You may or may not have heard of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but your experience of modern media has been quietly [and completely] affected by him. Star Wars, Superman, Avatar, all of that is his fault . . . I’ll explain.
A little intro to Burroughs
After watching John Carter a couple of weeks ago, and loving it, I had to read the book it’s based on, A Princess of Mars, which was written by Burroughs in a world very different than ours today . . . 1912 America.
This guy, who fell into writing as a last-ditch effort to pull his family out of poverty, covers a lot of story in few pages, pulling you forward with that nagging desire to see what happens without bogging you down in too much detail. His intro will give you a good taste for his story-telling ability.
“I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a m an, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I did forty years and more ago, and yet I feel that I cannot go on living forever; that some day I shall die the real death from which there is no resurrection. I do not know why I should fear death, I who have died twice and am still alive; but yet I have the same horror of it as you who have never died, and it is because of this terror of death, I believe, that I am so convinced of my mortality.”
Um . . . yes, please. Such an awesome beginning.
Thus started Edgar Rice Burroughs’s career; thus started the ideas that would influence the creators of Star Wars (the Western genre now went galactic . . . Han Solo, Jabba the Hut, all of that good stuff), Dune, Avatar (damaged ex-soldier on a foreign planet with sudden super-human powers falls in love with native princess), and Superman (whose original source of power was the lesser gravity of earth . . .), to name just a few.
E.R. Burroughs has mostly been forgotten. He wasn’t a terribly good author, partly because he wrote so much so quickly . . . in 1913 alone he wrote 413,000 words (Díaz, intro), but his imagination has affected our current fiction in a profound way.
Which brings us to our conversation today:
Burroughs lived in a much more racist time than we do now and that is clearly seen in his books, especially in Tarzan but also in the Barsoom series about John Carter of Mars. Some people lament enjoying his literature as a result, feeling that his creations are tainted with the hate of his time.
But while his books prop up racial distinctions in a very obvious way (A Princess of Mars contains Green Martians, a war-minded savage people to whom White John Carter brings back love and morality; Red Martians whose feathered clothing John Carter compares to the Natives of Arizona; the culturally superior [and White] “Holy Therns;” and the Black pirates, usually just referred to as “blacks,” who are beautiful but incredibly wicked; and even a yellow-skinned people John Carter hasn’t yet found), it also transcends cultural taboos of Burroughs’s day with with interracial love, honor and bravery within other races, and making the White “Holy Therns” as depraved as all the other-colored races on Mars. At one point, Burroughs, via John Carter, remarks “More I am willing to concede–that the First Born (the blacks) are no holier than the Holy Therns (the whites), nor the Holy Therns more holy than the red men.” That statement doesn’t really belong to a 1912 political regressive like Burroughs . . . and it’s little comments like that that make me wonder how racist Burroughs really could have been (of course . . . I haven’t yet read Tarzan . . .).
We live in a society where people commonly say “I’m color-blind,” or “I don’t see race.” I like to think I don’t treat people any differently based on color or wealth or anything like that, and I don’t think I do. We’ve certainly come a long way since 1912 . . . but we might think we’ve come farther than we actually have.
Do we really live in a post-race society?
Junot Díaz, who wrote the intro to the 2012 edition of A Princess of Mars, posed this interesting question with some great facts to help answer it. He teaches about Burroughs often at MIT, and here he replies to one of his students who expressed how upset they were at the racial themes in A Princess of Mars.
“. . . What if the unease was about something deeper? Less about where Burroughs was at with his ‘race stuff’ than where we in this country are at with ours.
“After all we live in a country which we are repeatedly being told is becoming race-neutral, race-blind, where racism is if not already bye-bye then more than halfway out the door. In spite of the fact that by a whole series of metrics–prison sentencing, economic outcomes, health outcomes, education outcomes, access to housing and medical care, casting in T.V. and film–racial discrimination and racial disparities have not only persisted they have in certain cases increased. Post-race claptrap aside, racial segregation continues to be a stubborn feature of our social order; my city, New York, considered the model of American multi-racial diversity, turns out to be third most segregated city for black folks in the nation. The country has experienced massive shifts in demographics–there are more colored people than ever before, nearly a third of the whole country–and yet TV and our movie screens and the halls of our state legislatures are as white as ever. Even the U.S. military, long viewed as a bastion of racial equality, was rocked by a study that reports that “minority service members are more than twice as likely as whites–after accounting for the crimes’ circumstances and the victims’ race–to be sentenced to death” in military court.
“The gulf between our post-racial hallucinations and our omni-racial realities is vast and yet we continue to be sold (and to believe) the same ideological bushwa–race and racism are no longer an issue (unless of course it’s racism against white people we’re talking about).
“Which might explain why these days nothing and no one is racist. A photo likening a black woman to a monkey is not racist. A predominantly white political organization calling a black president a ‘witchdoctor’ has no racial animus. A state representative in Arizona falsely claims that 80 percent of violent crime in his state involves illegal immigrants–he is not racist either. And the legislation that has been passed in states like Arizona and Alabama which more or less criminalizes the lives of undocumented immigrants and threatens the civil liberties of all Latinos and by extension all Americans–that’s not about race either.
“In a post-race country like ours where nothing is racist–where people are more likely to believe in UFO’s than in institutional bias–which does back-flips to obfuscate the operations of white hegemonic power–and thereby ensure its continuance–Burroughs’s ‘racial stuff’–especially his obsession with whiteness and the power it arrogates–must literally be too much. Burroughs’s razaphilia is as shockingly naked as his Martians but these days we prefer our ‘race stuff’ if not utterly erased then at least totally obscured. . . .
“In this light (which is really darkness) I hazard to guess that the problem with a novel like A Princess of Mars for readers like my students is not that it is too fake but that it is too real. Perhaps at the lowest frequency what my students were sensing in Burrough’s often [messed-up] ‘race stuff’ was their own.”
What do you think? I’d love to read your thoughts – share a comment below!