By Mike Davis. (Follow me on Twitter.)
That horrific realization that all Lovecraft’s characters undergo that the universe doesn’t revolve around them? That’s not a problem any Black character would ever have.
“If you’re Black,” he said, “you don’t think the universe as a whole thinks you are wonderful because all you have to do, if you’re a Black American, all you have to do is walk through America, and this country teaches you. The idea that you would be driven mad because you found out that the universe doesn’t think you’re special is a joke to me as a Black American.”
“The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind.”
There is a ridiculous (and offensive) 1986 movie titled Soul Man, in which “a pampered teen poses as a young black man to receive a full scholarship.” I haven’t actually watched it in over 30 years — and I don’t plan to — but I remember that after the Mark Watson character turns “black,” he’s utterly surprised at how the world treats him differently. He isn’t used to getting pulled over for “driving while black” and the like.
For me, one of the few redeeming features in this movie comes at the end. After Mark Watson turns white again, Professor Banks (played by the incredible James Earl Jones, no less) and Mark have the following conversation:
Professor Banks: You’ve learned something I can’t teach them. You’ve learned what it feels like to be black.
Mark: No sir.
Professor Banks: Beg your pardon?
Mark: I don’t really know what it feels like, sir. If I didn’t like it, I could always get out. It’s not the same, sir.
Professor Banks: You’ve learned a great deal more than I thought.
I recently interviewed African-American authors Linda Addison, Chesya Burke, and Craig Laurance Gidney (video, audio). Mostly, I listened. But I also told them two fundamental things that I personally have learned over the years:
(1) You can’t understand what it’s like to be Black, if you’re not black. But you can listen. And you can do your best to empathize.
(2) I’ve had a rough life. I grew up in a cult, full of physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse. BUT. BUT. Here’s the important thing: I didn’t suffer those things because of the color of my skin, because of my race. After I left the cult (and indeed, of course, before) I didn’t have to worry about being treated differently — being treated horribly — by people who didn’t even know me, based solely on what I looked like.
“We’ve all had it rough at times” is something I’ve heard from people in reference to how African-Americans are treated. But what they do not understand is why Black Americans have it rough: because of what they look like. Because of assumptions people make based solely on their skin color.
Reading “Lovecraftian horror — and the racism at its core — explained” on Glommodity today, the above quote by Victor really struck home with me. For the obvious reason, of course: that what Victor is saying is so simple, so fundamental… yet so many white Americans still don’t get it.
But also for a very personal reason. Because for all the horrifying abuse I grew up with, almost everyone stayed in the cult (which included black people from many different countries). They stayed even if the cult leader wanted to use their teenage daughter as a sex toy. They stayed even though their kids were regularly beaten and abused. They stayed because — wait for it — because if the cult taught them anything, it was that they were special in the world. In the universe, in fact. Black, white, it didn’t matter. They were the special ones. They were the only ones who knew the truth. They were the ones who would rule the world after the apocalypse (I never thought I’d live to the age of 17, by the way, that’s how soon the end of the world was coming).
Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? And actually, it is. But for so many humans, that desire to be special, to be one of the chosen ones, is so compelling that they will believe almost anything in order to feel it. You cannot “logic” anyone out of that. (And because of my experiences, I see major cult-like tendencies in the following that Donald Trump has.)
That’s the problem that some white people in this country still have. They do feel special. Entitled. They don’t get pulled over for driving while black. They aren’t killed by police officers in nearly the same numbers that African-Americans are. And so on, and on, and on.
The cult I grew up in had hundreds of members, but it was relatively small. And in the dark places of their hearts, the cult leaders and members wanted to keep it small. They didn’t really want to expand. Because after all, if everyone is special, then no one is special. And back to the topic at hand, if every race is treated fairly and equally, if every race is “special,” why, then none of us are.
This is the secret fear that racists have. The fear that they cannot even admit to themselves.
And until we all can, we can’t change. We can’t be a nation free of racism until we admit that it exists. You cannot fix a problem unless you know that it is a problem.
Getting back to Lovecraft: Yes, he was racist, unfortunately. And yes, I run a podcast/indie press/Facebook page with the title The Lovecraft eZine (it used to be a magazine only, then it evolved — read lots of free cosmic horror fiction here). But I’ve never really been a fan of HPL. I’m far more interested in his ideas, in cosmic horror, in weird fiction. For me, and for many, the words “Lovecraft” or “Lovecraftian” are just shortcuts. Labels. Labels for cosmic horror.
Lovecraft is dead. He can’t change his beliefs and attitudes. But you can, if you need to, because you’re still alive. And it’s never too late to change.
All that aside, Lovecraft firmly believed that man holds no special place in the universe. That was the joke. And if you’re an atheist (like one of my heroes, Carl Sagan), you know that it is true that humans are not special. We are just another part of the cosmos, a part that has become self-aware and is exploring itself.
But that does not mean that we treat others badly, just because there are no cosmic consequences. In fact, in my view, it means the quite the opposite. Because we are all one race, really. We are all human. And we are all stuck in this leaking boat together.
A scene in one of my favorite TV shows, Angel, says it best:
Angel: It doesn’t.
Kate: Doesn’t what?
Angel: Mean anything. In the greater scheme, in the big picture, nothing we do matters. There’s no grand plan, no big win.
Kate: You seem kind of chipper about that.
Angel: Well, I guess I kind of worked it out. If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters… then all that matters is what we do. Because that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long for redemption, for a reward, and finally just to beat the other guy. But I never got it.
Kate: Now you do?
Angel: Not all of it. All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do. Because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
Thanks for reading.
Purchase The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle here (soon to be a TV series on AMC). Purchase Lovecraft Country here (currently a TV series on HBO).
Further reading: Interview with Victor LaValle, on Lovecraft eZine, May 19, 2016. Interviewed by author Douglas Wynne.