Waiter, there’s a [brown person] in my [fictional world]

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power finally debuted on Amazon Prime, and right on cue came the complaints from white fans of Lord of the Rings about “wokeness”.  What seems new about this latest iteration of the “waiter, there’s a [brown person] in my [fictional world]” phenomenon is the deliberate decision of the mainstream media to legitimize these complaints about said fictional world.  The tweet below is a great summation of the journalist malpractice being engaged in here.

When you lead off a piece with complaints about a fictional world with the deputy managing editor of redstate.com, that’s bad enough.  But it’s even worse when you conflate fans of Tolkien with actual scholars.  Running a story like this–which elevates the weakest of arguments from people with thin credentials at best–seems to be a preview of what we can expect from the new, “neutral” CNN.

I’ve written only briefly about Star Wars being my earliest fandom.  But nearly as old as my Star Wars fandom is my love of The Lord of the Rings.  I came to it first through watching the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit in the early 80s, then the books.  The Lord of the Rings definitely contributed to my becoming a D&D player later on (and a reader of many other books in the fantasy genre).  In college, I took the comparative mythology class taught by Dr. Verlyn Flieger (a well-known Tolkien scholar) because it gave me an excuse to read The Silmarillion for credit instead of just for fun.  It’s been nearly 30 years since I took her course, but I still remember it because to her credit she gave us what would later be called a trigger warning regarding the depictions of Gollum in Tolkien’s work (which wasn’t perceived as racist by many people then, but likely would be now).  I don’t recall if she gave us a similar warning regarding the descriptions of orcs, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she did.  N.K. Jemisin (the 1st and only sci-fi author to win 3 consecutive Hugo Awards for best novel in the genre) has definitely made that criticism of Tolkien’s description of orcs.

When Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy came out, my fellow Tolkien nerds and I made sure to see all three movies at The Uptown, the best theater in the area at the time.  I bought and watched the extended editions of all three movies on DVD, and am overdue to add to my collection whatever 4K version of the trilogy my XBox One X will play.  I even watched the not-as-good Hobbit trilogy.  The books of the trilogy, The Silmarillion, and an old copy of The Tolkien Reader are on a shelf in the home office where I’m writing this right now. I’ve read The Children of Hurin (a copy from the public library anyway), but have not yet added a copy to my collection.

Richard Newby is a longstanding member of the black Tolkien nerd tribe, and he’s written the only piece worth reading on this subject.  So rather than write an inferior version of what he’s already written, I’ll write more broadly–because these complaints from white fans aren’t new.  Moses Ingram had to deal with these same people when they objected to her presence as an inquisitor in Obi-Wan Kenobi.  At least Disney (and her co-stars) seemed to have learned something from their failure to stand up for John Boyega when he first showed up as a black stormtrooper in The Force Awakens.  Disney failed Kelly-Marie Tran in a similar way.  Marvel has attracted much of anti-woke ire in recent years, for everything from Black Panther, to She-Hulk, The Eternals, and Ms. Marvel.  Steve Toussaint gets cast to play Corlys Velaryon–cue the anti-woke whining.  Now it’s Sir Lenny Henry’s turn, and Ismael Cruz Cordoba’s turn to contend with toxic fandom.  Toxic fandom can suspend disbelief for magic, dragons, laser swords, faster-than-light travel, and time travel–but not for brown people–human, elven, dwarven, or harfoot in this case.  Even as I write, these sad know-nothings are arguing on Twitter about “the author’s vision” with the likes of Neil Gaiman–who in addition to being a great and prolific fantasy author himself (American Gods, Anansi Boys, The Sandman, and countless others)–has such a deep knowledge of Tolkien’s work that Christopher Tolkien personally thanked him for explaining a reference his father had written years before.

Before the internet, being a black fan of science fiction and fantasy was a lonely pastime.  Depending on where and when you grew up, you might not have had many other black kids as classmates at school or friends at church to begin with.  Add to that an interest that not many other kids might have and you had to be prepared to like or love that thing on your own.  You had to cultivate an appreciation for these stories despite the absence of characters like you playing parts in them at all (except as stereotypes and/or foils for whoever the hero was).  You don’t realize that’s what you’re doing as a black fan of these genres (because you’re in middle school when this starts, or younger), you only see it in retrospect when you’re an adult.  I was most recently reminded of that mental work when I watched Lovecraft Country, and again when I rewatched the Far Beyond the Stars episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these stories impact me the way they do, both set in the 1950s United States, when black people continued to be treated as second-class citizens at best.  Decades after these stories were set, self-appointed gatekeepers are still trying to keep us out of “their” genre–despite the fact that we know and love as well and as much, if not more than they do.

When I listened to this episode of Throughline, and heard how the work of Octavia Butler impacted–and still impacts–the life of an NPR co-host (who is originally from Iran), it reminded me of how thrilled I was to read Wild Seed and know that someone who looked like me had written it.  I only watched it in syndication, but still remember how important it was to see Nichelle Nichols play Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek.  Seeing Billy Dee Williams play Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, LeVar Burton and Michael Dorn play Geordi LaForge and Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Avery Brooks play Benjamin Sisko in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine really mattered–not just to my childhood, but into the present.  Deep Space Nine in particular has yet to equaled, much less surpassed in the genre, for its positive representations of black manhood, father-son relationships, even romance between a black man and black woman who are peers (Captains Sisko and Yates).

Today, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Tananarive Due, Victor LaValle, and other black authors are putting out some of the best work on offer across the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres.  Twitter hashtags like #DemDragons allow black fans of these shows to enjoy them together in near real-time.  Facebook groups and private chats (and their moderators) do the work of keeping toxic fans away.  And even when Hollywood makes mistakes, like firing Orlando Jones from American Gods, or policing the language black writers use, we are finally getting to see ourselves more and more in the work of this genre–and the work is better for it.  Studios and fans are fighting back against bitter review bombers.  And while such defenses shouldn’t have to be made, at least they are being made.  Toxic fandom may not like us in their fictional worlds anymore than their real ones, but we aren’t going anywhere in either one.