave fairy tales together). And, since I’ve been hanging out with her for the past six weeks, she’s had me on as her special guest a few times. Here’s the latest one:

And my favorite one in which I sing the first song to ever be banned from the radio:

And the one where I try to mimic Wagnerian opera…

And a playlist of them all:

As you can see, we had a fabulous time. And it inspired me! Thus my own vids.

Depending on how things go, I may start another web series in which I rant about TV shows or something. But first I need to get the hang of editing and possibly find some better software for Windows. (iMovie is the only thing I miss about having a Mac.)

Video is not the only form of media I’m indulging in lately. As I pointed out the other day, I was also on the radio. And after that I was interviewed by the esteemed Minister Faust for his podcast–I’ll drop the link once it’s live–and after that I lucked into being in the first episode of the JEMcast! That was a lot of fun to do and I shall return as a guest host any time they ask. Because I never get tired of talking about Jem.

I suspect there are more things coming up in the near future. In the meantime, if you want me to be on your podcast or radio show or whathaveyou, please use the handy contact links on the sidebar :)

Discussions About Diversity In Science Fiction

me with Delany, Diaz, and Liu

NPR Books and Code Switch ran several great pieces for Black History Month this year, including the Hidden Black History one I talked about the other day and this one on letters and black history that I also wrote. My bud Alaya Dawn Johnson also put together a fantastic post wherein she interviewed some great Black science fiction writers about their impact on the genre and on shaping the future.

To the extent that science fiction is the literature of ideas, of plausible futurism, of extrapolation from social trends that can help us locate ourselves better in the present, we have helped to make science fiction more relevant than ever. Afrofuturism was a hugely important phenomenon in the black community, but George Clinton or Sun Ra never got invited to a World Science Fiction Convention. Last year, the groundbreaking musical artist Janelle Monae, whose work is strongly inspired by afrofuturism, received an honorable mention for the prestigious Tiptree Award for her album The Electric Lady. The lines are converging; we are rewriting our futures.

Please read the whole thing, it is well worth it.

And if you’re interested in such things, last week I was on the Marc Steiner Show talking about Octavia Butler (it was the anniversary of her death) and the state of Black science fiction. My fellow panelists, Ytasha L. Womack, adrienne maree brown, and Jason T. Harris, were a delight to converse with and big props to the host for keeping the conversation lively. When you have an hour listen to the podcast.

More Hidden Black History

Today NPR Books/Code Switch posted my second Black History Month reading list, Uncovering Hidden Black History. The idea was inspired by the neverending argument in fandom about whether having Blacks or other people of color in a movie or book set in The Past (fantastic or real) is historically accurate. We go round and round with this every few months it seems. If it’s not Tangled or Frozen it’s Game of Thrones or Agent Carter or a game or books or whatever.

The bottom line always is: POC didn’t exist here, here, or here. Or, if they did, there were only 3 of them and they were slaves.

The answer to this always is: No, no, OMG no.

The evidence for that is often easy to find, so I went looking for it. I found quite a bit, and I’m not a historian like Mikki Kendall or steeped in this stuff like Malisha/MedievalPOC who regularly drop this knowledge on unsuspecting heads. They helped me with my research in a big way–thank you!

I found so much material that some of it had to be cut for length, so I’m posting the cut bits here.

Black People In European Royalty

 

queen charlotte

Even though England’s Queen Elizabeth I tried to expel all “Negroes and black a moors” from her country at the turn of the 17th century, people of African descent managed to find their way into all strata of society during the Renaissance and beyond. That includes ruling families. Alessandro de Medici, called il moro/The Moor during his day, was the son of Lorenzo II de Medici and an African woman. He ruled Florence for seven years before being assassinated by a cousin (not all that unusual for a Medici).

Over in the British Isles, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (wife of Mad King George of Revolutionary War fame) may hold the distinction of being England’s first black queen. At least the first depicted with what contemporaries referred to as “Negroid features” in her official portraits. These paintings may have had a political purpose as well, since the first artist to depict the queen was vocally anti-slavery.

Further Reading and Research

Black People In the Tudor Court

john blanke

Europe’s Middle Ages aren’t nearly as monochrome as our cultural imagination envisions them, as art from the time attests. A great resource for images from the period is the MedievalPOC blog, where I first learned about trumpeter John Blanke. He regularly performed for Henrys VII and VIII and was immortalized in the Westminster Tournament Roll, a 60 foot long tapestry from the 1500s. Blanke was not the sole “blacke” person found at court–there were other Moorish employees as well as guests–nor were Moorish musicians and other artists restricted to the British Isles.

Further Reading and Research

Black People In Roman Briton

Ivory Bangle lady

The Sir Morien of Arthurian Legend I mention in the NPR piece wasn’t even the first African to travel to Briton. The remains of a woman from fourth century Roman York unearthed in 1901 shows that blacks were not just present, but also members of the elite class. The “Ivory Bangle Lady” as she’s been termed was a woman of North African descent who was buried with objects that point to wealth and high social standing.

Even during this time period she was not unique. Reading University archaeologist Hella Eckhardt told The Guardian that the population mix in fourth century York is close to that of contemporary Britain. “[T]he Roman population may have had more diverse origins than the city has now.”

This diversity is a natural side effect of the Roman empire’s vastness and is reflected not only in Britain, but throughout Europe, North Africa, and Mesopotamia.

Further Reading and Research

Black Women at the Dawn of the Feminist Movement

Anna Julia Cooper

In 1892 Anna Julia Cooper published a collection of essays called A Voice From The South, which might be considered the first work in the genre of My Feminism Will Be Intersectional or it Will Be Bullshit. In it, Cooper “criticizes black men for securing higher education for themselves through the ministry, while erecting roadblocks to deny women access to those same opportunities, and denounces the elitism and provinciality of the white women’s movement.” Some fights have to be fought and fought and fought again, even within progressive movements.

That collection plus several other essays, papers, and letters is available in one volume: The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper, edited by Charles Lemert and  Esme Bhan.

If you find this topic as intriguing as I do, I suggest you spend some time going through the #HistoricalPOC hashtag on Tumblr and Twitter where people are sharing bits of history and historical figures. Not all of them are obscure, but you won’t have to scroll long before you come up on something or someone you didn’t know about.

Let’s Talk About “Comfort Zones”

Danger Zone

Of the reactions to the piece on challenging yourself to read non-white, cis-het male authors for one year, I find one to be very telling about people’s assumptions of reading experience. Paraphrased, it goes something like:

But in her piece Tempest said that she only read fiction within her comfort zone!

What I’m understanding is that these decriers think that when I made the choice to not read fiction that bored me, made me mad because it wasn’t good, or offended me, I was looking to only be comforted.

I think the fault lies in the conception of what “offended me” means. Because people who are steeped in some kind of unexamined privilege often see Being Offended as Being Made Angry or Being Made To Feel Mildly Uncomfortable. That’s what I see as being behind all those “You’re just looking to be offended!” cries when a woman or person of color or any number of people from a marginalized or oppressed group points out offensive stuff.

The assumption is that I can choose not to be offended[1].

A white man might read stories written by other white men that have offensive to black people stuff in them and not even notice. At all. Or care. At all. Or, if they notice, the experience may be one of, “Oh hey, that’s not all right.” But it doesn’t hurt that white male reader.

Offensive stereotypes of black or brown people as ignorant savages hurts me. Fiction wherein women are only in the story to be sexual slaves without agency or even names hurts me. Even casual, offhand, not blatantly racist/sexist/whathaveyou offensive crap bourne out of a writer’s ignorance hurts me. Literary microagressions.

When I read fiction–especially for pleasure, but even for the purpose of analyzing it so that I can grow as a writer–I don’t want a majority of my experience to be about getting hurt. And a lot of the time the white, cis-het male writer behind those stories has not given two thoughts to privilege or stereotypes or that social justice warrior glittery hoo-ha crap[2]. So I stopped reading them.

However, in sticking to women, people of color, LGBT, and other authors from marginalized identities, I was not reading in a “comfort zone.” I was not more comfortable, I was just less likely to run across fiction that hurt me. But the stories were certainly not universally comfortable to read. Not at all.

I’ve never sought out comfort when looking for new things to read. A thing may become a comfort read once I finish it. In fact, much great fiction makes me uncomfortable, which is a big plus.

The first time I experienced this was in high school. I read Octavia Butler’s Kindred[3] and it made me profoundly uncomfortable. I still remember the almost panic feeling I got when I imagined for a moment if what happened to Dana happened to me. I was sure I would not have made it at all. The thought that it might happen was terrifying.

This was the first time I understood how fiction can affect a reader. No book, even books I loved, had ever made me that uncomfortable. And I had never identified with any protagonist so deeply.

Same thing happened with Derrick Bell’s The Space Traders. Oh man, that story jacked me up for years. Because everything Bell wrote in that story was so true. 100 percent truth.

Truth is rarely comfortable.

So no, I did not escape into my comfort zone when reading non-white, cis-het male authors. In fact, I put myself more and more out of it as I went. Because not all of the fiction I read catered to the mainstream gaze. And the gaze it catered to wasn’t necessarily mine, either. There were stories that challenged my notions of how stories are supposed to go, how plots are meant to unfold, how characters must be constructed and revealed and relate[4]. This is what happens when you step out of mainstream culture’s comfort zone.

That’s probably why so many people are scared.

Footnotes

  1. Which is… no. I can choose not to tell you I’m offended. I can choose to hide that I’m offended. I can also take the offense to heart, consciously or unconsciously, and feel like I’m worthless. I’m not going to do that just so you don’t have to hear me talk about offensive shit.[]
  2. This is not true for every single one of these writers. Noting is true for every single one of any kind of people. But these days I am less willing to give a new author from this group a try unless I see some evidence that they have thought about these issues. That’s not a hard thing for me. Thus I end up reading some of the best white, cis-het male SF/F authors publishing today. WIN.[]
  3. This was assigned reading, too! Yeah, I don’t know how that happened.[]
  4. If this all sounds like some awesomepants to you, then I suggest you go through my Favorite Fiction archive here on the blog and check out my column at io9.[]