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Tumblr Mailbag: James Ellroy vs Robert E Howard in The Racism Race

November 24th, 2012 by | Tags: , ,

I get tumblr questions sometimes, a lot of which have to do with race or racism or people being racist to me because I talk about race sometimes. Here’s anudda entry in the ASK DR RACISM, OB/GYN saga, word to your mudda:


I remember reading something of yours where you mention the racisim inherrent in the work of Robert E. Howard. While I certainly don’t disagree with you, I would counter that the racisim in James Ellroy’s work is much more profound and, in many cases, explicit. Am I wrong, and, if not, how is one case more palatable for you than the other? I’m not trying to call you out or imply some hypocracy on your part, I’m simply interested to read what you have to say about this, if anything.

I sorta disagree with the thrust of your question. Writing racist characters (or “writing racist characters well” to be specific) isn’t the same as actually being a racist who wrote racist stories. Not even close. But, I’ll give this a try, because it’ll let me talk about a few things I’ve been meaning to talk about.

The main difference between the two is the way racism is expressed in their works.

My first thought when trying to come up with an explanation was that James Ellroy is a racism fetishist, but that isn’t quite right. It’s more that he’s into the taboo aspect of racist (and homophobic, and…) language, but also the musicality and rhythms of it. The repetition, the hard consonants, the way the words bend under the weight of someone’s accent. The pleasant menace of a kool, kalm, and kollected phrasing of a bit of bitter baggage on behalf of kharacter konstruction and… uh… another k word.

Ellroy isn’t doing it just because he hates blacks and gays and mexicans and wants a platform to call them whatever old timey words for them he dug or made up. He knows that taboo things tend to be super sexy in the right hands, and he’s aiming to drench you in them and pull you onto his side. There’s something attractive and alluring about his prose, and part of it is due to the nonstop obscenities. You don’t want to be these guys, but you do want to hear their thoughts for a while. Ellroy’s doing magic tricks.

It’s also worth noting — and fiction is the only time this excuse is worth anything, it won’t ever be viable in real life — that the language was a product of the times in addition to Ellroy’s own interest in the language. It’s meant to be racist. Ellroy, at least the Ellroy I’ve read, is writing stories set in our near-past during a point in time in which most people in the USA were either racist or perfectly aight with benefitting from institutionlized racism. If that wasn’t in his work, the books would ring half as real as they do. Granted, there are other ways to go about it beyond Ellroy’s “tossing you in the deep end with your clothes on” approach, but I never got the feeling that he was a racist himself. Great with the language, sure. But he’s writing characters who were racist, instead of espousing racist beliefs himself. There’s even a wide variety of racism in his works, while an actual racist usually just sticks to one school of thought. It would be kinda like a religious fundamentalist writing a novel where she espouses Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto, Wiccan, Sikh, Zoroastrianist, and Hari Krishna fundamentalism simultaneously, you know?

Robert E Howard, though, was an actual racist, him and his boy HP Lovecraft both. Though I guess HPL was so cartoonishly racist that REH just looks sorta like a regular dude standing next to him, maybe. But regardless, he was the type of racist who didn’t understand why a Mexican life was worth just as much as a white life, talked about burning lower races alive as a punishment for crimes, and who treated (or maybe just referred to, he probably didn’t have many black friends and the one he had went blind as a result of rolling his eye so much) people of other races as less than human. So: racist. Wikipedia says “he would be considered racist by modern standards” but that was clearly written by an insecure REH fan. He was definitely, undeniably racist by any measure, and especially the measure that says “being a racist means being a dick to other races.”

So REH’s racism has to be read differently from Ellroy’s racism-fetish (for lack of a better). One is an art thing, an affectation. The other is a straight up and down personal philosophy. What you believe affects what you create. Like for me, personally, my interest in crime, crime fiction, black history, girls with guns, girls wearing hoodies, smoking as one of the coolest acts in the world (thanks, robert mitchum), and so on affect what I put down on the page. if you look at my fiction (the tiny bit I’ve put online), you can connect the dots and begin to go “Oh wow, this guy’s really into weed smoke retracing skylines.” Ellroy’s interest in language and taboos manifests itself with his klear and komfortable facility with klanguage. REH’s racism manifests itself in the themes and specifics of his story.

The launch story for the new Conan comic was “Queen of the Black Coast.” I dug it and wrote about it. BUT when you know that REH is a racist, the story goes from a cool pirate tale to something else, which isn’t actually helped by the art or writing. REH’s racism means that his stories are going to have subtext that you have to explore and consider.

Bêlit is a pirate queen and commands a ship of hardened men who answer to her every word and desire. Pretty awesome idea, very girl power, and super thugged out. It’s the Warrior Queen, right? Red Sonja on a boat, Athena in a jaunty hat and pirate boots. Patty Hearst with the machine gun and beret, only on a boat instead of in a bank.

But the specifics: Bêlit has perfectly milky-white skin, something that was (honestly still is, but let’s not go there) considered the height of beauty. Her crew? A bunch of ultra-black brawny dudes. They’re her opposite, essentially. She is high and they are low, she commands and they obey, she is a steaming pot of sex and they are not. (Wait for that one.)

In and of itself, that isn’t bad. If it showed up in a modern DC Comic, like Africa being ruled by apes or that one stretch where they killed or benched a gang of fan-favorite non-white characters in favor of the army of Stepford Supergirls they got over there, you would just be like “Aw, man, c’mon dudes, you’re better than this.” You could probably roll with it. But if you knew that the author believed white women were greater creatures than black men, it wouldn’t sit so well.

Bêlit is sexy. Her and Conan don’t fall into puppy love so much as tiger love. Their union means terror for everyone else and extreme pleasure for them. BUT Bêlit’s the sole woman in command of a dark crew, which brings to mind one of my least favorite sexual fantasies, that of the black male tainting the white woman with his penis. 99% of interracial (as a genre, not a description) porn plays on this and is pretty gross about it.

The new comic adaptation (and maybe REH’s original tale, but I dunno there) avoids this, though the subtext is definitely there. Instead, I got the feeling that Bêlit withheld herself from her crew, or whatever nice way to say “she isn’t doing it with any of them, to my knowledge” you prefer. Which is interesting, because her crew are portrayed as being totally subservient, which lends me right to another of my least favorite tropes: the neutered black male.

Black masculinity (and femininity, obviously) has been an object of scorn, and occasional desire, to white culture for centuries. Consider your average prison rape joke (strike one), where the rapist is almost always black (strike two) with a big dick (strike three) and the raped is a skinny white man (somebody get this guy outta here). Pull that apart and you get the fear of the black man’s dick.

“Oh, but it’s positive!” you might be thinking. “Having a big dick is awesome!” Sure, okay. But the idea black men have big dicks didn’t come about because white people were like “Whoa! Look at Johnson’s johnson! That’s pretty impressive.” It’s because having a big dick meant you were… let’s call it “closer to nature.” A better phrase would be “more of a savage, closer to an animal than human.” (You can find the focus on black women’s bodies in a similar aisle in your local racist grocery store.)

Taking away the black man’s dick is another way to denigrate black men. (Sidebar: I just had to google the etymology of the word “denigrate” because I kinda laughed at the idea of it meaning what it looks like it means, and one of the synonyms is blacken. Yesssss, I love you, real life. Nothing’s as funny.) Reduce them to jokes or force them into certain roles and you take away their masculinity, which was and is basically synonymous with power.

So: a bunch of figuratively neutered black dudes being lorded over by the whitest of white ladies. Um. Can I get a ruling from our impartial judges?

Thanks, fellas.

And when Conan — REH’s stand-in for what Real Masculinity was all about — steps in, he becomes not just de facto leader of the boat, but Bêlit’s lover, as well. Like, instantly. Right after Conan murders a bunch of her dudes in a fight. They become obsessed with each other, go at it like rabbits, and everyone on the boat is cool with that, somehow. “Oh cool, Mister Charlie, go ‘head Miss Ann. Y’all just have fun copulating while we row to the next city. Rowing so hard our backs ache. But we won’t call OSHA. Sure. Y’all have fun. That sounds great.” Conan sidesteps the subservient gig and goes right to constant sex and planning violent raids. Conan was working there for fifteen seconds before he got promoted to king, and Bêlit actually places him over herself, in terms of authority.

All these little puzzle pieces aren’t too bad on their own, for the most part. But it’s when you put them together that you realize REH is saying something beyond “this is a story all about how Conan’s life got flipped, turned upside-down.” If you look at the hierarchy of the book, you have the unexperienced white man at the top, the experienced white woman under him (literally and figuratively in this case), and the black men coming in a distant third, below sexual notice and entirely without power except in the service of their queen and king’s wishes. Black women don’t exist here, which mirrors an absolutely amazing amount of fiction out there, especially of the fantasy or science fiction variety.

Kinda ugly, ain’t it? And I didn’t exaggerate anything or pull anything out of my butt when doing that summary. The specific stuff is in the comic (I’m assuming Brian Wood altered how the story plays out to make it fit a comic book format but stuck with REH’s basic framework and structure here.) and the themes aren’t stretches at all, so much as “Oh, weird, this story REH wrote lines up pretty directly with several racist ideas???” Hang on, I’ve got some input from our foreign expert coming in…


“Oooh, that’s a bingo! Is that the way you say it? ‘That’s a bingo?'”

Ellroy’s writing about how things were and amping up the racist language for the sake of being edgy and lyrical. He’s making up racist characters and writing about them, rather than espousing a racist viewpoint of his own. I can’t see your average racist rolling as lyrical as Ellroy’s racists, you know? What Ellroy does is not unobscene, depending, but it isn’t as much of a sin as writing a story about a fake place set in the fake past that lines up with your racist ideas and fears. That goes for stories set in a fake future where black people are Coals and whites are Pearls, too.

I, personally, don’t get down with REH’s prose. I dig Conan comics, especially the Kurt Busiek/Cary Nord joints, but his racist undertones combined with his so-so writing means I can keep my distance. Lovecraft is the same, only even more terrible at putting words in order. But the only time Elder Gods have really worked for me is Hellboy so that was an easy decision to make, like giving up brussel sprouts or any exercises that make my abs hurt.

Racism is a taint. It’s a lot of things, but in REH’s case, it’s a taint. It’s a mud puddle that you stomped in right before going into your friend’s house, and you keep leaving behind little bits of proof that you were the one that made a dumb decision. You’re mucking things up for yourself and making it hard for people to like you. I don’t know if this metaphor works but it was real important to me that I make it at 0800 on a Saturday morning.

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27 comments to “Tumblr Mailbag: James Ellroy vs Robert E Howard in The Racism Race”

  1. There’s something attractive and alluring about his prose, and part of it is due to the nonstop obscenities. You don’t want to be these guys, but you do want to hear their thoughts for a while. Ellroy’s doing magic tricks.

    This is an excellent way of putting it. Of note, this is the same appeal that gangsta rap has for suburban white boys – it not only exposes them to a new culture in an accessible format, but it overwhelms them with that culture. They get a double-concentrated shot of it for three minutes, then can go back to their day.

    something beyond “this is a story all about how Conan’s life got flipped, turned upside-down.”

    This is awesome. If your next project isn’t a revisionist short story from the POV of a pirate crew dealing with their captain ignoring them for a week while she sport-fucks a drifter – racial aspects aside, it’d be interesting from a proletarian viewpoint – it oughta be this.


  2. Needless to say, I love that gif.

    Also: an excellent breakdown of that Conan story’s racial politics.


  3. While REH was an unapologetic racist, reading *that* much into it, like a white woman ‘lording over’ her black crew, and not sleeping with them etc etc, is inserting yourself into it, or your views. The ball slappy passion the queen and Conan got into was because he was slaughtering everything and not surrendering, not because he was white, she valued his ‘fuck you world I’ll kill you all’ attitude despite being out numbered and outgunned (figuratively speaking).

    She didn’t fuck her crew? How often do those in a leadership position get it on with the non-imperial types? You don’t see many throw away lines in A Song of Fire and Ice of the Lannister’s schtupping cooks and hand maidens (except Tyrion who’s a perverse lil dude by himself). She had her crew and they were simply that to her.

    Her being white however, was a mix of REH and Editing: Sex sells, and despite Howeard not being a big fan of it, he had to put it in there to get it sold. And who was the main readership of pulp novels back then? I’m not sure, but I’m guessing it was mostly aimed for teenage boys or middle aged white guys who needed something to read before Playboy showed up.

    I forgot which collection of letters it was in, but REH summed up he hated shoe-horning in a love story because it ruined the pacing.

    Instead of a ‘Let’s raid this dark swamp together that’s probably haunted’ we get ‘tiger passion’. Or ball slappy passion. Whichever.

    It *appears* you’re skewing too much of REH’s racism (which he did have of course) with his main goal: civilization vs uncivilized. Hell, the beginning of Queen of the Black Coast had one of my favorite bits of dialog about Conan not understanding ‘duty to the state’ and whatnot and, under threat of being locked up for not betraying a friend, cleaves the judge’s head in twain because ‘they were obviously all insane’.

    He wrote white people stories for white people. Yeah his descriptions of black people and the like were definitely racist, especially in the one about..crap forget it’s name, but basically women turn into giant birds or something but Conan was allied with a black chieften, and there were black women, and it all went down hill from there. You should’ve focused on THAT one, which DID have a focus on ‘I won’t leave a white woman alone with black savages’ theme, whereas Queen of the Black Coast was just a barbarian meeting a pseudo-soul mate in a lusty pirate babe who found no equal in any other man (black or white).

    tl;dr, there were obvious racial overtones where it was called for it in certain work, but in this case, you read way too much into it. The black crew in this story was a setting for the story. If it were set off the pictish coast it would’ve been a white crew, or Zingaran crew would’ve been olive skinned Italian looking cats.


  4. @CapoDelBandito: If it were set off the pictish coast it would’ve been a white crew, or Zingaran crew would’ve been olive skinned Italian looking cats.

    and if it were written by warren g it’d be deeeeeeeeeeeez nutz~


  5. Nah but seriously tho — this isn’t a deep reading at all. I don’t want to go bar for bar with you right now (Hitman Absolution is calling) but in short:

    -I didn’t pull any of this outta my butt. You can see half of it on television or at the movies today.
    -I never said Belit liked Conan because he was white.
    -She may not have been literally lording over them, but she was at least ladying over them.
    -These are all common tropes in American fiction/pornography/movies/whatever.
    -A lot of this stuff shows up in jungle girl and Tarzan-type comics, too. I guess it was big back in the day.
    -This post is like… the Introduction to Prelude to Racism 101 in terms of complexity, or of how much of myself (or yourself) needs to be put into it for it to make sense.


  6. We can be thankful that both HPL and most of the REH Conan stuff are in the public domain so that non-shitty people can take excellent but poorly written ideas and do a lot more withtem.

    Given that both of them were isolated shut ins who were terrified of everything I could really see them as being the 1930’s equivalents to basement dwelling Reddit neckbeards vomiting diatribes about the superiority of the white man onto their keyboards.

    Making Belit deathly pale is kind of weird though, particularly considering wherever she’s supposed to be from.


  7. You could also tie this in to REH’s fetishization of the back-to-nature savage concept, which is so important to Conan. He elevates the savage over the civilized in (just about?) every Conan story, yet the black people are still second class despite his frequent portrayal of them in a very similar savage context. It’s only the nordic white people who get to be the good savages.


  8. I think the key here isn’t so much a non-white person “inserting themself into it” so much as white people NOT inserting other people’s perspectives into the analysis.

    but yeah, great article!


  9. @david brothers:

    Understood some o’it, I guess I just look at most everything directly, without subtext unless it’s explicit. This piece you chose feels like you were twisting and turning certain things to suit your perspective. Whereas in another Conan story (that I STILL can’t remember and will have to google later) it WAS explicit.

    This bit you’ve pulled apart here, it’s too easy to spin one way or another, ergo it’s left up to the reader and their perspective to pull racist or non-racist bits out of it.

    Something like the story I mentioned where it explicitly states ‘I would never leave a woman like yourself in the hands of people that are not her own’ SCREAMS ‘racist ass cookie’ whereas this story it is simply a setting: the blacks come from the people she raids/recruits from, up and down the coast south of Stygia (Egyptland in the way back) and her crew just happened to be black. It feels off to speculate that it was Howard writing a person ladying/lording/whathave you over another when it was simply a setting and not a ‘white man is superior, grr!’ in *this* instance.

    REH was a racist and misogynist, and probably a bipolar manic headcase. Does this excuse it? Nope. Only problem I have is someone inserting speculative ideas into a ‘it could be either way’ thing when there are explicit stories (check out Solomon Kane fore more of THAT specifically his adventures in Africa) when Queen of the Black Coast is simply a softcore porn pulp story.

    @DerikB: Swing and miss on the fetishism. Howard KNEW that uncivilized people were cold savage and terrifying people. He acknowledges this in letters he wrote to HPL.

    You should read more of his letters and personal correspondence before assuming: he treated the blacks, when Conan was “Am-rah” the pirate as noble people as well, and there were blacks when he was “King Conan” that were sellout self serving assholes too.

    Again he was a racist but he wasn’t a “WHITEYS BE ONLY GOOD SAVAGES!”

    Dude insulted whites civilized and uncivilized. Mostly his shutin nature I’d guess but I could be wrong.


  10. David,

    That was great writing, as usual. Once upon a time, I loved the pure Robert E. Howard works. However, as I’ve grown older, my understanding of the absolutely invasive nature of racism spoiling all it touches has made me re-examine a lot of my thinking.

    I went from living somewhere that kept racism on the back burner to a place where it’s front and center daily, and ended up impacting on my choice of neighborhood. (I have lived primarily as an adult in mixed places, which do not seem to exist in Baltimore.) Confronted by it so often, I can see its toxicity, especially when people try to bury it under nice words or dress it up as something else.

    Now, when I watch a 1930s movie or read a pulp story, I can’t divorce it the way I used to. That’s wrong of me. I’m taking off the window dressing and seeing, “Wow, that’s ugly.” It hurts to lose some of my old literary and movie friends, but I think it’s needed.

    To the person who said David’s seeing things that aren’t there. Dude, look at the coloring choices in issue one of the comic and try to tell me there isn’t a racial aspect to the story. Just try. She’s a sword-wielding Southern plantation belle. Conan’s the Rhett Butler with knife at his belt. Even Wood can’t make it anything but what it is–a story of the power of white over black, a theme that’s all over Howard’s fiction.

    If we’re ever going to move on, we gotta take these blinders off.


  11. @CapoDelBandito: by saying the crew “happened to be black” you’re acting like this was a true story and Robert E. Howard was just reporting it. Not so. They “happen to be” black because Robert E. Howard made a conscious choice to write them as such.

    Excellent article, David. I still love me some Lovecraft and Howard, but it’s in spite of their crazy racism, which there’s really no excuse for (well, in Lovecraft’s case, the closest thing to an excuse I can make is that I’m pretty sure he was legitimately mentally ill, but that doesn’t fly so much for Howard).


  12. @Brian J: The whole super-whiteness as an aspect of feminine beauty shows up in contexts where you wouldn’t expect it to based on racism vs dark-skinned folks; Arthurian romances IIRC make a big point of how fair-skinned some of the ladies are, and I believe it was considered attractive in Japan at least a couple hundred years ago. I’m just guessing, but I suspect it’s at least partly class-based – upper class women have servants to do work outdoors, so they stay indoors all time and are so pale their skin’s almost translucent; also they live such a soft life that any minuscule imperfection is impossible to ignore (q.v. The Princess and the Pea).

    Of course, in Howard’s stories its racial aspect is undeniable. One thing I’ve found about Howard’s racism though is that it’s super-pronounced towards blacks and somewhat toward Native Americans (who he inserts in Conan as Picts), so much so that I basically can’t detect it in Conan stories that don’t include folks from either of those groups. I mean, there’s probably racism aplenty in those other stories but after Howard SHOUTS IT IN MY EAR for a few stories anything more subtle is easy to miss.


  13. @CapoDelBandito: Part of the point of this piece is that the racism pops up where and in ways you wouldn’t expect compared to Ellroy’s relatively obvious racist fetishism. Talking about a book that was openly and obviously racist wouldn’t make sense in that conversation. Talking about a story that is more subtly racist, or reflective of REH’s views is much more sensible, I think.

    “Happened to be black” is a terrible turn of phrase, because Howard definitely made the conscious decision for them to be black from a variety of locations and her to be white. Conscious choices have points, even if they’re dumb or subtle ones. In this case, I think it’s pretty okay to say that it was representative of his worldview, considering how it lines up with his letters and whatever.

    This: “It feels off to speculate that it was Howard writing a person ladying/lording/whathave you over another when it was simply a setting and not a ‘white man is superior, grr!’ in *this* instance.”

    is off because it’s not speculation, they treat her like a queen and were consciously and intentionally written to behave like this. The situation reflects the traditional and casual definition of understanding that we all share: “behaving in a superior manner toward someone else.”

    “Ladying” was just a joke, a lady being the wife of a lord and all.

    I’m not sure how to explain to you that this is simply scratch the surface stuff. I feel like I’ve said it a few different ways. I don’t think I speculate about much of anything here. I interpret the text maybe more than REH wanted, but I don’t misrepresent anything that happened, I don’t think.

    @Alan Zabaro: Yeah, beauty standards are really interesting when viewed from a class level even up until today, because it intersects with so many isms and bits of unpleasantness in ways that feel surprising at first, but then you go, “Oh, uh, that makes sense from that POV.”


  14. @Professor Coldheart – While David’s article was great, holy shit did the phrase “sport-fuck a drifter” make me laugh. Killer turn of phrase.


  15. Man, I’d read a column called “Ask Dr. Racism…”

    Reading your thoughts on Ellroy made me curious what you think/thought of Tarantino’s use of that one word he uses/used to use a lot, back when he made movies more frequently.

    Fine piece, by the way.


  16. I second “Ask Dr. Racism”!


  17. @LtKenFrankenstein:

    The crew ‘happened to be black’ because of where it took place: south of Stigia/Stigya. They were a crew of blacks based on where the story took place. Again, if she were raiding the Zingaran people and the like they would’ve been olive skinned people.

    @david brothers: See above: Howard had the story take place off what he considered the pre-history coast of Africa, and that’s where the Queen recruited/captured(both) her crew.

    As for the Queen of the Black Coast, it wasn’t defined as to why she was ‘the queen’, but I doubt it was because “SHE BE WHITE”.

    You’re speculating on why she was the Queen, and why they were subservient to her because it’s not listed int he text.

    Again it comes down to: There’s the leader of this horde, black or otherwise, and she’s not fucking her crew, ok she’s the head of this crew, she’s not going ot fuck just anyone of them. There’s a boat she’s raiding that happens to have this guy who’s the preclinical of masculinity (that is SCOT’S based, not Irish or Germanic [as I'd prefer]) that is slaughtering her crew with no regard to his standing his future or anything.

    As a guy who’s outside of the typical ‘american’ view, read this, as I said, a softcore porn piece of violence. Race was not a piece of it, as were other pieces.

    Again, without seeing the writer’s specific notes, you’re inferring your POV, which is what I’ve seen typical of any writing, americna or otherwise, sticking one’s politics into it.

    As a non-american, I could be completely wrong, and I acknowledge this.

    I’m not looking for a ‘race’ aspect in this, but when it came to REH’s other works? Fuck yeah race was an aspect he interjected into this.

    Again I’m looking at this from the POV not as an american or any (specific named) race.

    And for random trivia: the Dark Horse run you enjoyed by Kurt Busiek? It’s dead on (except for Conan’s childhood) REH’s style, canon, etc.

    The description of the world and the people’s by Buisick are almost word for word from the books.


  18. @CapoDelBandito: Yeah, I know that Busiek & Nord were very faithful. They talk about that in the collections I have. I think it’s cool. Not really sure how that’s a counterpoint or gotcha w/r/t my position, though. The story I’m discussing here is one I like, the comics version at least. And it’s okay to like things that were made by crappy people or people you disagree with.

    And sure, you can look at this from some type of innocent star child perspective and just see softcore porno pulp, but like… Robert E Howard was an American working for an American audience in a particularly American idiom. To suggest that by looking at it from that perspective, warts and all, is inserting my own politics (race isn’t necessarily political, and in this case DEFINITELY isn’t) is absurd. That’s like saying that thinking chocolate cake tastes too sweet is a reach, because yes, cake is sweet, but TOO sweet? That’s crazy!

    You’re misreading me, I think is what it comes down to. The black dudes didn’t make Belit their queen because she is white, but Robert E Howard, noted racist, creating a crew composed entirely of subservient and loyal black people being ruled by a white woman and being willing to die for her IS significant and worthy of examination. It’s subtext.

    Also, seriously, nothing ever “happens to be” when it comes to stories. Happens implies some type of happy accident, like REH was just writing down some story he saw play out in real life and wants to get it across as a just-the-facts-ma’am sort of explanation.

    No. He made conscious decisions to use every single word, trope, aspect, letter, comma, bit of dialogue, and exclamation point in that story. Therefore, there is a reason why Belit is white and the workers are black. The story didn’t just happen to take place anywhere. The setting was pointedly chosen by the author of the work, and is worthy of examination on that level, too.


  19. @david brothers: Then it comes down to agreeing to disagree.

    I doubt any human writes out any story with THAT much thought put into it without it being blatant. People write their preferences into whatever they want, a la Ender’s Game, but without it being explicit, I chalk it up to people reading what they want to into it. Without the writer stating directly ‘White people don’t belong in a black culture’ a la the story’s name I can’t remember, then it’s merely speculative personal politics.

    From where I’m at though, race is purely politics. Race should not be something worth mentioning in a story, fiction should be something anyone can insert themselves into. reading into it that ‘this person is lording this, or this perosn is better than that’ without an explicit stating of such things, like in REH’s later stories, is speculative. One’s personal politics interfering with another’s story.

    Again, this is from a purely non-americna POV, and I could be misreading modern American writings entirely.


  20. @CapoDelBandito: Lording just means ruling someone else from a position of superiority and the entire point is that REH’s awful ideas about race leaked into his works, even the ones that aren’t explicitly about white supremacy :negativeman:


  21. Weirdly, I’ve never read any Conan Howard stories, but I have read El Borak and Solomon Kane, and yowza, the Kane stories’ take on Africans is hideously ooga booga.


  22. @david brothers: And that’s where we differ my good sir. Belit wasn’t ‘lording over’ her crew. She was simply the pirate queen based on whatever stuff happened before the story.

    She became entangled with Conan because he was a slaughter happy savage with a ‘never say die’ attitude (which is NOT limited to race thank Cthulhu) that she preferred. Hence, ball slappy passion occurred. As Senor Colye says the African racial bit comes into play BIG time there.

    But in a pirate story such as this? I just don’t see it, but I’m not racially sensitive and it’s not explicitly stated like you said “y’all two white folk couple all y’all want’ in this story.

    Again, I’m just seeing too much of one person putting their personal politics into a story that was a cheaply written softcore porn story, and there *are* stories by REH that definitely deserve to be deconstructed that are outright racist where as ‘Queen of the Black Coast” doesn’t have a ‘neutered black crew’ as you put it so much as it has a ‘pirate queen who’s NOT going to fuck her subjects and be open to them so much as a violent bastard who steals her heart’ which I think plays more into REH’s misogynist side than anything else.

    But without a proper structuring of where the writer or whoever comes from, be it racist misogynist or otherwise, a person is subjecting their own subtext with no real study into the subject.

    Have you read the 3 or 4 collections of REH’s letters and the like? I sure as fuck haven’t (only read the 1 before I got bored) so inserting what you perceive as racist subtext is purely speculative. Whereas the story I mentioned that outright states people should be separated by race and the like, putting what you want into it without proper research is completely unscientific and based purely on emotion, something I absolutely abhor.

    But again, I try to keep emotion out of things i read.


  23. But regardless, he was the type of racist who didn’t understand why a Mexican life was worth just as much as a white life, talked about burning lower races alive as a punishment for crimes, and who treated (or maybe just referred to, he probably didn’t have many black friends and the one he had went blind as a result of rolling his eye so much) people of other races as less than human.

    David, I had decided a long time ago that I’m not sufficiently equipped to discuss the matter of race politics, especially when it comes to 1920s and 1930s authors. I simply defer to Howard biographer Mark Finn’s discussion on the subject located here.

    Please don’t assume that I’m trying to downplay or ignore the race discussion, since it’s a subject that is complex and deserves proper discussion. However, I do feel that you’re giving REH too little credit in terms of his literary qualities. So while I’m not going to talk about REH’s stance on race, I do want to talk about your appraisal of “Queen of the Black Coast.”

    But the specifics: Bêlit has perfectly milky-white skin, something that was (honestly still is, but let’s not go there) considered the height of beauty. Her crew? A bunch of ultra-black brawny dudes. They’re her opposite, essentially. She is high and they are low, she commands and they obey, she is a steaming pot of sex and they are not. (Wait for that one.)

    Here’s the thing, though: Bêlit isn’t white. Belit is a Shemite, the Hyborian Age equivalent of the Semites. Her skin is often compared to milk and called “ivory,” certainly, but so was the skin of female South Asian nobility in ancient times.

    nd when Conan — REH’s stand-in for what Real Masculinity was all about — steps in, he becomes not just de facto leader of the boat, but Bêlit’s lover, as well. Like, instantly. Right after Conan murders a bunch of her dudes in a fight. They become obsessed with each other, go at it like rabbits, and everyone on the boat is cool with that, somehow. “Oh cool, Mister Charlie, go ‘head Miss Ann. Y’all just have fun copulating while we row to the next city. Rowing so hard our backs ache. But we won’t call OSHA. Sure. Y’all have fun. That sounds great.” Conan sidesteps the subservient gig and goes right to constant sex and planning violent raids.

    It’s pretty clear in the story that the Black Corsairs’ reverence for Belit is not just the sort that a loyal crew has to their captain, but there are distinct religious overtones. You’re undoubtedly familiar with the “White Goddess” trope, which has been around since before Haggard’s “She.” Belit likely “withheld” herself from the crew because she’s set herself up as a pseudo-goddess to them. The fact that the crew of the Tigress are exclusively black men would suggest some sort of commonality, and indeed, they are only recruited from a small island chain far to the south. We see the “white goddess” trope in “The Servants of Bit-Yakin,” and how the power of faith can be exploited. When she encounters Conan, a man who can kill dozens of men on his own, he proves himself to be suitably mythic to possibly serve as her consort – no least because the Cimmerians were themselves considered half-mythical by not just the Black Corsairs, but the Shemites, Belit included.

    Conan was working there for fifteen seconds before he got promoted to king, and Bêlit actually places him over herself, in terms of authority.

    Belit doesn’t relinquish her command: she *says* to Conan “be thou my king,” but as Howard says in the story: “Conan agreed. He generally agreed to her plans. Hers was the mind that directed their raids, his the arm that carried out her ideas.” When the Tigress devastates Stygian fleets, the Stygians “named Belit with curses, and a white warrior with fierce blue eyes” – surely if Conan was in command, it would be his name they would curse first and foremost, with his “subordinate” Belit second? Belit’s in charge, not Conan, which leads me to:

    If you look at the hierarchy of the book, you have the unexperienced white man at the top, the experienced white woman under him (literally and figuratively in this case), and the black men coming in a distant third, below sexual notice and entirely without power except in the service of their queen and king’s wishes.

    First of all, Belit is not under Conan in practise. Secondly, I would hardly call Conan “unexperienced”: while this is most likely his first pirate tale, he was already the veteran of many campaigns, a notorious thief, and fought in border skirmishes with his tribe from his teens. That’s pretty good qualifications for a pirate, IMO. I won’t argue against the third point, save to say that other Howard stories do show black men with agency.

    I, personally, don’t get down with REH’s prose. I dig Conan comics, especially the Kurt Busiek/Cary Nord joints, but his racist undertones combined with his so-so writing means I can keep my distance.

    Busiek more often than not transcribed REH’s prose word-for-word, so unless you liked every issue *except* the ones based on the actual stories, I don’t get that. In any case, it’s a shame you don’t dig REH, since like a great many writers from that time and place, I believe that his work does have some great value in spite of the significant dissonance one encounters when reading his work.

    Other commenters.

    Brian J:

    We can be thankful that both HPL and most of the REH Conan stuff are in the public domain so that non-shitty people can take excellent but poorly written ideas and do a lot more withtem.

    I could make a comment about L. Sprague de Camp having the same idea, but I won’t. Suffice to say, despite being written 80 years ago with over 50 books, comics, and other media, Howard is still exalted by man Conan fans are the very best. There’s surely more to it than “because he was first.”

    Given that both of them were isolated shut ins who were terrified of everything

    The meme of REH being an isolated paranoid borderline psychotic has been debunked for a long time: I suggest you get up to speed.

    DerikB:

    You could also tie this in to REH’s fetishization of the back-to-nature savage concept, which is so important to Conan. He elevates the savage over the civilized in (just about?) every Conan story, yet the black people are still second class despite his frequent portrayal of them in a very similar savage context. It’s only the nordic white people who get to be the good savages.

    Howard’s black savages are, generally speaking, more technologically advanced than his white savages: they have agriculture and walled towns, while the Cimmerians are barely out of the Iron Age. I’d say their inferiority to the (Nordic) Aesir and Vanir and the (emphatically non-Nordic) Cimmerians and Picts is as much due to their higher stage of civilization. That said, there are a significant number of black peoples who are not appreciably inferior to the Cimmerians in the stories: the Black Corsairs are the most feared pirates of the age even when not led by Conan or Belit, for example.

    One thing I’ve found about Howard’s racism though is that it’s super-pronounced towards blacks and somewhat toward Native Americans (who he inserts in Conan as Picts)

    The Picts were actually white, based on 19th/20th Century anthopological ideas on a proposed “Mediterranean” race, just with a few cultural aspects of Native Americans. Howard explicates this in “The Black Stranger.”

    I still love me some Lovecraft and Howard, but it’s in spite of their crazy racism, which there’s really no excuse for

    It is what it is. Howard and Lovecraft were writing and living in a completely different (and appalling) world. All I can say is, as bad as the things REH and HPL have said, the scary thing is they’re small fry compared to some of the stuff being churned out in the pulp market at the same time.

    Back to David:

    The black dudes didn’t make Belit their queen because she is white, but Robert E Howard, noted racist, creating a crew composed entirely of subservient and loyal black people being ruled by a white woman and being willing to die for her IS significant and worthy of examination. It’s subtext.

    No. He made conscious decisions to use every single word, trope, aspect, letter, comma, bit of dialogue, and exclamation point in that story. Therefore, there is a reason why Belit is white and the workers are black. The story didn’t just happen to take place anywhere. The setting was pointedly chosen by the author of the work, and is worthy of examination on that level, too.

    Agreed. Although we come to different conclusions, and I have a different appraisal of REH’s character and works from yourself, popular literature like this deserves to be read, dissected and analysed, even if it’s in ways that we wouldn’t be comfortable with.

    My belief in why Howard chose Belit to be Shemite (not white, this is important) and her men to be black is twofold. First, it establishes a uniformity among the crew that you wouldn’t normally get with a rag-tag bunch of misfits from all across the world, which is what you get with most pirate crews. This crew is drawn from a single group of islands, all of them giants and mighty warriors, all of them completely disciplined and obedient to their commander. There is no talk of rebellion or dissent among the crew because this is no ordinary pirate crew: this is a well-oiled machine. The fact that they are feared as pirates even without Belit or Conan leading them in other stories proves that they contribute to the Tigress’ success as well as their captain-queen.

    Why pick black as opposed to white, or another race? Because the second part of the story is the union of two mythologies. Conan is of the cold, dark, grim north, a land barely believed to be real by the Shemites: the Black Corsairs are of the far south, which are most likely just as mythical to the Cimmerians, but are a bit less unusual for the Shemites. Belit is a Shemite, and so is directly between *both* the northern lands and the Island Kingdoms: both of these lands are mysterious and exotic to her people, but especially the north, since the black kingdoms traded and raided among the Shemites while the Cimmerians are a bit more insular. This dynamic simply wouldn’t work if her crew were, say, Zingarans (Spanish) or Argossean (Greek/Italian), since those kingdoms have none of the fearsome mystery of the black kingdoms in context of the Hyborian Kingdoms.

    So why did Howard choose to make the black people from the far south, and the Cimmerians from the north? Because the Hyborian Age is our world in the distant past, and so echoes of history from antiquity to the renaissance can be found: Stygia is the foundation upon which Egypt would arise; the Hyrkanians are the root stock of the Huns, Turks and Mongols, and so on.

    In any case, while I find a lot to disagree with, I really hope it can lead to thoughtful and productive discussion, rather than a mudslinging contest: REH’s work is a subject dear to me, but racism is something I find utterly repellent, so you can see the dilemma. All I can do is acknowledge it, and leave those who want to discuss it in more detail to do so, and that there may be more to complexity to REH’s contentious decisions than one or two things.


  24. Addendum: to the question of REH’s alleged misogyny, I disagree most strongly. Howard was practically proto-feminist, and this can be seen in his correspondence.


  25. since we’re at the point where dudes are debating things I didn’t even mention on behalf of someone they admit is a racist because I somehow went too far with his subtext and I’m being told to keep my emotions of out of things in a post that is cool as a cucumber, I’m going to call it! Good night, everybody!


  26. [...] Conan creator Robert E. Howard was indisputably a racist, but he had surprisingly enlightened views on women. But he was still a [...]


  27. [...] wrote a thing about Robert E Howard’s racism a few days ago and didn’t say anything about the subtext beyond what like a moderately culturally-aware [...]