A New Story

I have spent the best part of this week re-reading parts one and two of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers).  I intend to spend the best part of the weekend reading the final book of the trilogy The Return of the King.  I first found and fell in love with The Lord of the Rings trilogy when the first movie came out way back in 2001 (15 years ago - feeling old).  Up until then I was not a fan of fantasy.  I've been an avid reader my whole life but kept far away from fantasy, only dipping my toes in so to speak with the Harry Potter books.  I watched that first movie with the crisp New Zealand scenery, the Hobbits, the Elves (my long-held crush of Orlando Bloom began here), Gandalf, and the masterful storytelling.  I was so crushed by the fall of Gandalf and too impatient to wait two years to watch the next two movies and find out the conclusion to the story that I rented out the three books from the library and read them in the space of two weeks.  Most Christmases since the trilogy came out on DVD I have watched the full trilogy, the love of the story never fading.  Fifteen years later I'm rereading them as if it were the first time all over again and the joy remains unchanged – maybe even heightened.

There are some incredible minds in this world.  Minds that I would love to tap into and spend a few moments seeing the world as they do and imagining as they imagine.  Being a ardent book-lover I am drawn to the minds of writers.  I can appreciate good story-telling in any book and authors of many genres from Stephen King's horror to Jane Austen romance, but with a mind such as J.R.R.Tolkien's I am floored by the expanse of the world he has created.  Worlds with maps, languages, histories and legends.  But I do have one question to pose to Mr. Tolkien, why do all the good guys have to be white and the bad guys black?

The Elves, the brave men of Gondor, the kingly men of Rohan are all described as white, with pale skin.  Some have dark hair some are blonde; all are white.  The Hobbits, sometimes described as ruddy, always white.  Then the bad men from the East come along in The Two Towers, the men who have sided with the enemy and the forces of evil and they come riding creatures similar in description to elephants from Africa or India and with their dark, brown skin.  As a brown person that jars me.  It's jars me because, although I'm not looking for it, I'm attune to it.  It's one of the parts of white privilege that many non-brown people do not understand and take for granted.  They don't notice when they are in a room of only white people, they don't notice when there are no people of other ethnicities in a TV show/movie/play, and they generally don't notice when the good guys are all white and the bad guys are all brown.  They don't notice because they don't need to notice.  There is always a plethora of white representatives in media but we brown sometimes have to search them out.

I'm a big fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's, not least because she is a fellow Nigerian but because she is an incredibly talented writer.  If you read nothing else this year please read Half of a Yellow Sun, and if you don't cry then I question your humanity.  Adichie gave a TedTalk on the danger of "The Single Story".  In the talk she speaks of how she also loved reading as a young child and would write stories in her youth.  Because all the books she read were about pretty white girls with blond hair, Adichie also wrote about pretty white girls with blonde hair.  It was only in growing up that she began to discover there were more stories out there for her to write.

Tolkien grew up in a different time writing for a different audience.  As a wealthy, white man living in the early 1900s he probably didn't meet that many black people and therefore knew very little about the black man except what he was told and led to accept by society.  We are past that time and we know better and must do better.  Tolkien wasn't writing for me, a Nigerian-English girl in the 20th century.  He was writing an adventure epic for little boys like himself and he wasn't to know how wide a reach his stories would have.

I mentioned Harry Potter briefly above but the Harry Potter books are another series that shaped my childhood.  I devoured those books for seven long years and would happily do so again.  J.K.Rowling, a middle-aged white woman, has done better.  The Potter books have a scattering of black, Chinese and Indian characters, good characters who go to Hogwarts and fight against evil, but of course Rowling writes in modern day England and her cast of characters roughly fits the ethnic diversity of modern day England.  Rowling wrote her books for British children and has opened her eyes enough to see that British children come is all shapes, sizes, colours and races.    

We are no longer living in Tolkien's time.  The civil rights movement in America happened and Jamaica got its independence in the 1960s; Apartheid ended in the 1990s; apparently we are living in a world where people of all races can live harmoniously together and our literature and visual arts need to start representing that.  It's no longer good enough to read books or watch movies or TV shows in which black people or people of any other ethnicity besides caucasian are not present because that is no longer a representation of the world we live in.  It is also no longer good enough to only write stories in which black people are bad and white people are good.  That is one story but it is not the only story.

In her talk Adichie said, "The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story."

A friend of mine was at an acting workshop and as an exercise the group went round to each person and said which roles they would be most suited for.  He, as the only black male in the group, was told he would be cast as a gang leader, drug dealer, the bad guy.  In response to my shocked face he quickly added that everyone in the group was stereotyped.  The blonde girls were the princesses and the love interests whilst the brunettes the best friend.  I don't accept that.  I refuse to accept that.  What year are we living in?  The brunette can get the guy and the black guy can be the good guy.  Human beings are far too complex to buy into stereotypes.

As racial talks continue to become the hot topic of the moment I've had comments from white friends saying that to them skin colour is not a big deal.  They don't see that the bad guys are black and the good guys are white, they just see bad and good guys.  They don't understand tags like #blackgirlmagic or the sense of identity associated with a skin tone because they are neither white supremacist nor black.  They don't understand why it matters that Simone Manuel is the first black (African American) female to win a gold medal in a single-swimming event because why does her race matter?  But gently I tell all my friends that they don't see it because they don't need to.  We acknowledge in a positive light what has for long been given a negative light.  These achievements are milestones of how far an oppressed people have come.

My white friends haven't been told that they are beautiful despite their brown skin or that for a black girl they're alright.   Instead they are praised for their tans.  They haven't had to study works in the literature cannon such as Heart of Darkness  by Joseph Conrad or Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë in which black people are depicted as savages and dark skin is synonymous with evil.  For centuries white has always been right and so it's going to take more than just passively letting that assumption die away to encourage black people that black is right too.  It's going to take active promotion and an active celebration of "the black man" to set us back on the right track of celebrating all races for their many virtues.  It's going to take centuries and many, many stories to counteract the one that has been prevailing and keeping black people oppressed for so long.