Black-a-Moors in the European Imagination II: Beyond Dolce and Gabbana

Detail of statue of St. Maurice, Magdeburg, Germany, Cathedral of St. Maurice and St. Catherine, choir, ca. 1240-50

The recent use of earrings fashioned in the images of exotic black women by Dolce and Gabbana during a fashion show has caused understandable controversy. Critics charge the imagery is too reminiscent to slave-era derived caricatures of blacks, like Mammy or Little Sambo. D&G has denied racism is at play, and instead point to a history of black-a-moor decorative art on the Italian peninsula dating back to the medieval era, where blacks were numbered among the Arab-Berber armies that invaded Sicily in the 10th century. The truth may lie somewhere between the two claims. While black-a-moor decorative art indeed predates slavery and black caricatures like Mammy, their history is rooted in the European imagination–and come with inherent contradictions. As shown in a previous post, in medieval European stories and legends, black-a-moors appear as threatening figures associated with the Muslim world. But, as I discuss here, they could also take the guise of benevolent allies. Over time, these varied depictions would meld with the coming era of African slavery, where skin color became increasingly tied to servitude and bondage.

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Robert A. Heinlein- Letter from the Dean

“Nor do I feel responsible for the generally low state of the Negro—as one Negro friend pointed out to me; the lucky Negroes were the ones who were enslaved. Having traveled quite a bit in Africa, I know what she means. One thing is clear: Whether one speaks of technology or social institutions, “civilization” was invented by us, not by the Negroes. As races, as cultures, we are five thousand years, about, ahead of them. Except for the culture, both institutions and technology, that they got from us, they would still be in the stone age, along with its slavery, cannibalism, tyranny, and utter lack of the concept we call “justice.”–Robert Heinlein

Well at least he didn’t use the n-word…

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300 Spartans, 1 Million Persians and the Altering of History

So I’m doing what I normally do when I should be working/writing (trying to read the entire internet) and quite by chance I find out they’re making a sequel to 300. Then I threw up in my mouth a little… because nothing makes me gag like the thought of another bit of Hollywood-formulated Occidental fantasy and Orientalist othering with a large dose of historical revisionism by that icon of multiculturalism and gender representation, Frank Miller. Re-posted below, for whoever cares, is a review and critique I wrote on 300 back in 2007. In the name of blogger honesty, I haven’t changed anything from the original post–except for a few broken links. I have a feeling the inevitable sequel won’t require me to do that much revision anyway.

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Spears, Sorcery and Double-Consciousness- Part III

“I think that, especially if you’re a Westerner doing another culture, you have responsibilities to do the best darn research you can (and not just appropriate the cool bits). You must take care not to promote harmful stereotypes ; especially since, as a Western writer (especially, but not only, if you live in the West), you must be aware that your narrative is going to be privileged over that of locals. That gives you extra responsibility to get it as right as you can.”–Aliette de Bodard

French-American author Aliette de Bodard’s comment was made during a recent roundtable at The World SF Blog (TWSFB) on the issue of depictions of non-Western societies and cultures in speculative fiction. In this case, de Bodard was specifically addressing those writers in the West who take the (brave) plunge and attempt to write about cultures and societies outside of their own. I actually applaud this, and suggested in a recent blog that speculative fiction authors (of any racial/ethnic background, and specifically those in fantasy) should make this attempt more often. Yet, as I also noted in that same post, this comes with risks. As an outsider, it’s all too easy to fall back (intentionally or no) on stereotypes or exoticism as a means of depicting “difference.” So, continuing with this talk of spears, sorcery and black double-consciousness, how does a black Western writer create African fantasy that avoids (or at least tries to avoid) these pitfalls? I don’t have all the answers. Surprise. I don’t even know if anything I have to say qualify as answers. Double surprise. But here are some personal thoughts anyway, for what they’re worth…

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Spears, Sorcery and Double-Consciousness- Part I

Recently, the World SF Blog held a roundtable on the issues of non-Western narratives in speculative fiction. Touched upon in the talk, were problems of inclusion, the lacking (or often-ignored) presence of non-Western writers in the genre and the entire post-colonial project when it comes to writing and the non-Western world. It was an insightful discussion that can be read in its two-part entirety starting here. What received the most discussion by the panelists however, was the topic of how Western writers depict non-Western settings, including issues of exoticism and the sometimes futile search for “authenticity.” This left me with my own set of questions. What about the “other” that exists within the non-Western world? What about those people within the larger dominant society, who are marginalized from its center similar to the ways in which a colonized geographical space is distanced from the metropole?
The clamor for diversity in speculative fiction has long been heard–and answered. In fantasy, this has come about partly in the form of writers of African descent creating their own realms of spears and sorcery. Termed “Sword and Soul” by some, this sub-genre of fantasy uses an often fictionalized Africa as a backdrop, creating heroes, stories, lands and adventures outside of the Eurocentric norm. Yet a cursory glance shows that most of these writers (self included) are several generations removed from the Africa of our imaginings. So what happens when the Westernized-other seeks to depict the non-Western world–one which remains both prominent and elusive in his/her imagination?
As with most things, there’s a history . . .