". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Monday, June 13, 2011

White Man's Country

The set of sf/f genre marketed as Urban Fantasy is not generally of reading interest to me personally, but that doesn't interfere with acknowledging the positive things it has brought to the SF/F Reading table. Diversity of characters and cultures in the genre is excellent news for the genre as a whole. You can start with the nomenclature of its marketing category --Urban Fantasy. In marketing other products, to employ 'urban' as a defining descriptor means 'black,' or African American.

You must first be able to imagine something other than what is before something other than what is can come into being.

My take is this: the Western, its revisionist historical, and, as well, its mythological space was exclusive to white people. There were some Indians (who are convenient antagonists who prove the protagonist's exceptional expertise) and occasionally Mexicans and even more occasionally Asians. Black people, like slavery, were disappeared from the history of the Western Territories. This entertainment / mythological paradigm of the historic west was, of course very different from the history. This applies particularly to the presence and influence of women and of African Americans, not to mention Asians and Mexicans and Indians.

With Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Feminism, the defeat of the American century in Vietnam, the Western's mythology was no longer functioning satisfactorily. In attempts to revive the Western, we saw then, finally, what some call the Civil Rights Western, with black protagonists. This was a long road in Hollywood, and there were signposts along the way in the Westerns that African Americans could be and someday would be full citizens in the west, in the nation, and we were trying to imagine that day, and what it would look like.

Successful Westerns, for instance the 1939 The Outlaw Jesse James, spawned over a dozen remakes. This did not happen with the Civil Rights Western, because it was antithetical the White Man's mythological vision of the west. Putting black male protagonists front and center spoiled the mythology. It forced consideration of the nation's actual history of the south and of the west, and its connections to slavery and the Civil War, which Hollywood and the audience did not like. As the great historian of the nation from colonial era to the present, Professor Richard Slotkin, states: "The Western is about white supremacy." When the white supremacy is taken out, the mythological space implodes.

Additionally, Slotkin says, when the politics of white supremacy and local time history elements are removed from the western, " becomes clear that it is about S-E-X, particularly if the protagonist is female." The place of the female in the Western is usually to inform the audience which of the men is good, is bad, who to sympathize with and so on. If she's the protagonist all those signals disappear.

So, then, it’s the 70′s and the Western is dead. But a new (mythological space) frontier emerges in our national imagination. This one had been until the 70's and Star Wars more the space of those who regarded themselves as outsiders rather than to the mainstream sort who used to make Westerns solid box office and publishing profits.

Still, mythologically, reaching back as far as Burroughs's John Carter of Mars — the Western has always spawned at least some sets of SF/F. Like the Western there were no female protagonists or females of agency, or so few as to not matter; the same for POC and gay or transgendered — and if they were there, they are either to be rescued, be rewards, be magically useful, be victims that are avenged by the (white, male) protagonist, or be the villains.

SF/F, and particularly, space opera, in those decades was still safe space for USian White Man's country, for only we USians had the wealth and the technology to go there in covered wagon shuttles (the space race with the Soviet Union was a convenient goad, foil and antagonist for getting more funding), go there in imagination via Dreamworks and the like, and the publishing industry to support the fiction. We controlled distribution space. Outer Space -- vast, empty, we could populate as we liked, even with non-human, non-flesh, robots and mechs.

But now it seems the Other is again crowding over the frontier and filling this once safe country — POC, Women, the gay, and even non USians, non-Europeans, are playing in space, both in imagination and in efforts to get there in shuttles, explorers, and other technologies, and claim it for themselves. And the Space Race competition died with the dissolution of the Soviet Union competition.

It’s not a coincidence, one thinks, that this borderland of urban fantasy in sf/f, that includes the steampunk, is ‘urban.’It is in the cities where diversity begins. New Orleans had the largest population of free people of color of any city in the U.S. when Jefferson bought it. Baltimore had the largest population of free people of color at the run-up to the Civil War. NYC was a close, close second. All three of these cities were magnets for immigrants as well. That’s just three examples.

We're imagining full citizenship for everybody in Urban Fantasy.

I’m most curious to see where White Man’s Country is next located.

No comments: