As someone who came of age with the Harry Potter series, it is astounding I barely noticed how few Black characters were in the books.
After all, the focus of the books was on the main characters Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley. Although Hermione Granger was a particular favorite, the default white protagonists I had become used to seeing in teen fiction and fantasy caused me to see her as white until a few years ago. In Professor Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’ book The Dark Fantastic, she puts a name to my experience: the imagination gap. Published by NYU Press, the book will be released in May 2019.
Explained in the introduction, the imagination gap is a lack of development in the imagination of youth caused by seeing the same stories and the same default white characters. Thomas further explains that this is the result of the titular dark fantastic cycle, a cycle that is influenced by the role race plays in stories. The dark fantastic cycle involves a Black character embodying spectacle, hesitation, violence, and haunting, often on behalf of a white protagonist. By examining certain instances of the dark fantastic cycle in sci-fi fantasy books and shows aimed at teens, Thomas illustrates how the stories told in mainstream sci-fi fantasy media tend to erase the presence of Black characters, AKA The Dark Other.
In The Dark Fantastic, Thomas chooses to discuss the dark fantastic cycle in four different media and four different Black female characters that have been discussed at large through digital media culture and communities (fandoms). These media consists of Rue from the young adult series The Hunger Games, Gwen from the BBC fantasy television series Merlin, Bonnie from the American teen vampire drama The Vampire Diaries, and Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter book series.
While the critiques of all the media in this book are worth looking into, the ones for young adult literature are especially notable. Starting with Rue from The Hunger Games, Thomas explores how the dark fantastic cycle causes Rue’s innocence as a young Black girl to be transferred to Katniss, the series’s white female heroine. As a book series that initially focuses on children forced to battle each other to the death in a dystopian world, it was chilling to see how Rue is treated due to the dark fantastic cycle.
Through the lens of the dark fantastic cycle, we see how Rue goes from being seen as innocent girl to not being seen at all. By the time Rue’s story enters the haunting phase of the cycle, she is a ghost who is only remembered as a resource for Katniss’s skills and a martyr for District 11. Rue’s dark fantastic cycle is reminiscent of other fictional Black deaths like Nurse Betty from Resident Evil: Extinction and Bill Potts from Doctor Who. Therefore, the chapter on Rue serves as a comprehensive explanation about Black fictional characters whose deaths motivate white protagonists.
In addition to discussing Rue as a character, Thomas also tackles readers and viewers reaction to Rue in her book and movie form, relating the reactions her imagination gap theory and the dark fantastic cycle. By smoothly connecting these concepts to consumers, Thomas expertly demonstrates how an inability to visualize Black characters in sci-fi fantasy settings results in astonishment and outrage, especially from white readers and viewers in fandom. Thomas also does something similar in the chapter discussing Gwen from Merlin, showing how pervasive the imagination gap in a variety of media.
In contrast to the chapter about Rue and The Hunger Games, the chapter on Hermione Granger and Harry Potter is more optimistic. This is due to Thomas’ personal anecdotes about her involvement in the Harry Potter fandom and how her fan fiction about the minor Black character Angelina Johnson relates to interpretations of Hermione Granger as a Black girl. In addition, Thomas explains how racebent interpretations of Hermione Granger are a part of several methods of restorying, i.e. retelling stories.
With restorying, Thomas states that there is an infinite potential for stories due to the different methods involved in creating them. These include changing the location, changing the perspective, changing the mode, collaboration, and changing identity. Changing location moves the setting to another time and place, while changing the perspective lets another character tell their side of the story. Meanwhile, changing the mode consists of going from one medium to another (i.e. from fiction book to comic book), and collaboration involves people working together using digital media. Finally, changing identity can involve making a character perceived white to be Black or a cisgender character genderfluid.
By bridging pop culture, personal experience, and academic study, The Dark Fantastic provides a crucial examination of race and storytelling in sci-fi fantasy media aimed at teens and young adults. Not only does Thomas discuss how Black characters are erased in an inescapable cycle, but she also provides a guide to breaking it. Many have already broken the dark fantastic cycle with new stories, and this book is a good starting point for more.