Monday, 7 September 2020

Pumzika Kwa Amani, Charles R. Saunders, Griot for Another World


I was just digesting the shocking news of Chadwick Boseman's death when I heard about Charles R. Saunders, Sword and Soul pioneer and lovely man, who has also passed away. Fellow Howard reader Ben Friberg's parting gift to me before my long absence from Cross Plains was a copy of Imaro: The Naama War, which I read as soon as I got home to Scotland. Fellow New-Pulp and black speculative fiction creators Milton Davis, Kiini Ibura Salaam, Gareth Miles, & Derrick Ferguson offered tributes, as well as Locus Magazine, Ron Fortier, Ryan Harvey,


It’s not just the content of these two creations that is different, however. Imaro was born not solely from my enjoyment of heroic-fantasy fiction, but also from dissatisfaction. My love of the genre was tempered by discomfort with the racist depictions of black people and Africa that were found far too often in its stories. I wanted to promote positive portrayals of blacks, and present mythic and folkloric visions of Africa that would counter the “jungle stories” stereotypes. I wanted to show that African mythology, culture and history were as valid as the Celtic and other European traditions on which much of modern fantasy is based. To the extent that whites were depicted at all in Imaro’s milieu of Nyumbani, they were foes, not friends.

Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you have an ancestry that is very hard to trace. You have roots that are hard to connect to. You can’t call out your ancestors.

Chad always made sure of the integrity, the ethics, the morals. I’ve represented a lot of clients, and started a lot of clients. His commitment and loyalty was amazing. It’s not typical in Hollywood. It’s typical that actors do a $100 million film like 42 and everybody’s after them, and it’s not easy to keep those clients. But he was honorable and felt that we could absolutely do it together and that all the other smoke and mirrors were not really real...

... The amount of time that we strategized over whether he should do a role for the betterment of humanity — it was always about utilizing his platform. "How can I give back? How will this be valuable to the Black community, and the community at large?"...

... There is a project we were supposed to get into soon, A Civil Right, which was a historical story about how they desegregated the beaches. He definitely wanted to tell that story. He was very much about telling new stories and having new images - that’s why he took Black Panther. After he’d been hired, he said, "I will only do this with an African accent." They were like, "Well, no, we want it to be South African." He said, "I’m a king of Africa. I’m going with the customs that we fought and fought and fought for." It was that kind of detail. He was like, "I’m going to make sure that everything is accurate, that we’re telling the story a certain way." Every single day, he and Ryan [Coogler, Black Panther director], were talking about what it meant to the culture and how important the scenes were. They almost didn’t do the waterfall scene, and Chad just fought so hard and said, "This is historical and the people need to be dancing with African music." He had learned Xhosa on Captain America with the actor who played his father [John Kani], and he said he would only do Black Panther if he could do it with an African man’s voice and dialect. He was willing to walk away from anything that became too rushed or was not going to be handled beautifully.

There was a strong interest after Black Panther to do a branding opportunity. Somebody came to us and said, "Do you want to have equity in a liquor company like George Clooney and a lot of the others have done?" He said, "I can’t, because how can I show young Black kids and kids of color that they can be superheroes, [then do this]?"

He stopped doing his first TV show, All My Children, which [a teenage] Michael B. Jordan took over. After Chad’s first script, they literally said, "Oh, here’s your next script, and your mother’s a crackhead and your father left." And he goes, "I’m not playing those images," and he went into the writers room, and they fired him. I remember him and Tessa were offered a movie, it was about two slaves, and he was like, "I do not want to perpetuate slavery." It was like, "We’re not going to keep perpetuating the stereotypes," and that’s why he wanted to show men of strength and of character.

It was always about bringing light. That’s why we never did really dark movies or movies that were just people shooting everybody and perpetuating darkness. He accomplished so much, and all while he was fighting the darkness, literally. Until the last couple of days of his life, he was fighting it.

I would compare and contrast this desire to build a better, different world with another recent New Pulp tale which has recently made its way to the screen: Lovecraft Country.


(Note: as of writing, I have only seen the first episode, on account of it being the only one available to me in Scotland for the moment. Discussion will thus be limited to that episode).

A perusal of this very blog would show that I've wrestled with the subject of -isms in pulp literature. Certainly I have to square my appreciation for H.P. Lovecraft not only with some of the worldviews that are deeply damaging to fellow human beings, but some that insult me on a practically existential level. By all rights, I should have as meager regard for Lovecraft as I should for Daniel Defoe, or Samuel Johnson. It would be better that Lovecraft was alive and the world could engage with him productively, but alas, his death in 1937 trapped him forever in time as he was.

One of the things which distinguishes Lovecraft Country from any other television series related to Lovecraft is the treatment of bigotry. The story takes place in the 1950s United States, during the twilight years of Jim Crow law. The death throes of that monstrous injustice made it incredibly dangerous for black Americans, just as the US Civil Rights movement began to gather momentum. Our main cast of characters are almost entirely composed of black Americans: the few who are not are either active antagonists, or mysterious figures of unclear motivation. Throughout, the characters face all manner of bigotry, from thoughtless mockery outside a gas station to attempted murder in the middle of nowhere. Very dark - and very real - evils are alluded to, from resistance to military desegregation in the Korean War to the Izzard-like Sundown Towns

It's difficult to imagine Chadwick Boseman being involved in Lovecraft Country, for it invokes some of the most unforgivable sins of human history - indeed, it demands you look on it, a Ludovico technique that just barely stops short of the dreadful conclusion most confrontations of this nature make. Yet there is a dichotomy here between facing the horrors of the past with uncompromising candour (Lovecraft Country), and imagining a better reality to aspire to beyond those horrors (exemplified by the Afro-futurist majesty of Wakanda).

Lovecraft Country itself alludes to this with the spectacular opening scene, and the following conversation about A Princess of Mars between Atticus and an older fellow passenger from the back of a segregated bus:

“You said the hero was a confederate officer.”


“He fought for slavery. You don’t get to put an ‘ex’ in front of that.”

“Stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try to cherish them. Overlook their flaws.”

Later on, we hear that Atticus' father, insensed at his son daring to read a book written by Lovecraft, made him memorise one of his most notorious poems as a method to discourage Atticus from reading such "trash." (The question of exactly how Atticus' father even heard of a poem that wouldn't be published until L. Sprague de Camp's 1975 H.P. Lovecraft: A Biography is something of a mystery, but perhaps Mr Turner had his sources). Atticus defied his father, and the notion that some fiction wasn't "for" him - the first book he went to in his hometown's bookstore was a copy of the seminal The Outsider and Others. The younger and older generations will disagree on the arts regardless of their background, but this seems so much sharper in the black American community given the nature of popular art & literature, especially in the 20th Century.

To bring all this back to the beginning, Darrick Ferguson showed that same defiance of expectations as a younger man:

I discovered IMARO sometime during the 1980s when I spent a lot of time on weekends hanging out in Manhattan’s used bookstores. At that time, I was hip deep in Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lin Carter, Fritz Leiber and the sight of a Heroic Fantasy/Sword & Sorcery paperback with a black hero on the cover was enough to drive all the air out of my body. I bought the book on the spot, asked the guy behind the counter if he had any more books like that. He gave me that; “Get outta here, man,” look and so I took the book home and during that weekend read it two times. Next weekend I read it two more times. It was that much of a revelation to me.

You have to understand that I didn’t get much encouragement from black folks as to the stuff I liked to write. Even other black writers didn’t have much respect or liking for my pulp influenced actions adventures or Science Fiction or Sword and Sorcery. “That’s stuff for white people” I would be told or, “You need to write books that will educate. Our kids don’t need that.”

So when I found Charles Saunders it was akin to Indiana Jones finding the Ark of The Covenant. Here was proof that what I liked to write could be published. I could write what I liked to write and it would find an audience.

That transgressive spark - the notion that you cannot segregate stories - fuels the fire for some truly great works. Sword-and-Sorcery used to be "stuff for white people" - until Imaro crashed onto the scene and upended everything. Likewise, any storytelling from any culture - European, Asian, African, American, Oceanic - which is dismissed as being something that "our kids don't need" is just begging for an enterprising transgressor to explore. Perhaps the most poignant scene in Black Panther is T'Challa's confrontation with his ancestors, who built and maintained Wakanda isolated and unknown from the rest of the world: 

"You were wrong - all of you were wrong - to turn your backs on the rest of the world! We let the fear of discovery stop us from doing what is right. No more! I cannot stay here with you. I cannot rest while HE sits on the throne! He is a monster of our own making! I must take the mantle back. I must! I must right these wrongs!"

Charles R. Saunders saw that nobody decides who is allowed to write Sword-and-Sorcery; Black Panther showed that nobody decides what a superhero should be; Lovecraft Country shows that nobody decides what stories you read.

The world is poorer for his passing, but the stars have gained a griot as brilliant as any of them to tell them new tales.

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