“Are the cartographies of dreams truly universal?”
Ebony Thomas, The Dark Fantastic, 2
The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games drew me in from the very first time I saw its stunning cover. As a literature scholar, a Black studies enthusiast and Black fangirl supreme, I wanted– no, needed– this book. Someone had found a way to weave together several pieces of my own scholarly interests including race, literature, digitality and the fantastic. Despite being in the midst of reading for comprehensive exams, I couldn’t contain myself when I got an Advance Reader Copy of the book. One glance at the table of contents– which included chapters on my favorite witches, Hermione Granger and Bonnie Bennett– and I was hooked. I had found my scholarly Harry Potter.
The path through The Dark Fantastic is fairly straightforward, though Thomas takes the reader on an adventure to dystopian futures, far away realms and a magical present before leaving us at the gates of Hogwarts. In doing so, she encourages us to question our relationship to the fantastic, and more generally our relationship to reading and imagining. Is it as universal as we think? Why is there an imagination gap in literature for young people? Why is it that some young people of color “don’t like to read much?” (7)
In order to unravel some of these questions, Thomas first defines “the dark fantastic:” “the role that racial difference plays in our fantastically stored imagination.” (7) Thomas explains that she prefers the Fantastic to speculative fiction, noting that fantastic has a multiplicity of meanings. This distinction was important for me, as I am a scholar whose work will no doubt involve questions of the fantastic (or speculative) and I will have to decide which term more accurately describes my work. One thing that I particularly like about fantastic is that it’s not limited by “literature”– Thomas works on transmedia narratives that include books, television and film, not to mention fan culture, thus incorporating the digital.
Returning to the text, in the “Dark Other,” Thomas highlights a cycle that appears in a myriad of texts: “(1) spectacle, (2) hesitation, (3) violence, (4) haunting, and (5) emancipation.” Thomas revisits this pattern throughout each chapter, noting how each of these Dark girls (Rue from The Hunger Games, Gwen from Merlin, Bonnie Bennett from The Vampire Diaries, and Hermione Granger from Harry Potter) does or does not fall victim to it. Equally important to these discussions of the girls are the fans, often Dark themselves, that have critiques of the treatment of these characters.
Much of Thomas’ chapter on Rue from The Hunger Games is rooted in the cognitive dissonance the Dark Other can cause for (white) readers. A preconceived notion of what innocence looks like left some viewers of the film perturbed, to say the least, by the casting of a Black girl for the role. Thomas shows how Katniss becomes the moral center of the book only after Rue’s death, yet it is difficult for some to imagine that this young Dark girl can become impetus for a revolution. Like Rue’s, the chapter on Gwen traces her place in the dark fantastic cycle (or how she breaks it) before investigating fans’ relationships to the character. The main difference between these two is that Rue is written in her original text as Dark, while Gwen (Guinevere of Arthurian legend) is a fair maiden. For me, this brings up the question of race bending: is it or is it not an appropriate form of reimagining? To this point, there was a discussion on Twitter regarding a Black Batman. Fans circulated their actor choices for the role to which acclaimed author Nnedi Okorafor encouraged fans and writers to simply create more original Black characters. Shortly afterwards, writer Jamelle Bouie posted a thread in which he completely reimagined Batman’s origin story so that a Black Batman would contextually make sense. What Bouie did was imaginative and quite frankly, convincing– convincing enough to make me believe that we can have both new original characters and critical reimaginings, which is precisely what I believe has happened with Gwen in Merlin. As Thomas aptly states: “Gwen matters because she represents the dreams of brown girls who never saw themselves represented in fairy tales growing up.” (104)
Despite being an avid Potterhead and devoted lover of Hermione Granger, the chapter on Bonnie Bennett immediately caught my attention. The quickest way to infuriate me is to bring up the treatment of Bonnie in The Vampire Diaries; in fact,there is a video of me somewhere on the internet passionately discussing (hand gestures and all) this exact subject with my Branch Out students. Thomas knows that Bonnie “is not an easy character for mainstream audiences…to love” (109) and it’s hard to make a case for her. She’s sidelined, chastened, and used as a deus ex machina for many of the main gang’s numerous problems. But her character arc, in my opinion, best illustrates Thomas’ dark fantastic cycle: the viewer is introduced to Bonnie’s magic in the breath-taking “Feather Scene” (spectacle); negotiating Damon and Bonnie’s potential relationship by making her hate him (hesitation); Bonnie is repeatedly pushed to her physical limits with her magic, all in the name of helping her friends (violence); when she finally dies from exertion, Bonnie still haunts the show, serving as the anchor for the “Other Side” (haunting); and once she has saved everyone…again… Bonnie departs Mystic Falls for Africa (emancipation…?). It is unclear whether Bonnie was truly emancipated, and I would actually argue that she wasn’t. The writers’ decision to have Bonnie depart for Africa, which, as Thomas points out, was never something she r expressed any interest in, signals the Dark witch’s life to be an afterthought by them. But Thomas reminds us that “[d]ark girls like Bonnie are the problem and the solution, always.” (139) It’s time for more.
And honestly, I hope I’m part of the generation that participates in creating these worlds for Dark girls to revel in.
Thomas concludes with an ode to Black Hermione. Though she never imagined Hermione as anything but white, fans across the globe have taken J. K. Rowling’s description of brown eyes and frizzy hair to heart. The “Hermione Is Black” Tumblr tag shows us just how much audiences were imagining this possibility– “creative digital media communities” (165) have been doing this work for years.
Ebony Thomas took on the Herculean task of breaking apart and dissecting how and why we imagine, giving us convincing theorization and contextualization using her four case studies. She took us on a tour of her own imagination, which greatly resembles mine, weaving in narratives about her own journey grappling with the Dark Fantastic. She provided imaginative scholarship on subject matter near and dear to my heart. Most importantly, to me, Thomas provided an example of how I can combine all my passions into a coherent project, and for that, I am forever grateful. It is possible to engage both Morrison and Jenkins, Todorov and Whitted.
Thomas proves without a doubt that scholarship can be fun, creative, and if you’re lucky, fantastic.