Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Dark Fantastic

    Race and Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games



    Fantasy fiction can feel like the genre of unbridled imagination. Books, movies, and TV shows build magical worlds and invite their audiences to live in them, to escape reality for the "meaning, safety, catharsis, and hope" of the realm of the imagination (p. 1). But as literacy scholar Ebony Elizabeth Thomas shows in The Dark Fantastic: Race and Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, fantasy fiction is bounded by the limits of authors' imaginations in predictable ways that have everything to do with race. Growing up in Black Detroit in the 1980s, Thomas adored fantasy fiction and the escapism it offered, even as she was repeatedly told that "magic was inaccessible" to Black working-class girls like her (p. 1). The feeling that fantasy worlds were important as windows, if not mirrors, during her development motivated Thomas to build children of color's love of reading through changing the roles and plots open to them in fantasy literature.

    In The Dark Fantastic, Thomas interrogates the problem of racial representation in fantasy fiction and the cross-media spaces where fans debate and extend them. She calls this world-building and extending "the fantastic," a term that draws together traditional fantasy storytelling in printed books or television, movies, and comics with new media forms like virtual fanfiction and online fandom communities where fans discuss, inhabit, remix, and re­imagine the worlds they love. Through a rich and readable combination of literary theory, critical race counter-storytelling, and autoethnography, Thomas builds a theoretical world of her own, developing the concept of "the dark fantastic"--her term for the integral and predictable roles that racial difference (specifically, the difference between Black and white characters) plays in fantasy storytelling.

    The dark fantastic is a theory for how characters of color operate and are understood within mainstream and typically white-authored works. Thomas differentiates the dark fantastic from artistic movements like Afrofuturism that use speculative fiction, fantasy, or futurism as tools for reimagination and liberation from a world of racial oppression. The dark fantastic bounds the imagination of both those who create and those who choose to play in these worlds, while Afrofuturism aims to transcend those bounds. In chapter 1, Thomas draws from Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's Monster Theory to argue that the "dark other is the engine that drives the fantastic" in plot and character tropes of "hesitation, ambivalence, and the uncanny" that are difficult for storytellers to imagine their way out of (pp. 23--25). In particular, she identifies a cycle of the dark fantastic in which characters of color move the plot of their imagined world through moments of "spectacle," "hesitation," "violence," "haunting," and "emancipation." The pervasiveness of this cycle limits Black characters to marginal or instrumental roles.

    Through four cultural case studies, Thomas analyzes the roles of Black female characters in some of the most popular fantasy worlds in the last generation: Rue in Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, Bonnie Bennett from the CW series The Vampire Diaries, Queen Guinevere from the BBC's Merlin, and the imagining of a Black Hermione in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter. She connects her work to a larger project of centering Black girls in literary research but explains that her focus on Black female characters in the dark fantastic, rather than Black male, nonbinary, or trans characters, was mostly due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of Black protagonists in popular speculative transmedia in her research period were female. While this may be true, I wonder if gender shapes Thomas's "cycle of the dark fantastic" theory more than she interrogates in this text, as she explores its impact only so far as to suggest that "clearly, there is something about endarkened womanhood and girlhood that especially anchors the fantastic" (p. 33). This omission contributes to this "cycle" acting as a weak spot in an otherwise strong analysis.

    Chapters 2--5 are structured to map each character case study to this cycle so that we see each character move through moments of spectacle, hesitation, violence, haunting, and emancipation. However, each character and story are quite different, and the power of Thomas's analysis lies in her ability to search out the nuanced ways storytellers and/or fans reinforce or break down white hegemonic structures in their roles and plots. Trying to fit each case into the mold of the dark fantastic cycle (which itself is quite broad) ends up doing the opposite, dulling each case's unique storytelling and in some cases neutralizing the specific ways it has upheld racist tropes.

    What truly shines about this work, and what made me devour this literary theory text like it was the eighth Harry Potter book (over a vacation weekend nonetheless), is Thomas's insider perspective on each of her case studies. Thomas has spent decades as a member of the fan communities she now approaches from an academic perspective. Each chapter includes autobiographical sections detailing how she found and fell in love with the world she's analyzing--as a teacher, as a way to bond with her adolescent niece, as a founding member of the first fan fiction forums to grace the internet in the Harry Potter era. This connection allows Thomas to approach her analysis with a sense of intimacy and depth, moving beyond familiar (though always necessary) arguments about representation or the documentation of racist responses regarding, for example, the BBC casting a Black woman in the role of Queen Guinevere. Instead, Thomas's positionality lends itself to rich interrogations that move from the nuances in script and scene lighting in The Vampire Diaries, to the politics of early Harry Potter chat rooms, to theories of racial justice in fantasy culture developed in fan Tumblr posts.

    There is important material to be found in each of these cultural locations for both the argument that the fantastic imagination is stuck recycling white hegemonic tropes and also how storytellers and fans are blazing new imaginative trails, such as those that prompted J. K. Rowling to tweet, "Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione" on the casting of Noma Dumenzweni in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

    The power of this book is that Thomas not only builds the theory of the dark fantastic and a strong argument for the necessity of positive representation in fantasy media, but also shows how new imaginative frontiers can be and already are being constructed through the labor of storytellers and fans alike, pointing new ways forward for those who create and those who live in the fantastic. Scholars less immersed in these fan worlds than Thomas may not have been able to access and understand this material, much less describe their origins with such vivid detail and care.

    I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the fantasy worlds Thomas works in, especially librarians and teachers who wish to introduce speculative fiction to students. First, Thomas writes to ensure that works by white authors are open and accessible to young readers of color as well as to the young white readers who have traditionally been their audiences. She poignantly illustrates this imperative through her description of books that were meaningful in her adolescence, like the Moomintroll series, The Neverending Story, and other books by white and European authors that she was routinely told by friends and family members were "for white people" but that were fundamental to her thriving. In breaking down the problems with traditional speculative fiction that inhibit readers of color from feeling connected and seen in the fantastic, this book can be a vital resource for educators as they suggest titles and talk through both the problematic and the wonderful components of such books with both white students and students of color. Second, Thomas invites her audience to participate in and support fandoms and authors who are restorying fantastic traditions to reimagine the dark fantastic, and educators are well placed to extend this invitation to their students. And third, Thomas closes with a reading list of Black woman authors who have created an emancipatory dark fantastic that Thomas argues spans science fiction, poetry, magical realism, and "lyrical contemporary realism" to "decolonize our fantasies and our dreams . . . liberating magic itself" (p. 169). Her suggestions serve as a short list for readers, librarians, and educators who wish to expand their own imaginations toward a liberated fantastic.

    I put down this book wishing I could immediately pick up a young adult fantasy novel written by Thomas that models an emancipatory fantastic. She admits she dreams of writing one, and it's clear from both her texts and the excerpts it includes from her own fanfiction and online posts—earnest, funny, and accessibly analytic—that such a book will be a strong read whenever it finds its way into this world. 

    Tatiana Geron

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    Book Notes

    The Dark Fantastic

    How Girls Achieve

    Engaging Boys in Active Literacy

    The Educated Underclass

    The Adjunct Underclass