Stephen King's love of the magical negro

Originally published at: Stephen King's love of the magical negro | Boing Boing

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I, too, am a huge fan of King’s. But he traffics in a very New England style of–if not racism–bias, which I think comes from the fact that when he was growing up in northern New England, there just weren’t many (or often any) Black (or even nonwhite) people around. The result is that Black people become other in his fiction a way they aren’t for people who live in a more diverse environment. It showcases why things like exposure to diversity are, in fact, important.

He’s made what I think are some sincere efforts to be better, but his early and mid-career fiction are (speaking generously) very much a product of the time and place where he grew up. There’s a scene in The Stand, for instance, set in a theater where a bunch of army officers have gone rogue and are shooting people, that is difficult to excuse as anything but an extremely crass collection of racist tropes.

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I’m also a big Stephen King fan, and one has to acknowledge that there have been times that he’s written some questionable things in the past or went a bit too hard in a direction that just made things difficult or awkward to read. Still i believe that his heart is in the right place, and i can see how he’s grown as a person and as a writer from his early stuff to now.

People like to give him grief over his fast writing output and overreliance and overuse of certain themes, which is deserved but when he writes a banger of a book it’s really good.

As far as the magical negro trope, i do find it a hollow trope. It’s cool to see black characters that aren’t just set dressing but do they have to be magical in order to be interesting and impactful to the story? No they don’t, they can just be themselves. I do appreciate King adding diversity to his stories but at the same time it’s usually not the strongest aspects in his writing.

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Why soft pedal your critique with that distinction?

Bias in terms of race is racism. Period. Is King that much of a beloved giant that we have to be super careful about calling out his work for racism?

No. He’s human. And a white author who’s very popular, which is all the more reason to point out the racism in his work, with the hope that future popular authors do better by avoiding this lazy trope.

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Hm. When you have to have someone impart strange mystic knowledge in a story, it’s probably not going to be from a respectable (white) guy in a business suit.

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Aleister Crowley

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There’s a big difference between “granting power and agency to characters that are not privileged white men“ and “depicting African-Americans as a race of wizards.”

Writer Christopher John Farley explained the trope (which he called “Magical African American Friends”) in regards to Hollywood this way:

MAAFs exist because most Hollywood screenwriters don’t know much about black people other than what they hear on records by white hip-hop star Eminem. So instead of getting life histories or love interests, black characters get magical powers.

I think the same applies to King, at least in his earlier work. I think he wanted to portray Black characters in a positive light but had so little firsthand experience living with Black people that he found it easier to write them as mystics than as real human beings.

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All writers employ tropes in order to move the plot along. Whether it’s a magical negro or character exposition or the Hollywood MacGuffin. I loved King’s books while growing up and his writing certainly inspired me at a young age to becoming the active reader I am today. For that I am appreciative of his works.

I don’t recall ever being made aware on any one his written works character’s skin color in a stereotypical fashion so I can’t honestly say if the magical negro is indeed one of his go-to devices or not. I do remember black characters such as Mike Hanlon in IT - he seemed to have a pretty well developed backstory and I don’t think he was just there as a token black kid. Seems to me that many examples occur when Hollywood get their mitts on a book and bastardize the screenplay. Not exactly King’s fault (except of course for the screen adaptations he wrote.) I can also think of Morgan Freeman’s character in Shawshank Redemption as a counterpoint to this.

This video gives me something to think about.

I like some of Stephen King’s work, but this video made me glad I gave The Green Mile a pass. Even the written descriptions of the character made me cringe. If I’d started it, that alone would’ve made me stop. The plot made me want to rewatch Resurrection, just because the healing theme interests me more than the prison setting. It’s what bugs me about The Shawshank Redemption, too.

What’s unfortunate is that for some authors with talent, the basic exercise of just writing a character who happens to be Black seems to be impossible. Sure, writers are advised to “write what they know,” but that would lead to a world full of very boring fiction. Instead, we’ve got literature full of imaginary scenarios, worlds, universes, species, etc… Yet, if you ask some folks to write about people of another gender or race that exists on Earth they’re stumped or fall back on stereotypes and clichés. That says a lot about the writers who do so.

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Well I’m struggling to think of any central Black characters from King’s stories who weren’t psychics or telepaths or magical healers of some sort. Maybe Susannah from The Dark Tower series? (She did exhibit some magical prowess too but no more than the other people in the story so she may not count.)

ETA: Oh and Red from Shawshank. But I never read the original novel so I don’t know if his character originally had powers or not.

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In “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” Red is actually a white (Irish) guy.

EDIT:

I think Mike Hanlon’s a good example–he’s a librarian and I don’t think he’s any more magical than any of the other Losers. Jerome (from the Finders Keepers series) is, IIRC, just a smart college kid. But in a lot of his work, Black people are just … absent.

Also, possibly worth pointing out that King also likes to make children telepaths or magical healers–a trope that I think comes up far more often in his writing than the magical negro.

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That does explain the nickname…

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Sure, but some are worse than others, no? Like, oh you know, the fucking racist ones?

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King’s work was actually a short story novella so when it was made into a movie, the story was expanded and the characters developed further. Casting Morgan Freeman in the role as Red was deliberate.

Much like Stand By Me was developed out of another short story of his called “The Body”. Another example where I can’t think of a single black character at all.

No…no powers…he was just the narrator.

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Obligatory:

(I’ve been aware of the trope for a long time but this sketch skewering it was probably the first time I heard the term “magical negro.”)

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It is racism but saying “It’s racism. Period” does a lot of damage to the argument you are attempting to make. There is a difference between the racial biases everyone has and being ideologically committed to racism like the KKK or the GOP. Both can be described as racism but making the distinction is important. They are confused constantly online and that confusion helps the groups like the KKK. Why feed into it? The distinction is you should criticize Stephen King for his racial biases but you shouldn’t persecute him for them. Your criticisms should be in the context this is a problem everyone has, including yourself. Where as you should persecute groups like the KKK for their ideological commitment to racism.

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Of course that’s true. Not saying otherwise. Like The Legend of Bagger Vance there are obviously deliberate efforts to portray a character as a magical negro. Whether that is the intention of the original author or if it’s a factor of Hollywood commercializing on the work is my question.

The plot is loosely based on the Hindu sacred text the Bhagavad Gita , part of the Mahabharata , where the Warrior/Hero Arjuna (R. Junuh) refuses to fight. The god Krishna appears as Bhagavan (Bagger Vance) to help Arjuna follow the path of the warrior and hero that he was meant to take. This relationship was fully explained by Steven J. Rosen in his 2000 book Gita on the Green , for which Pressfield wrote the foreword

Only if you read “Period” as “Let’s stop talking about all of this now.”

How I instead read it in the exchange above is, “Let’s not quibble about whether King’s portrayal is a result of his bias, or of him being blinkered, or maybe sheltered. That ‘bias’ is towards members of another race, which is properly called racism. Period.”

Does that make sense to you?

And btw, I certainly agree with everything else you said.

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Is that really necessary, though? :thinking:

He’s an example of this…with his ability to get anything and his helpfulness to the main character. It’s an adaptation that the author apparently approved of, too:

Wow, that’s throwing a lot of authors - most arguably more talented than Stephen King - under the bus to defend his biases.

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This dives into the “intent” question of racism. There is a pervasive sense that racism isn’t racism without intent, but the more informed thinkers around the subject ask us to consider the effect as well as the intent (or lack thereof). This is what I think of as “little r” racism, while “big R” racism encompasses active, intentional racism like segregation, the Klan, lynchings, etc. It’s the veneer of plausible(?) deniability that allows someone like trump to say heinous things that are obviously racist to anyone who’s paying attention, yet allows his adherents to find no fault in his words.

This is the crux of the SK question. His “intent” seems to be to elevate Black characters, but the actual effect is to other and fetishize them. Some of that can be attributed to growing up in the whitest state in the union, which is what I took from @MikeKStar’s comment, but at the end of the day the real question isn’t about his intent or even necessarily the impact his particular books have had culturally, but rather…

Going back to prior discussions about separating the art from the artist, I find it becomes nearly impossible to do so when the artist persists in their ignorance. On the other hand, when someone later owns their pst oversight, ignorance or even hatred, it makes me consider that their prior art was at least created by a person with a capacity for growth, which absolutely helps me separate their failures from the person. To wit (and from the vid):

“PLAYBOY: Along with your difficulty in describing sexual scenes, you apparently also have a problem with women in your books. Critic Chelsea Quinn Yarbro wrote, “It is disheartening when a writer with so much talent and strength and vision is not able to develop a believable woman character between the ages of 17 and 60.” Is that a fair criticism?”

“KING: Yes, unfortunately, I think it is probably the most justifiable of all those leveled at me. In fact, I’d extend her criticism to include my handling of black characters. Both Hallorann, the cook in The Shining , and Mother Abagail in The Stand are cardboard caricatures of super-black heroes, viewed through rose-tinted glasses of white-liberal guilt.“

Of course, that was a quote from 1983 and The Green Mile didn’t come out until the late ‘90s, so he clearly still had blind spots.

Yeah, that’s not happening. He’s a rich white dude living in a fucking mansion who could afford to spend entire decades coked to the gills and is one of the most respected literary icons in US history who… occasionally has to answer difficult questions.

No, they are deliberately muddied by people of ill intent. No one is joining the Klan because they are confused about nuance.

Edited to remove something that multiple people said upthread re: Shawshank.

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