Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Transitional Howard: Racism and Solomon Kane

Was Robert E. Howard a racist? The hard and fast answer: yes. Is this a pointless issue as some think it is? I guess that answer is reserved for individual opinion. The only reason I think it might still be important is due to the fact that it keeps being brought up. So, to some, it's not a settled issue and is perhaps important.

Regardless, this post is not about whether Howard was a racist. It's not an attempt to defend Howard's racism because he was a "product of his time." No. This post is about how Howard might have dealt with the issue in his stories; more specifically in his Solomon Kane stories. 

When the issue of Howard's racism is discussed there are usually three main stories tossed to the forefront of the stage: The Vale of Lost Women, Shadows in Zamboula, and Wings in the Night. The first two are Conan stories, the last one is Solomon Kane. There are others mentioned besides these three, but these usually top the list. My concern is with the last story mentioned. I think Wings in the Night gets pigeon holed into being a work that "clearly" demonstrates Howard's racism. It clearly demonstrates something about the issue of racism, but not, perhaps, that Howard was being racist in the story. But, let me back up a step. Asking whether Howard was a racist is, I think, asking the wrong question. Here's what I mean.

Howard's racism has already been well established. No one is actually denying it are they? If so, they might want to get their head examined, or do a little better research on the issue. So the question is he a racist, is he not, is moot. A better question is, did Howard ever attempt to deal with his own racism? I think he did to a certain degree and I think this can best be seen in his Solomon Kane stories.

No one knows the exact chronology of the Solomon Kane stories. The Del Rey edition titled The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane has the stories in as close to chronological composition order as possible. That being the case, all one has to do is read the edition from start to finish and you'll see what I'm about to point out.

As readers of this volume we are first introduced to black African characters in Red Shadows (e.g. N'Longa). By The Moon of Skulls Howard has an entire black civilization living in an underground city that was once occupied by an ancient civilization. In these two stories Howard has referred to his black characters as "negros"; a term that dates back to around 1440 to 1442 when the Portuguese stumbled upon sub-Saharan Africa in their attempt to find a feasible route by sea to India. The Portuguese used the term negro—which meant "black"—to refer to the indigenous people. By the 1970s this term became pejorative and is now no longer used. In Howard's day it was quite common, and not pejorative, to use the term "negro" to refer to blacks. So the term certainly does not connote any form of racism by its use in Howard's stories. However, Howard has caricatured his black characters. This is done through Howard's use of dialogue and description.

In The Moon of Skulls Howard describes the black civilization in the underground city as not intelligent enough to have figured out what would otherwise be the fairly obvious hidden passageways. He also implies that this black civilization is a lesser form/status of people, and that they need to be punished for keeping captive an innocent white girl named Marilyn. So right away it seems that Howard's black characters are not off to a good start. But, one of Howard's main characters, the black queen named Nakari is elevated a bit in the story. She is described as moving like a she-leopard and having lithe beauty, Solomon even catches himself in admiration of her. Why would Howard put a black main character in such a positive light? What is he trying to tell his reader, if anything? What does Howard then do with his black characters in subsequent Solomon Kane stories?

It's not an accident when Howard places a black character in a positive light. It's certainly not done merely to improve or sell a story. In fact, in the late 20s and early 30s, racism ran rampant across the country (especially in Texas). It would be unusual for a racist writer to take a black character and detail that character in a positive way. So it would have been "normal" for Howard to always paint his black characters negatively. And, as was pointed out in the first part of this series, Howard did occasionally do that. Nonetheless, to elevate a black character in a story or place that character in a positive light is risky in Howard's day and demands some seriously clever writing. This is what I think Howard has done in a slow but steady progression throughout his Solomon Kane stories.

In The Hills of the Dead Howard returns to negative stereotypes for his black characters except for one; a small girl which he declares is:
[A] much higher type than the thick-lipped, bestial West Coast negroes to whom Kane had been used. She was slim and finely formed, of a deep brown hue rather than ebony; her nose was straight and thin-bridged, her lips were not too thick. Somewhere in her blood there was a strong Berber strain. (Del Rey edition; The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, p. 230-31).
There are several things going on in this passage that the casual reader could too easily overlook. First, it is quite obvious that Howard has done his research and done it well. He describes the indigenous Berber people of North Africa who lived west of the Nile river. Second he describes this type as a higher type. What does he mean by "higher type"? Is he merely trying to demean the "lower type" by calling the Berbers "higher?" Or is he pointing out diversity among various indigenous Africans? Third, his use of a small child is ingenious because it practically demands sympathy. What better way to gain sympathy for a dark skinned person than to make her a girl and a child at that? All these factors, especially the understanding of diversity between people and Howard's use of a small female child is a clever and subtle way to get his reader to slowly empathize and understand characters who would otherwise be thought of as racially sub-standard.

What is more, and this is crucial, N'Longa reappears at the beginning of The Hills of the Dead. Only this time N'Longa gives Solomon an important gift—the famous Staff that is older than the world. Even though Kane is hesitant to take the staff, an exchange like this between a black person and a white person is, at best, extremely unusual given the decade in which the story was published. It can certainly be viewed as a positive action between two races who are otherwise always at odds with one another. Moreover, the staff is an instrument of help, and is intended to help Solomon in his travels. It's almost as if this is a type of peace offering between two races.

Now we come to Wings in the Night. In this story Howard is in rare but extraordinary form. He begins the story with this opening sentence:
Solomon Kane leaned on his strangely carved staff and gazed in scowling perplexity at the mystery which spread silently before him. (Del Rey edition; The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, p. 275)
The first thing Howard mentions is the staff given to Solomon Kane by N'Longa. A staff that will later be used to help a tribe of natives in Bogonda. As the story progresses, Solomon Kane is chased down by a group of flying human-like beasts (we later find out are harpies). Kane kills one of the beasts but is injured. He is brought unconscious to a tribe of natives. These natives nurse Kane back to health.

The interesting thing about the natives from Wings in the Night is that they are not like any other natives Howard has written. First, they have a more appropriate manner of speech (as crazy as that sounds it is an important detail). Second, they are more intelligent than any other Kane has encountered. Third, this area, called Boganda, has never encountered a white man. Fourth, because they have never seen a white man and they witness Kane kill one of the harpies (what they call an akaana) they assume Kane is a god. Kane corrects them and declares, "I am no god. . . . but a man like yourself, albeit my skin be white." 

Two interesting things occur in Kane's response. First, Kane claims that he is equal with these men—"I am a man like yourself." Second, to correct their claim of deity toward Kane, he explains—"Albeit my skin be white." Howard eliminates any sense of superiority and uses the fact that these natives have never seen a white man to defeat the idea of deifying one. The combination of color and the fact that Kane has killed a beast that has given these people grief for so long is why they mistake him as a god. But Howard levels the playing field, so to speak, and has Kane declare that he is their equal. This, I might add, is a pretty liberal thing to write in Howard's day. But, there are more interesting things to come in the story.

As Wings in the Night progresses, the reader finds out that the Bognadi tribe chose a lush land to cultivate and live on, but they are soon tormented by the flying beasts they call akaana. The akaanas (harpies) eventually control and kill the Bogandi tribe leaving about 150 tribe members at the time Solomon Kane finds them. Because their numbers have dwindled due to the harpies, the Bogandi could not escape to the West because of the large numbers of cannibals. Kane pities the Bogandi people and vows to help them. It is at this point that we see the first reference of a black tribe in any of Howard's writings being referred to as human beings instead of black people:
Kane shuddered at the thought of a tribe of human beings, thus passing slowly but surely into the maws of a race of monsters. (The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, Del Rey, p. 302)
Kane is disgusted with the thought that these harpies have caused this group of people to suffer so much. His pity is not aimed at them because they are black, but because they are people. Since Kane had already killed two harpies, the beasts stayed at bay for a period. Kane remains with the tribe and racks his mind to devise a plan to get rid of the beasts. For a time the village is at peace until the harpies launch a final attack.

In the night, Kane is awaken by a full blown assault. The harpies have descended on the helpless Bogandi tribe; a surprise attack in the night. In the midst of the turmoil, Kane attempts to help the people but is as limited as they are with weaponry. Feeling utter despair and responsibility for these people Kane goes mad. In his temporary madness he lashes out in all directions killing harpies and screaming at the top of his lungs in the process. The harpies finally leave the village in total ruins, everyone has been slaughtered except the maddened Kane. And it's here that Howard writes one of his most telling paragraphs in the story about the "white man":
And was he [Kane] not a symbol of Man, staggering among the tooth-marked bones and severed grinning heads of humans, brandishing a futile ax, and screaming incoherent hate at the grisly, winged shapes of Night that make their prey, chuckling in demonic triumph above him and dripping into his mad eyes the pitiful blood of their human victims? (Ibid p. 312)
There are several important things to note in the above paragraph. First, why does Howard refer to Kane—the only person in the scene who is white—as a symbol of Man? Why is man capitalized? It has nothing to do with masculinity. Nor does it refer to Kane's status. I think Howard is using the the phrase in connection with two features of the story: the fact that the Bogandi thought Kane was a god, and the fact that Kane is white. So race here is an issue but not racism toward blacks per se. Kane has failed this tribe, he's gone mad due to that fact. He feels responsible. Also, Howard calls the tribe, once again, humans and not blacks in the above paragraph. I think "Man" is capitalized in the above paragraph to refer to "whites,"—Kane being the white man on the scene—and has a religious referent (a god). This assessment is based on what immediately follows: the sub-title "The White-Skinned Conqueror."

This sub-title jumps off the page deliberately. Howard uses it to grab attention, but it is this sub-title that has lent to the idea that Howard is being racist when just the opposite may be a work here. Reading on, we see Kane surveying the death and destruction at the claws of the harpies. Kane observes the dead Bogandi people, especially those whom he has come to admire (e.g. Goru). Then this happens:
Kane looked at the shambles that had been Boganda, and he looked at the death mask of Goru. And he lifted his clenched fists above his head, and with glaring eyes raised and writhing lips flecked with froth, he cursed the sky and the earth and the spheres above and below. He cursed the cold stars, the blazing sun, the mocking moon and the whisper of the wind. He cursed all fates and destinies, all that he had loved or hated, the silent cities beneath the seas, the past ages and the future eons. In one soul-shaking burst of blasphemy he cursed the gods and devils who make mankind their sport, and he cursed Man who lives blindly on and blindly offers his back to the iron-hoofed feet of his gods. (Ibid p. 313-15)
Suddenly we read what might appear as a maddened tirade. However, this tirade speaks volumes not only about the content of this story but about the content of the human condition and current affairs during Howard's day and the century that lead up to Howard's day. Once again we see Howard capitalize the word "Man." He does so in the same context as the last passage—referring to "whites." This time Man is followed by a most telling passage: "who lives blindly on and blindly offers his back to the iron-hoofed feet of his gods." 

What does Howard mean with his use of "iron-hoofed feet"? Is this a reference to slavery? To hatred? To racism? The answer seems to be, "yes", to all the above. And, as Howard has declared, "Man . . . blindly offers his back" to these things. Moreover, the harpies in this story certainly represent those who have oppressed and destroyed certain people, namely the oppression of blacks. Howard is brilliant in his subtlety with this point, but the careful reader will find the message.

So what does Kane (the "white god") do in response to all this? He acts like a god and exacts punishment. He devises a plan and traps the harpies in a hut. He then sets fire to the hut, destroying the beasts. The religious allusions in the conclusion of the story are obvious. But is this what Howard thinks should happen to those who practice oppression of certain races? Howard's struggle with the issue of racism is apparent, which leads me to think that Howard was at least attempting to deal with the issue through his stories. I, for one, think the use of this story to defend Howard's racism is wrong headed. A closer look reveals a much different story, and a potentially transitional Howard in his previous views about racial issues.

(Illustrations by Gary Gianni for the Del Rey and Wandering Star editions Savage Tales of Solomon Kane; July 2004)