Friday, May 17, 2019

Missandei, Too, Deserves Her Song -- A Dark Fantastic Lament

NOTE: This post contains spoilers for the HBO TV series Game of Thrones, as well as George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels.


Hello, everyone! Long time no blog! #31DaysIBPOC brought me back -- thanks, Dr. Kim Parker & Tricia Ebarvia, for the invitation!

My last post was on March 31, 2016. Life has been a whirlwind since then. Last year, I made tenure at Penn, and was promoted to Associate Professor of Education.

My book, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, will be officially released from NYU Press next Tuesday (May 21!). The seeds of my book can be found in my earliest posts here, "The Imagination Gap" and "Why Is Rue a Little Black Girl?"

My graduate students and I still maintain our booklists over on @HealingFictions, and we hope to (finally) launch our website later this year.

And the most popular show on television, Game of Thrones, took a sudden nosedive this spring. It's on track to finish tomorrow with one of the most controversial finale episodes in recent memory.

There are many people who are currently debating the ultimate fate of one of the protagonists, Daenerys Targaryen, a dragonriding exiled queen from the deposed ruling family. I'm among them.

But this post is not about Daenerys.

This post is about Missandei.

Image result for daenerys and missandei


I said:
Now will the poets sing,-
Their cries go thundering
Like blood and tears
Into the nation’s ears,
Like lightning dart
Into the nation’s heart.


The HBO television series Game of Thrones is based on a series of novels by fantasy author George R.R. Martin, collectively titled A Song of Ice and Fire.

In the novels, Missandei of Naath is a ten-year-old girl from the Summer Isles. She is described as having "a flat face, dusky skin, and eyes like molten gold." She and her brothers were captured by slave traders when she was a young child. Her brothers were pressed into service with the Unsullied, a famed enslaved army, noted for being castrated in their youth.

While racial and ethnic characteristics in Martin's stories do not always coincide with our own (after all, Dany in the books has "purple eyes"), the show's casting of mixed-race British actress Nathalie Emmanuel seems to indicate that Missandei on the show can be read as a character of color in our world.

Specifically, a Black character.


In the YA literary world, there has been much talk recently about whether race in fantasy is analogous to race in the real world, and if so, what to do when books feature racist characterizations, worldbuilding, plots, themes or settings.

I'm not here to rehash those conversations. Yet.

I am here to pay my respects to Missandei.


Remembering their sharp and pretty
Tunes for Sacco and Vanzetti,
I said:
Here too’s a cause divinely spun
For those whose eyes are on the sun,
Here in epitome
Is all disgrace
And epic wrong,
Like wine to brace
The minstrel heart, and blare it to song...


Four observations follow. Perhaps more, after the show and the academic year are (blessedly) done, and I have more time.

But for now, I offer just these four.

1. In other people's fantasies, we are rarely allowed to be children. The decision to cast an adult is an example of Black girl adultification, something that scholar Stephanie Toliver has noted in her recent work on Rue in the The Hunger Games. That takes nothing away from Nathalie Emmanuel's incredible performance. After all, Judy Garland's young Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz was restoried into Stephanie Mills' young adult Dorothy in The Wiz on Broadway, and eventually transformed into Diana Ross' grown-up Dorothy in the musical film of the same name.

Adaptation is an act of interpretation. The fact that showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss read about little Missandei, then chose to double her age changes the character from the novels. While other characters have changed, Missandei's literal adultification is notable.

What was it about little Missandei on the page that made Benioff and Weiss choose to make her an adult on the screen, instead of a little Black girl? Was it to provide Dany with a (Black) best friend? Why, then, did the screenwriters not evolve the story accordingly?

2. In other people's fantasies, we are rarely allowed to exist for ourselves. We exist only to be of service to others. Missandei was the "Black best friend" chararacter -- sort of. When we meet her in the novels and on the show, she is the enslaved translator for Kraznys, one of the Good Masters of Astapor. Dany uses her dragons to sack the city, then frees Missandei. Missandei chooses to remain with Dany as her handmaiden, translator and confidante.

There were many other narrative choices that could have been made by the writers.

They could have had Dany offer Missandei unconditional freedom.

They could have had Missandei return to Naath for a time -- opening space in the narrative for her to exist for herself, on her own terms -- and showing us another culture before her story rejoined Dany's.

There are a thousand other possibilities. The problem is the imagination gap. Writers can't imagine that characters like Missandei might have plausible motivations beyond service, obedience, and knowing one's place.

Although Missandei's age changed from A Song of Ice and Fire to Game of Thrones, her storyline did not evolve accordingly. In the books, she is emerging as a strategic mastermind (yes, at 10 or 11 years old! I know!). On the show, little of that complexity is apparent.

Although Missandei is free, her story remains tied to Daenerys'.

She is the Black best friend...

Sort of.

3. In other people's fantasies, we are assumed to be sexual objects. We are also seen as incapable of the full range of human emotions, including love. The last glimpse we've had of Missandei in the books is when she aided Ser Barristan in taking control of the court of Meereen after Daenerys flew off on her dragon.

On the show, Missandei, as an adultified Black girl character, was sexualized. Of course.

Sexual stereotypes about Black girls, women, and femmes abound in our culture. I will not rehash them here. But the nature of the comments about Missandei and her Unsullied lover, Grey Worm, displayed peculiar anxieties around sex, race, love, and desire.

Martin's books were noted for being explicit long before they were adapted for the small screen, and Game of Thrones became notable for its use of "sexposition." But on a show that seemed to enjoy making even the most libertine viewers wince, Missandei and Grey Worm were one of its healthiest couples.

That didn't stop fans from joking about Grey Worm's genitalia, though.

As with many such characters, the range of human emotion afforded to Missandei and Grey Worm is limited. They love Daenerys because she freed them from enslavement. They are clearly in love with each other. However, we don't see Missandei cultivate any other close friendships. Grey Worm's bond with his Unsullied brothers is meant to be assumed, but he is their general, and is giving them orders.

Missandei's and Grey Worm's origin stories -- enslaved as young children -- mean that they do not have access to love from their families and communities. Although it can be argued that being part of Dany's retinue could be consider an alternate sort of family, that's not quite the same thing on a show where one's House -- quite literally, genetically related family -- means everything.

We do not hear either character express much desire to go home to Naath and the Summer Isles until Season 8. This desire was sparked by the racist treatment they experience at the hands of the Northern subjects of House Stark (the region and House we the viewers are supposed to be rooting for, mind),

It is yet unclear whether Game of Thrones understands that this, too, is tragedy.

4. We always die in other people's fantasies. (Other people seem to fantasize about Black death. Endlessly. Often needlessly.)

In the end, Missandei died.

(The Black girl always dies.)

Here's what I wrote about that in The Dark Fantastic...

The Dark Fantastic

In her introduction to her masterpiece, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe asks:

What does it mean to defend the dead? To tend to the Black dead and dying, to tend to the Black person, to Black people, always living in the push toward our death... 
In the Wake
It means work. It is work: hard emotional, physical, and intellectual work that demands vigilant attendance to the needs of the dying, to each their way, and also to the needs of the living.

This question is not limited to humans who have been labeled as Black in the past and present, both quick and dead, but extends to Black characters, and to the very idea of Blackness itself. As the title of Sharpe’s book suggests, this is an ontological question that every Black child, woman, and man is confronted with throughout the course of a lifetime. It is a question that demands an answer.

The wake, according to Sharpe, is the path behind a ship, keeping watch with the dead, coming to consciousness, all at once. Throughout The Dark Fantastic, we have witnessed Black girl characters caught in the wake within the storied realms of the collective imagination...

I am by no means the only one who has observed the myriad ways that the fantastic, the speculative, and the collective imagination have rendered Black presence impossible and Black nonexistence compulsory. Most Black fans and other fans of color have thought quite a bit about our precarious state even within realms of supposedly infinite possibilities.

During a Twitter chat, an observer by the handle @relicUA noted that “I think poor nonwhite people are in a state of quantum super-position, such that they only exist when the narrative requires.” Indeed, young Black women and girls exist in a state of quantum superposition in the fantastic. They cannot exist, and yet, they must: when it comes to the fantastic, Schrödinger's cat is a young Black girl...

(Schrödinger's cat is Missandei.)

In the wake of these shadows and echoes, it seems vital to examine the ways that Black writers, fans, and audiences are narrating the self into existence in the face of erasure—indeed, have always had to read ourselves into fantastic canons that excluded us. The traditional fantastic has historically assumed a White audience, and, in turn, those endarkened and Othered have had to read those stories to understand the cartographies of the imagination. In contrast to histories of fandom and audience that portray audiences for the speculative and the fantastic as predominantly White, new work from scholars like Rebecca Wanzo and André Carrington sheds light on the ways that Black fans and audiences have always interpreted fantastic media that does not always imagine us as part of the audience—a view that I share.

It is my hope that future scholars and researchers will extend Sharpe’s call for wake work into the dark fantastic.

(Missandei, like us, lives in the wake.)


Surely, I said,
Now will the poets sing.
But they have raised no cry.
I wonder why.

--Countee Cullen, "Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song," 1934.


(Let others sing dirges for their fair dragon queen!
Missandei, too, is worth her song.)


This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of Indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars.

Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Dr. Debbie Reese titled “The I in #31DaysIBPOC is for Indigenous.” (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch upon the rest of the blog circle).

You can read all of the blog posts this month here.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Books for Our Favorite #StoryGirls - Children's Literature & YA Books for Women's History Month 2016

March 2016 is behind us, and spring has sprung! This week, I had the pleasure of being a guest speaker at both Michigan State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Today, I spent time at the University of Wisconsin's Cooperative Children's Book Center for the very first time. What an outstanding resource for the children's literature community! Director K.T. Horning was a wonderful host, as were the Center's librarians and graduate students. I hope to visit again soon.

As we conclude another Women's History Month, the SuperFriends and I are pleased to share our picks that feature amazing #StoryGirls. Every day, on our @HealingFictions Twitter account, we have shared our recommendations. Here is the full March 2016 list (with thanks to our wonderful moderator Amy Brown):

March 1. Wangari Maathai, Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace by Jen Cullerton Johnson, illus. Sonia Lynn Sadler
March 2. Millo, Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle, illus. Rafael López
March 3. Fannie Lou Hamer, Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford, illus. Ekua Holmes
March 4. Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World by Malala Yousafzai
March 5. Mo'ne Davis, Mo’ne Davis: Remember My Name by Mo'ne Davis
March 6. Jazz Jennings, I am Jazz by Jessica Herthel & Jazz Jennings, illus. McNicholas
March 7. Nasreen, Nasreen’s Secret School by Jeanette Winter
March 8. Frida Kahlo, Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales
March 9. CeCe, El Deafo by CeCe Bell
March 10. Naomi, Becoming Naomi Leon by Pamela Munoz Ryan
March 11. Marisol, Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match by Monica Brown, illus. Sarah Palacios
March 12. Margie, Dancing Home by Alma Flor Ada & Gabriel Zubizarreta
March 13. Melody, Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
March 14. Kira, Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry
March 15. Caitlin, Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
March 16. Joyce, Blue Tights by Rita Williams-Garcia
March 17. Junie, Junie B. Jones is a Party Animal by Barbara Parks
March 18. Rubina, Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan, illus. Sophie Blackall
March 19. Aya, Aya by Marguerite Abouet
March 20. Zita, Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
March 21. Chloe, Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
March 22. Willimena, Willimena Rules series by Valerie Eilson Wesley
March 23. Alexandria and friends, Sugar Plum Ballerinas by Whoopi Goldberg
March 24. Grace, Grace for President by Kelly DiPucchio, illus. LeUyen Pham
March 25. Evelyn, The Revolution of Evelyn by Sonia Manzano 
March 26. Annemarie, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
March 27. Jazmin, The Rain Stomper by Addie Boswell, illus. Eric Velasquez
March 28. Delphine, Vonetta, & Fern, P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia
March 29. Gloria, Between Sisters by Adwoa Badoe
March 30. Kamala, Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson
March 31. Anna, Migrant by Maxine Trottier 

Lifting as we climb -- always!

Ebony and the SuperFriends 

(P.S. Look for our AARI 2016 interviews with Julius Lester & Arnold Adoff very soon... still transcribing!)

Monday, February 29, 2016

An #AARI16 Booklist: Making the African American Read-In Last All Year Long

The SuperFriends and I have had an amazingly busy February! We greatly enjoyed participating in the National African American Read-In with ninth and tenth graders at Philly's U School on Friday, February 19, and at the Penn Bookstore on Saturday, February 20... as well as on our @HealingFictions Twitter account! We had a great time discussing our #AARI16 book selections, and can't wait to share our picks for Women's History Month under my #StoryGirls hashtag tomorrow.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Full #Kidlit4Justice Booklist, January 2016

What role does children's literature play in the fight for social justice? Is there room for advocacy and activism in the imaginative worlds that stories provide -- or does that mean that the author and/or illustrator is being "too preachy?" Can children's literature help the next generation learn to dream of a better world?

During the aftermath of the extrajudicial murder of young Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, several of us chatted on Twitter about resources that we might provide for our youngest readers, including Kids Like Us Books, Sarah Hamburg, Angie Manfredi, and others. As Dr. Marcia Chatelain's #FergusonSyllabus was being created, #Kidlit4Justice was born.

Our SuperFriends team and I chose social justice as our January theme, in honor of the King holiday celebrating a legendary champion for justice, and because we think it's a great way to begin 2016. Thus, below the cut, please find our full list of selections.

For a better, peaceful & more just world,

Ebony & the SuperFriends

Creating #Kidlit4Justice: An Interview With Zetta Elliott

Thank you for signal boosting our daily January 2016 #Kidlit4Justice picks on @HealingFictions! We hope that as you began the New Year, these reads helped inspire you to share with our youngest readers the many ways that they can change the world.

To wrap up our January 2016 #Kidlit4Justice hashtag, this month's featured blog post is an interview with award-winning author and activist, Zetta Elliott. Born and raised in Canada, Zetta has lived in the United States for more than 20 years. She earned her PhD in American Studies from NYU in 2003, and has written numerous poetry, plays, essays, articles, op-eds, novels, and stories for children.

Zetta’s debut picturebook, Bird, won the Honor Award in Lee & Low Books’ New Voices Contest and the Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers. Her young adult fantasy novel, Ship of Souls, was named a Booklist Top Ten Sci-fi/Fantasy Title for Youth and was a finalist for the Phillis Wheatley Book Award. Her essay, "The Trouble with Magic: Conjuring the Past in New York City Parks," published in Jeunesse, won the 2014 Children’s Literature Association Article Award. An advocate for greater diversity and equity in the publishing industry, Zetta has also self-published many illustrated books for younger readers under her own imprint, Rosetta Press. She currently lives in her beloved Brooklyn, which provides the backdrop for many of her magical stories. 

Zetta is a supernova. We first met through mutual colleagues in the children’s literature world several years ago, narrowly missed each other at NCTE/ALAN 2010 in Orlando, and became fast friends when I moved from Detroit to Philadelphia in 2012. Without Zetta, I could not have written The Dark Fantastic. Her 2010 Horn Book essay, "Decolonizing the Imagination," helped me theorize the imagination gap in youth media. Her clarion call -- that we can't wait for decades for our kids to see themselves in stories -- gave me the courage to advocate for the emancipatory tales that our children need. While her fiction, her essays, and her voice could have fit many other themes, I couldn’t imagine another person more suited to wrap up this month's theme of social justice in children’s literature, inspired in part by the King holiday. I am so grateful for Zetta's presence in the children's literature world, and quite proud to call her my friend.

Earlier this month, Zetta was gracious enough to answer questions posed by two of our SuperFriends, Penn GSE Reading/Writing/Literacy doctoral students Sherea Mosley and Josh Coleman, via email.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Dark Fantastic Returns! What to Expect From This Blog in 2016

It's been a long 10 months since my last post! Rather than regale you with excuses, I'll share with you where I've been over the past year, then tell you where we're going in 2016... and why you need to bookmark The Dark Fantastic blog again, along with my SuperFriends' incredible Twitter book rec account, @Healing Fictions!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

#StoryGirls Run This World: Complete March 2015 Booklist Celebrating Diverse Girlhoods

It's been an amazing month for celebrating #StoryGirls over on Twitter! Just in case you missed any of my daily Tweets from @Ebonyteach, here's the complete list: