In The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas quotes Toni Morrisson’s essay Playing in the Dark: “ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous liberal gesture. To notice is to recognize an already discredited difference” (p. 29). Dread Nation, a YA novel from Justina Ireland that is a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and won the Locus Award for best YA novel of 2018, demonstrates why noticing, rather than ignoring, race is essential to truth-telling in fantasy.
We are fortunate not only that the machinery of publishing selected this zombie novel by and about a black woman for publication, but also for critics from this century and the last who can make clear why Dread Nation is such an effective response to the overwhelming Whiteness of speculative fiction.
The central character of Ireland’s novel, Jane McKeen, is a black woman living outside Baltimore in the years after the Civil War. In her world, the war’s resolution was interrupted by zombies rising after the battle of Gettysburg. The dead in Dread Nation often return, and their bites infect others. In Dread Nation as in our world, the South was shattered, and slavery outlawed, at least in theory; but Dread Nation diverges by making some key moments, like Sherman’s March to the Sea, a battle against zombies rather than Confederate soldiers.
Jane isn’t living through a world where the South is occupied, and resisting that occupation. Instead, Black and Native American youths are drafted into combat schools to fight the zombies. A few eastern cities, including Baltimore, are mostly secure, while elsewhere farmers and others do the best they can, stringing barbed wire around whatever plots of land they seek to hold. Soon after a demonstration of the science of zombies goes spectacularly wrong, Jane finds herself packed off to Summerland, a new Utopia being built in the midst of the midwest, but with the same need for defenders to guard the White residents for whom the community is actually intended as a Utopia.
One of the ways that Jane complicates the tropes of speculative fiction is by acting as both the protagonist and (by virtue of being a black woman in nineteenth-century America), the Other. Thomas notes that:
The fantastic has need of darkness, for these innocent “stories about stories” require both heroes and villains, fair princesses and evil crones, valiant steed and nightmarish beasts. It needs the Dark Other as its source of hesitation, the very spectacle that causes the heart to skip in fear. It desires the Dark Other’s violent end in a form of ritual sacrifice, purging the very source of the darkness and righting the wrongs of the world before returning to haunt the happy ending … The Dark Other is the engine that drives the fantastic. (p. 24-25)
In Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction, André Carrington draws on Samuel Delaney to remind us that the purpose of categorization is “precisely so that some values can circulate across it, and others can be stopped by it” (Speculative Blackness [p. 6]). By acting as both the Other and the Protagonist, Jane highlights the values of Summerland, and reminds us that every Utopia is also a dystopia for some of its inhabitants.
At the margins of Dread Nation, then, there are more traditional speculative fiction stories, ones that do not center Jane, treat her as a full human with a realized identity, and instead make her just the Other, existing to provide a threat and enforce the boundaries of proper behavior. But the primary storyline of Dread Nation does center Jane. Embedded at the beginning of each chapter in Dread Nation are letters between Jane and her beloved mother in far-off Rose Hill, the farm where she grew up. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Jane was loved at Rose Hill, but also followed the cycle laid out as the pattern of engagement by Thomas: at her birth, the midwife hesitated in surprise at seeing an obviously Black child; at various moments in her childhood, being both the daughter of the lady of the farm and also black made her a spectacle, which in turn made her the target of violence more than once; and, after the violence, it seems from the letters that neither Jane nor her mother can truly leave behind the idyllic period when Jane lived at Rose Hill—and Thomas tells us that the Dark Other often returns to haunt the people and places where she appeared. The fortunate Others may also find that at the end of their stories they are finally emancipated, and indeed Jane at Ms. Preston’s combat school does seem to have left behind the place where she began. In this way—as she is brought to Summerland and makes her way in this dangerous Utopia—the cycle of the Dark Other that Thomas identifies does not replay itself.
W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk was written around the time at which Dread Nation’s alternate history takes place. “The Negro is a sort of seventh son,” he wrote, “born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (p. 2). When Jane goes to a demonstration in Baltimore, we see this phenomenon in action. The scientist presenting his research on zombies begins by rehashing nineteenth-century notions that Indigenous and Black Americans are resistant to the plague because they are less evolved races, then presents a proposed vaccination based on Pasteur’s work vaccinating livestock. Jane’s companion is disgusted, but also continues to trust the scientist’s explanation of a dangerous experiment:
“‘If Professor Ghering says—“
“Professor Ghering just said you ain’t much more than livestock. You really gonna put faith in that man’s words?”
That shut her up. (p.77)
Later, Jane and her companion arrive in Summerland, where their racial identities must be determined.
Mr. Gideon nods. ”Well, phrenologists claim we can identify someone’s character and racial derivation by measuring the skull.” He goes to a drawer and pulls out a set of calipers.
I cough to cover my laughter. I’d been thinking Mr. Gideon was a fair sight smarter than the typical fellow in this place, but if he believes that he can tell anything by the size of someone’s head, he’s just as daft as the rest of them.
He shakes his head. “I don’t believe in phrenology at all. It’s easily disproven, the pet hobby of bigots … it doesn’t matter what I think. Pastor Snyder is the Sheriff’s father, and the real power in town. The preacher makes the final decision on all matters. These numbers are for him.” (pp. 217-218)
Jane (and the reader) can here perceive both Jane-the-character on her own terms and also Jane-the-Black–woman-observed-by–White-America. Later in the book, Professor Ghering’s obsession with the idea that Black people might be resistant to the zombie plague becomes more clear. “They got loopholes in that there Thirteenth Amendment. If you’ve been bitten by a shambler, the amendment says you’re no longer human, even if you haven’t turned yet, which means you don’t have rights as a person anymore. And there’s a reward for capturing bit Negroes, since everyone is convinced we’re immune” (p. 243).
Throughout the novel, expanding on DuBois’s notion of double-consciousness, and the ability of “The Other” to define (or blur) boundaries, Ireland highlights the ways in which race is continually constructed and reconstructed with each new generation. This blurring is most obvious at the edges of racial boundaries, but appears elsewhere in Dread Nation. The narrative we have constructed of the Civil War is northern victory and occupation, followed later by the era of reconstruction and then southern “redemption.” In Jane McKeen’s world, the Thirteenth Amendment may have been passed, but there is no easy closure. The war itself is most often called the war of northern aggression, indicating that southern myth-making has already begun. The southern states most affected by the zombie plague are just “the lost states,” where enclaves here and there may survive, but no northern occupation has ever been able to take hold.
Race in Dread Nation is as malleable, then, as it is in our world, but the fuzziness of racial boundaries are highlighted in the way that Toni Morisson’s graceful and generous liberal (white) author could never show. Taking advantage of how these blurred boundaries allow the reader to view the character, and the white gaze observing the character, Ireland uses a similar technique to show us both the aftermath of the Civil War and the narratives that spring up around the war.
Early in The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois addressed the central question that White America directs towards Black Americans: “how does it feel to be a problem?” For himself, DuBois relates the first time he realized that he was Black in White america, and his Blackness marked him as the Other, and as a problem. Late in Dread Nation, Jane McKeen relates her own story of the first realization that she was a problem. “I loved her even after that, but I knew better than to trust her the way I had before. She was like a dog that had bitten me, and you only need to be bitten once” (p. 397). The alternate history of Dread Nation does not change the truth of race relations at the core of America, and Jane’s experiences illustrate the theory that DuBois articulated.
It is common in the overwhelmingly white genre of speculative fiction for race to be an allegory: Star Trek’s aliens overwhelming defined by the unifying characteristic of their race, the twisted orcs and noble elves of Middle-Earth, or the strict characteristic modifiers of D&D races. In Dread Nation, there is no need for race to be an allegory; it’s simply the historical reality of the genre. By skipping the generous liberal gesture, Ireland’s characters can be fully realized, rather than exemplars of a handful of stereotypes. Black people in Dread Nation can be brave or cowardly, proud or humble, troublemakers or sycophants, and so can whites. Rather than imagining that everyone lives together because they’re all from the same planet or town, Jane can learn that one of the women where she’s staying knows how to braid hair, and the two can bond over this ritual, which is tied to race and upbringing without being the universal experience of all black people.
Dread Nation succeeds on a number of levels. It is a well-paced mystery and adventure, with engaging characters. On multiple occasions, the book distills difficult truths to a short passage: once, when Jane challenges another woman about whether “helping a Negro girl” is going to scrub clean the stains on her soul, the woman responds: “I think being the kindest person I have the wherewithal to be is going to do that” (p. 330); later, Jane thinks “It seems strange that in these very fraught time folks would be more concerned about hardworking people trying to find a better life than the monsters that actually want to eat them” (p. 360). Here and elsewhere, Dread Nation is taking advantage of the speculative fiction setting to tell truths about our own world. As a book by and about a black woman, it responds (brilliantly) to the “problem” DuBois spoke of in being Black in a field defined by Whiteness. I could wish that the Carlisle Indian school, and the role of Native Americans generally, was more fleshed out (the school is discussed in an author’s note), and there are times at which the dangers of the villains seem more calibrated to set up a particular scene rather than be organic to the characters, but these are small quibbles. Dread Nation is an excellent book, deserving of the award nominations it has received, and we are fortunate to have both the book and indeed the critical infrastructure available to appreciate it.