Question the Narrative Revisited — Perspective and Nuance
Yesterday, I saw that Netflix was making a new series based from Altered Carbon, a novel by white British author Richard Morgan. That novel was my introduction to cyber punk. A friend, who I no longer trust to recommend books to me, was the one who put the book on my radar. This was back in 2006–2007 and I remember because I bought Morgan’s next novel, Th1rte3n, in hardcover — something I rarely did back then.
Altered Carbon fascinated me. The idea of being uploaded into different bodies and living my life with shifting identities was, for lack of a better word, cool. And the protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, was a super-soldier so I was down with that. I bought Th1rte3n seeking the same kind of futuristic badassery that I like in my action novels. I don’t remember much of the book, as I used to mindlessly read, looking to immerse myself into any reality other than my own. I didn’t look at the authors. I didn’t think about the social, political, gender, or sexual oppressions that are a constant backdrop to published narratives. I just wanted an escape and Th1rte3nprovided that.
Fast forward to yesterday. I watched the trailer for Altered Carbon and at first, I was excited. I remember liking the book, even if I don’t remember it well. Then, as I’m watching the trailer about a future where you can exist in any body, I realize the main character is a white man. Even in a future of everybody, where you can live as anybody, you still end up seeing the story of a white, male body. This was something that wouldn’t have clicked with me 10 years ago. It wouldn’t have crossed my mind. But since then my perspective has grown. I am less numb to racism and less forgiving of its benefactors. I am a lot more careful with who and what I choose to read, and if I see something problematic in what I’m reading/watching/listening to, I make note of it and examine it. And when I fuck up, I learn from it.
That’s why, when I saw the trailer for Altered Carbon, I decided to take a closer look at this author whose work I’d read a decade ago. That’s when I learned that Th1rte3n was a giant racist trope that I was too ignorant to recognize. In all honesty, what really clued me in was when I searched for the book, by the author’s name, I kept finding a book called Black Man with the cover I recognized as Th1rte3n. The book is about the big, scary Black man, the physical embodiment of white fear. The protagonist, Carl Marsalis is “one of a new breed. Literally. Genetically engineered by the U.S. government to embody the naked aggression and primal survival skills that centuries of civilization have erased from humankind, Thirteens were intended to be the ultimate military fighting force.”
The book was renamed Th1rte3n for the U.S., which is how this racist nonsense slipped under my, admittedly, underdeveloped white nonsense radar. It’s an intentional choice to make the protagonist Black. It’s an intentional choice to make him a “genetic throwback” to humanity’s violent tendencies. Is it a commentary on identity politics? Do we spend this book learning to accept this man’s humanity? Is that a narrative a white man can address in any meaningful way?
Well, if it’s possible, Morgan didn’t do it.
And to be honest, it’s been so long since I read any of Morgan’s books that I don’t even care. What I do care about is that I didn’t question it back then. It didn’t even register as remotely problematic back then. And while I am ashamed of that, it’s also part of this journey. Seeing how we grow and how we start making decisions about how we interact with the world is additional evidence that we are no longer the same person we were 5, 10, 20 years ago. In this part of my journey, I want to be aware of how media is influencing me, including my perceptions of myself. Reading this book starring a Black protagonist described as a violent, aggressive, genetic throwback isn’t something I’m interested in at this time in my life. The cyberpunk version of humanizing the Other through the eyes of whiteness is not the narrative I want to read and where Th1rte3n is the Black version, Altered Carbon seems to be the Asian version of the same type of narrative.
There are people out there who will enjoy this story, and that’s cool. But question it. Question the author. Question casting. Question the director. Why this book? Why this story? Why does identity matter and why so many stories seem to be about white men? Why are stories about Black people fixed on our aggression, violence, and rage and why does our humanity always seem to be in question?
You need to ask yourself why this is important, and you need to ask yourself how to can change it.
Even now, I’m still learning how to challenge these “norms” and understand the layers of anti-Blackness that may seem like a positive, but really feed us the same anti-Black bullshit. Or sexist bullshit. Or racist bullshit. And I do this by listening, learning, and challenging my beliefs.
I learn this by questioning the narrative.
Originally published at talynnkel.com.