Heart of Stone, by C.E. Murphy, is a well written, entertaining urban fantasy novel with a gorgeous cover. The protagonist is depicted on this cover, but I was several chapters in before I realized she was black. (By the way, I applaud the author for not mentioning ethnicity until it was relevant to the story.) Once I knew this, I realized the woman on the cover could, in fact, be perceived as having brown skin. But color is a property of light, and the color palette, shadows, and highlights all conspire to create a very different first impression of Ms. Murphy’s hero.
Ursula Le Guin summed up fantasy assumptions as 1) the characters are white, 2) they live sort of in the Middle Ages, and 3) they’re fighting in a Battle Between Good and Evil.
Heart of Stone is an urban fantasy, so Assumption #2 doesn't apply, but Assumption #1 held up a rather disconcerting mirror and got me pondering three things: 1) am I still stuck in a “default to white” mindset or 2) did the publisher make a deliberate decision to downplay the protagonist’s race, and if so, 3) why?
Quite a few years ago, I wrote the narrative outline of a novel in a fantasy setting based on various African myths and legends. A friend and fantasy writer whose opinion I value highly told me that a book with a black character (a black human, that is, not a dark elf) on the cover wouldn't sell. “People might SAY they want more diversity,” he said, “but when they go to the bookstore, they pick up the book with the blond barbarian on the cover. Most fantasy readers won’t venture beyond pseudo-Celtic and -Nordic settings.”
This was a rather bleak and unflattering assessment, especially considering that at the time, there was a lot of talk among Forgotten Realms creators and fans about “adding diversity.” People on forums and at conventions asked for books and games set in fantasy versions of Asian, African, the Middle East, South American, and island settings. They got Maztica, Kara Tur, and Al-Qadim. These settings came and went rather quickly (though to be fair, Al-Qadim was a case of “planned obsolescence.”) At the time, it seemed that my writer pal was right: What people said they wanted and what they actually read were, at best, zen diagrams.
I’d like to think matters have improved since then. And I think they have, at least in some corners of the publishing industry. Finding ethnic and cultural diversity is easy...if you're looking at books for middle readers (age 9-12) This month I spent a bit of time browsing the middle reader shelves, both online and in a bricks-and-mortar store, and I found books whose protagonists are black, multi-race, Asian, Native American, Rom—you name it. There are whole imprints, such Tu Books, dedicated to providing genre books with protagonists to whom young readers of all ethnic backgrounds can relate. The list of Newberry Medal winners is a silent celebration of diversity. Even commercial fiction tends toward the inclusive. The Animorphs series, for example, was popular when my kids were in middle school, and is currently being reissued with new covers and updated cultural references. This features a team of five kids: a white jock of Jewish ethnicity, his blond cousin, her black BFF, a Hispanic guy, and a generic white dude who spends most of the series in hawk form. No one is a sidekick; in a series that runs to over 50 books, everyone gets several shots at being the first-person narrator.
As promising as the middle reader books might be, things start to slow down in teen books, and by the time we reach genre fiction for adults, it’s not easy to find non-white characters in starring roles.
The fantasy genre, in particular, remains heavily Euro-centric. A quick review of the top 200 fantasy titles on Amazon.com showed two dark-skinned characters: the dark elf warrior Drizzt Do’Urden, and a (headless) tawny woman on a self-published erotic paranormal romance.
Offhand, I can think of a few notable titles that venture beyond the suburbs of Middle Earth: Jay Lake’s novel Green features an Asian protagonist, and Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon has an Arabian Nights flavor, as do Marcy Rockwell’s Tales of Sand & Sorcery. And, of course, there are Ursula Le Guin’s books, which focus primarily on people whose skin is various shades of brown. But her book covers often hide this fact by not depicting characters at all, making them tiny or highly styled, or by blatant white-washing.
So, where are the heroic fantasy books with black protagonists? Do they exist, or is it just impossible to tell from the covers? Black characters don't seem to have much of a presence in fantasy cover art, either because there are few characters to illustrate, or because it’s deemed imprudent to illustrate black characters as, well, black.
One of the things that prompted this post was my correspondence with an enthusiastic middle school language arts teacher in South Carolina. He's building an in-classroom library for this students, and seems to be successfully passing along his passion for reading. He has posted pictures of the kids holding up newly acquired books. About half the class is black. Right now, they can choose from many books that are age-appropriate and inclusive, but what happens in two or three years, when characters who look like them all but disappear? What sort of message is that sending, and what effect will that have on their desire to keep reading?
If you know of recent fantasy novels that feature dark-skinned characters, please add the info in comments. If the cover art bears any resemblance to the character, even better. Send me a link, and I’ll add the cover to a follow-up post.