A commenter with the supremely awesome nom de plume Rom, Spaceknight (I’m going to be Magnus, Robot Fighter in comment sections from here on) left an interesting question in the comments of my Dragon Age: Inquisitioning While Black post:
I think African flavored fantasy is cool, and I have no problem with it at all and enjoy it (Imaro rules, Spears of the Dawn is one of my favorite tabletop RPGs, etc) but one thing that’s kinda always bugged me is why can’t people in Medieval styled fantasy just be black without absolutely having to have some kind of backstory about how they’re from fantasy Kush or Mali or something?
First off, Rom, thanks for asking this question in a way that doesn’t offend, unlike the other guy who commented on that post. (Yep. I’m petty.) I’ll attempt to answer this question here to the best of my ability.
So, we want to unpack why characters who appear phenotypically similar to modern day members of the African Diaspora (i’ll stick to “black people” for the remainder of the post) are required to have back stories or character histories in Medieval-Styled fantasy. I think I can sum this up pretty tidily, but first, let’s talk about “Medieval styled fantasy”.
We hear the “Medieval Europe” excuse used by lots of fan-bigots to justify why people of color totally can’t exist in large numbers in most epic fantasy/sword and sorcery. Despite plenty of people knocking down this idea of Medieval Europe as a lily-white wonderland, fan-bigots like to stick to this excuse–even the authors of Medieval Europe styled works fall back on it. For the sake of clarity, let’s make a declarative: ALL of Medieval Europe was extremely diverse, and not just along racial or ethnic lines.
That said, we are talking about Fantasy fiction here. Let’s remember, there’s nothing stopping authors and creators from building a world full of dragons and castles, and filling it with folks who resemble Hmong people, or Mayans, or ancient Tartars.
Even though those particular ethnic groups weren’t addressed in the question, I’ll attempt to be inclusive of all groups that are routinely erased from Fantasy fiction in my answer (and I’ll stick with Fantasy in particular because the question asked about it).
First off, I believe that characters in Fantasy literature who happen to appear similar to black people deserve backstories, especially in “Medieval European” flavored white wonderlands. In fact, in these stories, backstories and character histories are ESPECIALLY necessary and valuable.
All too often, I read fantasy fiction with black characters that come seemingly out of nowhere. A prime example of this for me, from recent memory, is Yulwei from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. Yulwei, a powerful mage, hails from that mystical place that so many black people in fantasy call home: THE SOUTH. It’s not on a map, so you can’t really find out where in ‘the south’ (also called “the southern lands”) he’s from. He has no family, no culture really that the reader is able to discern. He only exists to push the plot or a certain character forward when necessary, and then disappear. You can only barely call Yulwei a character, since he doesn’t really occupy any significant space in the novel outside of his Magical Negro duties.
This is the reason why we have to tell where black characters–and all characters, really–come from in fantasy fiction. Characters without back stories, homelands, and cultures are often disappointingly flat. And black people who read enough fantasy are all too aware of this character trope. Authors shove one or two black people into their work, give them a magical faraway homeland like The Summer Islands or Far Harad, and then never show the homeland or the people or any of the culture outside of those exotic outliers. For folks who are always the cultural and racial norm in these stories, that’s cool–people who look like them get titles and kingdoms. Readers who aren’t in the the group that’s often pandered to by these authors have to deal with characters who lack family, culture, and homeland. In book after book after book.
Additionally, what’s a good reason for not talking about the homelands of black characters, all characters of color, really, in lily white wonderland fantasy? It’s not like it’s impossible. Authors of these books will research the exact method in which a halberd to the gut will cause a soldier to bleed out, and will even go so far as to see how that halberd would fare against a character wearing a coat of chainmail. Why not put a similar amount of research into making a character a rounder, more believable version? Why not put a similar amount of research into Ghanaian, Maori, or Chinese Muslim culture to make sure that the bits and pieces that are pulled into a character are significant and true? All characters deserve to have their culture and homeland influence their character makeup, not just the white ones.
The bigger question is, why do so many people think that these flattened characters are acceptable? Rom, you said that the inclusion of back stories for African characters in Medieval Europe styled fantasy “bugs” you. I’d like for you to consider: why, exactly, does it bug you? Do you study precolonial African culture, and you’re sick of hearing about it day in and day out? Have you encountered loads of black characters with well fleshed out back stories and interesting cultures in the mega-popular works of epic fantasy? Because I sure haven’t. You said that you enjoyed Imaro; if a character who resembled someone of East Asian descent popped up in Nyumbani, wouldn’t you want to know a little bit about where that character came from, what their culture was like, and how that culture informed their skills, abilities, and personality? Or would you–would we–take a stereotypical stoic samurai themed warrior as normal for that group, and keep on reading?
The “why can’t they just be black without being…you know…black all over everything” smacks of “I’m not racist, I just don’t see color” line of thought. It erases the very real ways that these characters might be perceived by others in the book, and how they will be perceived by readers. I don’t know you, Rom, so I can’t say that you subscribe to that ideology. I’d like to think that you don’t. But I also really want you, and other folks who might read this and have a similar view, to think about why you feel the inclusion of history and culture of a group of people in a story bothers you the way it does, when none of you–none of us–have a problem reading about all the different father-ancestors of a fake Viking king.
Did I miss anything? Anyone have any better reasons, or a more well thought out argument? Sound off in the comments!