Red and Yellow, Black and White

Race is a topic that pops up time and time again in Princess of Mars, in subtle—and sometimes not-so-subtle—ways.  (Well, not to mention sexism, a topic certainly worthy of its own post.)

This latest chapter, “With Dejah Thoris”, is perhaps another interesting look into the mind of our hero, John Carter, and subsequently the author, Edgar Rice Burroughs … if we use the topic of race as our lens.

It has already been established that there are at least two major sentient races on Barsoom: the “barbaric” green Tharks, and the “civilized” red Martians.

A podcast listener pointed out to me that, in chapter one, Carter could not distinguish the culture of the Tharkian horde from that of the Apache tribe that killed his friend, James K. Powell, and that had pursued Carter to the mouth of the cave.  In so doing, Carter paints both groups as savage and violent, killing for pleasure, and having little regard for human life.  He further describes the the Tharks as deadly scavengers that plunder what provisions they cannot otherwise manufacture themselves by attacking innocent civilians.

In contrast to this are the red-skinned race of human-like Martians.  The princess Dejah Thoris explains to John Carter the scientific innovations that her race has made to allow life to survive on their dying planet.  When her convoy was attacked by the Tharks, they were in the midst of conducting scientific test on atmospheric density.  Later in chapter 11, she tells Carter that they have instruments that can observe in great detail any world they wish, because they are simply “hanging in the heavens in plain sight”.

But, according to Dejah Thoris, the red and green races haven’t always been the only ones populating Barsoom.  In chapter 11, we are also introduced to three others, existing 100,000 years prior to the events in A Princess of Mars.  One is a community of “fair-skinned” (presumably white) people, which Carter notes are very similar to himself in appearance, judging from the artwork he sees on the walls of his quarters.  The second is a race of reddish-yellow Martians, which at this point are little-described.  Third, and perhaps most notably, he mentions a people with black skin, counting them among the three great races of old.

These three distinct ethnic groups are forced to inter-marry as a means of survival due to the deteriorating conditions of their planet.  After many millennia in interbreeding, the race of red Martians gradually forms: Dejah Thoris’ progenitors.

When this story was written, in 1912, race was very much (and still is) a contentious issue in America and elsewhere in the world.  The concept of races intermarrying was completely unheard of.  Only in 1967 did the Supreme Court of the United States decide that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.  But the law of the land doesn’t necessarily change the minds of all its people.  The children of interracial parents are bullied about their race by the people who fear the so-called “beige-ing of America”—a fear that a non-white majority will rise to power and marginalize what was once the former majority, until the white race disappears under the waves of a sea of interbreeding.

Was any of this playing in John Carter’s mind?  Let’s take a moment to recall his origins.  In the beginning of chapter one, he unapologetically introduces himself as a captain in the army of the Confederate States of America—a government which formed as a direct result of the election of a new, anti-slavery Republican party to office.  When the southern slave states were defeated in the Civil War, John Carter curiously seems to accept the defeat in stride.  He re-architects his life by moving out west with his buddy Powell (another Confederate soldier), in a search for gold to replace all their worthless Confederate dollars.

Due to his political and military affiliations, it’s probably a foregone conclusion that John Carter, a Virginian, was pro-slavery and therefore had a strong opinion about the equality of the races.  Despite that (or because of it), he chronicles in his memoirs the topic of the “great races” of Mars in clear detail, rather than omitting it entirely.  He states in very blunt terms that these races needed to align and combine for the survival of all involved, and makes no opinion on the matter one way or another.

But perhaps the most intriguing fact of all is that he—a Confederate officer of a pro-slavery nation—has no hesitations or moral issues about falling in love with someone who is the descendent of many races (including, interestingly, the black race of Barsoom).  Rather, she is someone with whom he ascribes Earthly, womanly traits … traits that are achingly familiar to him.

If John Carter felt this way in the context of the story, I wonder what Edgar Rice Burroughs thought of the whole thing.  In the recorded forward to this novel, I consciously omitted a line written by the fictional “Edgar Rice Burroughs”: “We all loved [Captain Carter], and our slaves fairly worshipped the ground he trod.”  I omitted this line because I felt that it really had no place in the story, and I was uncomfortable reading it.  Besides, chronologically, this fictional Burroughs’ life existed well before the actual life of the real author.

Was “Edgar Rice Burroughs” shocked by Captain Carter’s memoirs and admittances?  Was the real Edgar Rice Burroughs poking at his own internal prejudices?  Is his opinion even reflected in this story?  It’s all very interesting to me.

One comment

  1. Russell Bynum says:

    Like most people, it would seem that Carter adjusts to the situations they are placed in. The change in Carter from slave owner to Red-Skinned lover is not too striking. It really depends on what was meant by the color of Dejah’s skin. Red like Native Americans? If so, then despite what he thinks of the natives that killed his comrade, and the subsequent parallels he draws (antically) with the Thark, it seems personality and social standards play perhaps a more important role than skin color. True, this would not excuse his pro-slavery stance, but it might put a new spin on it.

    As Lovecraft (both the man and his works) shows, over time people change to changing conditions in their lives and societies. Even when there is little change, personal interaction plays a big part in how the “otherness” of others are perceived. In “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, there is a black couple who live in the former home of young Ward’s wizard progenitor. These people are repeatedly spoken of with respect and general positive attributes and even treated well despite other more typically Lovecraftian racial digs common to his work at the time of its writing. These people were in fact based on an actual couple Lovecraft knew and had high esteem for.

    This said, Lovecraft is often critiqued for his often blatant racism, personified in “The Horror at Redhook”. Overtime, however, his views did change. Towards the end of his life, with the last of his major work “The Haunter of the Dark” shows little to no racism in describing the actions and habits of the Italians who sense the lurking evil that the young Blake accidentally summons. We see a more concrete parallel with Lovecraft’s (albeit short-lived) marriage to Jewish woman. What is strange though out his works is, while his descriptions of degenerates, decedents, and foreigners are rather crude at time, more often they seem to hold the key to many of the mysteries and are spot on to what is really happening despite the ignorance of the main characters. Curious how this bolsters a positive aspect to these otherwise disliked literary extras.

    Bringing this all back to Carter and Burroughs, I cannot say how the author felt in relation to his character, but as for Carter himself, it would seem a case of society verses getting to know people. In his Confederate society, it is the norm and acceptable to own slaves. We could be generous and say that the omitted line you reference was not whitewashing but perhaps only exaggerated and meant to say that he a good master to his slaves; that is, he was not as inhumane (now theres a biased word!) as other slave owners. Regardless, there was very little reason for him to think otherwise of his slaves since he grew up fully in the mentality of his home region.

    Then he gets thrown into a hostile world of the American west. Racial stereotypes are still a big part of how he sees the world. He likely has not heard good things about the Native Americans and assuming that the portrayal of the Indians was technically accurate for a small slice of the tribe’s life, he biases seem merely to be reinforced. Then he gets thrown into Mars, and everything gets turned upside down. At first, he can see no difference between the “savage natives” of either planet. Yet, over time, forced to see life through their eyes, and with no social influence to maintain his biases as their peek level, they slowly gives the Tharks more and more credit, despite some of the (to him) unaccountable social norms of the green people.

    Then he meet someone who looks very much like himself. She has all the aspects that spark his interest, and especially after being isolated from a world you knew and loved after its defeat and destruction and living already for a while in a foreign and hostile land before his advent on Mars, Carter latches onto what he sees as the closest thing to normality that he can find. Her society peak his interest as well, and more conform to his own ideals. Suddenly, we see that skin color has less to do with a lot of his (modern) shortcoming and something more to do with social influences and personal interaction. While his personal biases will take longer to change, if ever, it is clear to me that skin to him, and likely to the subject generally, comes as a overly simplified shortcut to distinguish the outsider most likely to have certain undesired social traits.

    All this simply means that Carter’s swoon over a Red Martian… err, Barsoomian is only natural since a more akin body type mixed with other akin social aspects makes for a rather attractive proposition. If Dejah’s people were more like the savages and the Tharks more like the civilized culture, it might have been more impressive on Burroughs’s part and then Carter’s reactions would be more informative on how he and his creator saw these topics. Granted, there are man instances where Lovecraft seems to show great self-criticque on his own biases will otherwise maintaining them in the same story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *