People we like and admire were godawful racists

So, last week, the 20th of August, was the anniversary of the birth of author H.P. Lovecraft, whose work, as you may know, is something of an obsession of mine. In fact (plug plug) I have an upcoming talk about Lovecraft (well, Lovecraft’s successors mainly) and archaeology at Treadwell’s Books next month. You can read about it here.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I have a really weird relationship, mentally, with Lovecraft. Sometimes, when I want to know that I’m explaining something well, I try to imagine that he is explaining it, or even that he has come back from the dead and that I am explaining it to him — that is, to a very intelligent person with no modern cultural context. When I was all depressed and thought of myself as a failure, I thought of him as the patron saint of failures. 

But — but but but — even this is not the thing I want to talk about. And that is the racism. “Oh Lor’,” I hear you cry, “not HPL and racism again.” But there’s no avoiding it. Lovecraft was a gigantic racist, probably not more racist than the rest of his contemporaries (it was America in the 1920s and 1930s), but just really into it. And it’s central to his work, that revolted terror of the other. 

I’m not going to quote any of his relevant works here — let’s just say that if you want to learn more you can Google “H.P. Lovecraft” and than the n-word and go from there. In an incognito window, possibly. 

And yet Lovecraft is important to me, as is his work — and his work isn’t something you can separate from his racism. You see a lot of people who are very skeptical about Steampunk as a concept (not steampunk in the old sense but in the modern sense) because of its seeming celebration of an era of white supremacy and British imperialism. I get that as well.

And of course that type of racism is implicated not only in history but in the writing of history. And not just simplistic prejudice but the the way in which the idea of racial differences was a fundamental aspect of writing history. 

When I was young, I went to a family reunion in Arkansas. A branch of my dad’s side of the family went off to America around the beginning of the 20th century because my great-great-(great?)-uncle Jack went off to compete in the 1904 St Louis Olympics. While there — the only time I have ever been to the south — we explored the Ozark region, including a trip to, God help me, Branson, Missouri. In or near Branson — it was a long time ago — was an amusement park called Silver Dollar City, which at that time was sort of Wild-West-themed, and where my parents bought me a book on the gunslingers of the old west. And I was like — I was very young, I don’t remember, but I was definitely younger than 11 or 12. 

So imagine my surprise to find the subtext — the text, really — of this book was the gunslinger as race warrior. I was informed, for instance, that Billy the Kid made his name by shooting (or in the book’s words, “closing the rubbery lips of”) an African-American (or in the book’s words, “darky”) who insulted him … I mean, it just went on from there. 

Oh, of course! It’s online. You can read that crap for yourself. It even has the original illustrations.

I don’t actually know where I’m going from here — Lovecraft’s racism was odious but an important part of his valuable work. This book’s racism was odious and just casual — it was all understood that both the writer and the reader despised black people. 

But there’s a lot of non-despising racism out there as well. Take this image, for instance, from The British Commonwealth: A Family of Peoples (1961 edition). My scanner is broken, so here’s a photo from my phone. 



Check out that caption. But it’s all in the service of trying to be nice about the Gilbert Islands, just in a really offensive and patronising way. 

And there’s a lot of it around. I can’t help but love this stuff for its goofy squareness, but it’s definitely weird and unpleasant and racist, and it’s important not to let the comforting goofiness distract me from that. 

Now, most of this stuff is of no value — Victorian writers were a bunch of racists, no shit. But when I locate some good stuff I’ll put it up here. Until then, I’m off for the weekend. Regular service will be restored on Monday or possibly even Sunday night. 


People we like and admire were godawful racists

5 thoughts on “People we like and admire were godawful racists

  1. J Eleanor says:

    Hi! Alli’s friend Ellie here (one of the twins). I live in Oklahoma about 4 hours from Branson, MO, so I can tell you that Silver Dollar City is right in town. Also many of the old west gunslingers were actually combatants (mostly Confederates) in the US Civil War. I am, however, appalled at the language in that book (unless perhaps they were quoting a contemporary source) and wonder what kind of offensive tripe I have bought for my kids by not properly vetting the writing. Keep posting, this is interesting.

    1. Absolutely — a lot of gunslingin’ was party-political. For instance, the Earps were Illinois and Iowa Republicans. Wyatt Earp was too young for the Civil War, but three of his brothers were Union veterans. His rivals were Democrats with Confederate sympathies, and there was a whole load of north-south, town-country, Republican-Democrat antagonism going on.

      It’s absolutely fascinating to see a political divide where northern, urban Republicans and southern, rural Democrats duke it out for supremacy.

  2. Yeah, I got into a discussion about this over on Gorgonmilk’s blog awhile back. I was reading an anthology of Lovecraft and got really frustrated by the racism. I still enjoy the Cthulhu setting but was frankly disappointed by his un-necessary race descriptors.

    1. Hi, Sean — welcome!

      The thing is — and this is where it gets tricky — that I don’t think that the racism in Lovecraft is all that separable from his work. So much of Lovecraft’s horror is about the revulsion of the other — and about the horror of discovering that the other is within us. I think that’s pretty clearly linked to his racism, at least in some ways. And obviously, I condemn that aspect of his beliefs, but I still enjoy the fiction that in some ways results from those beliefs. It’s hard to know how to think about it.

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