Friday, June 25, 2010

Flawed 1950s Anti-Racism (Childhood's End)

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke is a science-fiction novel about aliens known as the Overlords taking over humanity to prepare us for the next stage of evolution. Prior to the book’s story, the author places the disclaimer “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author” to keep people from thinking that he had changed his mind about being optimistic about space travel, which readers might infer from the Overlords declaring that “the stars are not for Man”. Despite this, I believe the author’s own opinions snuck in there as pertains to how the Overlords saw fit to run Earth, such as condemning animal cruelty and racism. The attempt to challenge racism is an interesting part of the book, specifically how Clarke tries to do it as a white man writing a book in 1953. It is a hopeful, idealistic cry for a post-racial utopian society, and is in itself a message meant specifically for other white people.
The first explicit reference to race and racism is when the Overlords demand that the Republic of South Africa end its racist discrimination. In 1953 when the book was written, South Africa was under apartheid, a white minority cruelly dominating people of color. The book’s events are set in the near future, where a South African civil war took place, shifting the balance of power. The Overlords made a demonstration of blocking the sun’s radiation in South Africa, preventing either heat or light from descending in an area 500 kilometers across for thirty minutes. “It was sufficient; the next day the government of South Africa announced that full rights would be restored to the white minority.”
While it’s good to challenge racism anyway, it seems that a relevant message about ending actual racism in South Africa wouldn’t be welcome, and the author feels he needs to invent a fictional scenario about victimized white people for his message to be well received. When the author challenges bullfighting, he doesn’t change the bulls into humans. He finds the conflict between humans and animals to speak for itself, but when he talks about race he has to invent a more readily identifiable conflict for his white readers.
The next mention of race and racism occurs fifty years later, in approximately 2015 (???), when Clarke declares humanity to now live in a post-racial society. “The inevitable reaction that had given early twenty-first-century Negroes a slight sense of superiority had already passed away. The convenient word ‘nigger’ was no longer taboo in polite society, but was used without embarrassment by everyone. It had no more emotional content than such labels as republican or methodist [sic], conservative or liberal.” Idealistic, no? He imagines this post-racial society coming out of the Overlords’ criminalization of racist policies, and the Overlords providing such material production that the social stratification is eliminated altogether.
This is, simply, incredibly naïve. Racism doesn’t just exist in policies or as a product of social class. Racism exists as cultural memes. To get rid of it you need some kind of focus on getting rid of it that goes beyond getting rid of flat-out racist policies, though that’s a start. I believe this is a result of Clarke’s not being able to have witnessed a society that has undergone such attempts. Clarke himself is British, and while I’m not very knowledgeable on the subject of racism in Britain in the 1950s, I imagine it wasn’t too good for black people back then there. The story is initially set in the United States, and I know lynching was common then. Anyway, it was a bad state of things and there wasn’t as much as a focus on getting rid of racism, especially on the institutional level.
Finally, it’s relevant to point out that all characters are white by default, and race is never mentioned in descriptions of characters except to note that a character isn’t white. All of the (white) protagonists up to the introduction of Jan are described only by their relevance to the narrative and how they fit into the goings-on, their individual character traits shown rather than told of. The black character Jan breaks the pattern by first being described as a good-looking Negro man, and then as the story shifts to his perspective we get the paragraph about how racism had ended years ago. Jan is a protagonist to explicitly showcase how racism is wrong with a capable black character, but the message itself is one for white people.
In conclusion, Arthur C. Clarke used Childhood’s End as a soapbox to challenge racism, but it’s a flawed message with white people at its focus. I really think that the South Africa thing was written that way because he believed an explicit message about contemporary racism would not be accepted by his white readership. Maybe that’s true, and maybe the watered down version accomplished minimal good, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s very flawed to not feature the very real racial discrimination that was occurring. The post-racial society idea is nice, but too idealistic. Like electing Obama, removing the stratification (in this case through the intervention of technologically superior aliens) is a step in the right direction, but that won’t result in a complete eradication of racism, which might not even be possible. The black character Jan is treated well, being more innovative and able to affect his destiny than the white protagonists who rely on others to get anything useful accomplished. The book has an overall stand against racism, which is good in general, but the message is ultimately flawed.


mysie said...

Hi there. I found your blog after finishing "Childhood's End" and trying to figure out if I was the only one troubled by the odd, mostly subtle racism in the book. I'm not the only one! But I might be the only one who finds it subtle. I found something you might want to read, which makes a very good case. Google "The Overlord's Burden:The Source of
Sorrow in Childhood's End
Matthew Candelaria". Interesting, eye-opening read.

Imani Keith Henry said...

Was just about to watch the SYFY series of "Childhood's End" . Was unfamiliar with the book so began to research. Also incredibly troubled by the South African story line and overall racial analysis of Clarke. Awesome review -- thanks

Anonymous said...

I can see how you might find the South African role reversal troubling, but it underlines a major point to the readership, namely that of true equality.You have a point, the readers were mostly white men, and they get thrown off their high horse. In 1953 it was quite unthinkable that the seemingly superior white people could ever be suppressed.

Also you might underestimate the influence a higher authority like the Overlords could have on mankind. Not only their rule set, but also their existence alone, would make apparent divides like religion and race look way less essential. That is, I think, one of the interesting points of the novel, that ideas and views about the workings of the world change the behavior of individuals, even if they have no direct impact on most individuals.

By the way, Clarke himself was living in Sri Lanka for most of his life and in a relationship with a non-white man. I think he knew a thing or two about discrimination.

Anonymous said...

As a white South African in 2016 I find the part about South Africa unsettling more because it feels like a premonition.

I am in no means a apologist for appartheid having been born outside of appartheid I have always seen it for what it was, a evil and oppressive regime which should never have existed, but where we are now in the last part of 2016 it seems that a war against the white minority is very likely. We have a majority ruled government in which fraud and corruption is rampant and when our people start to ask questions out government actively demonize appartheid and even more unsettling white people which has lead to a majority of black youths loathing white people based solely on the fact that they are white they also do not get called racist because of the belief that only white people can be racist.

It seems that Clark predicted it extremely well that the minority Wil eventually be subjected to a equally harsh opression as the majority faced during appartheid.