When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Me, I’m a Bear of Very Little Brain. Multi-tasking R manifestly NOT Us. I have one track and I can work that track pretty hard, but I can only do one thing at a time. This is my year of recommitting myself to my fiction, after several years away. So I’ve kept my focus there since Sasquan. But I do feel the need to weigh in on the World Fantasy Award administrators’ decision to retire the H. P. Lovecraft bust.
Kudos! Huzzah! Hearts and balloons! With a side of it’s-about-damn-time. Thanks to the WFA administrators for stepping up, and thanks to Nnedi Okorofor, Daniel José Older, Sofia Samatar, and others in the SFF community who have raised awareness on this issue. This has taken a real toll on those who were willing to speak up. The burden of being labeled a troublemaker for bringing important and inconvenient truths to light falls all too often on people who are already marginalized. (In fact, Okorofor is reporting on FaceBook that she’s experienced a sharp uptick in hate mail, since the WFA administrators announced this change.)
Lovecraft’s brand of racism was both virulent and parochial—it was American-style white-supremacist fear-of-the-other at its worst. His elitist, xenophobic attitude made him a terrible symbol to represent the best works in a genre whose roots and branches span history and cultures across the globe. I mean, his attitudes about people other than those of English and Teutonic descent were eye-scorchingly dreadful, even for their time.
Phenderson Djeli Clark’s excellent article, “The ‘N’ Word through the Ages: The ‘Madness’ of HP Lovecraft,” provides sufficient evidence to convince any reasonable person. Here’s an extended quote, but there is plenty more. You should read the whole article (content warning for racism):
During a visit to Chinatown in 1922, Lovecraft declared it a “filthy dump” filled with sub-human ‘swine … a bastard mess of stewing Mongrel flesh without intellect, repellent to the eye, nose and imagination.” He goes on to wish for a “kindly gust of cyanogen [cyanide]” that might “asphyxiate the whole gigantic abortion, end the misery and clean out the place.”
America’s black inhabitants presented Lovecraft with a most peculiar problem — a group too numerous to erase with a genocidal whiff of poison gas, and too entrenched to send packing. He ruminated on this on more than one occasion:
Now the trickiest catch in the negro problem is the fact that it is really twofold. The black is vastly inferior. There can be no question of this among contemporary and unsentimental biologists — eminent Europeans for whom the prejudice-problem does not exist. But, it is also a fact that there would be a very grave and very legitimate problem even if the negro were the white man’s equal. For the simple fact is, that two widely dissimilar races, whether equal or not, cannot peaceably coexist in the same territory until they are either uniformly mongrelised or cast in folkways of permanent and traditional personal aloofness. … Just how the black and his tan penumbra can ultimately be adjusted to the American fabric, yet remains to be seen. … Millions of them would be perfectly content with servile status if good physical treatment and amusement could be assured them, and they may yet form a well-managed agricultural peasantry. The real problem is the quadroon and octoroon—and still lighter shades. Theirs is a sorry tragedy, but they will have to find a special place. What we can do is to discourage the increase of their numbers by placing the highest possible penalties on miscegenation, and arousing as much public sentiment as possible against lax customs and attitudes—especially in the inland South—at present favouring the melancholy and disgusting phenomenon. All told, I think the modern American is pretty well on his guard, at last, against racial and cultural mongrelism. There will be much deterioration, but the Nordic has a fighting chance of coming out on top in the end.
– Letter from Lovecraft to James F. Morton, January 1931.
These are not simply a few hot-headed opinions popping out of the mouth (or the pen) of a young man, whose attitudes mellowed with age. They weren’t ill-considered Thingish thoughts that he reconsidered later. Nope. He remained hostile and entrenched in these views to the end of his life, despite the sustained efforts of his friends and family.
For those who haven’t been targeted by racist hate, the racial overtones might not be obvious in his fiction, and some of my friends in the community of color have said they weren’t bothered by the disturbing undertones in his work, either. But in his large volume of correspondence, he was quite clear on the subject. So yes: even for his time, his opinions were extreme.
And you know? I find the “man of his time” argument troubling on its face. It asks us to put Lovecraft’s views in historical context. But whose context are we talking about? I guarantee you that the people he was referring to in those quotes above didn’t feel the same way he did. This was in the 1920s and 30s—within the lifespan of people still around today. Can anyone argue with a straight face that that attitude did no harm back then? And the people he was maligning: their children and grandchildren are part of our community. Doesn’t their historical context matter, too?
The KKK was in its heyday in those years, committing terrorist acts. While Lovecraft penned his stories, white men in hoods were busy murdering and terrorizing blacks (along with Jews, Catholics, Asians, and their white Anglo-Saxon Protestant supporters) for the unforgiveable crime of (as Nalo Hopkinson once put it) “breathing while black.” Hitler (about whom Lovecraft spoke approvingly) was on the ascent to power. And Lovecraft’s rhetoric provides extremists with ideological cover to this day.
Given all this, most people can see the good sense in the WFA administrators’ decision. We can appreciate the good that has come out of Lovecraft’s contributions to SFF and horror, without needing such a parochial, paranoid, and xenophobic individual held up as an icon of excellence within such a broad and diverse field of endeavor as ours.
Sure. Bigotry and hate speech are not just a white problem. Not just a straight or cisgendered or male problem. People in socially-dominant positions have engaged in hateful, eliminationist rhetoric against those on the margins, across the globe and throughout the ages. It’s Bullying 101. And sure, genocidal rhetoric and actions predate modern civilization. Since when is any of that an excuse for dreadful behavior? Lovecraft’s expressed opinions about people of races and religions other than his own were hate speech, pure and simple. In a modern, tolerant, and multi-cultural world, we can’t sweep intolerance and bigotry under the carpet. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard. This change to the award should not be considered even remotely controversial.
One last point. Word has spread that writer S. T. Joshi, a two-time WFA winner and Lovecraft’s biographer, disagrees with the award administrators’ decision, and has returned his awards in protest. I find his reasoning, let’s just say, unpersuasive. This decision does not in any way reflect on him or his H. P. Lovecraft scholarship—or at least, it shouldn’t. I hope that Joshi is able someday to make his peace with the decision of the WFA committee. I feel badly, too, for the artist who created the bust, Gahan Wilson. This decision does not reflect on him or his work, either.
But. Here’s the bottom line. People should not be forced to choose between turning down an award—the highest praise and recognition of their peers—and having the face of their oppressor on their shelf. The moral weight here lies with those who have been forced for centuries to swallow the hatred of the bigoted among us. It’s time to bid farewell to a Thingish thought that once seemed like a good idea but hasn’t held up well. Good riddance to the H. P. Lovecraft bust.
Update: Steve (my Steve; Stevie Chuck) just pointed me to this excellent blog post by bestselling writer and this year’s World Fantasy Guest of Honor, Steven Erikson. Well worth a read.