Last October, I chaired a panel on Black Speculative Fiction at the Popular/American Culture South conference with two of my colleagues at Clark Atlanta University. During the Q&A portion of the panel I was asked about why I focused so much on children in fantasy, and why bringing them into Black Speculative Fiction was important. I was reminded of a paper I did on the invisible innocence of Black children in the wake of the McKinney pool party and Tamir Rice. I told the commenter (come to find out she is a professor at Jackson State University who I met again a little later) that Black children need to see themselves represented in every facet of their beings, but it wasn't until later during the Q&A that a very interesting idea was born. What if more than just Black kids need to see themselves in fantasy? What if everyone else needs to see Black kids living their Black Boy Joy and Black Girl Magic? What happens when they don't see that? What if they don't recognize Black childhood because they hardly ever see them as children, even when they are in danger? What if, for many, Black children are nothing but minature versions of Black adults: dangerous and inherently destructive. What if, for many, the very idea of a Black child is something outside of their world view?
Let’s think about some of the major fantasy series. How many of you read or watched the Harry Potter series? The Hunger Games? Percy Jackson & the Olympians? Let me take it back for my older folks: The Chronicles of Narnia? Hell, even Twilight works to an extent. Beside most of them being written by British authors (that’s another story for another time) and most of the major characters being white AF they also have something else in common: they’re all about kids. Not one of the primary protagonists in these series is over the age of 18 at the start of their books/movies (Bella is the oldest at 17). We have a special affinity for children in fantasy stories, I’d argue because we all collectively believe that children are our future and they’re gonna be the ones to save us from ourselves. Most writers create fantasy stories that follow a special child or group of children with that idea in mind. I mean, the savior of the world came as a baby in swaddling clothes, so it only makes sense that we would continue the idea of a young savior in what we write.
Having the hero(es) in fantasy be kids has other positives, too. It’s easier to see how daunting saving the world is through the eyes of a child. We get to see how the terrors of the world shape a child; we get to watch them grow up in front of our eyes. THAT is what makes these fantasy books and movies so engaging. We connect to young Harry, Katniss, Percy, the Pevensie children, and yes, even Bella and we want what is best for them. Many kids grow up alongside these characters; going through life with their favorite characters. Many adults see parts of ourselves in these children, and we remember our own childhoods when we look at them. This makes our connections to these children and the works they come from so solid that we subconsciously think of them in everyday situations. I know that I envision someone like Bella when I think or hear about abusive relationships. These fantasy worlds help to shape our real worlds, so naturally, when entire groups of people are excluded from them they are not much better off in the real world. I argue that because every media form we are exposed to devalues, erases, or ages-up Black children we do the same thing in the real world. People have been erasing Black kids from the world through media immersion for a long time now, and unfortunately it also keeps them from learning from these texts too.
In my studying of the fantasy genre, I have discovered that there are three main traits that they all share: they all teach their readers/watchers about adventure, heroism, and self-discovery. Think about it: every fantasy hero goes on an epic adventure where they visit new places and meet new types of people. This encourages readers and watchers to learn more about the world around them. I mean, how many people looked up Greek mythology because of Hercules (or Hercules)? How many have learned what it means to be a hero and save the world thanks to countless heroic figures? How many people were inspired to be their authentic selves by seeing powerful people like Xena? Fantasy passes on valuable lessons to those who are exposed to it, but this becomes difficult when the genre refuses to feature anyone other than cishet white folks. Black children and Black people at large miss out on these lessons, which becomes just another way to erase their humanity.
So what does that mean? Well I have some ideas, but the most pertinent of them is that we HAVE to use Black Speculative Fiction to fix some of the screwed up ways we think of Black boys and girls. We don’t get to see Black boys as playful or kind, so we see them as violent and dangerous. (Look at the school-to-prison pipeline). We don’t get to see Black girls as innocent or worth protecting, so we see them as "fast" and forgettable. (Look at what happened/is happening in D.C.). And because we hardly ever get to see Black children at all, it becomes hard to imagine what Black children are like. I’d argue that the whole reason why we never see Black children (and Black characters in general) in fantasy is because no one knows what that looks like. They can’t imagine Black kids in the positions that they place white kids in everyday, so they just leave them out. That affects people. That does stuff. We need to be able to expand our minds to fight against these ideas about Black children; that's where speculative fiction comes in. In the crisis that is today's world, we need EVERY possible solution we can get. We know that children are going to be the ones to free us, and that each generation inches us closer and closer to liberation, so we need to represent all children as part of that legacy. Who knows, the reason why we keep missing our savior child is because nobody is talking about him or her in the fantasies we create. Maybe we're not creating the right kind of hero, so we don't recognize him or her when they show up.
Can you think of any fantasies that predominately feature Black children? Do you think including Black children can help to change the perception of them in the real world? Leave your comments, questions, and concerns below and don't forget to like, share, and subscribe!