Tuesday, June 16, 2020

On Teaching Lovecraft in the Age of George Floyd (Plus a Reading List)

Hi! I've been working on this post since the beginning of June, but due to my summer-haze work pace and accidentally leaving my laptop in Iowa for a week, I'm only finally getting around to publishing this today. Even if the heat of the protests is behind us, I still want to throw my two cents in the ring here, for whatever it's worth. This is an issue that needs sustained energy, and I'm only just learning how to speak up. Anyway, here we go.

I'd planned to write about this particular lesson from my magic course at some point, but the way I will write about it has now changed thanks to everything that has happened in the past weeks. I'm pretty sure the vast majority of people reading my posts are white, and so I write this for a white audience. I've decided it's important to share my opinion, my voice, my stance, for my white family and friends to know. This is a conversation I want us to be having.

For my magic and language course this past semester, I included on the syllabus a short story by H.P Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu." I chose it because there is both an "unpronouncable" and "unreadable" spoken and written language that play a major role in developing the sense of horror around the great destructive elder Gods ("Cthulhu" being one of them) that form the basis of Lovecraft's influential mythos.

But I was worried about including Lovecraft on the syllable because the man was an outspoken, well documented, agreed with Hitler, named his cat the n-word, disgusting bigot and racist. I was aware of controversies surrounding his racism, and I worried that including him on the syllabus would make it seem like I was giving Lovecraft a platform, or endorsing him as a person "worthy" of canonized status. I finally decided that there was enough value in the contribution the story added to our overall class theme that I wanted to keep it on the syllabus, and the best way to handle the controversy would be to just have an open class discussion about it.

I dedicated two class sessions to discussing Lovecraft. The first class session we kept very focused primarily on the language use in the story, and it was an interesting discussion that worked well for the course. For the next class period, however, I had the students read this article, and then when they showed up to class, I asked them to write for five minutes about what racism they noticed in the story, and what value we should place on this work knowing the views of the author, and whether I should have a place for Lovecraft on the syllabus. For context, my class had 18 students in it, only one of whom was Black, and she mostly refrained from joining in the conversation (absolutely her right), so this was generally white students talking to other white students.

And their answers provided some interesting commentary on how white people in general respond to racism. I had some students who read the whole story and did not notice any form of racism at all. It was a story about monsters under the ocean being awoken to potentially destroy the earth, nothing remotely about racism. Then I had other students who had been so angered and appalled by the racism inherent in the very details of the story that they could barely stomach finishing. It was quite the spectrum.

But I think this is the way racism works for us, as white people. Some of us may go about our lives and not "see" it. We're just living our lives, dealing with our own conflicts, no racism here! That is white privilege. It takes some training, some education, but once someone begins to point out the racism, you can see how it is there, so woven into the fabric of our society that it might be unnoticeable to you, the white protagonist, but it is there, pervasive, everywhere. It is on every page, in almost every line. And once we began examining the racism in the story, it was very hard not to see. In fact, it became clear to us as a class that Lovecraft's story wasn't about fictional alien monsters at all, but actually about racism.

Lovecraft's brand of horror operates on the scariness of the unknown. What is so terrifying about his giant elder gods is that they are presumably beyond human comprehension, so unfathomable that to even try to grasp at their existence or purpose leads men to go insane. They are the definition of the "other." And what Lovecraft tries to evoke through the way he spins his narrative is to build that sense of the unknown, the unknowable. The language that these gods use to communicate with man is barely able to translate into recognizable sound. Lovecraft chose the name "Cthulhu" because it was supposed to look and sound unpronounceable. It was supposed to feel unknowable, and therefore terrifying. Lovecraft explores a type of fear of the unknowable that assumes what is unknown is going to destroy the world as he knew it.

If you read the story closely, you can clearly see this is how Lovecraft felt about other races as well. He seemed to find them unfathomable, so different, so "other," that it was impossible to understand them, and that was horrifying to him. Or perhaps, in the deepest, most unexplored recesses of his psyche, Lovecraft knew that to come to know or understand other races would be the destruction of his world, would be the destruction of white (male) dominance, and he found that too uncomfortable to countenance.

But what we spent most of our class time discussing is how in the very act of writing a story based on the fear of the unknown, Lovecraft undermined his intention. In trying to create a name that was unpronounceable, Lovecraft created a name that people have standardized pronunciation for through the decades and we now say without hesitation (see here, although check the comments to see just how upset everyone is that we pronounce this word at all). Even while declaring the monster indescribable, Lovecraft nevertheless included enough description that readers (and artists) are still able to guess at a fairly uniform image of it.




Lovecraft opens his story with this paragraph: "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid isle of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

Then he goes on from there to tell an entire story that does nothing but piece together bits of dissociated knowledge to reveal a sensible whole story of what are supposed to be terrifying monsters bent on destroying earth. Yet by the end of the story, we are no more driven mad by horror than we are by curiosity, and there is no impulse to flee from the deadly light.

What I proposed to my class is that Lovecraft had it all wrong when he assumed we should be afraid of the unknown. While we could debate for endless ages about whether powerful alien gods are or are not actually unknowable, what we can assume (both from the story and from his real life) is that Lovecraft was deeply afraid of other races because he did not know them, did not understand them.  While it is very true that knowing another race and acknowledging that race's humanity may be difficult, and may destroy our own worldview, it is far from the most terrifying thing. The most terrifying thing may very well be our own selves, our own ability to de-humanize others.

When we keep ourselves in ignorance, when we refuse to learn about the "other," when we refuse to acknowledge the reality, the humanity, the valid experiences and emotions, of other races, that is when we become the monsters.

But we are capable of learning. We are capable of understanding. We are capable of reaching across "black seas of infinity" and piecing together dissociated pieces of knowledge to open up vistas of reality that may be terrifying, but not because they reveal monsters that will drive us mad, but because they reveal other humans we have treated wrongly. Guilt may destroy our world view, but it will not destroy our sanity. We must trust that coming to face the unknown, coming to learn about the "other," is the only way to avoid the new dark age Lovecraft touts as a desirable condition for humanity. His racism would have us wallow in darkness because it is safe and peaceful (for us, the white dominant race). The light might be terrifying, but I will always choose the light over the dark.

Light is knowable. Light is knowledge.

I want to be clear here. I am not saying that I will ever be able to truly understand what it feels like to be Black in America today. I am not saying I will ever be able to empathize completely, or really "know." What I am saying is that humans may be the only species capable of imagining what it is like to be someone else. We are a species that is capable of greater understanding. We may not be able to understand everything yet, and it may take many years of long, hard work to get there, but the work of seeking more knowledge, seeking more understanding, seeking to really listen, listen, listen, and validate the humanity and reality of the "other", will lead us to a place out of darkness. Maybe it is scary, and uncomfortable, and chaotic here, facing these unknowns. But we must always choose the light over the darkness.

I actually just finished reading Malcom Gladwell's Talking to Strangers (which, PS tangent, offers a super interesting look into the history of police work and one aspect of why police work the way they do, and how it leads to tragedy) in which he says something along the lines of how we are terrible at knowing when we are being lied to, and true communication may be almost impossible because we have such a hard time truly understanding each other. I take the more positive view that we may be terrible now, but understanding "others" is not impossible. Just difficult. It is the work of  a lifetime, perhaps many lifetimes. Just because it is hard does not mean we should not try.

My class finally decided that it was probably fine for me to leave Lovecraft on the syllabus for the single reason that it allowed that conversation to happen (I even had a few students tell me that class discussion was the single most impactful class they had all semester). It was worth reading the words of a racist so that we could point out to each other what the racism was and why it was wrong. We can read Lovecraft to learn that he had it all wrong.

I've had many conversations with people about my class over the past few months, because I love sharing about this course, but some of the most disappointing conversations have been with white men who, when they ask what books I'm teaching and I mention Lovecraft, have gushed enthusiastically, "I love Lovecraft!" And I wait for the "but..." that never comes. To all those white men I was too afraid to confront in the moment, Lovecraft needs a caveat. He contributed greatly to the world of horror literature, but he was racist, and he was wrong about what is truly terrifying.

I am not perfect on this topic. I was terrified to lead a discussion on this topic (like, literally heart-fluttering panicked), and I'm terrified to write these words here and share them because I might be getting it wrong. Racism is so messy, so incredibly messy, and so incredibly uncomfortable. But I don't want my silence on the topic to speak louder than a fumbling, potentially wrong attempt at standing on the right. I'm doing what work I can to get educated, to get informed, and to understand as much as I am able to. I am learning. And here is what I have learned so far:

Racism is not an emotion or a feeling, it is a system that exists. I may not love and support the system of racism, I may not actively persecute Black people, but simply by being white and enjoying white privilege I benefit from and perpetuate the system.

Racism has caused deep, systemic, generational trauma for the Black people of America (and other countries). From the very little I know about trauma from my reading, this means that their brains have had to develop in a way to survive and exist around that trauma every single day. When faced with triggers (like the killing of a Black person by white police men), that trauma may cause an expression of release in the form of violent protest. I am not saying I condone violent protest, but I am saying that I have a lot more patience and compassion for the burning of a building due to triggering generational trauma than I do for murder by white men (white men who, I might add, are probably also suffering from various forms of trauma, but it is a trauma from a position of power, not a position of victim, so it is harder to have compassion there).

I believe it is completely unfair to ask Black people to behave with the patience and long suffering of Gandhi while excusing white men for violent murder. Black anger is uncomfortable for us, but would we feel any different in their shoes?

To my white friends and family, none of us want to believe we are bad, or wrong, or monsters. None of us want to believe that we are racists. None of us want to believe that we contribute to a world that makes life harder or more dangerous for black people. But the fact is, we do.

My oldest son saw me watching a video of one of the protests and asked what was going on. I explained that a white police man had killed a Black man and people were angry about it. He asked why the police man had killed the Black man and I said the most likely reason was simply that he was Black. My son exclaimed, "That is so wrong!" A few hours later, he said, "Mom, I've been thinking about that video you showed me, and I didn't know until I saw that that Martin Luther King Jr. didn't win."

Clearly, there are a lot more conversations I need to be having with my son, but isn't his experience a little like all of ours? We learn about MLKJ in school, learn about his dream speech and assassination as part of a history lesson. And that is how we like to think about these issues. As part of history. Racism was in the past, and then we had heroes like MLKJ, and now we don't have racism any more. It's a very pretty story we tell ourselves. We want to believe it's over, and we've all learned to be good, and racism isn't a thing anymore. But my son, like all of us, has had to wake up to the harsh reality that it is not history. It is not over. MLKJ did not win. He was shot and killed by the very racism that he fought against, and it has continued to kill and kill and kill.

What can we do? We can start by listening to Black voices. We can start with reading Black writing. We can start by quieting our own knee-jerk reflex to defend ourselves and our position and just be open to listening, to validating the hurt and anger Black people feel. So now I've said my piece, I'll send you on to recommendations of Black voices as a place to start. Some of these I have read and highly recommend. Some of these are now in my queue waiting to be read, so I can keep educating myself, keep listening, keep learning, keep trying to understand, keep moving toward the light.


Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

I read this one last year and it changed my mind on so many things. My husband is a lawyer who has not read this yet, but I had multiple discussions with him about the justice system, what is wrong with it, how things need to change, and the values of mercy over justice (or not over justice, but mercy being a form of justice). Anyway, you've got to read this one. I haven't seen the movie yet but they are making the movie available for free on a bunch of platforms all through the month of June, and I will be getting around to it at some point.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine

I read this one a few years ago (it was my university's book-of-the-year in 2017-18), and it is a little bit different as far as being a mash-up of genres (lyrical essays, poetry, images, even links to online videos), but if you wonder what racism looks like today, this is a heart-breaking description of it. We may not have Jim Crow laws anymore, but we still have everything from microagressions to full-on murder. This book doesn't offer solutions, just a plea to let their voices be heard.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This one has been on my to-read list for a while, but I've yet to get around to it. It's been a hot one for years, and I know it's left some (white) readers feeling conflicted and uncomfortable, but it sounds like an important read to me. It's a letter from a Black father to his son, about how to get along in a racist world.

Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad

Saad is a Black Muslim woman living in London (I believe it's London, somewhere in the UK at least), which apparently has just a big a problem with race as we do here in America. I recently added this to my to-read list, but I understand it's far more of a work-book with pen and paper assignments than a read-through-in-one-sitting kind of book, so I'm looking to get a physical copy from the library instead of my usual audio book route. From what I gather, this is designed specifically for white people (I think?) to help us understand our own relationships to racist systems, and how we can do better.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

I mean, no, does any white person really want to talk about race? But we're all talking about it now, so we better figure out how to have these conversations. I've heard really good things about this book, and therefore I'm adding it to my to-read list.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

So when it comes to difficult and depressing topics, I always like solutions-oriented books. It's like, yes, now I know everything is wrong and terrible, but what can I do about it? I'm hoping this book offers some of those solutions and suggestions. This is another one I've heard plenty of good things about, so it's on the list.

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

Okay, technically this one is not by a Black voice. DiAngelo is a white academic who made her career off of coining the term White Fragility, which as far as I understand it defines the knee-jerk defensiveness white people feel around topics of racism. Since I've seen plenty of defensiveness in conversations with family recently, I think this a topic worth learning more about, so this one is on my to-read list as well.

Adult Fiction

Homeoing by Yaa Gyasi

Okay, this is one of the best books I read in 2017. This is a sweeping multi-generational saga that follows the stories of two half-sisters from 1700s Africa, one who stays in Ghana, the other who comes to America through forced slavery, then follows the lives of their descendants through the centuries to the present day. It's a gripping look at the harmful effects of colonialism, slavery, and generational trauma, not to mention, breathtakingly written. I highly recommend this one.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

This book is a historical fantasy re-imagining of pre-Civil War life in America. The underground railroad, rather than being a metaphorical system of trails and safe-houses, is a actually a literal underground railroad, with trains in underground tunnels, and stations at various places along which the protagonists stop to rest and see different aspects of racism in American society. There's all sorts of darkness and violence, and an a-historical mash-up of some of the worst treatment our country has subjected Black people to over the centuries, but this one is definitely worth reading. It's a history that needs facing.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

This one feels so different from most of the other books on this list, because while this book does explore different issues of racism in America, it does so in a rather dishy/gossipy/beach read kind of way. In other words, it's not super dark or heavy. However, what this book does offer is a portrayal of two very different types of toxic white allies. When I first read this book, I was confused about the critique of white allies, but after recently learning about the "7 Circles of Whiteness," I can totally see how the white people depicted in this story represent toxic forms of white ally-ship. It's worth reading just to parse through that (though, language warning in effect).

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi

This one has been on my to-read list for a while. It explores themes of racism with immigration, and offers a non-American Black view of American racism (I believe). I've heard very good things about this one.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

This one has been on my radar for a while (it's been hugely popular for a few years now) but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet. As I understand it, the themes center more heavily on relationships and marriage, but there is a strong background of issues of mass incarceration and racism in the justice system, which seems to touch every Black person's life.

YA Fiction

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This is one of those beautiful poetry novels, where the story is offered in verse. This one is autobiographical, describing Woodson's childhood growing up in South Carolina and New York in the 1960s and 70s, and the impact of racism and the civil rights movement on her life. I loved this book so much, and highly recommend.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

This book is so good and really just hits everything: police brutality, the caught place of Black people between the "hood" and "white" success, protests, and everything else. It's powerful and beautifully written. I have to give a strong warning on the language, but I understand the language wouldn't be as authentic or real if it were watered down. I haven't seen the movie version of this yet, but I understand it's also being offered free through the month of June on various platforms.

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Similar to The Hate U Give, this one covers everything around police brutality, and the hard place of young Black people between seeking success in white schools and arenas, and the community of Black friends left in the "hood". It's short, and again a strong language warning, but it packs a punch in covering all the hot issues.

Whew. Okay. This is not a definitive list of all the books out there by Black authors, or all the good books on racism. These are just a handful of the most recent I've read or plan to read eventually and want to recommend (let me know what you would add to this list!). I offer this as a starting place if you are looking to read up on these issues and want to listen to more Black voices on these topics.

We must make the effort to try and understand each other. We must work toward listening, we must move toward the light. Otherwise, we will perish in our own dark age.

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