Fantasizing History: Sleepy Hollow, White Redemption, and Literally Empowering Brown Folk

In a recent editorial in The New York Times, A.O. Scott took a few race-centric blockbusters, like The Help and Django Unchained to task, or rather to uncomfortable truths. But not for the reasons one might think.

What Scott pointed out was that these films offer a sense of redemption for white consumers, who attend them out of a sense of duty to acknowledge the very real horrors of slavery and the civil rights era. And in the theater, when the helpful white good guy throws caution to the wind to help their fellow suffering blacks, they can mourn that distant past, identify themselves with this mythic hero, and shame and hate the carcicature-d evil racists, leaving the theater with a relief that such horrors are a thing of a dark and incomprehensible past and that they themselves are morally well-adjusted in an era where race is no longer such a pressing issue.

This pop culture distancing, he argues, is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the conversation about race we’re (not) having in this country.

And he’s right. There are examples everywhere. One recent and hit-you-over-the-head example can be found in the (fun and awesome) TV show Sleepy Hollow.  Created by a bunch of white guys, the show has achieved strides in television history simply in the casting of the show, which features not just a Black female lead (basically unheard of in a supernatural TV series), but a whole host of frequently appearing black and brown faces, and all while actively shutting down racial stereotypes. It’s dope, and it makes one really really like this particular bunch of white guys.

But funny enough the one stereotype that remains is actually smeared all over the show’s side-kick white guy (Seriously. Love. It.) Ichabod Crane, who is basically a progressive white apologist and history revisionist.

Of course, the entire show is a fantastical re-imagining of history as one big shit-show fight-to-the-death with…well, Death and his demon friends. But the particulars of what gets revised is telling.

Ichy getting chummy with his "Mohawk friends"
Ichy getting chummy with his “Mohawk friends” during the war.

Like when Crane gets all “no way!” about the genocide of Native Americans: “What?! The Native Americans were decimated? But they were my friends! We fought alongside them against the evil Brits.” This is true to an extent. Many Native peoples fought alongside the Patriot soldiers, but just as many were siding with the Brits in hopes that a British victory would choke the steady stream of colonists stealing Native lands…

At first, one is inclined to scoff at Crane’s role as adorable white guilt assuager. But actually, in a fantasy television series, alongside historical revisions that place the headless horseman in the Revolutionary War, is the only place such shenanigans belong.

Black Americans have been using fantasy and science fiction to rewrite history and write new Conde’s novel takes Tituba out of obscurity and writes her prominently into history, from her youth in Barbados to meeting Hester Prynne, to her escape from being burned as a witch.  Not only that, but she removes the yoke of victim-hood that stalks Black history and endows Tituba with supernatural powers as well.futures quite some time.  One great example is Maryse Conde’s historical fiction novel I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salemwhich draws on the true story of a Black woman who was the first to be accused of being a witch before the Salem Witch Trials got all epic and bloody.  But beyond the fact that she was accused and managed to escape with her flesh intact, we know little else about her.

But what’s the point of such fantasizing? Well Conde’s novel is certainly a metaphorical reclamation of history and it spreads awareness of the fact that Black people were there too.  It’s also a feel-good book (despite all of it’s sadness) for Black readers, because it puts brown faces in histories that we’ve learned had little to do with us.  We root for the hero hard between the tears. Many non-fictional scholarly books do this for other eras and events.

(At this point, can’t help but give a shout-out to this dope Tumblr Medieval POC that aims to debunk the myth that Black people weren’t around in Medieval Europe).

But it’s in the fantastical revisionings that Kindred‘s Dana Franklin gets to kill the white guy who owned her ancestors, or where Harriet Tubman gets to be a pants-wearing steampunk spy, psychic, and freedom fighter.

This gets at the very definition of fantasy for fans — it’s where we can go to utterly escape reality, that includes white guilt. There Black people can turn to fantasy to empower their history literally by imagining superpowers into the hands of their ancestors or just knock-around the mastuh. And white folk can turn to fantasy to pretend it was evil vampires who were the slave owners or make friendlies between the colonists and Native American communities.

cover of Balogun Ojetade’s “Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman”

Now, revisions that cleanse whites of historical wrongs are problematic in movies like The Help, where they masquerade as possible truths, because they further obscure the real historical truths that are already obfuscated by incomplete or non-existent records, the dehumanization of whole groups of people, essentially by the white power structures that write history.  And they deny the role of the marginalized peoples of the world in history as anything other than victims.

However, when such revisions appear in the context of ridiculous story lines like those of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Sleepy Hollow it’s basically an admission that notions of the white power structure forged by our messed up history can be warm-fuzzied away are just as ridiculous as an acrobatic axe-wielding Abe Lincoln Matrix-style dodging a horse thrown at him by an angry racist vampire.

So, I roll my eyes a little at the adorable need for such white guilt cuddlies, but I ain’t mad. It’s happening in exactly the right place, right before some other absurd ridiculosity goes down.

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4 thoughts on “Fantasizing History: Sleepy Hollow, White Redemption, and Literally Empowering Brown Folk”

  1. great post. i’ve blogged a bit about Ichabod Crane’s “exceptional white man” of the 18th century in this show–enlightened abolitionist and now friends to indigenous peoples. meanwhile, George Washington and the American Revolution aren’t just made more noble–they are also part of a divine force against a British and German Satanic cabal. over-patriotism much? what of those tens of thousands of slaves who ran to the British lines after Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation? who hunkered with the British in New York, causing Washington to post guards to make sure that none of the “property” escaped? or the black slaves who ended up being recruited by Hessian mercenaries? certainly the British were no saints (at the time leading the slave trade, and they were less than forthcoming, disastrously so, in keeping their promises to slave refugees); but in their tactical aims to disrupt the rebelling colonists, they provided an outlet for slaves seeking freedom, and gave us figures like Colonel Tye and groups like the Queen’s Ethiopian Regiment, who had “Liberty to Slaves” sewn onto their coats. in Sleepy Hollow however, Washington and the colonists are practically Saints, and Ichabod Crane is the most “exceptional” of exceptional white men from the 18th century. Abbey Mill’s ancestors might just beg to differ…

  2. Thanks! Seriously, the show and especially Crane are pretty dramatic examples of the white guilt absolution fantasy. It’s particularly ironic to see such a dramatic example next to the long overdue step of a strongly minority leading cast in a sci-fi/supernatural show. Honestly, watching it feels like nausea-mixed warm fuzzies– yay! black female hero! Oh wait, here comes another absurd (and yes insulting) absolutionist revision of history… sigh. I’m certainly not blind to the insult of such revision and would of course prefer it not be there at all, but there is some part of me that is enormously entertained by the desperation for absolution that makes white creators/audiences willing to put their fantastical hopes for redemption in the same boat as ludicrous revisions like British headless horsemen and evil vampire racists. Thanks for reading and for the interesting info! Adore your work.

  3. fair point! perhaps all this need to assuage white guilt through the fantastic/absurd is in part from PoC and marginilized groups forcing the issue(s). and i suppose that is a victory, of sorts. tho’ while some of us aren’t so blind to these revisions, I’m often concerned with how many (of all backgrounds) are not, and wonder if this hyper-patriotic and whitewashing (literally) of the American Revolution doesn’t simply reinforce false conclusions of our national past. as we saw with Abraham Lincoln, this can be done with or *without* vampires. interesting in your article that you note all the writers for the show are white; i wonder how PoC writers might have approached this entire affair, and dealt with the thorny issues of difference, slavery, hypocrises of liberty, etc. in America’s founding. but i suppose until they diversify behind the scenes as much as they do in front of the camera, that’s why the rest of us have blogs! lol keep up the good work.

  4. So many great points! I imagine/hope that the other side of the screen will get a lot browner as active/open geek circles get browner. If so NYCC this year makes it look a lot more promising, so many geeks of color! And two panels specifically about bring POC & geek. Thanks for the awesome dialogue on this!

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