For personal reasons, I won’t be watching this series, which airs on Hulu this month. I have developed a thing about dystopias. I’m largely no longer interested in any of them. The only one I’m currently watching is The Walking Dead. I haven’t added any more to my roster of shows. (I’m not sure if Into the Badlands counts.)
The current argument from most PoC, even those who are fans of dystopian narratives, is that some of us have always lived in one. Certainly, the past is one huge dystopia for Black (Jim Crow), Latinx (Zoot Suit Riots), and Asian Internment camps), and Gay, and Transgender people, in this country. It’s been said that White people can look forward and see dystopian futures. Marginalized people have only to look at history.
Here in the US, it’s the 25th anniversary of the 1992 LA riots. The riots resulted in millions of dollars worth of damage, with over 50 people dead, and nearly 2,000 people injured. I remember I was in college at the time. I watched the beating of Rodney King when it occurred months earlier, listened to the announcement of the acquittal, and sat there watching the entire riot, appalled at what I was seeing. I remember feeling terrified (even though what was happening wasn’t anywhere near me). It felt like the end of the world, when it was happening. And I was angry, because I’m a person who knows some history, and I understood why these people were mad as Hell. Unlike most White people, I had been paying attention to what came before the riots, and what had been happening in that environment, for years.
Last night, National Geographic aired a three hour documentary of the LA riots, and I wanted to watch part of it. I was a bit nervous because I know that the documentary was made by White people, specifically White men, and not only have they a long history of only telling news stories from their own perspective, I expected a certain amount of cluelessness and bias in favor of the police. I expected the documentary to focus only on the actual rioting and violence, and mention none of what led up to that violence, (because White Americans have mastered the art of ignoring the things Black people say they are actually mad about, in favor of just making shit up.)
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the most of the doc was well done. Not exactly blalnced but not as bad as I thought it would be. There could have been a little more emphasis on the fact that it wasn’t just Black people involved, and why the Korean shopkeepers got caught in the crossfire, but the parts I did see weren’t actually awful. I didn’t finish the show because I don’t actually need to watch a documentary about something I witnessed, (and American Gods was on.)
Remember, the LA riots wasn’t like Ferguson, or any of the riots that have happened in the time of social media. We didn’t have social media back then. There were no reports from people, in the thick of things, tweeting about what was happening, in real time. The only way the rest of the world knew what was happening was through mainstream news reports by the talking heads who were witnesses. I have never trusted the mainstream media because it has historically aided and abetted the violent stereotypes of PoC. Its the news media’s reliance on spectacle, that has lead to the depiction of Black people as violent savages, that has given impetus to racist beliefs that Black people are animals, and coverage during the riots, without any focus on the cause, just gave more fuel to those beliefs.
Note: I have lived in Black neighborhoods my entire life and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually witnessed a violent act. I have never committed an act of violence myself, or had one committed against me. This may be higher for Black people in other parts of the country, or lower, but the bottom line is, unless you’ve lived in our neighborhoods and been part of our culture, you have no fucking idea what being Black in America is like, and the only information you could possibly have about us, are biased news reports, from a media that benefits monetarily from telling White people horror stories about Black misery. I live in the Midwest. Its not a utopia, by any means, but its no more, or less, hellish than any other part of the US. and certainly nothing like the slice of hell the media would have everyone believe. (Nor is it the privileged party-fest that bigots would have you believe either.)
I’ll give you an example: I grew up in Cleveland Ohio, at the height of the Crips/ Bloods/Crack era that was happening on the East and West coasts, in the late eighties. We heard about it, but it was distant. It didn’t affect our everyday lives. We believed it was happening though, not because of what the mainstream news reported, but because we had an entire genre of rap songs chronicling the shit that was happening in those cities. Rap music was like news reports telling what happened to Black people in other parts of the country.
I watched the mainstream news with my Mom, and I noticed the news media was always trying to play up Cleveland’s gang problem. So desperate were White people in Cleveland to be seen as being as cosmopolitan as NY and LA, they were willing to invent problems Cleveland didn’t actually have.
Remember, I was a teenager during all of this, and I lived, worked, and played around the same neighborhoods they were pointing their fingers at, and saw no evidence that there were gangs. Sure, there were young men who hung out together on street corners, and front stoops. I knew those guys, said hello to them all the time, got catcalled by them (as I was a PYT back then). They weren’t gang members. Were there guys who hung around and got into trouble together? Sure. I wouldn’t have classified them as a gang. (They didn’t have colors, insignia and personal graffiti, although sometimes they named themselves, and had parties.) Were there guys who wished they were a gang? Sure. Were there guys who got together to sell some drugs? Yep. Was there crack in our neighborhoods. Probably! Although I’ve never witnessed, nor encountered, a “crackhead”, and I’ve lived near the “projects” my whole life, and had friends who lived in them. None of these people were gangbangers. I met a gangbanger once. I worked with him during one of my Summer jobs. He seemed like a nice enough fellow. We talked about politics a lot. He didn’t seem inordinately angry about the various issues of the day.
And yet, “violent” is all some people think they know, or need to know, about our lives, trotting out that hoary old trope of “Black on Black crime” at every opportunity, as some kind of gotcha, in conversations about racial politics.
Okay, I’m getting off point. My point was that I’m off dystopian futures, for the most part, because I like to maintain hope for the future. I’ve seen what happens when people lose that hope (and I’ve been there myself). I’ve seen those studies discussing the rise of drug use, and suicide among White men. Some people have theorized that part of the reason the death rate has risen, for that particular group of men, is because they have lost hope for a future in which being a White male is no longer the easiest player setting in the game of life.
Another reason I won’t be watching A Handmaids Tale is because Black people have actually experienced a dystopian past, but the movies and books lack PoC. White writers are willing to mine their sordid past, only to cast White people in the roles of the oppressed, when historically, its always been everyone else on the receiving end of that oppression. The Handmaid’s Tale is basically dystopian fiction which casts White women in the roles that Black women used to inhabit. So many of White people’s nightmares about the future seem to involve being treated the way they have treated others.
In the original story by Margaret Atwood, America has been taken over by a religious sect of men. Due to environmental pollution, most women have become infertile. Instead of fixing the problem though, their solution is to enslave all the fertile White women, and force them to have children. Women who are not considered fertile are killed or enslaved, they can no longer have jobs, read books, or go out in public without blinders. In the book, almost no mention is made of Black people, who are called the Children of Ham, except to mention their relocation elsewhere. Homosexuality is outlawed and punishable by death, women who refuse to adapt to their assigned roles are also executed. There’s even a kind of “underground railroad” to spirit women away into Canada.
I’ve seen people trying, unsuccessfully, to compare this to Sharia Law, when there’s no need for that, because we have examples right here. This is not a new story. America has already done these things to Black women. (See: 12 Years A Slave). Atwood’s story entirely leaves out this angle of the narrative. (The streaming series is doing something different, but almost as traumatic, by including Black women, but not mentioning race at all.)
I won’t be watching A Handmaid’s Tale because the trauma of what happens in that show is already real for Black people. We’ve already lived through it. It was only about fifty or so years ago that Mississippi had one of the highest rates of lynching in the US. My mother was born in Miss. in 1950. She had six brothers. Ours was one of the lucky families that managed to emigrate to the North, when she was about ten years old. My grandmother did that because she wanted all her children to grow up, and they had a far less chance of doing so in Mississippi, at that time. My family’s move to the North is a direct result of racist activities, during the Jim Crow era, in my mother’s lifetime.
My grandmother had spent much her life under Jim Crow, and would have spent the rest of her life in Miss., had she not been afraid for her children’s lives. I was too young and scared to ask her for stories about the things she’d seen, and experienced. You see, my grandmother had already lived through the dystopian fictions that White people find so entertaining to cast themselves in now.
I’m no longer watching movies that are about Black misery, and consequently I refuse to watch any more movies, and shows, about Black misery that only feature White people.
Okay, that’s enough rambling from me.
Here! Have some links!
*These are specifically about the intersection of race and sexism in A Handmaid’s Tale
Now, the TV series makes a point of adding a woman of color to the story, in the character of Moira. In the book, Moira is a lesbian, who opts to become a Handmaiden, rather than be sent to The Colonies.
In the books, Moira is openly rebellious, and after several escape attempts, is sent to a life of enslaved prostitution. In the series, she is played by Samira Wiley, who is most famous for playing the character Poussey, a lesbian convict, in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Her character was unceremoniously killed off that show, which raised some controversy, as it fell into the trope of Kill All Your Gays. If the show follows the books, then no! I have no urge to see yet another Black woman be degraded to a life of sexual servitude.
This particular essay, in the Atlantic, is an excellent summation of something I touched on in the post above. White people keep looking to the past for a utopia, and to the future for their more nightmarish scenarios. Dystopia seems to be a matter of perspective.
A series of articles on the Whiteness, and heteronormativity of Dystopian futures