My first book on magic was A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. It was a single story which expanded into a long-standing series about Ged, the greatest wizard known to his age, and the many mistakes made in his youth which inspired a battle against his dark side, before he righted himself with his darkness.
As a Black boy, I always had a fascination with stories of boys with more to offer than what the world had the ability to see in them. Le Guin offered something along that line—the fantasy of untapped potential, of surviving poverty, of coming to terms with one’s dark side.
However, Ged’s story isn’t what substantiated my attachment to Ursula K. Le Guin’s world; it was Vetch, the Black wizard of the story and Ged’s sidekick. In A Wizard of Earthsea, Vetch is first introduced through a bully named Jasper as a heavy-set, dark skinned wizard a few years older than Ged. Vetch was described as “plain, and his manners were not polished,” a trait that stood out even amongst a table of noisy boys. Unlike the other boys, he didn’t take much to the drama of showmanship, or of hazing and—when the time finally came—he abandoned his good life as a powerful wizard and lord over his servants and siblings to help Ged tame his shadow, then was never seen again.
Black wizards have always been an enigma. I picked up A Wizard of Earthsea years after Harry Potter graced the silver screen and of course, I’d seen Dean Thomas, but there was more to the presentation of Vetch than illustrated in Dean’s limited time on screen.
Vetch had his own goals and mission outside of working with Ged. Vetch was funny, but not the joke of the story. Vetch was a true human being, like me, that did not apologize for having an existence separate from Ged, who wanted nothing more than to go back home and make everything better for his people as a wizard: their wizard.
Fantasy has a habit of making Black characters the sidekick. And yet, years after Ged journeyed away from his closest friend, Vetch’s life did not stop: it moved on, prosperously. Representation of Blackness has always been a battle in Fantasy. It isn’t that the marginalized have never found themselves in these stories, but there was always a story written within the margins.
Writing from the perspective of mainstream demographic often results in the sometimes unintentional erasing of key aspects of a true human experience: where you can be angry, internally, at harmful discrimination and you can do something selfish and negative, because its what you feel empowers you. If to be marginalized is to not be given permission to be fully human, then these Black characters (Vetch & Dean Thomas) have never escaped the margins; and if this act is designated as the “right way,” then no character ever will, especially not the ones we see as true change in our imaginations.
Vetch was a potent character because he was a character who demanded the time to be seen—if even only for several pages—as someone who could lead, rather than just support. Vetch, with his immaculate household filled with art and attendants, subverted so many narratives which illustrated to me, as a child, that Blackness would always exist in perpetual servitude. This turn came very close to the closing of the novel: an adult moment for our hero, Ged, to reflect on the life he missed after summoning an indestructible alien shadow which hunts him across the archipelago for most of his young adulthood. It was meant to present the glory of Vetch’s actions within a world and gaze seldom allowed for Black characters; it only made me question what happened. It was beautiful to see Vetch find himself, but I could not shake the feeling of loss when he was found again in the narrative.
Somehow, Vetch became full and functional. He led his village as a leader and as a champion. He came of age and overcame tribulation to found community and happiness. I was overjoyed for him, and still confused for myself. I, like many Black children, was puzzled with a generational question of how to make “it”— existence while Black—work: how to thrive while also surviving. Black children are overcome with a sensation of powerlessness, so to see the ease by which some characters come upon power without the fight, without the journey or the voyage of getting there shown to us, is difficult. We are made to feel alone, as I had felt alone before meeting Vetch. I wanted to follow Vetch to his destination—with all the messiness necessary to overcome his circumstances—so I could find some inspiration for myself, even a little, about what I feel I am meant to claim for myself.
Watching another Black person succeed, fictional or not, is satisfying. There is glee that is found there, a nugget of your own potential—a sensation similar to when Matthew A. Cherry bolstered his way into an Oscar win with his Kickstarter animated short film “Hair Love”, or when Tyler Perry built the largest Black-owned film studio in American history. It is a belief in magic: that the world will change because you have deemed it so.
This is what makes wizards and witches compelling characters in fiction. The idea of the magic worker is that any person you might know—through some distant quirk and untapped depth—is capable of changing the world profoundly with just their will to exist and desire. They speak and the winds listen. They gesture and the untamed fire bursts into life. To be a wizard is to be powerful, even without the need to prove you are.
The more I grew, the more I realized Vetch was not what I should’ve accepted, because it told me that even at the height of my power I should be in second-place. Vetch, with his magic, would always be the Black sidekick. I learned that I shouldn’t fight for more. Likewise, I never did fight for more in my real life. I made excuses for every sign of my actual authority, when I would speak and others would listen, as a residual product of my greater friends and neighbors, because I did not believe in the reality of someone like a Vetch, like me, being capable of moving the world by his own terms.
What crown could I have if the best I could be was a sidekick? What strength did I have if it was at the beck-and-call for someone else’s problems and not my own? In truth, I did find something noble about the position; It’s not hard to feel like you’re doing a good thing by not taking up space. It’s the same satisfaction one might feel when walking on a path and stepping around another freely walking pedestrian walking the opposite direction of yourself. But, when someone tells you that this random other pedestrian could have also moved out of your way—you should be allowed to feel outraged that they hadn’t even thought to; you’re allowed to feel that next time, when you’re both on the same road, they should feel interrupted, too: they should at least pause. To be a sidekick in a world where anything is possible is to make yourself okay with stepping out of the way of every straight white man who thinks the entire road along your mutual path belongs to them.
Today, I think we should know better even though we haven’t seen much better. Just like I know better to accept my Mace Windus (Star Wars), my Brother Voodoos (Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange), Dean Thomases (Harry Potter) or any other Black wizard who merely moonlights in fantasy as auxiliary characters when they lose so much personhood by remaining stagnant. Often, in conversations of diversity, there is an expectation that submission to western structures of nobility that tries hard not to paint itself as a stereotype by erasing culture and voice from the character. Maybe it is a performance on the part of the author so they can write characters outside their experience. In doing this, we find characters contorted: their assertiveness dwarfed just behind the choices of the protagonists, their pasts and culture treated like a thrifty and unimportant anecdote, and their presence and goals become a treat, rather than a necessary element to a protagonist’s story.
Marvel’s Brother Voodoo lost all mention of his cultural identity in the storylines which he was a part of: Brother Voodoo’s story doesn’t include the cultural history of Haitian Vodun spirituality, which prioritizes community and service. Instead, he is viewed as a kind of “second-rate” Dr. Strange and “Budget Sorcerer Supreme” throughout his mainstay in the Uncanny Avengers. This is often the issue with how Black wizards are depicted, particularly when their power is firmly rooted in real world topics: their culture , as a matter of saying, is skin deep: the Black identity becomes about cosmetics, rather than an understanding of what it means to be Black. It often reminds me of a moment in my first ever class on an African-American author, Toni Morrison, when a fellow 22-year-old college student stated she never knew African-Americans even had a culture.
However, this isn’t to say I desire non-Black authors to write from a Black perspective; rather that I want non-Black authors to address Black experiences directly. I want Black characters who know what kind of world they’re operating within, and who carry their heritage with them through it all. Other Black characters (even Mace Windu) exist at the hem of Western cultures and idolize it, which misunderstands what Black experiences have been stating as a political philosophy since the 1930s. These authors might never realize that a wizard whose sole mission in life is the service to and/or sacrifice themselves for a “well-meaning” white hero is leaning on a history of marginalization. They might never realize that a Black boy, somewhere, maybe at a South Columbus library, is so starved to feel powerful in this way and in this literature, that they’ll still commit the character’s name to memory, even though he knows this depiction is a lie.
Then again, I won’t excuse them either, because it feels unworthy of these authors’ talent and impact. I find it insulting that a lot of these characters cannot get angry or demand that the world do what they want. And if the answer is because it’s insensitive for an author of a specific background to depict a Black character so callously—wouldn’t the answer to that be for literature to allow more Black narratives? Ryan Douglass, author of Jake in the Box, recently opened up about the extreme lack of narratives about queer people of color being handled by queer POC in fantasy online, both in tweets and on the Blacklight Podcast. It speaks volumes that, while there is a minor legacy of characters of color holding down a narrative, there is a smaller percentage of those stories written by the people who reflect those backgrounds.
There is concern here about the ways Black men are impacted by the erasure from YA fiction and, most importantly, fantasy. While Black women are definitely impacted by the lack of representation or voices speaking on their experience through writing, Black male characters are threatened with a narrative of hyper-masculine aggression. Our bodies are often at the root of this objectification—a gaze that has now become a culture of expectation and thought regarding Black men and the art we appear in. So, while White men have had a go at Fantasy, and still hold a healthy access to its stories, Black men are pigeonholed in the ways we are perceived as solid and unfeeling. And yet, despite this reality barring Black men, Black wizards like Vetch and Dean Thomas are diligent in their patience because their heroes require their limitless calmness to support their journey. The role of Black men in magic seems to match the role many Black men in sports and daily life are told to play: service.
Black men are writers. In my experience, Black men aren’t always given the permission to be fantastical writers. There is a strain of anti-Blackness which targets Black men in particular that is framed around visuals of repressed pain, militarized stoicism and rigid, non-conforming might that does not offer much to the visual of what we would want out of narratives on magic. These negative stereotypes—whether societal or self-inflicted—play out even in how our appearance is aggressively objectified and, conversely, in the ideas we are given expected to best represent. I see it daily: when I was a server, and a patron asked about my time in football five seconds before saying, “Oops, sorry. Well then, you clearly must play basketball.” Black men are often trapped in these narratives of expectation, and unfortunately, when it comes to who is “capable” of telling a kind of story: we’re rarely trusted with the imagination necessary to explore the wonder of magic. Because, to expect Black men to wonder on the level required to frame a world of magic is to admit that deeply saddening truth that we never stopped dreaming in the first place.
As of 2020, I’ve taken to collecting titles a handful of Black men in fantasy with the privilege to print on Black men, and of them include Tochi Onyebuchi, Marlon James, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Antoine Bandele. These few names speaking for an identity that comes in a myriad of twisting shapes, interpretations and internal beliefs that is Blackness and Black maleness that isn’t always perfect, but has a right to be depicted in fullness.
Genre literature has been stereotyped as a man’s playground for much of the last century and, by courtesy of publishing, being a Whites Only space. This dominating narrative owes a lot to just plain White Gaze and ignorance. However, it is important to address this, because if stories are all in communication with the stories which precede it, does that not mean that the language moving forward has a lot of tropes which rhyme with racism, White Gaze and ignorance?
Perhaps that’s the trouble with waiting for a shift in fantasy’s depiction of Black wizards in America: the narrative often expects Black people—and characters—to be in service of other character’s narrative without really concerning itself with what Black people want. Of course, media often begs the question of selfishness, but I don’t think Black characters are often allowed to be selfish—particularly one with exuberant power. We shrug off racism and trauma because it’s virtuous as in the X-Men and their not so subtle invocation of racial oppression; we commit ourselves to the mission—the stern, quiet general or captain like The Witcher’s Danek, Star Wars‘ Mace Windu; or we are the sidekick, like Vetch, the strong shoulder to lean on when the world gets too tough. We never get to dream of a world we want and then force it to be that. Perhaps there’s something to say about that. White characters don’t ask the world’s permission before changing it.
After all, isn’t that what fantasy and its heroes were born to be?
Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, Steven Underwood is an award-winning writer with a penchant for finding the magic in the hypercritical world. Honest to his experiences, Underwood has published essays on Blackness and identity with BET, LEVEL, MTV News, Essence, Cassius Life, and Banango Street, including an essay entitled “I Should’ve Talked Black” and other critical voyages into race and masculinity. He has no dogs or cats, but two nieces and a nephew who swear they are smarter than him.