Sunday, July 7, 2019

#SciFiSunday: Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas' Trek Into The Dark Fantastic


Ebony Elizabeth Thomas was not allowed to indulge magic. She was warned that magic was essentially a quest towards trouble, and as a black girl living in working-class Detroit in the 1980's, trouble could all too easily (and without merit), find her. That motherly heed opens and echoes throughout the introduction of Thomas' book, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. That deafening pause on imagination manages to blossom into a aromatic refute. The lore of magic is for everyone with many worlds to traverse. What was once demanded be inaccessible to Thomas is now extensively encapsulated in The Dark Fantastic as an act of taking to task, widely accessible, mainstream, popular fantasy fiction (fairy tales, horror, superhero comics, 'soft' science fiction, alternate histories) for its woefully problematic approaches to to racial representation. This history has had unsavory consequences for children and young adults of color as audiences and consumers.

When people wonder why certain children and young adults don't like to read, do they ever wonder if it's because of the way characters who look like them are portrayed or essentially non-existent in the texts that are available? The core of Thomas' approach is applying experiential knowledge to some of the fantastic genre's most conspicuous works in the 21st century. With a focus on their characters of color, there's a richer narrative that's baking a larger conversation about race and social constructs in the minds of children and young adults. The centrality of these characters, where they are not central in the canon (her prime examples include Bonnie Bennett in The Vampire Diaries and Rue in The Hunger Games) informs readers about what and how they are important to the broader implications about how children and young adults view the treatment of these characters, as they see themselves in these imaginary existences and the real world.

Thomas colors each chapter with autoethnography, related critical and empirical studies, what characters of color in The Hunger Games, Merlin, The Vampire Diaries, and Harry Potter say about race and difference in the world that surrounds us, and how their fans of color take their lessons from these texts and find ways to "participate" in the social and digital communities around them.

What does Rue's character in The Hunger Games tell other black children and young adults about how people see them and about how they see themselves?

Beginning with an extensive elaboration of her term, the dark fantastic, which describes "the role that racial difference plays in our fantastically storied imaginations." This is crucial as Thomas' use of the word fantastic is distinct as its specific to the full immersion into other worlds (how "real" the worlds feel is symbolic upon the interpretation of the consumer). The "imagination gap," a severe lack of central and non-stereotypical people of color characters in children's and young adult literature is considered a crisis because of its correlation between educational achievement and sociocultural implications in regards to "empathy, opportunities, resources, and technology". Simply put, if young people who are Othered aren't given the same freedom to be humanized and imagine themselves in worlds where they can aspire to anything, their imaginations are stifled and ultimately, not afforded a human experience in the real world.

When people of color seek passageways into the fantastic, we have often discovered that the doors are barred. Even the very act of dreaming of worlds-that-never-were can be challenging when the known world does not provide many liberating spaces.

Thomas makes it absolutely clear: young people have creativity in an infinite abundance. Institutions like publishing companies, archaic ieologies about race, and schools are failing to provide them with an equitable amount of stories that reflect their identities and interests. In order to physically and emotionally manage reality, you "need" magic: "meaning, safety, catharsis-- and hope".

This problem of representation has created discord in the collective imagination...the dark fantastic is my attempt to understand the discord as it plays out in stories for young adults and in audience interactions with those stories.

Thomas' informative and empowering read gives a historical look at the fight for diverse books,  tracks more current statistics, along with hashtags/social media mobilization to address, and hopefully, level the landscape of published books that feature characters of color. As an educator and author, The Dark Fantastic is a conversation starter one cannot ignore.



Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas is currently an Associate Professor of Literacy, Culture, and International Education Division in the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education.



@Ebonyteach on Twitter
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