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No room for Black folk

Oscar H. Blayton

In a recent interview in Vulture Magazine, Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, author of “The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games” and an associate professor at the University of Michigan, said this about the inability of certain white Americans to share the benefits of our society: 

“When it comes down to it, sharing space means actually giving up something that you’ve always had: giving up power, giving up the spotlight, giving up money so that you can share that space. And that’s hard for folks.” 

Sharing space with people of color in America is something with which white Americans have struggled since they first set foot on these shores. There is not a resident of the United States who is unaware of the sustained genocidal attacks against the peoples of the First Nations or the barbaric treatment towards descendants of Africa, who were forced to endure chattel slavery.  

But besides these horrifying atrocities committed against non-whites, there are other ways in which many white Americans refuse to share space with non-whites, and that is in the realm of self-awareness as articulated in fantasy narratives. 

As stated by author and psychotherapist Peter Michaelson, “Fantasies, like dreams, can give you vital knowledge about yourself.” This is because in every fantasy, there is a kernel of truth — or what we believe to be the truth. Whether a fantasy is a tale about courage, empathy, affection, generosity or any other human value, a fantasy carries a truthful message about people. But when there is disagreement over who are “people,” fantasies can become cultural battlegrounds filled with bitterness and even hatred.  

Recently, there has been a great deal of frothing at the mouth by white supremacists enraged by what they consider to be improper portrayals of people in fantasies. A tidal wave of apoplectic rants has surged on social media, triggered by the creative imaginations of fictional writers who include in their tales people of color as well as white folk. 

“The Rings of Power,” a fantasy tale based upon the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, tells of a world filled with elves, dragons and other fictional beings such as hobbits, orcs and ghosts. And while it is said that the settings resemble Anglo-Saxon England and northern Europe, none of these lands are inhabited by elves, dragons, hobbits, orcs or ghosts. These settings and these characters issue from the imagination of the author. 

As in Tolkien’s tales, the writings of George R.R. Martin constructed a world for his multi-volume fantasy “Game of Thrones,” populating it with dragons and “ice zombies,” giants, unicorns and an assortment of other fantastic creatures. 

But in films populated with these fictional beings, the presence of Black people sends large portions of white people into hysterics, denouncing the presentations as unrealistic and unbelievable.  

This nonsensical manifestation of bigotry is even more pronounced in the backlash over the upcoming release of Disney Studio’s “The Little Mermaid.” The problem, as some white people see it, is that the title character will be portrayed by Halle Bailey, a Black actress. Even given the fact that mermaids, like dragons and giants, are not real, a significant number of white supremacists have demanded that this mermaid be portrayed by an actress with white skin to make the story more believable. There is no room in their imagination for a mermaid who looks any other way.  

This type of demand for white supremacy in fantasy is not new. When the first “Star Wars” episode was screened in 1977, there was heated debate over the absence of people of color, despite there being characters that looked like lizards, bats and huge bugs. And then in 2015 and 2017, when the seventh and eighth episodes were released, there was backlash from white supremacists when people of color were placed in central roles.  

And I should not fail to mention the hateful responses by white supremacists when they discovered that an endearing character they read about in the book “Hunger Games” was properly portrayed by a child of color in the film version in 2012. Some “Hunger Games” fans even went so far as to write that they felt that they had wasted sorrow over the character’s death when they discovered through the film that she was Black.  

I could continue listing examples of certain white people not wanting people of color to have space to live, but this attitude can best be demonstrated by a line in another popular movie, “Independence Day.” In this scene, the president of the United States asked one of the alien invaders who had been captured just what it was the invaders wanted. And the alien’s response was: “We… want… you… to… die.” 

Some white supremacists do not want people of color to occupy any space in their world. This could account for the mass shootings by avowed white supremacists in Charleston, South Carolina, and Buffalo, New York, and for the multiple homicides of people of color by certain white police officers. It could account for the manner in which Black communities are allowed to be poisoned by toxic water systems. It could account for any number of inexplicable instances of neglect, violence, inequities and all manner of other injustices suffered by Black people at the hands of certain white folk.  

It is important for people in America to come to grips with the reality that there is just no room for Black folk in a world envisioned by certain white folk. This is a problem that must be recognized, and a problem for which a solution must be found. 

Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia. 

 

Black representation in film, The Little Mermaid