Race: May 2008 Archives

We recently finished listening to Harlan Ellison's reading of Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. This novel is often thought of as one of the great fantasy novels of our time (well, the time of the people saying it; I wasn't around yet). It was difficult going to such a sparse story, with very little character development and hardly any dialogue (and Ellison, while very expressive in prose narrative, reads dialogue like it's the phone book). My sense is that Le Guin is appreciated for the world she created rather than for her storytelling, which simply didn't impress me, not after coming off of listening to the whole Harry Potter series. Rowling is a much more entertaining writer. Her characters are much more fully developed. The world is much more developed, even in the first book. It's much more imaginative. There's a richer, more complex plot. There's nothing to latch onto in Le Guin's book. It's like a short story extended over a whole novel.

So it surprised me to see Le Guin's derisive comments about J.K. Rowling:

Her credit to JK Rowling for giving the "whole fantasy field a boost" is tinged with regret. "I didn't feel she ripped me off, as some people did," she says quietly, "though she could have been more gracious about her predecessors. My incredulity was at the critics who found the first book wonderfully original. She has many virtues, but originality isn't one of them. That hurt."

She doesn't think Rowling ripped her off. Yet she is hurt that people think Rowling was original. I'm guessing she thinks there's a level of borrowing between ripping her off and being original and that the Harry Potter books are in that area. I don't see it. The way magic works is very different in the two worlds. The general storyline is very different. I don't see much similarity at all, actually. Wikipedia's reference to the above quote offers some explanation, however:

The basic premise of Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), in which a boy with unusual aptitude for magic is recognised, and sent to a special school for wizards, resembles that of Harry Potter. The hero encounters Jasper, a typically unpleasant Draco-like rival, in the Flashman tradition.

The way Harry Potter's unusual aptitude for magic is recognized is nothing like Ged's. It's a completely different kind of magic that gets discovered in a different way, and the way he ends up at the school isn't remotely similar. The school itself is nothing like Hogwarts and occupies only a fairly brief section of the book. The rival Jasper appears for maybe one chapter. If that's the best they can do, then I think they're grasping at straws. If that's what Le Guin really had in mind, then it doesn't reflect well on her to have said this.

This isn't the only time I've seen Le Guin overreacting to something and taking it way out of proportion, to the point of almost ignoring more important things. Her response to the by-all-accounts awful pseudo-adaptation of her novels has an introductory paragraph mentioning that the story of the miniseries doesn't resemble the novels at all, four paragraphs on her role, or lack thereof, in the process of producing the miniseries, nine paragraphs on the issue of race, and one final condemnation those who produced the miniseries. She says the miniseries changes her story almost entirely, using some scenes from her books but putting them together in a very different overall plot and removing the important context. That's a significant claim. Yet she doesn't substantiate it, at all.

The one thing she does complain about in detail really is worth complaining about. I would have been very upset if I'd written something like what she wrote, and they had done this to it. She explicitly made most of her characters something like darker natives of the Americas in look. There's a small minority of brown-skinned characters (with straight hair, so more like Indians than Africans) and a small minority of Viking-like pale, blond, blue-eyed barbarians. Most of Earthsea is dominated by people she describes as reddish. She's deliberately playing with people's sense of race and the assumption of whiteness as a norm. She doesn't make a big deal of it in the books, but it's noticeable just because she mentions it offhand as if it's normal.

So it would have been nice if the miniseries had gotten that aspect of her world. But it's far from being central to the storyline itself, as she says it is, and it's certainly not worth nine significant paragraphs when absolutely nothing in her complaint surfaces about any specific things they changed about the storyline. I have no sense, since I haven't seen it, of what specifically they did to change the plot, and I couldn't evaluate it other than the racial issue, which again is relatively minor to the plot of the book, without actually seeing the thing. The way she deals with race in her books is very important for her world and for one of the points she wanted to get across with her novel. But it's simply not central to the novel itself, which is a story that race hardly enters into in the course of the events that take place in it. She deliberately made it non-central, so it's strange that she sees it as so central that she can spend all her time complaining about it without even a quick mention of what they got wrong on more significant matters.

I have a few requests in case anyone reading this blog can help. If you've been following my recent submissions and approvals for the Blackwell philosophy and pop culture series, you might have some idea of why I want some of the following information if anyone has it readily available. If you have exact quotes or specific scenes from the movies or issue numbers in the comics, that would be wonderful. I have a large number of X-Men comic books (mostly from the mid-late 80s until the early 90s, but I have reprints of older stuff too), but if it's easy for anyone to find some then it will make my work much easier in two weeks once I'm done grading and begin writing, so I can focus on the philosophy.

1. I'm looking for any instances in X-Men movies or comic books where any character or the narrator uses race-language or species-language to refer to mutants as distinct from humans. This includes when it's morally loaded but also when it's not. I'm interested both in Magneto's elevated view of the rights of mutants as superior beings but also in the factual claim that mutants are a separate race, sub-species, or species.

2. I'm also looking for instances where Magneto has given moral justifications for his questionable or immoral actions, again from the movies or the comic books. (I have no cartoon episodes to verify the information.) I'm interested in his attitude toward humans and the moral difference he sees between mutants and humans. I'm also interested in any general moral principles he might state in the process of explaining his reasons for doing things. Any specific descriptions of Magneto's actions as terrorist would also be nice or descriptions of particular actions he's taken that are morally questionable or outright immoral would also help me.

3. For those more wizard-inclined, I'm hoping to compile a list of seemingly-chance occurrences in Harry Potter, where something not under the conscious control of any character, i.e. lucky occurrences, are absolutely crucial for the major plot of the book to move along, particularly if Harry's success or the bad guys' defeat or frustration in their purposes hinges on it. I'm also looking for specific instances where any characters talk about issues related to destiny, the various prophecies, time travel and changing the past, free will, and so on. If you can give page numbers in the American paperback editions (hardcover for Deathly Hallows) or chapter numbers otherwise, that would be great. But even just mention of the events and how important they are could help me if it's something I haven't thought of yet, especially if it's a really big deal.

Whatever help anyone can offer is appreciated.

I've been reading J. Daniel Hays, From every People and Nation: A biblical theology of race. I'm really enjoying it so far. Occasionally something puzzles me a little. Consider the following passage:

The Bible does not begin with the creation of a special race of people. When the first human is introduced into the story, he was called adam [special characters removed because I have no idea how to do them], which means 'humankind'. As mentioned in Chapter 2, Adam and Eve are not Hebrews or Egyptians or Canaanites. It is incorrect for the White church to view them as White or for the Black church to view them as Black. Their 'race' is not identifiable; they are neither Negroid nor Caucasian, nor even Semitic. They become the mother and father of all peoples. The division of humankind into peoples and races is not even mentioned until Genesis 10. Adam and Eve, as well as Noah, is non-ethnic and non-national. They represent all people and not some people. [Hays, pp.48-49]

After the word 'Semitic', he places a footnote number, which leads to the following footnote:

[W.D.] McKissic [in Beyond Roots: In Search of Blacks in the Bible, 1990] disagrees, raising the issue of genetics, both for Adam and Eve and for Noah and his wife. The genetic pattern for all the races of humankind, argues McKissic, had to be present in both these sets of people. Thus they had to carry the genetic pattern for the Negroid race. If they carried these genes then one of them at least, according to McKissic, would have had Negroid features.

I'm not sure there's any real disagreement here, though, at least in substance. Hays seems to be thinking of race as some later subdivision of people, and of course Adam and Eve couldn't be of any race if it necessarily involves that. McKissic, on the other hand, is thinking of race in a very different way. If at one point you had two people who became the ancestors of every human being, including those who would be parts of pretty diverse races, then you must have had the genetic material necessary for those races to exist later. One thing McKissic doesn't take into account, at least in this quote (although I think he might in the book; it's been many years since I read his book, and I don't have it in front of me at the moment) is that mutations can explain changes in skin color, hair type, and so on. It doesn't have to stem from just genetic information present in the ancestors.

I seem to remember McKissic making the argument that darker skin color genes tend to be dominant, which means at least one of the ancestor-pair would have to be black. Using the term this way clearly does not indicate species sub-division into races, as Hays seems to be treating it. All it means is that we in our day have identified various characteristics that we associate with various races. Someone is identified as being in a certain race according to such characteristics. An earlier ancestor with those characteristics would rightly, as the English words are now used, be called black or white (or whatever) according to the criteria we now use to assign such terms. So if Adam, say, looked enough like the typical African or black American today that were he seen today he'd be so classified, then he was black by the meaning of the current term. That, as far as I can tell, is what McKissic means. He's simply talking about something different from what Hays is talking about.

Now there's actually been a DNA discovery since McKissic's book (and since Hays's book, for that matter) that shows that light skin color is a mutation and that the ancestors of white people were black by the current definition (as McKissic is using the term), so I think his view is pretty much scientifically confirmed at this point. Hays doesn't want to acknowledge that as Adam and Eve belonging to the black race, because his notion of race is defined as a sub-division that later occurs. But racialized terms aren't always used that way, as the meaningfulness of McKissic's claim shows. I think it's perfectly ok (at least linguistically) to say that Adam and Eve were black. It doesn't seem to me to involve any misuse of the terms involved. If this is right, then it has an interesting consequence for those who claim race terms involve an ancestry component. It doesn't remove an ancestry component, but it does allow someone with no ancestry (or no human ancestry, depending on how you view Adam and Eve) to have a race under one important concept of what it is to be a member of a race.

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