Arts preview: 'Stephen King's Magical Negroes'

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive
Scott Woods

You get the sense Scott Woods discusses his 2015 essay “Stephen King's Magical Negroes,” written for Union Station magazine, with a bit of disappointment.

The essay, which Woods has updated and will present segments of in a lecture at Kafe Kerouac on Thursday, Sept. 28, examines King's predisposition for using black characters in narrowly defined fashion some might construe as racist.

“I was raised on Stephen King,” Woods said in a recent phone interview. “I devoured King as a teen. I don't remember the book exactly, but I remember… a point where I was like, ‘Does he use the n-word in everything?' That was my first step into the issue. That was before I got into the ‘magical negro' thing. It got to the point where I said, ‘I don't think this is a characterization any more. This is a problem.'”

The magical negro is a literary trope, Woods said, where black characters are often imbued with supernatural abilities, noting King created “the most sterling example” in John Coffey from “The Green Mile.”

“It's as if [King] said, ‘Oh, you think I have a problem?” Woods said. “I'll show you what a problem is.'”

Woods said he doesn't require realistic depictions of black characters in works of fiction. (The notion of whether white writers can realistically render non-white characters is a separate topic, Woods, said, and one that he hopes to delve into more in the future.) But that King, perhaps the most famous living writer, seems to have issues with race is something Woods, who maintains he's still a fan, can't ignore.

“If a black person shows up in a King novel they stand a 50 percent chance of possessing a supernatural ability,” Woods wrote in his essay forUnion Station. “Yet there is a 99 percent chance that whatever black character appears, be they magical or not, their presence will serve only to enhance, advance, save or develop white characters.”

“I don't need you to create realistic black characters. I need you to create a black character that doesn't make me hate myself, or make people believe that's how black people are,” Woods said.

“If you lived in 1920, when we were desperate for any cultural representation, it's fine. But in 2017, it doesn't hold up. We can do better than this. He's better than this. But his reality may not allow for that,” Woods continued. “That he's been doing this for 70 years is straight madness. … At some point it becomes, ‘Are you creating offensive art or are you just offensive?'”

The presentation is the inaugural program of Woods' newly formed Streetlight Guild, a banner under which he will present a wide variety of artistic endeavors, not only his own.

“I had [‘Magical Negroes'] planned, and it would have happened anyway, but as I started to develop the Streetlight Guild thing … it was the kind of programming I want the Guild to do,” Woods said.

Kafe Kerouac

8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 28

2250 N. High St., North Campus