Friday, May 10, 2013

"I Had No Idea he was a Racist Douchebag"

We just had a fan quit Robert E. Howard studies today. This person, who identified themselves only as "Red Dragon" on Facebook, announced their intention with that above line, and followed it with a short checklist of what was to come next. All of their books were to be binned, and they would unsubscribe from all of the REH lists that they were on. "I will seriously have sold my conan stuff by tomorrow and will never read another thing by him again," Red Dragon posted. Older, wiser heads attempted to prevail, but Red Dragon was presumably already long gone.

Now, I don't know anything about this person other than the fact that their picture on FaceBook was that of a woman, with blonde hair, maybe twenty-five to thirty. I make no assumptions as to if Red Dragon was truly a woman or a G.I.R.L. (Guy in Real Life). This is the Internet. Anything is possible.

But I do want to use this example to point out something: Here was a person, attracted to the writings of a long-dead author, so much so that they bought a pile of books, read them all, and jumped online and joined a number of fan groups, Facebook pages, and participated in discussions. I'd consider that to be fairly typical fan behavior, certainly well within the bounds of reason.

I don't know what Red Dragon ran across that made this sudden change happen--the popular supposition is that they read part of a discussion about a story Howard wrote when he was still a teenager called "The Last White Man." It's a bit of unpublished juvenilia about, well, you can guess what it's about. It was written in response to a letter penned by one of Howard's close, personal friends--a person who was, himself, a member of an organization that was active in the persecution of African-Americans. The story was not published in Howard's lifetime, and in fact, the only reason it was published at all was for the sake of completeness. Another gem from Howard's school days was "A Boy, A Beehive, and a Chinaman." So, you know, that's the thinking of a young Robert E. Howard, right there.

I want to say something, but it won't change anyone's mind. I'm a native Texan, and I'm over forty. This makes me the enemy in the eyes of the younger generations. But I want to walk carefully through this anyway, because it's taken me a while to get to this particular place. Maybe my journey will be of some use to someone out there. Maybe.

I think the thing that bothers me the most about Red Dragon's sudden reversal was that there was no attempt to square the things that originally attracted Red Dragon to Howard's writing, so much so that they would seek out other like-minded people, and the story in question that they heard about in an online conversation. Red Dragon basically threw Howard under the bus with the revelation that he wrote "the Last White Man." Granted, it's not Howard's finest hour, and I wouldn't recommend the story to, well, anyone--and I say that having written charitably a half million words on Howard in the last fifteen years. But this was clearly not something that Red Dragon had picked up on prior to their  declaration, and for one very likely reason: that's not the takeaway message from Robert E. Howard's work.

Oh, the Internet will tell you differently, to be sure. There are a few blog posts out there by folks who started reading Conan and were drawn up short by this monstrous, over-arching racism--or words to that effect. And then they'd blog about what a terrible person Robert E. Howard is. As if he was the first person in fantasy to write about different cultures in an insensitive way. Conan, Solomon Kane, and other stories about other characters--all racist. It's right there. It's repulsive. They just couldn't get through it.

I'm not going to defend the position that Howard isn't a racist. Partially because I think the word "racist" has come to mean something very different than what Funk and Wagnalls will tell you. I think "racist" in modern day language is another word for "outcast" or "pariah." It's verbal leprosy. Someone who is a racist is someone to be shunned, for fear that their disease, their poison, seep into your ears and eyes and rot your brain and turn you into one of them. This notion of the power of speech, or the printed word, is a new thing, I think, and certainly bears discussion somewhere else. But more to the point, "racist" implies that there's an active component in place; a willful need to infect others in a way that is impossible to defend against, like a zombie pathogen.

I won't lambast the younger generation for a lack of critical thinking skills, because that would be showing my age. But I will lambast the generation ahead of me for setting up this idea of "Political Correctness" that has led to a kind of intolerance for anything that is deemed offensive or hurtful to another person, regardless of context, meaning, and intent. Enough about that. We were talking about Robert E. Howard.

Here are some facts: Howard employed language which was well within societal norms in the 1920s and 1930s, but is certainly not appropriate now. Howard wrote about a variety of races and peoples and ethnicities, mostly in his fantasy stories, but also in a number of historical adventures. He used language that was stereotypical, and occasionally derogatory, when talking about these people. Sometimes, they were heroes. Sometimes they were sympathetically portrayed. Sometimes they were the bad guys. In a few cases, Howard wrote recurring characters of color. These characters and descriptions were based almost entirely on what he read in the pulps, and what books he was able to get his hands on. Some of those books were ten, fifteen, twenty years out of date. Other books were fictions by Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and other classic authors. Many of the pulps he read features stories set in other countries and time periods, and these pulps also published articles and letters about foreign countries and conflicts. So, for a guy who was landlocked in Central Texas, he did the best he could do.

The other reason why I won't defend the charge of racism is because, in the context of his time and place, Howard was, in fact, a racist. And so was your grandfather. And your great grandfather. And Rudyard Kipling. And Joseph Conrad. And Jack London. And Woodrow Wilson. And just about anyone born prior to 1960 in America. Institutional racism was in full swing, especially in Texas. Separate bathrooms, lynchings, you name it. It was all out there, if not in the wide open, at least tacitly understood. There are just some places you don't go; there are just some people you don't talk to. Granted, every community was different, but by and large, people of color who were a part of a mostly white community were included as exceptions rather than as a rule.  This was the world your grandparents grew up in, by the way. Yes, them, too.

Did Howard know any black people? Sure, a few. He knew a few Hispanics, a Jewish man, and saw and observed Italians, Chinese, and other immigrants in his travels to places like New Orleans and San Antonio. Some of his descriptions were drawn whole cloth from his experiences, or from letters he wrote to correspondents like H.P. Lovecraft, who was himself a xenophobe and a monstrous bigot.

None of this was known to me when I first discovered Robert E. Howard's Conan, coming out of comics and Dungeons and Dragons. There were some folks in the Conan stories who were freed slaves, and there were black, yellow, olive, dusky, and fair skinned people in Conan's world, and they were good, or bad, or rulers, or cowardly dogs, depending on which side of Conan's sword they were on. You can call it white blindness on my part, but I never read Howard's descriptions of ebony skinned cannibals and assumed that Howard was talking about all black men. In fact, it's pretty clear in the story that it's this one city and not everyone in the region. I always liked it when N'Longa, the witch doctor, showed up in the Solomon Kane stories. He was a very different person--on purpose--from straightlaced Puritan Solomon Kane himself. N'Longa gives Kane a Ju-Ju staff, which proves to be a useful magic item in Kane's arsenal against the dark forces. This is heathen magic that the Puritan supposedly has no truck with, and yet, they formed an alliance against monsters.

This was a common pairing in Howard's stories, from Kull and Brule the Spear-Slayer to the unlikely friendships found in Howard's historical tales of the Crusades, and the El Borak stories. A white, if not implicitly W.A.S.P. man, befriends or joins forces with a non-white character for fortune, glory, survival, or friendship. Sometimes it's the end result. Sometimes it's the motive for the story.

Yes, the Africans are "wooly headed." Yes, the Shemite has a hooked nose. I know, I know. That's bad. It's a sloppy shortcut. I won't defend it. Mostly.

It's stereotypical. It's stereotyping. And while it's today considered, well, stereotyping, back in all of popular culture--books, magazines, newspapers, the radio, comics--every media in existence prior to 1945, this was accepted. It was okay, even encouraged, to make these short, sharp descriptors and even judgements about people of other ethnicities than your own. All Irish were hot tempered fighters. All Jewish people were thrifty and shrewd with money. All Italians were overly amorous.  All French people were snobs. All Swedes were big and stupid. These weren't seen as detriments, but rather simplified ways of communicating a set of cultural values and general set of traits at a time when immigration had literally flooded America with millions of people from all over the world. These folks were trying to fit in, and any chance they had to "become Americans," they took. Right up to and including laughing at themselves. Stereotyping was employed by vitually every comedian from the age of Vaudeville up through the rise of radio and later, Television. Many of these comedians moved from medium to medium with their same act, nearly unchanged for forty years.

Jack Benny, a legendary Jewish comedian (who employed a black piano player named Rochester, who spoke in a gruff parody of southern black speech himself) had a very famous bit from his radio show. He's held up at gunpoint by a mugger one evening, who says, "Your money or your life." After a pause, the gunman says, "Well?" and Benny, in his trademark exasperated fashion, says "I'm thinking it over!" One of the recordings online has the audience laughing as soon as the mugger says "Your money or your life." They know Jack Benny, and it's already funny to think that he'd be put in a situation where he has to choose something he values more than his wealth. Stereotypical Jewish behavior, rewritten as a very funny one-liner.

So, I'll cop to it on my part: I never saw what others saw in some of Howard's stories. Not until I got to "Pigeons From Hell" as a teenager, when I first encountered the word "nigger" in the story, did I stop and think about what was going on. After all, that was a word that was forbidden in my house. Well, unless my grandfather said it. Or my father. But anyway. I had to suddenly walk through the time and place of the story and ask myself, "Would a sheriff use that word in casual conversation? In 1936?" And of course, the answer was yes. Yes, he would have. Doesn't mean it's not an ugly word, and while it was certainly a stumbling block, I picked the narrative back up and soldiered on.

The stereotyping was lost on me in the Conan stories. No one likes anyone in the Conan stories. Each country is at war with other countries. People from the Southern kingdoms hate people from the Northern kingdoms. No one has a flattering thing to say about anyone. But that's not the takeaway point of Conan.

N'Longa talks much like the stereotypical educated native to Solomon Kane, and he's definitely what Spike Lee calls a "Magical Negro" in literal, if not figurative, terms. But that's not the takeaway point of Solomon Kane.

Reading "The Ghost of Tom Molyneaux," it's obvious that Ace Jessel speaks in a dialect lifted straight from Huckleberry Finn, if not Uncle Tom's Cabin. It's uncomfortable to read, but that's not the takeaway from any of the boxing stories Howard wrote.

Howard wrote about conflict, often between two cultures, and the sometimes exceptional men that arise from a life built around conflict. Roman or Pict, Moor or Turk, Gael or Dane, and yeah, even White or Black, Howard's message was about overcoming impossible odds, never giving up, never admitting defeat. Howard wrote about the struggle between good and evil, right and wrong, morality and scruples. He wrote about the character of masculinity--in other words, what makes a man. Interestingly, he also wrote a few stories about what makes a woman in a man's world, too. He wrote about the differences between civilization and barbarism and how blurred the line between them sometimes was.

That's what I see when I read Robert E. Howard's work, laid bare. And I know I'm not the only one because he's got millions of fans all over the world who see pretty much the same things. This in no way excuses the stereotyping, or some of the things he said to his friends. But as a reader with critical faculties in place, I think considering when and where he did his writing, it more than mitigates it.

Time and place have to mitigate content. Otherwise, we couldn't read Joseph Conrad, Jack London, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, or anyone else born before 1945. But, then again, there's a copy of Huckleberry Finn floating around right now with nary and N-Bomb in sight, so what do I know?

This is new thinking. I'm pretty sure the kids these days (those in high school and college) aren't willingly reading Conrad, London, Hemingway, or any of the other old, dead, white-guy authors that were "racist douchebags." I don't know when that particular attitude of condemnation for anything that doesn't conform to ones' own internal barometer of taste sprang up, but I suspect it's got something to do with the inflated sense of entitlement and the utter lack of empathy that seems to be all the rage amongst today's hard-wired mall rats.

In the end, there is only the author's work, and the reader's relationship to it. I'm capable of cutting authors some slack when I read their dated works, but then again, I'm a doughy, pasty white guy. Technically, I'm "part of the problem." If you, as a reader, find something so objectionable in a book that it makes you fly into a rage, well, that's your journey, and who am I to say different? I've read some singularly distasteful things in my life--one that springs instantly to mind involves a rape that takes place in a Philip Jose Farmer novel called Lord Tyger. It made me uncomfortable. But after reading it, it didn't turn me into a rapist.

I've read books where the characters are utterly despicable, and say horrible things to and about other characters in the book. Reading those things brought out a number of reactions in me, but they didn't make me into a despicable person. They were just words. Fictional stories, full of words, at that. If they brought out an emotion from me, then the story did its job. Is that not the primary function of art?

Maybe instead of trying to bring the next generation of fans to Robert E. Howard, we need to be waving them off. If reading a word in a story is going to cause them to freak out and rage-quit the author, then that's more flailing about that we don't need. In the past, we've tried to put our best foot forward. We've tried to show critical examinations from both sides of a particular issue. If none of that matters because, well, he was a "racist douchebag," then why waste of of my time and effort? How can someone learn anything knew when they know everything already?

I don't have any answers. If you've read to the end of this very long post, and feel like discussing, have at it.