Back when The Mermaid’s Tale came out, I was attending a Sci Fi Convention called CanCon in Ottawa, Ontario.
Interesting story there. One day, I get an email from Lorina, my publisher, asking about the book launch for The Mermaid’s Tale. I replied back, that it sounded like a terrific idea, I was all for it. Then I learned there was actually a book launch scheduled at a convention called When World’s Collide in Alberta. Terrific! But then I found that When World’s Collide was sold out, both the convention and the hotels. I missed my own book launch. Kind of ironic, or something.
So I thought what the hell, and went to CanCon. It was nice. The problem for me is that I don’t attend these things regularly enough to be able to take full advantage of them.
If I have any advice for young writers, it’s this: Go to conventions regularly. You don’t have to go to all of them, but pick a few, and go a few years in succession. The first time at a particular convention you’re just getting the lay of the land. I think it’s the second or third time, maybe even fourth, that you can actually take advantage of the potential opportunities. Hell, if you go there three or four years in a row, then you may just keep on for the hell of it.
The first year, it’s up and down. You go to panels, you sign up for things, you say hello to random strangers. It’s all hit and miss
So anyway, at CanCon, I attended an absolutely terrible panel on Lovecraft and Racism.
How terrible was it?
Let me put it this way: One of the panellists, in the minutes before the panel actually started, had to google Lovecraft on her phone. Well, that’s a good sign. That’s preparation.
There’s a possibility that someday, the person in question may read this and recognise herself in that reference. If so, I have only one thing to say: “Piss on you. If you’re going to sign up for a panel, respect the subject and respect the audience. Do your goddamned homework. If you can’t be bothered to do it right, don’t show up. I have no sympathy.”
That was just the beginning. It didn’t get better, which we all should have seen coming. It was superficial, bland and without nuance. Just the sort of thing you want to travel 2000 miles to sit through.
The highlight, or the lowlight, came when some sweater wearing high school teacher pronounced on Lovecraft “His racism wasn’t typical for his time, he was extremely racist.”
Yeah. We’re sitting there in Ottawa, barely a few miles from where the Federal government, in Lovecraft’s lifetime was systematically and explicitly plotting and implementing the genocide of Canada’s native peoples.
How’s that for ironic.
The other thing this guy said was that he was happy that Lovecraft’s work was in public domain, so that people could just take it, and never have to pay a penny to Lovecraft or his survivors. I thought that was the Whitest Thing Anyone Ever Said. Unctuous moral judgement and righteously not paying for what you take! Perfect. I enjoyed that. It’s rare that you run across something so unconscious.
But that’s kind of a digression from what I really want to talk about. The sort of obliviousness that can pillory Lovecraft as a racist, without acknowledging or showing awareness of genocide, or the larger context. Because if someone is arguing that Lovecraft’s racism was special or worse than his peers, that it was somehow excessive for his time… That’s either ignorant or dishonest.
Look, there’s no question that Lovecraft was a racist. There’s some argument that maybe he was overcoming it over time. Maybe yes, maybe no. He did marry a Jewish woman. That kind of crap is almost a cliche. But really, whether it was fixed in his identity or evolving and resolving, whether he was overcoming it, whether made exceptions, its there, it’s part of him.
I don’t see it in everything. I don’t see it in the Colour Out of Space. I don’t see it in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and you’re not going to convince me that a civilisation of fish men is any kind of racial metaphor.
His writing doesn’t have the pure racial focus of a guy like Sax Rohmer writing Fu Manchu novels. There were plenty of contemporary racists whose writings were all about the racism, and it hits you like a sack of wet concrete across the face. Racism wasn’t where Lovecraft lived, and it wasn’t what he dwelled on. But it’s there in references to half breed Malays, and degenerate blacks, and it comes up often enough. It’s not the focus, but there’s no denying it.
There’s interesting things to examine about Lovecraft’s racism, where it came from, and how it manifested. He was a peculiar guy. Raised by maiden aunts, the whole pile of them in genteel poverty, no one with skills or opportunities to make a living in the 20th century. All they really had was wariness and terror of a world passing them by in every way. I think that’s where it came from, that sense of inadequacy, the inchoate fear of a world they were incapable of dealing with.
His ideas of racism were somewhat atypical. For one thing, the discovery that he was a quarter Welsh seems to have been really traumatic. Who would freak out over that? Lovecraft apparently. Some of his stuff focuses on strange degenerations – as we see in The Lurking Fear, where an old Dutch family degenerates generation by generation into ape-like inbreds. There’s The Strange Case of Arthur German, where a man discovers his grandmother was a gorilla. There’s a fragment about a guy lost in a cave who regresses into an ape. The thing was, these were all White folks. Other writers linked black people to apes. But in Lovecraft’s imagination, white people were literally only a few steps from regressing back to apes, or cannibals, or copulating with primordial things from beyond. You really had to keep an eye on white people, or they’d go drifting right off the beam. Weird guy.
Racism isn’t like cheese. It’s not uniform all the way through. It’s a product of times and economics. The racism applied to Jewish people was not the same as was applied to First Nations, or applied to black people in the American south, or the Romani in Europe. Sometimes it was subordination and first labour, sometimes it was exclusion and confiscation.
It seems to me that in order to really combat racism, we need to understand it, its origins, histories, its particular social and economic contexts. Because if we don’t, if we ignore the factors that caused it and drove it, we won’t get rid of it. It’ll just go underground a while, while we all congratulate each other on our moral hectoring.
So I’m up for a nuanced examination of what was going on in Lovecraft’s head, racism-wise, and how he got to be that way. I think that there’s some fascinating stuff to be dug out.
But what I want to explore here is Lovecraft’s world, not to excuse him or justify him, but to place it in context, and maybe allow for a deeper understanding of history.
Because I’ll tell you right now, your parents, your grandparents, your great grandparents, they were probably gigantic arseholes.
So Lovecraft lived between 1890 and 1937.
In Canada, this was the tail end of the treaty process that opened up the Canadian west, quietly moved First Nation’s people onto reservations, with the expectation that they would all die off. In fact, starvation and genocide was part of the plan.
John A. McDonald, the founding father of Canada said in Parliament in 1882, ““I have reason to believe that the agents as a whole … are doing all they can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.”
Pretty horrible, huh? I bet all Canadians were outraged at that sentiment. He’s literally bragging about starving people to death to save a few dollars. Maybe not. Here’s the response from the Liberal opposition:
“No doubt the Indians will bear a great degree of starvation before they will work, and so long as they are certain the Government will come to their aid they will not do much for themselves.”
That’s right. The big debate in Parliament in 1882 was “Are we starving them enough?”
This was not a joke. Famines broke out regularly on reserves, and precipitated at least one uprising. Frequently, it was the Hudson’s Bay Company that would come to the rescue, they maintained trading posts all over the north, and would often feed the starving indigenous people. Then they’d just bill Ottawa, and wrangle over the expense.
Over time, apart from induced starvation, First Nations people were isolated economically. It was literally illegal for a First Nations farmer to sell produce without the permission of the Minister. Native agriculture and self sufficiency was systematically destroyed, and then once the fields were no longer planted, they were deemed useless and sold off to farmers, stripping away reservation lands.
Eventually, the Residential School system was developed to ‘kill the Indian, and preserve the man.’ Basically, cultural genocide. But the Residential School system was so horrific, it was actually genocidal – fatality rates in some schools reached 50%. People had better odds in some Nazi Work camps.
All this in Lovecraft’s era and beyond. Not until 1967 that First Nation’s people were legally citizens who could vote. Not until the 1970’s that they could sit in the front of movie theatres in some towns. Even as late as the 1990’s, there were rumours of towns where being native after 7:00 pm automatically brought you an arrest and a night in the drunk tank.
Mostly, I want to talk about America and American racism. But this is by way of saying our ancestors here in Canada were pretty big arseholes too.
First Nation’s didn’t do well in the US either. That was pretty much a nonstop record of massacres, invasions and actions from 1776 all the way up to 1924. In fact, a number of Bands up in Canada are refugees fleeing the savagery of the Americans. One of the last major massacres was Wounded Knee in 1890, the year of Lovecraft’s birth. The last resistance was the Apache war, ended in 1924.
As late as the 1970’s, Cowboys and Indians was a childhood game, where you know, the whole point was to shoot Indians. It was fine to shoot Indians in movies well into the 1970’s. Hell, murdering native people, ceaselessly depicted as homicidal savages, was a staple of westerns.
Anti-Semitism was also alive and well in America. People like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh made it acceptable. I’m sure that there were lots of enlightened non-anti-Semites in urban areas like New York. Good on them. But Universities and Clubs everywhere prohibited Jews, places that admitted them imposed quotas, so all that enlightenment only went so far. Either they weren’t very effective or they weren’t very enlightened.
The story that always gets me? The Ship of the Damned. In 1939, the M.S. St. Louis, left Hamburg with almost a thousand Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany. They went to Cuba, and the Cuban dictator, Battista said no. So then they went to the United States, Cordell Hull, Secretary of State, advised Franklin Delano Roosevelt to refuse the ship permission to dock. They put coast guard ships in the way, to prevent the ship from running aground, and Jews escaping. Then they tried Canada, but the Prime Minister said no. Canada was all for immigration, but not Jews. Eventually, the M.S. St. Louis ended up back in Europe. Some of those refugees eventually ended up in Nazi Concentration Camps.
That’s heartbreaking isn’t it. You’re sitting here thinking, ‘wow, those people in government then they did some pretty bad stuff.’ But that’s not it. An opinion poll in 1939 showed that 83% of the American public was against allowing any more refugees into America. 40% of the American public had explicitly antisemitic attitudes. Polls of students at places like Harvard and Princeton showed large numbers opposed to allowing the refugees into America. The 1930’s saw the rise of over 100 anti-Semitic organizations. It wasn’t ‘them’ – it was us. If your grandparents were white, working, middle or upper class they were part of it. They either approved and supported anti-Semitism, or they were irrelevant, because that’s what was happening.
But let’s talk about black people. Let’s talk about Jim Crow and Segregation. Starting in the 1870’s, state and local governments in the south were violently overthrown by white supremacist coups. Blacks were systematically terrorised, their voting rights were stolen, their property was stolen. The era, from the 1870’s to the 1960’s, was an eighty year orgy of rape, murder, kidnapping, arson, looting and terrorism.
During this period, there were somewhere between 5000 and 7000 lynchings, 3/4 in the south, but many in the north, and almost all African Americans, Hispanics or other ethnic minorities. As many as a couple of hundred a year. Year after year. Lynchings were not just crimes, they were a social control mechanism. People weren’t lynched quietly, crowds showed up for it, dozen, hundred, one lynching crowd drew 15,000 spectators. It wasn’t just murder, but horrific torture. People would take body parts for souvenirs. There were lynching postcards. Newspapers would celebrate ‘rough justice.’ It wasn’t just criminals, any black person who became uppity, who drove a car that was too nice, allegedly looked at a white woman the wrong way, came home from WWI wearing their army uniform or just pissed off the wrong white guy could be lynched. A group of 40 union organizers were systematically lynched in Texas just for attempting to help people. The whole point of lynching, apart from savage murder, was to instill fear and terror in black people. Any one of them could be next.
Past that, endless undocumented or poorly documented murders, rapes, arson were everyday occurrences, and justice turned a blind eye. Often, Justice doled out the abuse. Black people were continuously arrested and imprisoned on trivia charges, sentenced to hard labour for months and years, and leased out to private interests, as essentially slaves. It was a society that continuously vented fury and hatred on the vulnerable. That was the south.
Ever hear of the Great Migration? That was the twenties and thirties, when black people started trying to escape the south. And it was literally an escape. Black people could be arrested and sentenced to prison for loitering, just being caught outside their local area. White thugs would board northbound trains and literally beat up and throw off black passengers. They weren’t allowed to leave. Preparing to travel north, even talking about moving, could earn you a beating or much worse. If you go looking you can find stories of entire villages sneaking away in the middle of the night to escape the south, dozens of people quietly conspiring away together for weeks or months, then one night, loading up everything and getting the hell out… leaving puzzled and angry white people scratching their heads at an empty hamlet. Literally, it was like escaping Nazi Germany or the Iron Curtain.
You’d think that a southern population which hated its blacks with such fury wouldn’t mind them leaving. But the entire social order of the south was built on black labour. It was built on terrorised labour, denied of rights, kept perpetually in bondage debt, working fingers to the bone, lives cut short, living in endless poverty.
Remember good old John A. MacDonald bragging about starving the Indians, and oh yeah, saving money. Well, the harsh truth is that often racism is a matter of accounting – you make money doing it, or you save money doing it. That’s one of those horrible truths. There’s money in racism, directly or indirectly.
In the south the economy was built on poor people working for nothing or almost nothing. And to force that, you needed racism and violence to keep people in that situation.
It didn’t get much better in the north. We had ‘sundown towns.’ Basically, if you were black in a lot of northern places after the sun went down, you were arrested or worse. Places like that were all over the north. There were ‘no go’ places. There were massive riots over black couples moving into white apartment buildings – in some cases, the building owners were charged with inciting to riot by allowing black tenants. Neighborhoods, homeowners associations, contained restrictive covenants prohibiting selling to black people.
Race riots were a thing as well. These were all over the place. Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles. These weren’t the modern race riots. These were white people going nuts, and rampaging through the streets attacking any black person they could find, burning black people’s houses. Sometimes targeting Hispanics. The police often were right in there, helping the rioters. Meantime, newspapers would be calling for riots, and when they happened, would celebrate this eruption of white power. Tulsa is the most famous example. But horrific race riots took place everywhere. In 1919, there were over thirty race riots, hundreds maybe thousands killed, it was called the ‘Red Summer.’
This description of violence is only the tip of the iceberg. Racism was utterly commonplace. It was the air that people breathed. In 1918, Americans, concerned about black troops going to Europe, were at pains to send over guidelines for segregation, manuals instructing that the black troops had tails and were subhuman. In 1918, concerned American officials were trying to explain to bemused French that black people had tails. What the hell?
The Europeans of that era, the British, the French, the Dutch, Belgians, Germans, they were no slouches when it came to colonialism and borderline genocide. But even they were astonished.
There was a giant literature, all kinds of science proving blacks were inferior. There were eugenicists who classified intelligence and morality by ancestry, and phrenomologists who classified by head shape. There were all sorts of learned men solemnly opining that black people were biologically inferior. There was even one guy that suggested that white people and black people had evolved from different kinds of apes. The inferiority and limitations of blacks occupied entire libraries of research. That died off by the fifties. But as late as the 80’s and 90’s, books like The Bell Curve promoted this claptrap. Hell, I remember one contemporary researcher who correlated penis size negatively against intelligence, his findings were that blacks had the biggest equipment but the lowest IQ, Asians had the smallest, but were smartest, and white people were the lukewarm race. Although these guys were seriously debated, by my time, it was generally accepted that the genre was for cranks. But in Lovecraft’s time, these sorts of arseholes were posing as cutting edge research.
There was religious racism – I remember being at my grandfather’s when I was really young, this would be the 1970s, listening to a religious program called 100 Huntley Street, and hearing some old guy talk about how black people were all descended from Noah’s sinful son, Ham. Ham had disobeyed God and broken the law, so God had blackened his skin and sentenced him to servitude. This was in the 1970s! I’m pretty sure it was out of step for it’s time. I remember I was a young skeptic even then, and it sounded just mental. But seriously, what the hell?
Race and appalling notions of race pervaded consciousness, it pervaded literature, art, movies, radio. It shows up in the works of writers and artists that were genuinely progressive, and even progressive by our standards.
It showed up in strange ways. In the United States, racism was legally imposed, and the result were court cases involving immigrants to determine whether they were white or not. Hindu and Sikhs, ethnic Aryans, were classified as black no matter how light their skins. Poles and Irish were the subject of litigation. The most ludicrous example was a trial held, real judge, real lawyers, and real consequences, to determine whether Finns, from Finland, were to be considered white. Finns, from Finland! I suppose back then they’d need a trial to determine if frigging Vikings were white enough. Those cases are still on the books, if you want to search them out, but mostly they’ve been superseded by the underlying laws being repealed.
Another way it showed up was in the ‘one drop rule’ and ‘passing.’ Different states had different rules for determining whether a person was legally white or black. The most extreme, and a part of popular culture, was the ‘one drop rule.’ Basically, any black ancestor anywhere in your family tree, and zap, you were black. Didn’t matter if you were a blue eyed, blonde Norseman on a longboat, if you had that drop, a great great great great great grandmother who was considered black, that was it for you.
And arising out of that was the phenomenon of passing. Basically, lots of light skinned, including blonde and blue eyed ‘black people’ around, stuck as second class citizens. Some of them realized if you just lied a bit, wore a hat, just claimed it was a tan, or that you had Italian ancestry, you could pass for white and move up the social ladder. It was a thing, there was actually an entire literary genre focussing on people passing. There were movies about it. Mark Twain wrote a novel about a situation like that.
Race and racism was pervasive, it was everywhere, and it was often toxic as hell, and quite regularly horrifically violent. When you’ve got people being hung from trees like Christmas decorations to cheering crowds, when you’ve got the founder of a country debating in parliament about how fast they’re starving people to death, when three countries refuse terrified refugees from Nazi Germany, then really, when a freaking schoolteacher is explaining to me that an obscure writer was unacceptably racist “even for his time” only miles from where his forbears plotted genocide, there’s only one conclusion.
This is all just shavings off the tip of the Iceberg. Whole books have been written chronicling American racism. The British have an encyclopedia set. The history of humanity has a very long section entitleld ‘Shitty Things We Did to Each other When We Decided Someone Wasn’t One of Ours.’
The past is not just a different country. But a genuinely horrifying one. We live in this bubble of illusion, of safety and morality, and we are ignorant or oblivious of so much that has gone before.
Our ancestors were racist arseholes. I’m not interested in separating it out or apportioning or exempting. Our ancestors, not yours, not mine, ours. We are the heirs of the world that our predecessors built, we’re the present. All those collective decisions, good and bad, by good men and women and bad men and women, that all comes down to us.
There’s no avoiding it. It’s not as between 1910 and 1940, there were only a few hundred racists busily criss-crossing through the United States, doing all the lynching and rioting, while the rest of the innocent folk either didn’t notice, or were too horrified to stop them.
The truth is that bad things happened because they were allowed to happen. Sometimes because there was a profit to be made, and sometimes because there was money to be saved, sometimes a spot to be kept, a benefit to be exploited or excluded. And yeah, there were good people, but it happened anyway.
The reality is that people are complicated, the grandparents who loved their grandkids and made their lives possible, were also the people found in a postcard, grinning and pointing at a lynching period. Loving thoughtful people and careful thinkers could simultaneously hold terrible opinions. People did wonderful and terrible things. We have to deal with that.
The father of the Canadian nation, a man who unified squabbling provinces, built the railway, shaped the country… stands in parliament and debates how fast you should be starving people to death? How do I get my head around that? I can fully understand a First Nation’s person being both unimpressed and absolutely unforgiving. But there’s the historical record, good and bad. What do we do? Do we just throw it all out? Do we write MacDonald out of the history books, leave blanks and say ‘Canada came into existence …something something… because?’ Do we dissolve the country? I don’t know.
Our ancestors did a lot of stuff, both good and bad, and we inherit it, for better or worse, and we live with it. They were monsters, or at least, some of the things they did and permitted were monsters. And yet, at the same time, they weren’t monsters. Most of them just wanted a better life for themselves and their children. They wanted to build something better, some of them were selfish, some more open. But they all, every single one, wanted a better world, no matter how narrowly or broadly they conceived it. None of them were perfect.
We didn’t live in their ages, we didn’t face the choices they did. It would be nice to think we might have done better, that we would have been kinder and gentler, more moral and human, that we would have built better than they did, and for more. I see no evidence of that. In any case, that’s beyond us.
Look, I don’t feel guilty, and neither should you. We didn’t do it, and we can’t go back and change it. The past is what it is, and we shouldn’t sugarcoat it or blind ourselves to the parts we don’t like.
We’re all living on stolen land, having condemned the people we stole it from to poverty and horror. Well, we’re here, they’re here. How do you make that right?
What we have is the present, and the future. What we have is the world that we inherit, and the world that we are building now, and building into the future. And I think it is incumbent upon us to build onto what was built before, to remedy the wounds and defects of the past, to build a better, brighter, more morale, more decent world. As our ancestors, good and bad, strived to build a better world. Now we take what they did, and try and build something more and better, a better world for everyone, a world that overcomes racism and sexism, a world which defeats poverty, a world where the human adventure is the birthright of every person.
Honestly, sometimes I despair that we’re not doing a good job of it.
Doing the right thing is harder than it looks. Here’s a true story. I was out in British Colombia, hanging with some very liberal, even lefty friends, very progressive, very open-minded, very decent people. Totally not racist. We got to talking about land claims in British Colombia. There’s no treaties there, basically, the land was stolen.
They exclaimed “But it’s complicated.”
No it wasn’t, actually. There are complicated things in the world. But that wasn’t one of them. It was as simple as this – the land was stolen, the people that stole it had no right to it. That’s exactly as complicated as it was. But the trouble was, that it affected their lives, and it would impact them, and they didn’t like that, so it was ‘complicated.’
You see, it’s really easy for us to be moral and virtuous, when we don’t have anything at stake, when it doesn’t cost us anything, doesn’t inconvenience us, doesn’t demand or bother us, then we can be saints. Morality is so much easier, when it’s other people having to suffer the effects or pay for it.
So hey, denouncing some obscure writer – bonus morality points, no costs. I’m drive by-ing Lovecraft here, but really, there’s tons of moral conundrums and examples out there. There’s a lot of moral stances that are easy and convenient and very appealing because it’s either no-cost, or someone elses problem to pay for. Once you start noticing… it’s hard to stop.
And sadly, there’s a lot of ‘complicated’ stuff out there, which looks like moral issues, but actually makes demands on us.
I think that we are all really trying to be better human beings. We’re just not very good at it.
But I digress. The past?
Let’s be honest about it. Let’s not sugarcoat, or disappear it, let’s not run from it, there’s no point in condemning it. It’s there, recognise it, take it all, the good and the bad. And if we can learn from it, then learn. If we can use it to inspire us to be better people, or to avoid being worse people, then do so.
What do we owe each other right now? What’s our moral duty to the present? To the future? How do we remedy the injustices and injuries of today? And when I say today, I acknowledge that the wounds of were inflicted in the past. But it’s about dealing with them now.
So, getting back… Lovecraft? Racism? Yep. Definitely a racist. Writer? Yep. Anything interesting in his writing? I’d say so.
In the end, he may end up on the dust heap. That happens. There’s no such thing as immortality. Most of the great literary writers of the 18th and 19th century are forgotten. Most of the great literary writers of the 20th century will be forgotten. That’s how it goes. The world moves on, and so does literature, people change, culture changes, and so do the books. It’s natural.
Was he like ‘The Most Awful Racist of the 20’s and 30’s?’ Nah, I’d give that to FDR for the Voyage of the Damned, or Winston Churchill for the Bengal famine, or the guys who massacred Tulsa, or a million other guys, including possibly your grandad.
Lovecraft was a product of his time, and that’s absolutely not an excuse. But is what it is. The truth is that there’s nothing special about him as a racist, and my god, that’s such a condemnation of his era. But you can’t single him out as the scapegoat of his era for it. It’s just there, and we shouldn’t deny it, any of it.