Why We Need More Black Characters in Fantasy

From Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, the worlds of fantasy in fiction and film are mostly White. This limitation is more influential than we may realize.

Oprah and Storm Reid as Mrs. Which and Meg in Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time.

Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Walt Disney Pictures

What do stories about magic and fabulous worlds offer young Black people? In The Dark Fantastic, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas looks at the marginalization of Black characters in film and fiction, and how readers and viewers are creating their own stories in imaginative counter-narratives and fan fiction. Here, she describes a moment of insight sparked by the Brazilian commentator Macunaima, who wrote: “your imagination is more controlled by the dominant social formation than you’re probably willing to admit.”

The idea that my imagination had been controlled in any way floored me. As a child and teen, I had been an omnivorous reader, seeking my own bliss without much concern about the politics of my reading. The cartography of my imagination had been inscribed by Tove Jansson’s Moominland Midwinter as much as it had been by Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave. I greatly enjoyed reading Virginia Hamilton’s lyrical retellings of traditional Black American folktales but counted Lucy Maud Montgomery’s idealized Edwardian-era Prince Edward Island story girls as my favorite characters of all. I dutifully read Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry series to learn about my ancestors’ plight, but when it was time for imaginative escape, I turned to Michael Ende’s Neverending Story. When it came to works that made the leap from page to screen, I watched the film adaptation of William Howard Armstrong’s Sounder once while in school, but I have watched The Princess Bride and Labyrinth so many times that I have both movies memorized. Although I grew up in the first generation after the classical phase of the Civil Rights movement, my literate imagination was quite segregated. Books and movies about children and teens who looked like me were read and viewed out of duty, to learn something about the past. Books and movies that showcased the pleasures of dreaming, imagination, and escape were stories about people who did not look like me.

And yet I was most drawn to those magical stories, for I longed to dream.

Macunaima’s online post was the first moment I began thinking deeply about the mythmaking that all human beings engage in to make sense of an oft-nonsensical world. This mythmaking process—which fantasist Brian Attebery described as creating “stories about stories”— forms metanarratives that shape society, culture, and ultimately, the imagination. For, as Attebery notes, “Fantasy is an arena—I believe the primary arena—in which competing claims about myth can be contested and different relationships with myth tried out.” Literary historian Farah Mendlesohn further theorizes the relationships between the reader and the fantastic metanarrative as rhetorical. A reader or viewer of the fantastic can enter a portal and go on a quest. He or she can be immediately immersed within the fantasy world from the first page, the first scene, or the first swell of the movie score. The fantastic can intrude upon the world the reader knows, or the reader can choose to remain in the liminal space between the real and the unreal. 

What unites all of these paths into the fantastic is belief: one must believe the world that one is entering. This common thread, found in scholarship by Attebery and Mendlesohn, has its genesis in Todorov: “‘I nearly reached the point of believing’: that is the formula which sums up the spirit of the fantastic. Either total faith or total incredulity would lead us beyond the fantastic: it is hesitation which sustains its life.” This point of hesitation—whether it is the first flutter of a dragon’s wing, blood dripping from a fang, the shimmer of fairy dust, or an otherworldly glow in a character’s eyes—is very familiar to readers, viewers, and fans of fantasy, fairy tales, and other imaginative works. From our earliest years, we are inclined toward finding that point of hesitation that signals the fantastic.

But not everyone is positioned the same way in or by the fantastic. As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so aptly noted in her popular TED Talk about the dangers of a single story:

“I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I had been reading. All my characters were White and blue-eyed. They played in the snow. They ate apples and they talked a lot about the weather: how lovely it was that the sun had come out! Now, this despite the fact that I had never left Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather because there was no need to. What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children.”

The positioning of readers, viewers, and fans within the “stories about stories” of the fantastic is vital. While there has been some critical attention to the ways that women are positioned within fantasy, Adichie points to another problem: What happens when neither characters nor narrators in the fantastic seem to imagine you as a possible interlocutor?

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Although it is generally assumed that audiences are positioned to identify with the heroes and heroines in “stories about stories,” I began to wonder how the fantastic shapes the collective consciousness toward perceptions of difference. When might young readers experience moments of dissonance? Specifically, when might young readers of color realize that the characters I am rooting for are not positioned like me in the real world, and the characters that are positioned like me are not the team to root for? How do these readers respond to this absence? Do they assume an assimilationist stance? People are people—I can relate to any character. Do they assume a stance of resistance? This story contains no one like me—therefore, it is not for me. More research is needed on what happens when children and teens of color read texts where either they are not represented, or their representation is problematic.

Recent conversations about diversity in publishing and the media advocate for greater inclusion of people of color within stories, especially stories written for young people. But the challenge of getting readers to voluntarily choose to identify with the Dark Other is a perennial one. For those of us who are always already positioned as monsters, even current theories of the monstrous fall short. 

Excerpt from The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (2019) published by permission of New York University Press.