Playing in the Dark: Review of The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
The Dark Fantastic: Race and Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas. New York University Press, 2019.
The study of fan reception has always been haunted by a bad racial conscience. In a 1992 survey of the discipline, John Fiske expressed regret at not having been able to find studies of non-white fan communities; rather than inspiring course-correcting research, this caveat has become the standard refrain for the discipline’s representational failures. In recent years Black scholars have taken two primary approaches to correcting this omission: either identifying the structural, race-based exclusion in the scholarly practice (and so documenting the unrecognized activity of Black fans) or locating the exclusion in fan culture itself. But, taken together, these new approaches seem only to double the haunting effect, suggesting an “everywhere and nowhere” quality wherein Blackness is present exactly where it is ignored, and absent only where it is excluded.
It’s appropriate, then, that a paradigm-shifting text like Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s The Dark Fantastic would place this haunting in the foreground: adapting Toni Morrison’s theory of American literature to describe science fiction and fantasy’s own unspeakable fear of the Black racial other. Thomas defines her key term, “the dark fantastic,” as the genre convention by which fantasy literature reduces Blackness to a backgrounded and ghostly presence. Her great achievement in this work is the pairing of her genre analysis with an account of the Black fan’s own ghostlike status in the world of fandom. Describing the “imagination gap,” the effect of racist tropes foreclosing imaginative escape for young Black readers, Thomas advances the first theory equal to fandom studies’ longstanding omission. Her thinking centers the Black reader who could and would have been a fan, but, because of the conventional racism of science fiction and fantasy, isn’t: a theory of the Black fan who is both there and not there.
Not only does Thomas center this hypothetical reader, she deploys all of her interpretive energies in their service. Rather than identifying the literary text’s ideal reader, Thomas is after the Black fan’s necessary reading practice, the reading practice that allows them to become a fan and stay that way: what she has described in other writings as a “radical reader response.” Fans are known to change culture even as they’re consuming it, and in this vein Thomas advises whatever interpretive leaps and bounds will allow Black readers to find their own affirmative “counter-stories” within the text. This is the first readerly step of a program Thomas calls “the emancipatory Black fantastic,” an agenda which also calls upon writers, publishers, and film studios to further transform the fantasy genre.
At her best, Thomas’s own critical power closes the gap on its own, as in her second chapter, “Lamentations of a Mockingjay,” which places the minor character Rue of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games at the novel’s center of gravity. It’s in this chapter that Thomas’s debt to Toni Morrison is most fully repaid, demonstrating the symbolic necessity of Rue’s Blackness to the novel’s otherwise irreconcilable themes of innocence, sacrifice, and counter-tyrannical resistance. The Hunger Games begins by threatening horror: the mass-mediated and state-sanctioned death of an eleven-year-old girl, suspended only by her heroic older sister’s intervention. The fantastical evil of the premise, as Thomas shows, is only possible because past and present anti-Black violence renders the scenario immediately legible, even as the pristine whiteness of the child makes the dystopic scenario unrepresentable. Rue is introduced to fill this narrative vacuum. Like the first girl she is young and scared, but, unlike her, Rue is Black. Being both at the same time, when she dies Rue registers as the type of person this should never happen to, but also as the type of person this happens to all the time. By centering her as the condition of the novel’s dystopic and revolutionary possibility, Thomas makes The Hunger Games about Rue: “when we turn our literature and media upside down, and read from a dark fantastic perspective, we find the dark girls in the shadows have much to say.”
But as Thomas negotiates the multiplicity of fan responses to The Hunger Games, litigated across multiple media and fora and informed by such outside referents as West African folklore, African American sorrow songs, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the impact of this interpretation shows its limits even as it proves undeniable. Just like the “everywhere and nowhere” of Black fandom, The Dark Fantastic can attend to that which had previously been rendered invisible—it can turn the liminal into a presence and speak the unspeakable—but it cannot ameliorate the racism of the very fan discourse which invests Thomas with her interpretive power. She has convinced me that Rue is the character who matters most in The Hunger Games, but only because the novel and its imagined reader believe white girls matter more.
It remains for another book, then, to excavate the relationship between the gap in any given Black reader’s imagination and the more systemic imagination gap they occupy in the social order, or to ask whether the “escapism” enabled by fantasy actually bears a meaningful relation to the more ambitious goal of emancipation. The Dark Fantastic does supply a long-awaited foundation for beginning this conversation in SFF and fandom scholarship, and the test of its legacy will not be whether or not the “emancipatory Black fantastic” is achieved, but whether its contradictions are adequately explored. While scholars might debate the efficacy of Thomas’s call for reforms, writers and aspiring writers would do well to familiarize themselves with her work—Thomas’s emphasis on counter-story provides a way to productively read work that might otherwise exclude Black readers, but diverse casts of characters with widely representative experiences are increasingly normalized and expected. Committed fans will be able to use Thomas’s insights to explore and renegotiate their relationships to content and creators that have hurt or disappointed them, and would-be fans might read in anticipation of better options around the corner. Regardless of who is reading, though, The Dark Fantastic merits attention simply as a text of its time. Those reading the book now will understand it as a gear in the machinery of an accelerating culture shift, and those interested in science fiction and fantasy will be curious to observe its history in motion.
Casey Patterson (he/him) is a PhD Candidate in the Stanford University Department of English and a graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park. His dissertation asks how the African American encounter with institutional education has mediated literary production. As a branch of that work, Casey works on the treatment of race in YA and children’s literature. Casey can be found on Twitter as @KCWayneP.
This review was commissioned by editor Amandine Faucheux on September 10, 2020 after a hard pitch to the editors’ inbox following a tweet requesting that persons interested in review Thomas’s book reach out. The author and editor were not previously acquainted. No review copy was arranged by ARB.