Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sci-Fi Sunday: Oh, Susannah, How The Dark Tower Explores Black Woman Stereotypes

Art by Lady Fiszi
This summer, the first installment of Stephen King’s opus, The Dark Tower, will finally arrive in movie theaters across the country. The protagonist, Roland of Gilead will be portrayed by international superstar Idris Elba, a black British actor. Although Roland will appear on-screen differently than his novel namesake, my concern as a fan and black woman, resides in where the movie adaptation will go with Susannah Dean, the only black person in the series. The Dark Tower series exposes modern views of black womanhood and so I wonder how the movie adaptation will address those issues, if at all.

Odetta Susannah Holmes, who will become Susannah Dean, does not appear in the first installment in The Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger.  She appears in the second book, The Drawing of the Three, which tells of Roland selecting the members of his ka-tet from different worlds and whens. Susannah’s door, through which Roland enters her world, is labeled, “The Lady of Shadows.”

“The lady of shadows, does she look two faced to you Gunslinger?”--Walter O’Dim

It is telling that King chooses to select Odetta from the 1960s era New York, and not say, from the 1970s. The 1960s was an era of violence, protests, and changes across the United States and especially for Negroes.

Susannah suffers two issues: she is wheelchair bound and she suffers from multiple personality disorder. Although the other members of Roland’s ka-tet suffer from afflictions (Eddie’s a drug addict, Jake’s a child with father issues), Susannah has the most challenges. Both of her issues are brought about by the Man in Black acting in her world. Here is where King explores beliefs about black womanhood in The Dark Tower.

To begin, Susannah’s legs were sheared off in a subway accident. In fact, she was pushed onto the tracks of an on-coming train by Jack Mort, literally Jack Death, aka white death. A white male has cut a black woman off at the knees. This is both physical and emotional trauma that is symbolic of black women not just in the 1960s, but even now especially in light of the way former First Lady Michelle Obama was critiqued and criticized throughout her tenure. Although African-American women are the most educated demographic in the United States, we do not reap the benefits. African-American women, like Odetta, are crippled by institutionalized racism and other Jack Morts.

Additionally, Odetta’s unfortunate incident brings to mind the savage maiming of African-Americans when they attempted to escape slavery. This unspeakable act was commonly due to disobedience or for whatever reason the owners saw fit. Odetta’s trauma is at the hands of a white man, an anonymous male to whom she has no connection. Roland, another white male in the novel, experiences this as he stands in Odetta’s body, having entered her person through the door of his world and into hers. He cannot understand much of what she experiences, and thus, I believe this is King’s attempt to explore the plight of African-American women. King will later explore this again, using the Magical Negro stereotype with John Coffey in The Green Mile.

Despite her handicap, Odetta, a civil rights activist, persists and continues to support Dr. King’s efforts for equal rights. Here again, an African-American woman is presented as the strong black woman (West, 289). This phrasing demonstrates that strong, black, and woman are inseparable for most black women. It too may have its roots in slavery, where African-American women with the largest girth and “strong” appearance produced the most babies, and thus opportunities for more wealth (West, 291).

Odetta is also afflicted with multiple personality disorder. This condition allows her other personality to take control when stressed. That woman is Detta Susannah Walker, a violent, cunning, and angry individual, whom Roland struggles to control when inside Odetta’s body. Odetta is not aware of her other personality, but King takes the opportunity to explore another African-American woman stereotype—the hyper-sexual Jezebel (West, 291).

Detta hates white people. Yet instead of marching for civil rights like her host personality Odetta, Detta walks another path. King presents Detta as a temptress. She goes into predominately white establishments, and lures white men into dark alleys and rear seats of cars with the promise of sex. Often times, she is raped and hurt, but in other times she is the one engaging in the violence. As written, Detta is an avenging angel. This continues once Roland successfully gets Odetta to Mid-World. Detta takes control and nearly kills Eddie.

Once Odetta/Detta are in Mid-World, Roland, the white savior, manages to merge the two personalities into one, Susannah Dean, wife to Eddie Dean. She completes his ka-tet and over the course of the series becomes a powerful gunslinger in her own right. She serves as Roland’s conscience many times throughout their journey towards the Tower. Think of Whoopi Goldberg’s character, Guinan to Patrick Stewart’s Picard.

thedarktower.org
King’s uses Susannah again as a sexual conduit when she is raped at the the speaking ring by a demon so Jake could be reborn into Mid-World. Again, hallmarks of slavery echo in this scene, for Susannah does this to save Jake, a young white boy. A black woman sacrifices her body and her safety for others. Later, Susannah becomes pregnant with the demonic baby; she is further burdened with carrying evil in her womb, something unnatural, something other. This hails back to slavery as well. That the black woman’s womb is a magical but awful place. Even in today’s view, black children are seen as more “adult” and more “aggressive” than other children their age (Goff and Jackson).

King manages to use one black woman to demonstrate several stereotypes of black women. Yet in the sixth book in the series, Song of Susannah, King attempts to redeem some of his earlier acts against Susannah. After all, this book bears her name. Despite this, it is the title I dislike the most. In this outing, she is possessed again by another personality, Mia.  Again, Susannah is a conduit, a black body producing a baby for someone else her offspring is other. The foil to Roland. The More to Roland’s Arthur Eld. Once more, King calls up echoes of slavery. Despite being a forceful gunslinger, Susannah is held by the low men and vampires at The Dixie Pig. Roland and Jake come to save her. Here we add damsel in distress to the list of stereotypes for Susannah.

I do love The Dark Tower series. I love the world building, the growth of the characters, and Roland as the antihero. I love horror, science fiction and weird westerns. Despite my love for the series, I recognize that as a horror writer, King puts Susannah and the rest of Roland’s ka-tet through a great many hardships and well, horror. Still, it seems that as a secondary character to Roland’s protagonist, Susannah suffers from stereotypical trappings of black women from this world.

What’s your take on Susannah?

Message me on Twitter @nicolegkurtz

Works Cited

Foster, Kimberly. “Black Women are the Most Educated Group in the United States.” Shine.forharriet.com, March 2014. Web. 15 Mar 2017.

Goff, Phillip Atiba and Matthew Christian Jackson, PhD. “Black Boys Viewed as Older, Less Innocent Than Whites, Research Finds Police likelier to use force against black children when officers ‘dehumanize’ blacks, study says.” American Psychological Association, apa.com, 6 Mar 2014. Web. 15 Mar 2017.

West, Carolyn. “Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, and Their Homegirls: Developing an Oppositional Gaze Toward the Images of Black Women.” DrCarolynWest.com.



About the Author

Nicole Givens Kurtz is an author of speculative fiction. In addition to writing, she is the owner of Mocha Memoirs Press, LLC. where they publish speculative fiction, horror, romance, and fantasy. When she’s not writing, she works as an educator. She also serves as a guest at various regional science fiction conventions. She speaks on topics such as, but not limited to, diversity in speculative fiction, dystopian fiction, and weird westerns.
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