Children of Blood and Bone and the Importance of the Black Imagination in the West
Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
In Tomi Adeyemi’s best-selling YA Fantasy story, Children of Blood and Bone, seventeen-year-old Zélie discovers she’s been chosen by the gods to restore magic to the maji, her oppressed people from whom an evil king stole magic in a genocidal sweep many years ago. If she wants to stop the oppression of her people, Zélie must return three sacred artifacts to a temple on the other side of the kingdom and perform the ritual that will bring magic back before it’s too late. Children of Blood and Bone is a story about grief, fear, and power. It is a story that asks what it means to be Black in America, even while being set wholly in a fantasy realm. And it is a fantasy story that is told by a Black author in a Black fantasy world through the eyes of Black protagonists. As such, what Adeyemi has done as a fantasy writer is rare and special.
Adeyemi is not the first Black author to write this sort of story. She stands on the shoulders of other Black writers like Octavia Butler and N. K. Jemisin. But fantasy and science fiction writing have, traditionally, been dominated by white writers and storytelling traditions, and Adeyemi’s success is especially important for our cultural moment in how her book, as a Young Adult work, steps into the stream of commercial popularity.Have we ever stopped to think about how these traditional tropes and emblems of (white) fantasy stories don’t reflect Black people, culture, or experience?
Children of Blood and Bone uses familiar YA tropes to attract a target audience that may be unfamiliar with the inspirational matter of her fantasy: African myths. Certain tropes belong to certain genres for a reason, and readers migrate to books in those genres knowing they’ll find those things—because that’s what they want to read. For example, Zélie is a strong female protagonist who is skilled with a bow staff-type weapon, and she falls in love with her enemy. There are any number of YA stories that contain these very same elements. But the differences Adeyemi introduces in this story are notable because they are grounded in her experiences as a Nigerian Black American, and she doesn’t shy away from making the fantasy world in her story wholly about the Black experience in America—even as the world-building and magical systems are based in West African mythology and culture. As such, she effectively introduces her white readership to elements of the lived Black experience in a fantastical way—from celebrations of dark Black skin and thick curly hair (which is tied to the ability to wield magic, thereby making thick, curly hair desirable) throughout the story, to horrifying and condemnatory descriptions of lynchings of oppressed magical people.
This is how writers write, especially writers who have to extensively world-build. We pull from what we know—our own immediate experiences—to craft characters, settings, and more, and when we want to build something “other,” we reach into what’s most familiar and comfortable to us. For white authors of fantasy, it’s usually something historically European or some European or Norse mythology. Why? This is what we are taught in school, what we grow up reading, what most of us are enamored with as a result of the fantasy literature we grew up on. Elves, dwarves, satyrs, fawns, mermaids, dragons, damsels in distress, and knights in shining armor . . . these are products of a Western, or even a Classical Christian, imagination. For those of us conscientious of such things, even the elements of paganism intrinsic in such fairy tales and mythologies—that have trickled down into modern fantasy—were “baptized” by the Church sometime during the Middle Ages, and (except for those fundamentalist Christians who reject all fantasy) we now accept them as good.
But have we ever stopped to think about how these traditional tropes and emblems of (white) fantasy stories don’t reflect Black people, culture, or experience? African mythology is unfamiliar enough to feel strange to many white readers. So strange that elements of African mythology—if present in our stories at all—are more often relegated to the position of villainy and literal “black magic.”
While I understand the Christian’s hesitation with magic and magical systems that include blood rituals and animism, it takes some mental gymnastics to morally concede to satyrs and spellcasting and draw the line at animism. In The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, there are good wizards who cast spells as well as fauns, elves, and river gods. We are quick to forgive the pagan origins of such things when they have been integrated into the Christian tradition—I myself teach a storytelling structure based on alchemical processes and do so without any moral compunction—but creatures such as fauns and river gods were not benign in their original mythologies.
I’ve often heard Christians condemn the Disney animated film The Princess and the Frog because “that magic is real” (in reference to the voodoo that turns Tiana into a frog). The issue here is not whether or not voodoo is a real force, but rather the prejudiced imaginations that will allow Cinderella to commune with a fairy godmother and climb into an enchanted pumpkin to go and dance with her prince, but will not allow Tiana to turn into a frog to get a kiss from hers.
Perhaps the origins of all magical things should be weighed the same. Is “white person magic” permissible, but “Black person magic” wicked? Or is it possible that within the realm of fantasy there is room at the table for all? How can we honestly claim “All truth is God’s truth” if what we mean is, “All white truth is God’s truth”?
Most fantasy in the West is, well, traditionally Western. Those of us who’ve written it have springboarded off some combination of C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien or George MacDonald, who set the modern pillars of the Western fantasy tradition. Even those who openly despise these men (such as Philip Pullman) or question them (such as George R. R. Martin) owe them an undeniable debt. What I didn’t realize for a long time, however, is that the Western fantasy tradition is whitewashed.
I defended the whiteness of the fantasy I grew up reading, writing, and seeing on all the bookshelves because it came out of Europe. And Europe, like America, is predominantly white. But American culture does not mean white culture or even European culture. American culture is diverse. It’s diverse for a number of reasons—not the least of which because of the evils of slavery. For years, conscientious Black voices have been pushing us to see how we have erased and rewritten Black history in America, and now in recent years Black fantasy and science fiction authors such as N. K. Jemisin are adding their voices to the mix about the stories we tell. When we only publish speculative fiction based on the mythologies of Europe and Scandinavia, we omit the voices, culture, and experiences of Black and Brown people that share our lands.
Black history is not white history; their experience is not the same as our own. Not their recent history, which we have tried so hard to erase and redefine, and not their more distant past. And if you go back to the mythological roots that inform their fantastical storytelling—as Adeyemi did and other Black authors like her have done—you will find a foundation wholly different from the European one. But it’s one just as important for all of us to be familiar with because it informs how we view and accept and love Black people in the world today.
If you were to read through the canon of the generally acknowledged great fantasy works of Western Civilization, you would be hard-pressed to find positive representations of Black and Brown people. If you were to read through the non-great works of fantasy literature written by white authors of the last several decades, you would be hard-pressed to find positive representations of Black and Brown people. Telling fantasy stories through white eyes rarely imagines a Black hero—or Blackness in a positive light at all. Our oppression of Black and Brown people has long extended into the stories we tell about them. We enslaved them, we oppressed them, and then we “othered” them in our stories—if we included them at all—affording them rarely more than the place of villains, outsiders, and exotic heathens.
Diversifying something like our fantasy stories means more than just peppering Black and Brown people into our existing stories—it means stepping back and allowing them space to tell their own stories. When I was teaching adult creative writing courses, we were discussing this topic of diversity in fantasy literature, and a student of mine—a Black woman—spoke up. She said, “Growing up, I never believed I could write Black characters in a fantasy story because I never saw Black people in fantasy. I didn’t think those stories were for me.” I was overwhelmed with sadness that I was looking at a person who had never seen herself represented in one of the most popular genres of fiction in the world. I had walked with Lucy through the wardrobe—but this student had never had that same experience.
YA Fantasy and Science Fiction have perfected the strong female protagonist trope, but how comfortable is the publishing or entertainment industries with a strong female Black protagonist? The New York Times reported in 2018:
Until recently, most popular speculation on what the future would be like had been provided by white writers and futurists, like Isaac Asimov and Gene Roddenberry. Not coincidentally, these futures tended to carry the power dynamics of the present into perpetuity. Think of the original ‘Star Trek,’ with its peaceful, international crew, still under the charge of a white man from Iowa. At the time, the character of Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, was so vital for African-Americans — the black woman of the future as an accomplished philologist — that, as Nichols told NPR, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself persuaded her not to quit the show after the first season. It was a symbol of great progress that she was conceived as something more than a maid. But so much still stood in the way of her being conceived as a captain.
Empowering Black people in America has always been considering risky by predominantly white power structures, no matter the industry, but especially in the high-stakes, high-money entertainment industry. Despite the massive box office successes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it still took Disney ten years and eighteen movies to green-light Black Panther. (A rocket-wielding racoon and a talking tree got on screen in the MCU before a Black man got to star in his own movie.) When Avengers: Infinity War came out just two months after Black Panther, the notable lack of onscreen presence of Black Panther/King T’Challa spoke to how Marvel execs hadn’t anticipated the success of Black Panther or the importance of the story to the Black community in America. Black Panther smashed box office records, selling more pre-tickets than any other Marvel film to date.
But still, Black people in America face an uphill battle in the fight to tell their own stories. The fate of Black women in the industry is often the most bleak:
Despite selling more than a million books and being the first science-fiction author to win a MacArthur fellowship, Octavia Butler… never saw her work transferred to film, even as studios churned out adaptations of lesser works on a monthly basis. Butler’s writing not only featured African-Americans as protagonists; it specifically highlighted African-American women. If projects by and about black men have a hard time getting made, projects by and about black women have a nearly impossible one.
Allowing Black people to tell their own stories comes with an intrinsic ennoblement—a bearing testimony to one’s own self—that could shake the foundations of speculative storytelling in the West. In the last few years, thanks in part to successes like Black Panther and Children of Blood and Bone, the industry is starting to shift. And this is a good thing. America cannot claim to be a melting pot nation if we continue to silence the cultural experiences of 48 million people. “I wanted to build empathy with this book,” Adeyemi said of her novel. We all need to grow in empathy with our Black brothers and sisters. We have suppressed the Black imagination for far too long.