America can’t handle the race conversation it says it wants and Stephen King proves it

The following are points I make in my lecture, Stephen King’s Magical Negroes, but now that I’ve actually finished his latest book, Sleeping Beauties, I wanted to provide an update. The points still stand; I just have more evidence to support them.

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Sleeping Beauties is a ham-fisted book full of highly suspect narrative decisions and that belongs in the lower third of King’s catalog.  At 700 pages it is too long, at 70 characters it is too populated, and the payoff isn’t anywhere near as woke as the premise or the political tone throughout suggests. Much of it feels like a concept you’d see buoying a middling TV show because it is: the Kings were originally drafting this as a series but turned it into a novel, much to the detriment of the story. Of course, that assumes one had any hopes of the story being worth telling to begin with. I felt nothing but trepidation upon hearing about the book prior to its publication. The only thing King treats worse than Black people in his books are women, so I had little hope that it would pan out in women’s favor upon reading it. Sure enough, there are no shortage of howlers in Sleeping Beauties, though there are so many characters it almost feels as if it broke even on its good to evil ratio through sheer odd-making, but that math may be a byproduct of exhaustion from having to slog through one of his weaker efforts.

My investment in King these days comes from being the guy who picks through his work and questions how the Black characters are dealt with, if at all. To this end, I draw various conclusions and they inform larger themes and issues I make beyond his books. This isn’t a reach in my mind. King is one of the best-selling authors this country has ever produced. He is a constantly working writer with decades in the game who still contributes about one book per year, sometimes two. There probably aren’t many households in this country that don’t have a King book in them, and even the ones that don’t know who he is. King is so ubiquitous he is living Americana, as much a product of this country as a guide through its id. Anyone who doesn’t know who Stephen King is should be frisked in airports. He is an American icon specifically because he captures who we are, what we are capable of, and what we fear so baldly. His Everyman may be rife with corny tics when they speak, but it is a decidedly on-the-nose white American male avatar at the plate, even when it’s not.

All that said, here is a way in which he – and Sleeping Beauties – is representative of what’s wrong with this country when it comes to dealing with race. Here is how Sleeping Beauties exposes how unprepared and unwilling America is in dealing with racism:

Sleeping Beauties came out and every review I saw – out of dozens – never mentioned that two significant characters – bordering on main protagonist level – are Black.

I found this odd because in fifty-nine novels and hundreds of short stories, King has, for all intents and purposes, never written a Black character as a lead, let alone two. I can only think of one short story where this is true, and it’s the most racist story in his entire career and several others. Considering his penchant for applying the Magical Negro trope in his work, I found it confounding that no one mentioned this. Of course, there isn’t much written about his use of the trope either, which is why my lecture exists in the first place, but this seemed even more egregious. We live in the era of the notable, of the instant clapback and the insta-drag, of the Woke Stephen King. And yet, faced with an opportunity to bring all of this to light, no one mentions it.

There is a temptation to chalk it up to ignorance, by which I mean either a) reviewers don’t read enough King to know that this is a development bordering on the historic, or b) they didn’t read far enough into the book to discover the ethnicity of the characters in question. The first seems a common enough mistake but the second one is equally plausible because the Kings don’t expose the race of these characters – Jeanette and Frank – for many pages. We learn that animal control officer Frank (introduced on page 35) is Black on page 72, while Jeanette the prisoner (introduced on page 1) is Black on page 308. Not only do the Kings try to pull a whammy on us, they do it twice. It’s an eye-rolling twist that ultimately serves no purpose in the story save for allowing King to roll around in a class clown version of liberalism for 700 pages.

A part of me wanted to believe that King had perhaps finally taken his criticism regarding Black characters to heart and set out to show he could write harmless Black people. At the same time, he couldn’t help himself: He did not trust that we would give the characters a fair shake if we knew they were Black up front, so he wrote them like he would any other character and introduces their race later in random fits of overly expository passages. It was as if he were thinking, “See, son, they’ll think these characters are normal people but then – BAM! – we’ll reveal that they’re BLACK PEOPLE!” If he had done this once in the book, I’d be less inclined to believe that conversation took place. Since it happens twice – and in the case of Jeanette we’re talking about a character that appears on page 1 and then isn’t revealed for 307 more pages – that’s just weak.

Let’s not front: Ignorance isn’t the issue here. All of those reviewers (or their editors) did what millions of white people do when confronted with race: they dismissed it. They ignored it so as to appear superior to racists because in their minds only racists bring up race.

When race is on the table, the default response by white America is to act like it isn’t there or that whatever we’re talking about isn’t actually about race, but something else. Contrary to common interpretation, it isn’t ignorance. It’s a defense mechanism, and the thing the mechanism is defending is white reality, aka whiteness.  And if whiteness is the default value for all existence – and it is, which makes it a manifestation of white supremacy – it behooves white people to suggest something isn’t about race or that they don’t see color. Some part of them knows that if you remove non-whiteness or non-normative cultural references from the table everything around them automatically goes back to focusing on the things that preserve their being. (Better known as everyone else’s reality.) So when they act like they don’t know or when they truly don’t care about the racist tendencies of one of their most popular and representative icons, it’s the defense mechanism firing up. To them, to bring up race is to BE racist. And to them, if you don’t talk about racism then you’re never contributing to it. You’re certainly not acting on it. And who has ever been hurt by not acknowledging racism?

By denying King an observation on his attempt to tackle race head-on – in a book he dedicated to Sandra Bland, no less – white America has only shown its continued inability to even be in the same room as an earnest and productive address of how to combat racism. If you can’t talk about it in a Stephen King novel that we must assume you read all 700 pages of, you simply don’t want to. You don’t want to talk about what I want to talk about in interpreting this and conversely critiquing the American take on racism.

In fact, you don’t want me here at all.

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Top 5 Worst Uses of Black Characters in King Stories (ranked)
1. The Black junta – The Stand (1990 edition)

2. Susannah Dean – The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands

3. Sara Tidwell – Bag of Bones

4. John Coffey – The Green Mile

5. Martha Rosewall – Dedication

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3 thoughts on “America can’t handle the race conversation it says it wants and Stephen King proves it

  1. I had always assumed that King stayed away from writing Black characters because he wasn’t sure of getting them right. Your points are well worth consideration.

    I don’t think it is the job of a writer to present society with it’s pressing issues cut, chewed and pre-digested. It should be just the starting point of a debate.
    The dedication to Sandra Bland piqued my interest, in that my first thought was that he dedicated it to her as a woman, rather than as a Black person.
    Please note: I am about to start reading the book, and I’ll post again when I’m through.

    PS- you ought to make a distinction between characters King wrote as Black and those cast as Black by the filmmakers (ie Idris Elba as the Gunslinger).

  2. The thing about being an author is you have to write with conviction, especially if you are trying to make a setting and plot realistic. As a writer myself and an avid reader, I can respect that Stephen King writes what he writes and remains consistent. Why should you change the way you write just because the world around you is changing or offended? Look at Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville…all the classic greats. Writing is like music, it’s an expression of art and soul. Stephen King doesn’t HAVE to write about a person of color in the way the world wants him to, he has every right as the writer and creator of his imagination to write what compels him and his readers. That being said, I thought this book was too richly staffed with too many people on stage. But, the concept was fascinating. AND let’s not forget, it was Owen’s idea to begin with. SK just filled in the gaps.

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