Stephen King’s Magical Negro Problem Isn’t Magical

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2017 note:
I wrote this essay for Union Station Magazine in 2015 but the journal has since gone to that great internet cloud in the sky, which meant any links to it there have since gone dark. So I’m posting the essay here as submitted for posterity. It is the basis for the “Stephen King’s Magical Negroes” reading/lecture that I do. 

And someone tell Stephen King I’m still a fan, but we got to talk.

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Stephen King’s Magical Negro Problem Isn’t Magical (2015)

Here’s how big a Stephen King fan I am: I work in one of the largest public libraries in the country. Whenever King publishes anything I have the ability to reserve a copy in such a way that when titles hit bookstore shelves on release day, a copy could be waiting for me first thing in the morning when I show up for work, absolutely free. I could be reading a new Stephen King novel by lunch without having gone an inch out of my daily routine. And yet, I never reserve his books. I go out and I buy them, every time. I am such a disciple that rather than have the book delivered to my feet for free, I expend gas to drive out to an actual brick and mortar store and purchase it. King is serious business with me and this ritual plays out to the tune of about one or two books a year. King is more institution than writer in my household.

If, however, you happen to be a black Stephen King fan this relationship can often feel dirty. There is a duality you must navigate because on the one hand, you love the work – the ideas are compelling, the characterizations memorable, the craftsmanship clear…a good Stephen King novel is a joy. On the other hand, you have to admit that Stephen King has a recurring problem, and it exceeds his frequently suspect deus ex machina endings: King creates black characters that often make you want to burn libraries to the ground.

Initially I assumed this was all just an occasional fixation on a popular device, an eye-rolling and gluttonous use of the Magical Negro trope. Further, he seemed to relish the use of Magical Negroes almost exclusively as a framing device when it came to utilizing black characters at all. If a black person shows up in a King novel they stand a 50% chance of possessing a supernatural ability. No foul there: the man has been America’s preeminent writer of horror for decades. Yet there is a 99% chance that whatever black character appears, be they magical or not, their presence will serve only to enhance, advance, save or develop white characters. The Shining, The Stand, The Green Mile, The Dark Tower series, The Talisman, and Mr. Mercedes all feature the device to varying degrees. Some would argue for more titles on that list, but these novels comprise the core of King’s Magical Negro gallery.

While King isn’t the first to use the gimmick, no popular working author has used the chestnut more. Almost all of King’s memorable black characters fit the Magical Negro formula perfectly, and across a great swath of his output. There is no particular phase of his career when he has been more inclined to use the trope, nor can we resign their perpetual appearances to juvenilia. He used a perfectly drawn Magical Negro as early as his third novel (Dick Hallorann in The Shining, 1977), then planted various Magical Negroes off and on throughout his forty year career to various notoriety and effect (John Coffey, Mother Abigail, and so on), and then revived his original Negro of stupendous and jaw-dropping ability for a repeat appearance in 2013’s Doctor Sleep. Magical Negroes not only book-end his output to date, but litter his entire canon.

All that said, King has a friend in math: ultimately we are not talking about a lot of characters. Taken over the breadth of nearly sixty novels King has given significant speaking parts to perhaps a fifteen or so black characters. By itself, the number of blacks that appear in any author’s catalog is a near-useless indicator of that writer’s racism. How many notable black characters has Nora Roberts inserted into her hundreds of books? None? Ten, perhaps? Out of over two hundred books? How racist does this statistic make Roberts? Shakespeare wrote forty plays. Taken altogether they contain a whopping three black characters. Is Shakespeare more racist than King, but less racist than Roberts? It’s a ridiculous formula and we should dispel ourselves of it immediately, some of us faster than others. That said, if a writer opts to use black characters sparingly if at all, it begs the question as to whether or not writers are under any onus to present those characters a certain way. There is no rule in Elements of Style stating as much, nor am I lobbying for such legislation, but it’s worth investigating on at least a case by case basis… and King gives us lots of cases.

The sheer number of Magical Negroes in his catalog is enough to bring this issue to the table, but what ultimately yanks out the tablecloth, breaks all of the glasses and flips the table over is the way in which his black people are presented. They are, with few exceptions, written as caricatures of black people, sometimes in confounding ways. After no small amount of soul-searching and re-reading, I’ve come to the different, more conflicting conclusion that Stephen King’s problem isn’t really Magical Negroes…it is black characters altogether.

Note that the question here isn’t whether or not Stephen King is racist per se. Racism is an indefatigable occupation of American culture, so aligning anyone outside of its reach is barely an argument at all, let alone when applying it to someone who’s lived in Maine all his life. Only 1.3 million people live there to begin with, and as of 2013 only 1.4% of them are black. That’s a mere 18,200 people. That’s a Prince concert. That statistic is so far below the national average I am left questioning whether or not black people are legally allowed in the state of Maine. So I don’t suspect he knows or even encounters very many black people and, like most people in the position of almost never having to see or deal with Black people, he is likely prone to at least a seemingly benign indifference on race at best. So the better, more useful question before us is: Does he mean for the portrayal of black people in his books to be offensive or is it an unconscious-yet-still-egregious tic? Is Stephen King a full-on practicing literary bigot?

Pointing out his predilection for Magical Negroes suggests as much, but anyone who focuses on that hammer out of his toolbox misses the deeper evidence to be had because here is the worst news of all: the Magical Negroes are largely the good black people in his novels. When they’re not shining, healing or otherwise propping up white people, black people in his novels are largely useless or vulgar cannon fodder. The Magical Negro stereotype tends to be as good a job as a black character can get in a Stephen King novel.

There are two examples that take the matter far beyond yet another in a stream of Magical Negro concerns. The first is a short story that largely went unnoticed by non-King fans when it was re-published in a proper King anthology (Nightmares & Dreamscapes, 1993, originally published in 1988) entitled Dedication, whose racial implications are particularly egregious and is quite possibly the most damning bit of racialism in King’s oeuvre. I will describe the story as quick as can be managed since it borders on nauseating no matter how one tells the tale: a black housemaid (Martha Rosewall) relays to a co-worker how she believes her son – a newly published author – obtained his writing ability from the numerous times she consumed a racist author’s masturbatory semen from the bed sheets she changed each day.

Believe me when I say that description was as hard to type as it was to read.

In this tale Martha is nothing more than a vessel for the transformative powers of a senile racist’s skeet, magic so powerful that it can add talent to an unborn black baby actually seeded by her black husband. Did I mention that Martha was married and pregnant when these “transactions” began, but that her husband was a mean, talentless, abusive criminal who was killed trying to rob a liquor store shortly after she informs him of her pregnancy? Well she was. All irrelevant, I am sure, seeing as how white jack-off cum is second only in magical power to white women’s tears, and barely edges out the magical prowess of Stephen King’s many Magical Negroes. Fans don’t talk about this story much, and given the exhaustively racist nature of the story – from its premise to its dialect – I’m not surprised. This is easily the most blatantly racist thing Stephen King has ever written, and that’s saying a lot. What I am surprised by is that it doesn’t come up more often in articles seeking to establish a beachhead of racism in King’s work. This is something of a silver bullet on the subject, and yet no one ever loads it. I suppose it’s a little too graphic for general conversation, but at some point somebody who’s done the reading needs to say it out loud at least once. Dedication is Stephen King’s dirty little racist secret. It is sexist, racist and emasculating all at once…a tour de force of white male liberal guilt turned inside out. And look: not a Magical Negro in sight. This example is entirely devoid of King’s exotic habit, owing far more thematically to how he potentially perceives black people at large.

The second example is more recent and slightly more magical. It is King’s latest book released at the time of this writing, Mr. Mercedes (2013). The book features a black teenager who manages to both be a Magical Negro and to serve my larger point about King’s problem writing black characters in general. As a computer hacker whiz-kid, Jerome (sigh) Robinson happens to cut grass and do random chores for the novel’s protagonist, retired detective Bill Hodges. Hodges has recently started receiving messages from a serial killer that he was unable to catch while still employed as a proper police detective, so it’s good that his 18 year old lawn boy also knows how to crack codes and break into computers on the side. Hodges is mostly useless on a computer, so Jerome is perfectly placed to work his particular brand of Negro wizardry. (Bear in mind that a Magical Negro need not actually possess magical powers. This is because the real magic a Negro might possess isn’t about healing powers or telepathy. Their true power lies in how far they can advance a white protagonist’s story.)

As presented here, this is only enough to convict King of dipping once again into his toolbox and pulling out his ACME Magical Negro hammer. What makes matters worse is that Jerome often breaks into an exaggerated slave dialect when speaking to Hodges for no apparent reason save that King wanted to show that these two characters have a close relationship, but couldn’t be bothered to develop an actual personality for Jerome, opting instead for a seeming possession of the teenager by Amos ‘n’ Andy’s Kingfish. To wit, an excerpt from a letter that Jerome has left for Hodges:

“Dear Masa Hodges,

I has mowed yo grass and put de mower back in yo cah-pote. I hopes you didn’t run over it, suh! If you has any mo chos for dis heah black boy, hit me on mah honker…”

You get the idea. This from a teenager who is described as a straight A student in advanced math bound for an Ivy league school, can fix computers, speak French, and can extol the virtues of D. H. Lawrence’s blood symbolism. And while no reader is supposed to take away from exchanges like this that the kid is dumb, there is no discernible reason why this character would resort to this kind of language even in jest, let alone over and over again throughout the novel. There is no story-related reason why this character should behave this way, no plot point developed more fully because of its inclusion, and no empathy generated for the character because of it. It is completely unnecessary drivel spouted from the character least likely to need an excuse to play beneath his intellect, and yet King has him rattling off paragraphs of this antebellum gobbledygook. When you compound this with the already generous amounts of race-baiting interior monologuing from the main villain – which you understand and accept because he’s, you know, the villain – the book reads like more of a dare than an attempt to creatively engage. Isn’t it enough that I’m reading a novel about a racist, incestuous serial killer without having the credulity of the story strained further by being asked to believe that a black 18 year old honor student in 2014 thinks this is acceptable communication with an older white person? And since Jerome Robinson doesn’t actually exist, I’m left struggling to figure out why Stephen King thinks that instead.

As a writer, I would not deign to tell another writer what they should write, even if I did not like the course or result. I certainly wouldn’t accept anyone telling me what characters I could use or what they must do in my story to assuage their sensibilities in my attempt to tell the best tale possible. As it stands I am more concerned with the agenda of an artist’s work: what we can glean from it in terms of theme and intent and how these things are executed. We understand that art is not largely intended to affect vacuums. We grasp that most artists mean for their work to be encountered by people and, hopefully, affect those it encounters. I want to be clear that the problem here isn’t that there are black people in King novels that have magical powers or otherwise align with some aspects of the Magical Negro trope. Contrary to the absolute-sounding nature of Magical Negro backlash, black people are allowed to save white lives in stories, and be villains for white folks, and be magical and wise. Further, white authors are allowed to incorporate black characters in these capacities. Neil Gaiman composed a largely black-populated story while riffing on African mythology in Anansi Boys to great effect, and did so with laudable humor and an admirable degree of fearlessness when addressing the culture of the characters. For all the reservations I (and King) have about James Patterson’s books, he has become one of the most profitable authors in the world on the back of a black lead character in Alex Cross without stepping on the many cultural landmines that King makes a habit of exploding. So the issue isn’t merely the use of black characters by white authors, but how they’re used and if that use is of any significance, and if so, to what end. This isn’t an attempt to dissuade their use, but to ensure that an interpretation as to their effect is on record. If you use these characters in certain ways, certain people will feel a way you may not have ever considered as a white author. So I’m asking you to consider it and then do what you will with that information. Your informed decision will bear out your position.

One shudders to think why an intellect and talent as potent as King’s seems bent on portraying a group of people so one-dimensionally book after book. Here is the closest I have come to an answer short of tying King to a bed with a block between his ankles and wielding a sledgehammer over him:

Horror asks its writers to take the normal and mundane and twist them in such a way that they compel certain emotions from an audience. Other genres also use this formula, but horror frequently and by design upends it in the most obvious way possible – it reverses the norm in as glaring a way as can be artistically managed. What is beautiful must become ugly, what is safe must become endangered, what is unpleasant must graduate to grotesque. This kind of emotional and cultural mining frequently begins at home, in the writer’s mind and heart, as they seek to twist and mangle the things around them in ways that rise to the charge of their medium. So they dwell on and feed into their fears, real and imagined, and these spokes of engagement splay out of a gear spinning in the oil of the base value system of the artist as a person, as a political being, as a lover, as an educated person…and yes, as a privileged-if-occasionally unknowing racist. All of the sentient and background values they possess find their way into their writings, and with a gyre like the one constantly spinning in a mind as creatively endowed as Stephen King’s, spitting out an average of almost two novels per year, eventually you’re going to strike racist oil.

As a black person who loves Stephen King books it is important that I settle into an answer, and quick: he has another book coming out next month. I must admit that even after all I’ve written here, I remain torn. He isn’t even close to being the only author in my bookshelves that offends my racial sensibilities from time to time. He just happens to be the one for whom I have the most books, and those books taken as a whole bring me far more delight than offense. If I am completely honest, a part of me feels – inappropriately – that Stephen King is my friend, that I’ve known him most of my life and that while he’s occasionally off-color, he’s still a lot of fun to hang with most of the time. Except that a real friend wouldn’t make you feel weird whenever you’re around or pimp some implied otherness about you that’s really not that different from his own actuality. That Stephen King and I are not actual friends is also part of our actuality, and while I do not come to the table here seeking friendship, I do not come without affinity for the man. I have benefitted in important ways from what King has shared with the world. I could not be the writer that I am without his vegetable in the gumbo of my creative life. A part of me very much wants to let him know that I see what he is doing, and I get what he wants it to mean, and I am even sure that most days he wishes those who look like me well in the real world, where it counts. But it would be remiss of me not to point out that I couldn’t possibly start even a pretend friendship if I didn’t point out how sorely he could use more actual, real black friends.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Stephen King’s Magical Negro Problem Isn’t Magical

  1. He just wanna be Black, but he’s from New England. Give the man a break LOL Love King’s stories. Never failed to genuinely scare the SOOM

  2. Interesting post. I’ve read a few King novels, including The Shining and The Stand, but his tendency to fall back on what you call the Magical Negro trope was something I’d never noticed.I wonder how aware of it he is himself.

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