May 22, 2019

In The Dark Fantastic, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas asks what is really happening in fantasy worlds, and finds a mirror to our own

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas is a professor who studies and teaches how people of color are portrayed, or not portrayed, in children’s and young adult literature, film, and television — and how those portrayals shape our culture. Her book exploring these issues, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, has just been published.

Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

But nearly two decades ago, she was a school teacher in her native Detroit during a snowy winter, opening a Harry Potter book for the first time.

“I was supposed to be disavowing childhood and I ended up just falling straight into it,” Thomas told the Office Hours podcast.

“I had always been drawn to speculative fiction and narratives, but I just didn't have anyone to talk to about my obsessions, or how much I loved these stories, and how much I would rather live in the wizarding world, or be a citizen of the United Federation of Planets instead of being a young Black woman in Detroit. Yeah, so I wanted adventure. I wanted magic. I wanted a better past and the glorious future, and that's why I think I was drawn to those stories.”

Thomas was also beginning to develop the critical eye for how race and identity played out in these worlds that were, in theoretical, a pure product of the author’s imagination. That curiosity eventually led Thomas back to graduate school and the research that produced The Dark Fantastic, which examines The Hunger Games, Merlin, The Vampire Diaries, and Harry Potter.

“I've never been satisfied with this thing that we say about racism and storytelling,” Thomas said. “Hey, the magical negro or black girl always dies. These tropes are racist. Yeah, but why? Nobody is born with bigotry ... You're not born that way, so how did you learn it, and what's going on in the stories to make readers respond in particular ways? That was really what I wanted to discover.”

Listen to the full Office Hours interview with Thomas here.