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Super-Duper Magical Negroes
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Here's an interesting article in Strange Horizons about "magical negroes" in fantastical fiction. These are characters typified by the following characteristics:

1. He or she is a person of color, typically black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.
2. He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
3. He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.
4. He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.
5. He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.

I remember having a discussion about this when I was at Clarion, and how portraying minority characters in this light is demeaning and somewhat racist in its own way, essentially because it presents these characters without any real flaws or other words, they're idealized stereotypes. The benevolent, wise magical minority is obviously more flattering than a simplistic negative stereotype, but it is a stereotype nonetheless, and not a presentation of a fully-formed, well-rounded character.

The author of the article cites a slew of Stephen King's books in particular that feature magical negroes: The Green Mile, The Talisman, The Stand, and The Shining. I've read two of these (The Green Mile and The Stand), and these are probably the two most egregious examples in King's writing of what she's talking about.

But she also asserts that she doesn't think King is racist. I don't either. I think something else is going on here, and it's something that isn't touched on in the article.

I think it's just inherently difficult for writers to create credible portrayals of other races. Most writers deal with this by simply avoiding it. If there are characters of races other than themselves, they tend to be minor characters. In the work of the black speculative fiction writers that I've read, such as Octavia Butler and Tananarive Due, the central characters are all black (again, in the works that I've read).

So I think when a writer tries to include a character of a race other than their own, they tend to fall back on stereotype, and it seems more sensitive to use a flattering, idealized stereotype.

There are a few exceptions of strong cross-race central characters. I remember the first time I read Harlan Ellison's exceptional novella "Mephisto in Onyx", in which the central character is black. He's a telepath, too, but definitely not a magical negro. He's a real character, warts and all, and he's written superbly by a thoroughly white writer.

This is the mark of a truly good writer. And as the article points out toward the end, King has written more complex black characters, such as Susannah Dean from the Dark Tower series (which I'm in the process of finishing up).

It's also interesting to note that King has fared better with female protagonists. He's created some great female characters, and often writes convincingly in first person as a female. Maybe it says something about the cultural divide in our country when it's easier for a writer to create a 3-dimensional character of another gender rather than of another race. Or maybe it doesn't.

Still, I thought it was an interesting read on an interesting topic.

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