Book Review: Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth. The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. New York University Press, 2019. 225 pgs., $28.00.
The University of Tennessee
Knoxville, TN, USA
When Ebony Elizabeth Thomas was a child, her mother told her, “There is no magic.” As a black girl, Thomas was expected to know and accept reality. For her, there were no fairies or princesses or mermaids; there were no white knights on equally white horses. These fantasies were for white people who had nothing better to do than escape into the imaginary worlds created by and for them. Thomas was taught that magical stories were not for black readers, and she, like the speaker in one of Nikki Giovanni’s (1970) most famous poems,” “…learned/black people aren’t/suppose to dream” (lines 3-4).
Fortunately, Thomas resisted this lesson. She was not content to “dutifully” read-only realistic fiction chronicling the hardships experienced by her ancestors and instead went on a quest for magic. She found the magic she sought in the pages of books such as Michael Endes’s The Neverending Story and in films such as Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. What she didn’t find were characters who looked like her. Now a self-described “teacher, fangirl, creative writer, scholar, critic, and researcher,” Thomas has taken a deeper look at magic in The Dark Fantastic, which analyzes “the imagination gap” in regard to ethnicity in fantasy, a genre which is more likely to depict characters who are green, fanged, or winged that characters who are black. By analyzing black representation in fantasy literature and popular culture aimed at young adults, Thomas urges readers, writers, and critics to “mind the gap” and work toward closing it.
The first work Thomas looks at closely is Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, a series with a dystopian setting in which she compares to the economically depressed, post-White Flight Detroit in which she grew up. The dystopia in The Hunger Games is class-based, as the wealthy leaders of the Capital “reap” youth from the impoverished Districts of Panem to fight to the death for their televised entertainment. The novel’s protagonist, skilled archer Katniss Everdeen, allows herself to be reaped in place of her younger sister, Prim. During the Hunger Games, Katniss forges a bond with a girl who is around Prim’s age but who, unlike Prim, had no one to take her place in the reaping. The depiction of this character, Rue, the only important black character in the first novel, is the focus of Thomas’s analysis and an example of what she calls “racial innocence.” Rue is closely aligned with the novel’s central symbol, the genetically modified Mockingjay, and while Thomas says Rue is too well developed to fit the “magical Negro” cliché, she still performs a traditional function of black characters in stories written by white authors in that her primary purpose is to use her natural skills to help the white protagonist. When Rue is killed, she becomes the “dark sacrifice” who will inspire Katniss to fight the power of the Capital. Rue is an important symbol, but she is also the black girl who dies early in the trilogy, and Katniss is the white girl who lives. It is still Katniss’s story.
Interestingly, Thomas also points out that many white viewers of the first Hunger Games film were shocked and upset that the role of Rue was played by a black actress, even though in the book, Collins clearly describes Rue as having “dark brown skin.” This reaction supports Thomas’s and other critical race theorists’ claims that white readers tend to imagine characters as white by default, even when, as is the case with The Hunger Games, there is ample evidence to the contrary.
Thomas also turns her critical attention to depictions of black female characters on two popular television shows, the BBC’s Merlin and the CW’s The Vampire Diaries. Merlin served as a sort of prequel to the standard Arthurian legends, depicting Arthur and Merlin as young men before they rose to their full kingly and wizardly powers. The character of Guinevere, called Gwen in the series, was depicted as the daughter of a blacksmith and played by a mixed-race actress, a fact that caused considerable controversy throughout the run of the show. Viewers, it seemed, could believe in wizards and prophecies of swords being pulled from stones with no problem, but when it came to a black Guinevere, they were unable to suspend their disbelief even though, as Thomas points out, there was ethnic and cultural diversity in Medieval Europe.
While it is the fan response to Gwen, not the writers’ depiction of her, that is troubling, Thomas sees the actual character of Bonnie in the CW’s The Vampire Diaries as problematic. In the series of teen novels on which the show was based, Bonnie was Bonnie McCullough, a white teen witch of Irish descent. For the TV series, Bonnie McCullough was rewritten as Bonnie Bennett, a black teen witch for whom Thomas had an instant affinity in early episodes. However, as the series progressed, Bonnie became a sidelined character who was seen mainly in relation to the main white characters in the show, and while other characters enjoyed juicy teen supernatural romances, she remained single and celibate. Bonnie Bennett on the show was a more minor, passive character than Bonnie McCullough in the books. It is ironic that in the making of a show about vampires, one of the primary characters from the books was defanged.
In the book’s final chapter, “Hermione is Black,” Thomas moves from analyzing the limitations of depictions of black female characters in fantasy toward looking at a new world of possibilities. She relates the pushback she received as a young writer for writing Harry Potter fan fiction focusing on the black character of Angelina Johnson but then contrasts that experience with the more recent fan-driven “Hermione is Black” movement. This movement received J.K. Rowling’s stamp of approval and was partially responsible for the casting of a black actress in the role of Hermione in the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Thomas also points to the recent Marvel movie Black Panther, which depicts a fully black fantasy universe that encompasses African mythology with Afro-futurist science fiction and depicts a variety of strong black women, whether warriors or scientists. Old myths are merging with new ones, it seems, to create fantasy worlds in which black characters are not present as tokens or as the help but as the heart of the story itself.
The Dark Fantastic makes an important contribution to the ongoing discussion of the need for diverse children’s and young adult literature and expands the argument to include other media as well. Every year, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison calculates the percentage of books published that focus on characters of different ethnicities. According to their most current statistics, of children’s books published in 2018, 50% focused on white characters, while 27% focused on protagonists in the category of “animal/other.” The remaining meager 23% was divided into African/African American at 10%, Asian/Pacific Islander at 7%, LatinX at 5%, and Native American/First Nations at a stunningly low 1% (Cooperative Children’s Book Center, 2019). Clearly, there are a lot more white children—and seemingly, anthropomorphized animals—seeing themselves reflected in literature than children of other ethnicities. Thomas’s work adds much insight into this critical conversation.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking aspect of The Dark Fantastic, though, is not so much about whether black characters are represented but how they are represented. When black characters appear in fiction, are they subjects or sidekicks? Are they multi-dimensional characters with complex motivations or cardboard cutouts that a white author included as tokens of diversity? Are they depicted in magical, imaginative stories and not only in historical fiction depicting racial oppression? While it is both useful and sobering to look at the CCBC’s statistics, it is also important to remember, as Thomas shows us, that it is not just the quantity but the quality of diverse depictions that matters and that diverse characters should be represented in fantastical settings, as well as, realistic ones. As a young girl, Thomas was led to believe that her blackness doomed her to a magicless existence; The Dark Fantastic is her rallying cry for writers to put Black Girl Magic onto the pages of books and into the hands of young readers.
Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison (2019). Publishing statistics on children’s/ya books about people of color and First/Native Nations and by people of color and First/Native Nations authors and Illustrators. Retrieved from https://writix.co.uk/blog/publishing-statistics-on-childrens-ya-books
Giovanni, N. (1970). Dreams. Retrieved from Poetry Foundation website: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48224/dreams-56d229494e255
Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth (2019). The dark fantastic: Race and the imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. New York: New York University Press.
Julia Watts is the author of several novels for young adult readers, most recently Quiver (Three Rooms Press, 2019). Her novel Finding H.F. won the 2002 Lambda Literary Award in the Children’s/Young Adult category. After a two-decade college teaching career, she is currently a PhD student in Children’s/Young Adult Literature at The University of Tennessee Knoxville.
Suggested Reference Citation
Watts, J. (2020). Embracing the darkness: A Review of Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s The Dark Fantastic (2019). Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 7(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v7-issue-1/embracing-the-darkness-a-review-of-ebony-elizabeth-thomass-the-dark-fantastic-2019/
Watts, Julia. “Embracing the Darkness: A Review of Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s The Dark Fantastic (2019).” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 7, no. 1, 2020, http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v7-issue-1/embracing-the-darkness-a-review-of-ebony-elizabeth-thomass-the-dark-fantastic-2019/