John Edward Lawson
John Edward Lawson
A white supremacist towered over me shouting about how he ought to kill me when I was in the fourth grade. He was a Vietnam vet and a gun owner and was only restrained from attacking me by, well, people restraining him. I had committed the grave error of fighting back against his little brother-in-law, who was my age.`
This is the family that had discharged their firearms at people playing basketball at night from their balcony. They also kept a German Shepherd on their balcony, four floors up, with a giant bloody bone hanging from a chain on the wall to keep it company— a German Shepherd trained to attack on the command of “nigger.” The dog was set on me once using that command, biting my thigh when I complained about it getting sick near me; I was only able to escape due to that very sickness preventing the dog’s pursuit.
These memories came to me in the wake of the decision to retire the bust of H.P. Lovecraft used as the World Fantasy Award, at which time whites with guns were also patrolling a university campus looking for black people to shoot. There was debate online about the past being in the past, and fiction being about fun and not politics, and why do people with dark skin have to make everything about race. After all, Lovecraft was alive a long time ago so what’s to be offended about? There were arguments about how racist Lovecraft really was and questions about how damaging could that really be.
We’re talking about a time when Birth of a Nation was a huge film release lauded by the press and even received a standing ovation from the president of the United States. When segregation was enforced by the populace itself, when lynchings occurred throughout the North and South, when the cartoons in literature of the day did their best to portray almost every ethnic group in a horrible light, when the eugenics movement of the United States was so prevalent that it provided inspiration — and even direct support — for Hitler’s political career. The truth is that in comparison to his contemporaries, Lovecraft’s bigotry was merely common. To view him, and his body of work, in that light is to acknowledge that much of what we consider classic literature all the way up through notable contemporary works was made by racists.
How we receive Lovecraft and his body of work is distorted by the fact that much of his era’s cartoons, film, music, and literature are out of print or lost to the sands of time. English is not an uplifting and inclusive language for many of us, nor have its stewards been uplifting or inclusive. English-language writing has been the mortar of the wall separating us from opportunity for many years, shaping the thought processes that led to our condition.
As the title above suggests, I posit the problem of Lovecraft’s legacy is not his bigotry. After all, there is a long stretch of history during which people were tortured for being left-handed. This is common knowledge, and there are still left-handed people among us, yet the cruel fate of so many left-handed people no longer figures significantly in our perceptions. Why? Because society adapted to include the left-handed fairly in all levels, and there are very few — if any — of us remaining who perceive the left-handed as a threat and something to stamp out.
Which is quite telling when it comes to racial bigotry: those of us who are of ethnicity not supported by Lovecraft’s bigotry react strongly because we are, in the course of our daily lives, still the target of such bigotry… and more importantly, many of us still have misgivings about those with dark skin pigmentation and whether they are to be trusted.
Even more crucial, though, is that which society fails to train us to look for. After all, institutionalized bigotry is now recognized as a “bad thing” but there are so many other issues that our society fails to address so readily, for example, the paucity of female characters in Lovecraft’s work or, when recognized, are described as having a malicious nature. As we are in a patriarchal system, misogyny seeps into our world view when we are children, to such a degree that as adults, it’s very difficult to even recognize what is in front of our faces. It is clear from the writings of Lovecraft that women are really better off not existing. When I read his work, I am often reminded of the autobiography of Malcolm X in which he at one point proclaims Mecca so wonderful, and at another point comments that you would never know there were any women living in the city, but never directly connects the two thoughts, which add up to wonderful cities being places where there are no women. Lovecraft’s work is similarly wonderful, and while exploring it, you would have little indication that women existed in it, save for the stray witch or two.
More startling still is Lovecraft’s depiction of the working class commoner, which is far less kind than that of the farm animals that run afoul of the mutilating creatures populating his world. You see, the only worthwhile being in existence — for even gods are portrayed poorly by Lovecraft — was the one staring back in the mirror, which he perceived as being a highly educated man of reason hailing from English descent. Other pale-skinned men from the westernmost reaches of Eurasia receive hideous treatment by Lovecraft, which I believe, if perpetrated by myself or another dark-skinned author, would be received with anger, or at the very least, trepidation. Compounding the issue is Lovecraft’s seeming self-satisfaction at being an anthropologist working to preserve the various dialects of the North in the wake of post-Civil War efforts at language hegemony. I say compounded because he uses that very same dialect in character interactions to denote precisely who is a worthless lump of meat to be ground underfoot by both cosmic horror and contemporary progress.
It goes without saying that the aforementioned racism applies not just to people of African descent, but extends to those who are Arabic and from Eastern Eurasia or the Pacific Islands. If you’re from the Middle East or the Pacific rim, it’s pretty much assured you are a devil-worshiping blight on the world – although it is likely you are at the very least more knowledgeable than those subhumans from Africa.
I originally intended to post this blog on the day of the Paris attacks, but when I saw the news, I held back. My speaking out on issues of race and domestic terrorism in the past, when terrorism occurred overseas in foreign lands on the same day, resulted in my message not being well received. The intervening week and a half, though, have provided much in the way of insight.
The interval has seen “white student groups” on college campuses organizing to fight the “terrorism” of Black Lives Matter protesters, political candidates and voters alike proclaiming their own radicalization, the mass shooting of protesters against police violence, the announcement of an award featuring a distinctly white bust of H.P. Lovecraft (as opposed to the bronze WFA bust) by those who wish to promote “white greatness” in literature, and so much more. *
I’ve also witnessed during this time quite a few people avowing their willingness to go overseas and protect citizens of other countries while remaining silent on the campaign against mosques and black churches, and reactionless in the face of violence against citizens of color and their continued inability to get justice.
Only after much struggle and effort have we managed to do something about a racist who was around 100 years ago, but it seems the racists who are around now are only growing stronger. The problem is not Lovecraft or his racism, the problem is us. Are you the person who took action and held back the white supremacist coming after my 10-year-old self, or are you the person who stood back and made excuses for him?
* Ironically this group tarnishes the memory of those they seek to deify by promoting their noteworthy “whiteness” as opposed to enshrining their works of exceeding skill, casting aside white greatness in favor of great whiteness. Whoops-a-daisy!