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

November 24th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

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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