Tumblr, twitter, Facebook, and various blogs have been exploding this week with reaction to the self-published novel Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden. The book, actually published in October of 2011, came to more general internet notice after Racebending.com published a scathing editorial here of the book's incendiary content and marketing campaign, which is based around white actors using blackface. Since then there's been outrage and also backlash, the most recent of it being this post on The Huffington Post by the author herself about how "judging a book by its cover" is equivalent to racism. In the following review, I look at the problematic treatment of race in the novella.*
I feel I do need to preface this piece by saying that I'm white and I've lived a fairly privileged background in the United States. I am going to try my best here to explain what I feel is wrong with the book and its marketing campaign's treatment of race. However, I am not a person of color and I have not experienced racism. I can't claim to understand those nuances in it because it's not happened to me. I am trying to set out what I see as bothersome/problematic here but I am also including links at the end of this article to blogs and articles by PoC authors who, over this past week, have summed up the issues of this book more eloquently than I ever could. I stress that you read them. Perhaps the one good thing about this debacle is that, I hope, people Googling or looking into this situation are getting more exposure to good writers and bloggers who have great sites that discuss race and prejudice as intelligently as Foyt's work fails to.
That said, let's dig into this and start with the very, very obvious. This is the book cover:
If the image in the cover isn't conveying the way the protagonist, Eden Newman, is adorned, then this image from one of the official promtional videos from the book's Youtube Channel and Website might help elucidate it:
[img_assist|nid=341|title=Eden Newman Wearing Midnight Luster|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=400|height=225]
Yes, a big part of the book's plot, one that is highlighted heavily in its marketing, is that the whites have to wear black skin covering called "Midnight Luster" in order to pass for black. Now I don't understand how this can be passing in anyway because everyone knows the individuals wearing the makeup are whites. In fact, the book, when you read it, goes to great lengths to try and explain that, actually, white skin is so hated and feared that they have to cover up or risk raising the ire of the black ruling class.
The obvious here is that, blackface is blackface. It's historical roots are too ingrained in our society to put it as a plot point in a book---even one set in a futuristic Sci-Fi world---and as a central marketing tenent in videos. I know the counter argument from Foyt has been because the Midnight Luster in the book is used to disguise and appease and is not used as a joke as in old time minstrel shows that it's still okay to use.
[img_assist|nid=342|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=300|height=192]Seeing a blue-eyed, blonde, Caucasian actress in blackface is just disrespectful. It brings up hurtful memories and stereotypes and shouldn't have been used. I am actually stunned she kept the videos up even after the similar (and equally upsetting) Popchips ad with actor Ashton Kutcher in brownface pretending to be Indian.
I am saddened that in 2012, we have to explain why this type of racial mockery in blackface and brownface is inappropriate, hurtful, and should never be commercially exploited. Still, this Midnight Luster issue is just the beginning of the books' problems.
Here is the summary from Revealing Eden's information on Amazon.com:
Eden Newman must mate before her 18th birthday in six months or she'll be left outside to die in a burning world. But who will pick up her mate-option when she's cursed with white skin and a tragically low mate-rate of 15%? In a post-apocalyptic, totalitarian, underground world where class and beauty are defined by resistance to an overheated environment, Eden's coloring brands her as a member of the lowest class, a weak and ugly Pearl. If only she can mate with a dark-skinned Coal from the ruling class, she'll be safe. Just maybe one Coal sees the Real Eden and will be her salvation her co-worker Jamal has begun secretly datingher. But when Eden unwittingly compromises her father's secret biological experiment, she finds herself in the eye of a storm and thrown into the last area of rainforest, a strange and dangerous land. Eden must fight to save her father, who may be humanity's last hope, while standing up to a powerful beast-man she believes is her enemy, despite her overwhelming attraction. Eden must change to survive but only if she can redefine her ideas of beauty and of love, along with a little help from her "adopted aunt" Emily Dickinson.
So let's just take this very slowly. I wanted to discuss the blackface/Midnight Luster first because it's what greets you on the cover and in the marketing, but what you see when you get into the novel is much more insidious. First of all, the naming system in this culture makes no sense. White people as the lowest race are called "pearls," Asian's are called "ambers," Latinos are called "Tiger's Eyes," and blacks are called, well, we never actually learn what they prefer to call themselves. Even though in press and in defenses to her criticism, Foyt has tried to spin that "Coal" was chosen for blacks because it's "very useful" in society and pearls were chosen because "it's a useless luxury item," this just doesn't hold in the internal logic of the book.
First, okay, if that is the reason, then why don't the Asians and Latinos, who are higher in class due to darker skin, why then are they also named after luxury gemstones? Second, even if it is a Sci-Fi novel and set in a distant future/different culture, the readers for this book are still bringing in their life experiences and cultural expectations. To every reader who reads this, they are thinking of pearls as rare and valuable. You can't try and turn that into a slur. The connotation of the word---something a writer should understand better---isn't there.
Actually, fun fact, my name means "pearl" in Greek and every year until I was twenty, my godmother gave me one pearl to complete a necklace. Let me tell you, I was never upset to get one as a gift. Conversely, in the United States (Ms. Foyt's native country), which is a heavily Christian culture, many American children grow up fearing receiving coal in their Christmas stockings. It's associated permanently for many of us with being bad and being punished. If you want to talk about whites in a derogatory matter, what about "phlegm" or "bird crap" or "pus." These all are white/light substances that do carry negative connotations and assocations.
Third, in a society destroyed by a "meltdown" and global warming, wouldn't coal be the absolute most hated substance on Earth since it led to Earth's downfall and the death of probably billions?
Of course all this careful logic is rendered moot because ten pages into the book, Eden gets into an altercation and screams at her Coal direct supervisor, saying:
"Get your hands off me, you damn Coal!"
After this Eden panics and is set upon because she said an offensive term to her boss because, in this world, established in the first ten pages (even if you want to check merely the preview on Amazon for free it's there), coal is still considered a racial slur. Also, I am not the only one to notice this, Lifeasamagpie on tumblr also noticed it here. In science fiction, the "topsy turvy" world is a pretty standard trope. I would argue, however, that the most famous example in modern science fiction of the world order flipped is Pierre Boulle's novel and the subsequent films for Planet of the Apes. In the original film, one of its most iconic scenes is where Charlton Heston's Taylor is grabbed in public by a gorilla military officer and shouts "Get your stinking paws off of me, you damn dirty ape."
I do not believe this was Ms. Foyt's intention, but, it must be said with the wording be similar and with the central plot point of the book being that the male lead (and a Coal), Bramford, is turned into a beast, a human-panther hybrid, it's just another part of the disturbing message of the book that black men are animalistic, dangerous beasts.
This is a theme she carries out through the book and, to me, I honestly cannot see how this is a reverse of racism in anyway. The stereotype that black men are somehow subhuman, wild, and dangerous is a stereotype that's been fought against for centuries. This is just reinforcing something people are trying to abolish. I just have to reiterate this, the eyes you see on the main book jacket, those inhuman and glittering cats' eyes? They are used to symbolize Bramford. Even on the cover, he's presented as animalistic.
[img_assist|nid=343|title=Ronson Bramford After Transformation into the Jaguar Man|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=300|height=225]Before his transformation into a cat person, he's still described as someone who's "aggressive" and who feels the need to "mark his territory." Note this refers to the fact the property inside of his company is branded with the company logo. I somehow doubt that someone would say that Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg was "marking his territory" for having property labeled with the company seal. Once he transforms, it's worse because we have more than one scene of Eden's father telling her to be careful and that Bramford is wild now and that he might kill her.
However, it's not just Bramford portrayed as a beast or as a "dangerous black man." The chief of security for the lab where Eden works has been having a secret romance with her. She thinks he'll pick her as a mate option but Jamal is really a double agent for the FFP (Foyt's version of the KKK where a group of Coals are unifying to try and wipe out all the pearls with genocide) and has been using Eden all along. He even sends two lackeys (never given real names but merely called "Squeaky" and "The Giant") to sexually assault and threaten Eden in a scene that in no way forwards the plot. Towards the book's climax, Jamal tries to sexually exploit Eden as well, saying he'll spare her life if she becomes his mate option.
I should mention these are the only four black men featured in the novel.
The two black women don't fare much better. They're barely characters and are only seen in the first few scenes of the book. One woman is the typical uppity black woman (here Foyt uses the word "haughty" but the closeness to "uppity" isn't missed here) named Ashina. She's secretly Jamal's real girlfriend and is mean to Eden and also sets out to sabotage her. Peach is not overtly cruel but, I believe, is only met in the opening scene and has a few lines. Both women, by the way, are described as curvy or "voluptuous" to forward that image that all black women have a rounded, curvier shape than white women.
I would really like to say this is all the racism in this book. It has been the most incendiary, but it is also still not all there is. See, while the book is billed as a dystopian story, similar to The Hunger Games. It is, however, for most of the story a tale where Eden, her father, and Bramford flee to the one safe zone in the world, the Amazonian (?) rainforest. Most of the story doesn't even explore the crumbling human society but follows Eden and Co.'s adventures with a Latin or South American tribe called the Huaroani.
[img_assist|nid=344|title=Huaorani Tribesmen of the Amazon|desc=|link=none|align=middle|width=400|height=303]
Now, as you've noticed, I've been unclear in where the Huaorani are as far as Revealing Eden is concerned. I honestly cannot tell you where Eden and her compatriots end up in South or Central America. According to my research, the Huarorani are native to Ecuador. However, Foyt refrences Aztecs (which is related to Central America and Mexico). She furher complicates the location by talking about altitude sickness and eating coca leaves as a remedy, which is common in the Andes mountains and in Peru and Boliva.
My point here is that, while Foyt may have Googled the name of a tribe, she does not bother to get the geographic details correct. Similarly, things are compounded by having the tribe speak in Spanish, even amongst themselves. According to research, this tribe has a unique and distinct language, unlike any other on Earth. I can understand that they would speak to Bramford or Eden in Spanish to try and facilitate communication, but not as a default amongst themselves. I just feel that while blacks/Coals are villainized, Indians and those of Hispanic descent are confused here. There's no respect or research here. It's just the assumption that one indigenous tribe in Central and South America is like any other and Spanish is interchangeable with the native language. Also, I'd like to point out she's as simplistic in her naming here as with the black/Coal characters. There's a Carmen, Maria, and a Lorenzo.
Finally, there is so much disdain to the native culture here. Eden finds their spirituality stupid and naive as well as their use of medicinal herbs. She has at least two tirades in her head about how gross the food they are sharing with her and her father is. Eden spends so much time in the book looking down at the native people who exist to tend to her father's wounds and look after Bramford's son. They serve no story purpose here but to prop up Eden.
Also, the native tribes (there's a second one purported to be of Aztec descent hiding in the deep forests) worship Bramford in his panther form as El Tigre. I am unclear if that is even an aspect of Aztec or Huaorani religion, but we have the trope of native peoples being highly spiritual and worshipping the more civilized protagonists whom they see as more powerful.
I feel, as I draw this to a close, that I must also point out two essays written by Ms. Foyt and posted on The Huffington Post. The first one was posted a bit before the criticisms started and is titled, "White, and in the Minority." Most of it is, at best, blindingly naive about the reality of race today in America. Again, I don't believe that Ms. Foyt was spreading an insidious agenda. I believe that she was unaware of her biases coming from her position of privilege and really did believe she was treating the subject maturely and well, that she was helping others.
However, her sentiments, while not intended (I think) to be harmful still are. Her general sentiment seemed to be that because some private schools in her area had more diverse children admitted now than in her childhood growing up in Florida and because we elected President Obama that racism is somehow a thing of the past, that we are a color-blind nation. The massive problem here, even if it's well meaning to try and be "color blind" is that 1) as the majority race, Caucasians can't declare racism over and 2) that is ignoring the very real and nuanced institutional racism that exists every day in the world. If one starts going "Well we had one mixed-race president, I guess we can forget centuries of slavery and oppression now" that's not only misinformed but hazardous. Sure, gains have been made from 1860 to 1960 to even now, but we have an epically long way to go. Saying we just need to "ignore racist issues and be color blind" doesn't fix that. We have to own up to the past and the current unpleasantries or nothing will get truly fixed.
Her second response, a defense against the current wave of criticism, was called "Judging a Book by Its Cover." She has posted it on the official Revealing Eden Facebook page, the book's site, and now at The Huffington Post. Again, as a fellow American, I do have to respect her right to free speech. However, as someone who is offended by this work, its promotion, and her counter arguments, I was hoping she'd have taken a step back by now to evaluate and think over the valid criticisms of readers---white and PoC alike.
So far, however, Ms. Foyt has tried to turn the criticism back at the people voicing it by equating judging her book by the information on her site, Facebook, Youtube, and from Amazon.com without fully reading it as "prejudice" and "racism." She even goes so far as to talk about all the awards** it's won and good reviews, mentioning "And if you ask if all these reviewers are white then consider that [emphasis mine] you have a racist point of view."
I can't express how dismaying and upsetting it is to see a woman who has made a mistake dig her heels in when criticized for it and turn the rhetoric back on people expressing legitimate critiques. Ms. Foyt is calling her critics racists for pointing out blatant racist stereotypes in her work. It's made more troublesome still, by her deleting comments on the Facebook page and banning commenters as well as disabling comments (yet keeping up) her Youtube page. She's given out her opinion and is now actively trying to turn vitriol against critics (often PoC individuals, but, no, Ms. Foyt, not all) and denying people voices by cutting off discussions and deleting salient criticisms.
The racial implications of Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden are many, heated, and shouldn't be ignored or brushed aside with accusations of reverse racism. Ironically, this could turn out to be an important book by showing everyone what not to do when writing a book, let alone one aimed at impressionable teens, and, moreover, how much racism there still is in the world. Ms. Foyt stands as an example that no matter how well meaning, we all can make mistakes and carry biases. We can make errors based on our upbringing, especially if it comes from a privileged position. What I hope people take from this is an open mind to engage with others. That authors will actually take a step back to re-evulate their work when they see mass and valid criticism of prejudice in it, whether it was intended originally by the artist or not.
Later this week, I'll be looking at the feminist implications of this work but, in good conscience, did not feel those could be addressed without also discussing race first.
* = at 156 pages, the book is truly more of a novella and does not seem to hit the standard 50,000 word limit for consideration as a novel.
If you are interested in learning more about the controversy, here are some excellent blogs and articles about the debate:
2) "The Problem with Awarding Victoria Foyt's Save the Pearls" from Clutch Magazine Online.
3) "More Like Clutch the Pearls" from The Writer's Republic.
5) "Racism, Revealing Eden and STGRB" by Foz Meadows = this, itself, has EXCELLENT links to articles/studies/news about the real racial problems out there
6) "Indigenous Peoples in Victoria Foyt's Revealing Eden" by Debbie Reese
7) "Review: Revealing Eden." by the blog Writing Through Rose-Tinted Glasses