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July 28, 2003

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Racism and the Pulps

This time around I wanted to write about something which may seem, to many of you, a tad too heavy and sober for our otherwise upbeat magazine.  Just the same, PDF is a magazine dedicated to Pulp and to the history of pulp literature, and the thing I want to talk about is an intrinsic, if unwelcome, part of that history.  I am speaking of the racism which cropped up far too often in pulp stories of the 1930s and 1940s.

Now, we all know it existed, there's no denying that.  But, to most pulp afficionados, racism in the Pulps is the "skeleton at the feast" -- something we try to ignore as best we can, hoping, if it won't go away, at least it won't detract from the enjoyment we derive from an otherwise well told tale.  (Of course, there are always those readers who are themselves racists, and enjoy such stores precisely because of the racism, but, for purposes of this editorial, we shall leave those readers aside.)  I don't know about you, but whenever I run across a particularly unpleasant example of such racism, I generally find myself asking the same nagging question.

What in God's name were they thinking?!

Hard on the heels of that comes other related queries like -- Didn't they know how hurtful it all was?  Or -- did they really believe what they were writing?  Or -- why, why, WHY?

Such questions -- particularly the last -- arise from what I hope is an understandable desire to make some sense of an otherwise senseless phenomenon.  Deep down, I want to believe there was some factor, some impulse, at work which, even if I may not agree with it, at least would allow me a baseline of commonality with my pulp-scribe-heroes -- would allow me to better understand why they wrote what they wrote.

To take an example -- many of our contributing writers here at PDF have indicated their debt to Robert E. Howard as a major influence on their work.  I am myself a big fan of Howard's writings, and I even run a website devoted to his stories.  But there can be no escaping the fact that Howard all too frequently indulged in racism, particularly in his "weird menace" tales.  Different readers have different ways of dealing with this.  In Gahan Wilson's introduction to the Howard collection Black Canaan, Wilson writes:

"The period racism in these stories does, at times, become oppressive.  It suggests we live in a better era, and hints at continuing improvement.  Howard was, like the rest of us, a child of his time and place..."
Wilson excuses Howard's racism by placing the blame on the 1930s and 1940s.  And he is certainly not alone in blaming racism on "time and place".  I'm probably safe in saying that most people today would have no trouble with the statement: "People were more racist in the 1930s and 1940s than they are today."  It is generally accepted that the human race has, overall, improved over the last seventy years morally speaking.  Which is certainly a comforting notion -- if it is true.

But is it true?

Before I continue, I should make it clear what I am talking about when I refer to "racism in the Pulps".  For all that racism is often used to insult or demean people of another race, racism as practiced in the Pulps often had quite the opposite purpose.  Perhaps such racism might better be called "racial stereotyping".  As an example, Robert E. Howard was most famous for his Conan tales, but he also wrote stories set in what was then modern day Afghanistan, featuring his hero, El Borak, modeled after Lawrence of Arabia.  El Borak was an American of Irish descent.  His adventures, however, involved various ethnic groups found in Afghanistan -- Ghilzais, Afridis, Panthans, and such.  Sometimes these groups served as enemies, but just as often they served as friends, helping him in his adventures.  When depicting these peoples, Howard stuck to rigidly stereotyped models, each group having its own fixed traits, both physical and behavioural.  In general, they were all described as violent but fiercely loyal.  Frequently they were compared to wolves, driven by their emotions, uncivilized, primitive.

In the context of the El Borak stories, these stereotypes were meant to be positive.  The reader was supposed to admire these people for their traits -- traits which El Borak himself shared.  But such depictions were still racist.  For, while these traits may have been well suited (and therefore positive) in the context of a tulwar duel fought on the Khyber Pass, they were definitely ill suited (and therefore negative) in the context of, say, an Afghan-American applying for a job as a brain surgeon in New York City.  This is the inherent problem with racial stereotyping.  It forces individuals, with all their many differing traits, both good and bad, into a single monolithic "one" of fixed simplified traits.

I'm sure Howard meant no harm in his depiction of Afghans, but I am equally certain the same cannot be said regarding his stereotyping of blacks.  Howard lived his whole life in the small Texas town of Cross Plains.  Whether he ever actually met a black person, I don't know.  But, in his stories, he seems to have had an entire list of imaginary traits which he called upon to depict blacks, none of which could be called flattering.  From long arms to splayed feet to murky (and rolling) eyes to a guttural speech, Howard conjured up a bizarrely ape-like vision having nothing to do with reality.  In this case, these traits were meant to be insulting, regardless of the context.

Whether intended as positive or negative, racism in the Pulps is still racism.  And so, I return to my original question.  Is it really true that we are better people than we were seventy years ago?

Certainly, there can be no doubt we would not expect to find such blatant examples of racism in modern magazines.  Although I find myself bothered by a writer such as Clive Cussler in his depiction of other races, I don't think I have ever come across anything to equal some of Howard's more egregious examples.  And yet, all the same, I would argue that the answer is "no".  The impulse which led to such racism in the Pulp era is still alive and well today.  It has simply found a different mode of expression.

But what is this "impulse"?

I may be allowing the Devil too much his due, but I think writers like Howard indulged in racial stereotyping -- whether positive or negative -- because it simplified the story-telling pprocess.  Such stereotyping gives the writer a neat, preconstructed framework upon which to build the reality in which his story exists.  It allows the writer to treat his story -- and his characters -- like a game of Risk, where the pieces belonging to one country are one colour, and the pieces belonging to another country are another colour.  Everything is neat and orderly, including depictions of good and evil.  And even when, on occasion, individuals depart from the rigid stereotypes of their race, that can be seen as an interesting aberration, as something unexpected -- even freakish.

Given this theory, it does not take much effort to see this same impulse finding expression in the creation of imaginary races to be found in modern day fantasy and science fiction.  To take one example, J.R.R. Tolkien's imaginary Middle Earth is peopled with rigidly defined races, from Elves to Hobbits to Orcs, each being strictly stereotyped in a way which would be called "racist" if applied to real, living races.  But, of course, they are not real, living races, and so they do not create the same harm that real racism does.  Just the same, the impulse, the need, which they satisfy is the same.

And, as with real racism, the modern depiction of imaginary races can be both intended to be positive and negative.  Tolkien's Elf stereotype was largely positive.  They were portrayed as heroic figures.  The same cannot be said for the Orcs.  Tolkien's Orcs were bad to the bone, without any room for individual variation within the race.  If Orcs were real, The Lord of the Rings would be banned in public schools as hate literature.  The same might be said for the Klingons of Star Trek.

I have said writers are driven to work with stereotypes because it simplifies their job.  But there are other, more constructive, reasons for wanting to create a world of rigidly stereotyped races.  Such a technique can also be used to simplify reality in order to create an analogy.  Take for example, the award winning comic book, Maus.  This comic book was an autobiographical depiction of the Nazi Holocaust but with the Jews drawn as mice and the Nazis drawn as cats.  The purpose was to better allow us to understand the sense of alienation felt by the Jews living under the anti-semitic Nazi regime -- how they were made to feel literally like a separate species.  Nevertheless, obviously this was not a true depiction of reality.  Jews and Nazis were not separate species.  One of the many horrible things about the Holocaust was that there were no simple ways to tell friend from foe, good from evil, Jew from Nazi.  On the surface, they were all the same.  It was under the surface that the difference lay.

The Ferengi of Star Trek are another example of racial stereotyping used in the service of an analogy.  The Ferengi are depicted as rigidly fixated on profit and acquisition, a stereotype nearly identical to the Scottish stereotype of yesteryear.  When applied to the Scots, we would call this racism, but because the Ferengi do not really exist, we instead accept such racial stereotyping for what it is -- a metaphor for uncontrolled Capitalism.

In the end, we have little right to smugly claim our superiority over the pulp writers of yesterday.  We are still driven by the same impulse that drove them.  But we have fantasy and science fiction to thank for offering a harmless outlet for that impulse.  And, from time to time, we may even put that impulse to positive use through analogy and metaphor.  The important thing is that we do not lose the ability to distinguish between reality and the imaginary, racially stereotyped worlds we have constructed.

Because then, instead of telling stories, we are telling lies.

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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