Guest writer Alexis Record
“His name is Sheesh? Really?”
“Sounds like sheesh.”
“Maybe his father was Yikes and his mother was Jeez Louise.”
“I can tell you’re joking because women don’t usually have names in these books.”
*several minutes later*
“Mom, are you still chuckling about your Jeez Louise joke from earlier?”
Welcome to evil Calormen (literally “colored men”)! Here we’ll find a racist view of Middle Eastern people! Calormen is located to the south of Narnia and is home to villages of men (we’ll assume also women, but Lewis only describes men because women don’t count) with dark faces, dirty robes, long beards (maybe not the women), turbans, and shoes turned up at the toe—pretty much the entire cast of Disney’s Aladdin, minus any redeeming qualities! Buckle up for some good old fashion orientalism where an author from the West depicts a culture from the East in a patronizing way. This implies the West is superior and more developed while the East is unrefined and ridiculous. (Only it’s with fictional countries so we can claim incapability.) What fun!
Seriously, there’s so much implicit racism in this little book that even this White blogger is tripping hard over it. (And believe me, I’m probably missing half of it!) I would argue we are supposed to know these Calormene people are the “bad guys” from their opening, racist descriptions before they are even specifically described as greedy, wicked, and liars (which they all are, too).
It’s hard not to pick up on the possible Mark of Cain connection to the evil people of Calormen. Just as so many of Lewis’s themes and plot points for the Narnian series come from the Garden of Eden story, so does the Mark of Cain. We have looked at the sexism in the Garden of Eden story carried over to the Narnia books—especially the view of women as either evil or subordinate, which Lewis (and historical Christendom) applies to all women—yet the Eden story doesn’t end when a woman ruins the world. Adam and Eve go on to have a couple children, one of which, Cain, murders the other one, Abel. Then God is like, “Whoa, what the… what’s going on? Where’s Abel? What happened?” (I’m only slightly exaggerating but it’s true that the biblical God doesn’t yet have omniscient powers this early in the ancient stories. Think of him more like Zeus, complete with a pantheon that later gets deleted.) When God figures out what happened to Abel since Abel’s magical blood told him, he puts a mark on Cain. Some say this mark was a Hebrew letter, others say it was some sort of symbol, but some believe it was Black skin—an idea particularly popularized during the American slave trade by White Christians.
The Mormon history of not allowing Black men (never women) to the priesthood was based on similar racist beliefs. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, founders of Mormonism, also held that this Mark of Cain was Black skin, and ascribed many negative attributes to it. Black skin was a curse from God, like we see in The Book of Mormon in 2 Nephi 5:21: “And he had caused the cursing to come upon [the Lamanites]… because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, and they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.”
Even after the restrictions of Black men were lifted in 1978, the idea that Black skin was a curse was not officially contradicted until freaking 2013!
And not to pick on the Christian side of Abrahamic faith, Surah Ale-Imran (a Hadith of Islam) says in verses 106-107: “On the Day when some faces will become white and some faces will become black; as for those whose faces will become black (to them will be said): ‘Did you reject Faith after accepting it? Then taste the torment (in Hell) for rejecting Faith. And for those whose faces will become white they will be in Allah’s Mercy (Paradise), therein they shall dwell forever.”
Maybe you’re thinking I’m interpreting those verses wrong (Could be, but Black faces going to Hell and White faces being delightsome are not really racist? Really?), or things were different back then (That makes it right?), or people of color can be religious so religious people can’t be racist. (Haha!) I guess my response would be, if it quacks like a duck…
One more common defense of religion I’ve encountered is that those who are racist do not represent their religions, and most religious people are not like that. This makes initial sense considering most religious people do not look like their particular religion’s extremists. But let’s dig into this idea that religious people are better than other people when it comes to racism because they have supernatural Holy Spirit/God/Allah powers helping them be better people. Researchers Deborah L. Hall, David C. Matz, and Wendy Wood have unintentionally shut down that argument in their 2010 meta-analysis of fifty-five major studies on racism. Surprise! They found a very strong and undeniable link between religion and racism. Religion seems to be crazy good at promoting Us Vs. Them thinking. (What I call a “we’re God’s people and you’re not” mentality.) I’m sure there are those out there who are inspired by faith to be more tolerant. Unfortunately, according to these studies, they are sadly not the majority. (Fun fact: Those labeled “religious agnostics” in the study analysis were found to be racially tolerant. Again, there are exceptions I’m sure.)
So just a warning, there be racism ahead! Maybe hold a religious agnostic’s hand as we wade through it all.
The bulk of A Horse and His Boy may take place in Calormen, but over in Narnia it is the “Golden Age” when Peter was high king and the other three Pevensie children are kings and queens in Cair Paravel. If we were reading in chronological order, this tale would follow The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. But of course we are a publication order family… as God intended!
Our story opens with our protagonist, a boy named Shasta, who lives with a cruel father named Arsheesh. (That sounds Middle Eastern-y enough, thought Lewis.) If you were hoping, as I was, that at least this kind of setting will mean our main character will be a boy of color, well drop that excitement right now. Remember what you’re reading. The main character will be White. And a kidnap victim from a civilized (read: White) kingdom to boot!
One day a Tarkaan (a great lord of Calormen) demands to stay the night with Shasta and his “father” while on a journey. Shasta overhears the Tarkaan offer his father money to make Shasta a slave. In trying to get a higher price for the boy, Arsheesh attempts to convince the Tarkaan that his only son is very valuable to him. The Tarkaan sees through this pretty quickly and responds, “This boy is manifestly no son of yours, for your cheek is as black as mine but the boy is fair and white like the accursed but beautiful barbarians who inhabit the remote North.”
We hate those gorgeous, super attractive White people! Gosh darn their accursed pretty faces!
So just to be clear: A White man wrote words into the mouth of a Black man about how White faces are more attractive than Black faces. It’s similar to the Book of Mormon’s White author describing White skin as “fair and delightsome” while Black skin was a curse done to bad people so they would be less “enticing.” This thinking has consequences, like we see in the Doll Test when children were asked which of two dolls, one Black and one White, they thought was the good one or the pretty one. The majority of both Black and White children pointed to the White doll. When asked which one was the bad one, again the majority of both Black and White children pointed to the Black doll. It’s enough to break your heart.
Maybe the racism present in Lewis’ work up until this point has been something we (those of us not affected by it) didn’t think was so bad. Sure, characters with black features (like Nikabrik) were evil, but that was just code for something “dark.” See? Innocent enough. It’s easy to be dismissive of racist things when it makes us uncomfortable. But it shouldn’t have to get to the point of the N word (or a book about an entire country of colored men with evil hearts) to take it seriously.
Some of my friends say they come across many racist actions that White folks dismiss because these actions haven’t crossed some impossible line, like being done while wearing KKK robes and setting a cross on fire. Broad, negative generalizations about people of color, telling someone they speak “well for a Black person,” following someone around in a store, assumptions about home life or number of children or welfare status, arguing “those” people should move out of “our” country, and jokes that spread stereotypes are all legitimate forms of racism. Brushing this stuff off as “minor” assumes incorrectly that it doesn’t add up! As if property damage being grieved more than the oppression and devaluation of Black lives, Black-sounding names being rejected at much higher rates than other names on job applications, our ridiculous incarceration rates of Black people (which are higher than at the height of apartheid in South Africa!), the fact Black girls are punished by their schools more than White girls for the same offenses, and the pay gap being so much worse for people of color are all random things with absolutely no explanation! How strange! What a crazy world we live in. Glad it’s not due to racism or anything because I don’t see guys in white sheets setting fires.
So as we move forward let’s have more reflection, less deflection! We didn’t grow up loving these stories because of the racism, but we sure as hell are not going to ignore the damaging racist aspects now!
Shasta overhears his father admit he was not his biological father during this conversation with the Tarkaan calling him a “beautiful barbarian.” Shasta was relieved because he had never loved Arsheesh. Lewis mentions that eavesdropping was wrong, but that Shasta “had never learned that” because he lived with evil people in an evil country. Eventually Shasta leaves the men to argue over his price and goes to the stables. He pets the Tarkaan’s horse and talks out loud about what the Tarkaan might be like. He wishes out loud that the horse could talk so he could tell him. The horse (of course of course) responds, “But I can.”
The horse says his name is Breehy-hinny-brinny-hoohy-hah. So Shasta renames him Bree because fuck his real name. (Grown women don’t get named at all, so this is only a small slap in the face I guess.) Turns out Bree was also kidnapped by those evil Calormene jerks. He informs Shasta that the Tarkaan is (shocked gasp) evil and he would be better off dead than a slave to such a master.
So the two agree to run away together—out of this evil country, away from these evil people, and onto (White) Narnia.
Reading with Little Bit: A Critical Look at The Chronicles of Narnia
January 20, 2018