Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Kiss

A re-posting of an essay from elsewhere, because it came up in conversation.

The first interracial (i.e. black/white) kiss on American television was on Star Trek, with Kirk kissing Uhura while under the influence of telekinetic/telepathic control. The Wikipedia entry says that British television did not show that episode of ST until 1993, though for reasons of violence and not interracial making out.

I’m a little ambivalent about this incident in the history of science fiction and popular culture. On the one hand, the idea that such a simple thing as a kiss can be a matter of great taboo is ugly and repellant, so of course I’m glad that the taboo was broken. I’m glad that science fiction had a hand in it.

But on the other hand, what a timid thing it was. The background story says that, in fact, Shatner’s and Nichols’ lips never touched—as ordered by NBC. More importantly, the context was pretty lame; they were under psi control at the time, so it is, in the context of the story, something that the two individuals would never have done on their own, and it was supposed to be humiliating. Not really a blow for racial justice, was it?

I have a memory of another television show of around the same time, maybe a little before, that featured a love affair between a black doctor and a white woman (I think a nurse, but possibly a female physician). I can’t remember any physical demonstrations in the episode, but then, I was surprised to learn that the Star Trek kiss was the first interracial kiss on television, too. Apparently I wasn’t paying attention to that particular aspect of pop culture. In any case, in said TV episode (Ben Casey? Dr. Kildare?), the black man says at one point, “We’re both free, white, and over 21—except me.” The line obviously stuck in my head.

My point here is that, in the context of the show, as opposed to external events, the Star Trek situation had no connection to actual current day race relations whatsoever. In the Star Trek future, racial discrimination is supposed to be wholly absent, so within context the actual problem with The Kiss was that it was against their wills, and it was a superior kissing a subordinate (which also occasionally happened on ST:TOS, but usually Kirk was romancing the alien babes).

In the remembered medical story, however, present day race relations were the crux of things. In truth, that seems more daring, doesn’t it? Even without the physical kiss.

In many ways, science fiction had it very easy for a long time in matters of race. It’s not that hard to be on the right side of the debate on racial justice when the debate is about Jim Crow laws, de jure segregated schools, and matters of obvious and overt bigotry. Moreover, science fiction has the advantage of the distancing effect; we can write about societies where our notions of racial norms no longer hold, so the entire matter becomes as impersonal as an allegory. And there have been slews of science fiction allegories, too. All well and good, but they’re not that difficult either.

Then there is the matter of words vs pictures. Robert Heinlein played a lot of games with the race of his characters, making some of them black, for example, then leaving only the barest of clues as to that fact. Again, well and good, but it was awfully easy to miss those clues, or to ignore them, if you were of such a mind. But when those characters are then given real forms, as in motion pictures, typically Heinlein’s descriptions are ignored, and the characters revert to the white heroic norm.

I will not denigrate the freedom to create and write about societies that are ideal in that particular way, that racial injustice is gone, and multiculturalism flourishes. I’ve met plenty of people who found the Star Trek universe to be attractive for that very reason, that it gave them the hope that there could be a society like that, and that hope was enough to get them out into the world, where they found, if not the ideal community, at least one that was more suitable to them than where they started.

What science fiction does not provide, however, is the road map. How does one get to that desired state? And how does one deal with the present situation in a human and humane way? That is a much more difficult task.

For writers, the task is even more difficult. How does one create characters whose race or ethnicity isn’t ours? To what degree is that an extension of the more fundamental problem: how does one create characters rather than stereotypes? How does one create characters with stereotypical characteristics (because everyone has some stereotypical characteristics, that is how stereotypes occur), and still get across the idea that each one of them is the center of the universe, and each one is the protagonist of their very own plot?


TStockmann said...

A good place to start would be not to regard American notions of race as a self-evident template for the human condition, unless the approach is meant solely to critique contemporary social realiity, like the Eloi and Morlocks. The "one drop" approach to classifying people as black and subsequent evolution of "passing" is only one way race can manifest. Even within what we could call "negritude" there are other interesting approaches - consider the numerous but rigid color classifications that (I believe) obtain in many Caribbean cultures (though I only personally and not-exhaustively know the French islands), with the very odd and small white planter class functioning as an almost unseen Platonic ideal of paleness - with the metropolitans being largely irrelevant. Consider a story from a couple years back in one of the new magazines and perhpas I'll get a detail wrong), where black American soldier in Somalia smiled at one of the aquiline featured women - who as a gesture of contempt pressed her hand against her nose, flattening it to look like his. He said ruefully, "I can't believe I had to come to Africa to be called a nigger."

And moving away from black/white thing in America that most Americans think about when they think about race, I've never seen an sf story that tries to reproduce a more subtle racial situation like - say - contemporary Japanese-American.

Extending further, that Americans would consider Hutus and Tutsis "blacks." But let's say you were working through a more universal notion, like ethnicity rather than race. I'd say to me the most interesting question for a standard futuristic extrapolation, is what happens when all standard human genetics are elective - I think it's fairly safe to see that arising not too distantly from current technology and looking beyond the initial period rationing of this through cost. Elective ethnicities. I'd say the one thing that will not happen is that the mix wouldn't change, although it wouldn't necessary be a unidirectional Michael Jackson whitening. Maybe Seuss's Sneetches are one possible outcome.

TStockmann said...

Oh, and I thought this element of R.A. MacAvoy's Third Eagle to be one of the more unpleasantly challenging sf meditations on race. She's from your neck of the woods, yes?

James Killus said...

There was a short-lived TV show called "Frank's Place" in the late 1980s, featuring Tim Reid (Venus Flytrap from "WKRP in Cincinatti") as a man who inherits a bar in New Orleans. In one episode he is invited to join the "Brown Paper Bag Club," which turns out to be a club for African-American professions, previously restricted to "light skinned blacks" (they had to be lighter than a "brown paper bag"). Frank realizes that he has been invited to break the color barrier -- in a black club. He refuses the membership, saying "all my life I've been the 'first black man' in this or that organization; I'm damned if I'll be the first black man in a black club."

I haven't read that one of MacAvoy's so I can't comment.