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My Inspiration: Black Canaan

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 | Posted by Elwin Cotman

Black Canaan-small

He was clad in ragged trousers, but on his head was a band of beaten gold set with a huge red jewel, and on his feet were barbaric sandals. His features reflected titanic vitality no less than his huge body. But he was all Negro — flaring nostrils, thick lips, ebony skin. I knew I looked upon Saul Stark, the conjer man.
— “Black Canaan,” by Robert E. Howard

A poor man, a black man, but still a king. A king with a realm he carved out himself.

In my first story collection, The Jack Daniels Sessions EP, there is a novella about a young boy who sees dead people. Very original, I know. The gist is that he has shamanist powers that have lain dormant in his genes. At one point, he is told a story about a plantation shaman who empowered the slaves with his magic, enabling them to sabotage the farm. There is also a legend about runaways joining up with Indians in the swamp, my own riff on the Black Seminoles. The boy’s exposure to his African roots is an uncomfortable one for him, sometimes physically so, as it is a part of his lineage he had no awareness of.

The episodes of slave revolt are based on history. It was also history I had to seek out myself. The teaching of black history in schools is such an insidious con job, it angers me to write about it. Fifty years ago, there were downtrodden blacks, then good white people passed laws and they could sit at a lunch counter. One hundred and forty-six years ago, there were slaves, then good white people passed a law and they were free. (Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot that slavery ended 500 years ago, or 600, or whatever it is now.)

The most we learned about slavery in elementary school was the cakewalk, and that as a form of cornpone entertainment, not the satire on whites that it was. American history classes largely leave out the stories of blacks’ role in their own liberation. They also leave out any information on Africa, continuing the stereotype of the continent as a savage place, not the fertile land of kingdoms it was prior to colonization.

Ironically, one of my earliest introductions to black liberation was a story by someone decried as a racist, Robert E. Howard’s “Black Canaan.”

Whether Howard was racist is besides any point I’m making. And it only comes up when fans of his want to defend his legacy by claiming he wasn’t. His personal politics neither add nor detract from the quality of his writing. One only need read “Vale of Lost Women” to see he was a product of his time. Yet his approach to race was always a bit more nuanced than, say, that of his BFF H.P. Lovecraft. I always loved that Solomon Kane had a compatriot in the African shaman N’Longa. And part of what makes “Pigeons from Hell” so horrifying is that the monster is a remnant of the slave aristocracy.

It is a shame Howard did not write more works based in the South, as he had an understanding of the culture that was unique among pulp writers. “Black Canaan” was probably the first piece I ever read in which characters embrace the African as a source of power and African culture is used as a weapon against oppression. It had a strong effect on me as a writer, and spurred me to seek out real stories of black revolt.

HowardI remember a Black Gate article from John O’Neill about how, in his younger days, he avoided anything with barbarians on the cover.  I was different. The easiest way to sell something to me was to slap a half-naked bodybuilder on it, preferably with a weird-looking sword, some jewelry, maybe a big red-bearded Viking or two. That’s how I was grabbed, at the age of nine, by Savage Sword of Conan #197, “A Night in Messantia.” (It was about Conan’s time with the Barachan pirates. Great story arc.) From there, I ran the steppes with Conan and Subotai. I flew on pterodactyls with Taarna. I even hunted the future with Yor. All these adaptations and knockoffs eventually brought me to the original Conan, or as close as you could get with the Lancer editions. After his sword and sorcery, I discovered Howard’s horror work, “Black Canaan” being among the best.

Published in 1936, “Black Canaan” is about the colonist’s fear of those he oppresses. It is also intensely well-made story, tightly plotted, fast-moving, atmospheric, and features the intoxicating lyricism that marked Howard’s best work  The story deals with the same anxieties as “Beyond the Black River,” but gets rid of the fantasy world artifice and places it in the Deep South. Standard-issue Howardian hero Kirby Buckner is called from New Orleans to his home of Canaan, somewhere on the Texas/Arkansas/Louisiana border, to help suppress a black uprising. The leader of this uprising is Saul Stark, a ju-ju man from South Carolina. There is much talk of the “town” blacks, who are easygoing folk, but Saul is organizing the “swamp” blacks, who are not so cowed.

I’ll pause there. One thing I find interesting about the piece is how drenched it is in Jim Crow mindset. Kirby Buckner is filled with almost paternalist affection for the “town” blacks, a.k.a. the ones who won’t complain or give whites a bit of sass. The unspoken truth is that they’re “good” out of fear of being lynched. The local whites fear that Saul Stark has been corrupting the more mysterious swamp-dwellers; the unspoken fear is that the town-dwellers might also adopt this uppity attitude. Plenty of Howard’s stories feature racist protagonists, and child-like blacks under the sway of charismatic leaders. But here it is not in a pseudo-historical world, but America itself, and there is a palpable fear of black agency embedded even in the language.

Miskatonic University Press Weird Tales compendiumAt one point, Buckner recalls “a ghastly tale told us by our grandfathers of how a punitive expedition from Grimesville was once ambushed and butchered among the dense thickets that masked Goshen.” Whites run the whole state, but fear the swamps at the edge of their towns. Their actions are spurred by fear of an age-old slave uprising from their grandfathers’ time, never mind that the blacks they rule are no longer slaves. “The blacks had risen in 1845, and the red terror of that revolt was not forgotten, nor the three lesser rebellions before it, when the slaves rose and spread fire and slaughter from Tularoosa to the shores of Black River. The fear of a black uprising lurked forever in the depths of that forgotten back-country; the very children absorbed it in their cradles.” It is to this hotbed of racism that Buckner comes, and in spite of his well-traveled lifestyle falls right in line with Southern racism, deciding to hunt Saul Stark. To this day, “Black Canaan” is one of the few (fictional) stories I’ve read where the hero leads a lynch mob.

This was fascinating to me as a child. I can think of no other pulp writer who pointedly captured the horrors of Southern culture. “Black Canaan” was a window to the minds of those who burnt down Greenville in Tulsa, and Rosewood, and East St. Louis.

That is what makes “Black Canaan” such an interesting story: Howard is aware of the hysteria that blackness causes to white supremacists. Buckner is one of his more pathetic heroes, constantly afraid of the shadows around him, and spends the last half of the story helpless at black femininity, as represented by the Bride of Damballah. Or, as Howard puts it, weakened by “the mesmerism in a brown woman’s eyes.” Running all through the narrative is the white man’s fear of black reprisal; for me, the most terrifying moment of this horror story is when the whites decide to whip a black prisoner. Their reversion to the slavemaster mentality is as perfunctory as it is brutal. This is a story about Jim Crow, from the height of Jim Crow.

Saul Stark and the Bride of Damballah were characters who I, as a child, had never encountered before. The Bride is a quadroon priestess who fits squarely into the Jezebel stereotype. She is “barbaric, in the open lure of her smile, in the gleam of her eyes, in the shameless posturing of her voluptuous body.” She comes from a long line of Howardian femme fatales, such as Tescala in “Red Nails.” The descriptions of her mirror Howard’s descriptions of the black female who mocks Livia in “Vale of Lost Women.” Her black femininity is both alluring and repulsive to Buckner. This goes hand in hand with the Jim Crow ideology, in which white men raped black women en masse, yet still justified oppressing them as a “separate species.”

The Moon of Skulls-smallBut what truly makes her interesting is the power she holds. She is the source of Saul Stark’s magic, and easily gains some of Buckner’s blood in order to manipulate him. She is the mastermind who drew him to Canaan. Unlike Nakari in “The Moon of Skulls,” this African queen is not interested in making the white conqueror her king. She wants to make Buckner her slave. Being descended from a tribal king, she represents the African, wearing “sea-shells that were never gathered on this continent” and African gold on her limbs. The Bride of Damballah, in her mocking and dancing, her control of men and spirits, is pretty cool.

In “Black Canaan,” Africa finds its way to America, in order to reestablish the glory that was lost. This notion of American blacks being able to reclaim the past, by creating a black kingdom, resonated with me. I still root for Saul Stark, even knowing he will die in the end. He is a powerful leader, a powerfully built man, and on top of it is intelligent. As one white man states, he is “a great big black devil that talks better English than I like to hear a nigger talk.” The savage black and the educated black, both white supremacist boogeymen, rolled into one. A more dimensional character than the child-like blacks in most colonial narratives. He is from the Carolinas, an area where many African traditions were maintained. On top of it, he practices voudoun, a religion maligned in America specifically because it is the most concrete example of African theology brought to this country.

Naturally, Buckner kills him and the racial order is restored. The charismatic, intelligent black man pays for trying to rise too high. But the fear of blackness remains. And I feel Howard was aware he was writing a story about hysterical racists. There is evidence of progressive thought in his writing. I think of the Picts, who are the quintessential oppressed minority in his stories, yet outlast all their oppressors. In “Black Canaan,” Howard mentions Atlantis having black kings. White supremacy is reasserted in the end, but it is on shaky ground. In the free-for-all of racism that the pulps allowed, Howard showed himself to be as contemplative as one of his heroes.

Revolution. Power. Reclaiming the past. From there, I sought to learn more about Denmark Vessey and Nat Turner. I read about the Haitian Revolution. I learned more on Harriett Tubman, who, in leading thirteen successful expeditions in and out the South, was as ninja as American historical figures get. And I asked myself, “What if oppressed blacks in Jim Crow did have powers? What would they do?” I thought about orisha worship as a space for liberation. Then I wrote my own story addressing these ideas. The storytelling I learned from Howard.

“Black Canaan” is one of the great Southern Gothics, and easy to find nowadays. Not an easy read, but an essential one.

5 Comments »

  1. Cool article! That’s one REH I haven’t got around to yet.

    I’m always amazed at the “Retro Hate” P.C. (Political Correctness) shouts backwards in time. Not meaning you, but that you mention REH and have to “Shield” yourself lest you be associated in a negative way is proof of that mentality. There’s some contradictions here that should be addressed.

    The first is that it is really interesting how “Cosmopolitan” racism, prejudice, bigotry are. A great fuel of the slave trade was that people from one tribe would hate the people next door every bit as much as any guy wearing a white pointy hat ever did.

    The second is that while the “Pulp” writers lived in different times and had to make stuff that would sell and be readable in said times, most of them were actually a bit “Liberal” or “Forward thinking” for their times. If they wrote something that would be totally acceptable in today’s horrid PC sludge pit, no way would they sell. They might even get rage and hatred.

    Case in point, anyone like Marvel’s “Blade”? He first appeared in the 70s “Tomb of Dracula” comics as a background character who soon became the main one. He was ahead in a lot of things, like being a “Dunpeal” aka “Vampyr” since a vampire had bit his mother while she was pregnant with him. (they’d relaxed the Comics Code but still had to be careful or I’m sure the vamp would have been his father) IMO he’s one of the inspirations for “Vampire Hunter D”.

    Well, I’m tempted to dig up some of those issues. Sadly all read to non-collector’s condition and already vandalized by an X by the shop owner. They were printed when I was being born or in tie dyed diapers, but by the time I’d aged enough to like comics they were in the 10 for a quarter bin so I bought them to have “More comics to read”…

    Heh, the letters page tended to go on for five pages and it was approaching how bad a modern flame war gets, minus “Tubgirl”, “Goatse” (1) postings and such. But the racism was toxic “I don’ wan thet Jungle Bunny COON like Blade doin nothin’ more than shinin the wheelchair guys shoes. I cancel my subscription! Give me my money back!”

    1-my refs… IF you really don’t get them, look ’em up. Totally work safe and family friendly – IF said workplace is undergoing a post office style job complaint and said family is like that “Fifth Beatle” who ruined their “Helter Skelter” song…

    Comment by GreenGestalt - August 14, 2014 11:24 pm

  2. Elwin,
    Excellent article. I think you captured the mindset of that era very accurately. I liked your concept of Saul Stark. I came away with a different impression of the story though. I read the 1978 Berkeley version “Black Canaan” as well as a second version that was given to REH Foundation Legacy Circle members in 2010. In both cases, it was the swamp blacks who drew my compassion. Not only were they afraid of what whites could do to them, they were also terrified of Saul Stark who could turn them into something less than human that dwelt under the river waters. They were caught between two forces, both of which they feared. As I saw it, all they wanted to do was live in peace deep in the river swamp. The only place that was safe for them because no white man wanted to live there. Saul planned to kill all the white settlers and then use these swamp creatures to keep them out of Canaan. I was outraged that someone could do this to them—all because he wanted to be a king.

    Several things of note in “Black Canaan”: Kirby Buckner was warned by an old black woman in New Orleans about the trouble in Black Canaan. Also, he is stopped by The Bride on his way home and subsequently ambushed when she could not seduce him. Later when he goes out to warn the settlers in the outlying areas, she appears again. He asks her who Saul is and tells her the blacks were quiet until he came. She responds:

    “Those black dogs? They are his slaves. If they disobey he kills them, or puts them in the swamp. For long we have looked for a place to begin our rule. We have chosen Canaan. You whites must go and since we know that white people can never be driven away from their land, we must kill you all.”

    She tells him she has ensnared him with a blood ritual. He is in her power now and will come whenever she calls. Under her spell he heads toward the meeting place alone. He is joined by a friend who is later killed by one of the swamp creatures. Ultimately, she is the one with the power. Saul Stark cannot control the swamp blacks without her and it all falls apart.

    “Black Canaan” is a complicated tale. I agree with your statement that “In the free-for-all of racism that the pulps allowed, Howard showed himself to be as contemplative as one of his heroes.” And, Elwin, I think it goes even deeper than that. Below is a quote from the conclusion of my five part blog on the REH Two-Gun Raconteur website “Robert E. Howard and the Issue of Racism in His Poetry: The African and African-American Poems.”
    [Here is the link to part 1: [ http://rehtwogunraconteur.com/?p=15811 ]

    “Howard wrote over eight hundred poems. The thirty-two of them mentioning Africa and African-Americans were analyzed. Five of them contain offensive racial names. Miscegenation is mentioned in three and of those three, one contains a romantic setting. What’s probably even more revealing are the two or three poems such as the (“A haunting cadence fills the air.”) that acknowledge his own heritage as a black warrior in previous lives. In the majority of poems, like those regarding the Zulu King, Chaka, Howard speaks of his admiration for the African warriors and for Africa itself. In fact, the majority of his poems treat Africa, Africans, and African-Americans with respect and dignity.”

    I enjoyed your analysis of the story. Thanks for posting it.
    Barbara Barrett
    Robert E. Howard United Press Association [ http://www.rehupa.com/ ]

    Comment by Barbara Barrett - August 16, 2014 6:34 am

  3. First of all, it is rare that the fun stuff I write about for Black Gate intersects with anything going on in the real world. So I’m glad I got to post a piece about black insurrection during an insurrectionary time. Swamp blacks. Town blacks. Good blacks. Bad blacks. It’s been almost a hundred years since this story was published and the mainstream narrative hasn’t changed one iota.

    @GreenGestalt–Glad you liked the essay. I have read “Blade,” though never shifted through the old letters sections.

    It’s hard for me to have any conversation involving the term “political correctness,” which I don’t consider to be a real thing. Everybody I’ve seen who uses that term uses it as a euphemism for “respect,” then goes on about how they don’t have to respect other cultures. Yes, some writers for Weird Tales were progressive. I consider C.L. Moore to be a great feminist writer whose stories avoided all the lazy racism found in other works. And I don’t recall her writing disrespectfully of other cultures.

    I honestly don’t understand the idea of racism being “cosmopolitan” because your comparison conflates two disparate time periods. The internecine warfare that European slavers took advantage of (and, of course, encouraged) is an entirely different milieu than that of the post-“Birth of a Nation” KKK resurgence that Howard grew up in. We’re discussing a Jim Crow story from a Jim Crow writer, so I don’t see how pre-colonial Africa is relevant. The tribal battles for resources in Africa (or Europe, or Asia) were an entirely different kettle of fish than the violence visited upon displaced African peoples in the Americas.

    Part of what makes “Black Canaan” work is that Howard is pulling from his personal experience, anxieties, history, and bias. There is a weight, a realness. His Africa is pure Burroughsian fantasy, and I’m glad he didn’t write too many Africa-based stories.

    On another note, it’s important to remember access. By the point “Black Canaan” was published, the Harlem Renaissance had been going on for twenty years. Plenty of black spec-fic was produced during this period, about the black experience, by those who lived it. Farnsworth Wright could have published any of those works but, unfortunately, he wasn’t interested. Neither was Lin Carter nor August Derleth nor anybody who kept the fantasy candle going. So while there was surely racist backlash to stories by and about POC, there was also the bias of the publishing industry. You mention “Blade.” Marvel Comics gained far more than they lost by embracing diversity.

    Which I why I don’t agree with the term “P.C sludge pit.” We live in the golden age of SF/F precisely because minority voices are now allowed a (small) space at the table. When I was a kid, I read nothing but TSR books where the Plains Barbarians (aka Native Americans) were white people who hunted buffalo and dressed like they were in hair metal bands. Thank god somebody might be held accountable before putting that mess into the world.

    @Barbara Bennett-Glad you liked it! I poke around REH fandom a bit and appreciate the work y’all do for Howard’s legacy. I did not know about the poetry, other than the “black girl” poem, which I believe is the romantic one you are speaking of. The contradictions in Howard’s writing is what makes him such an interesting figure.

    I’ve often wondered if his general misanthropy was what lead to his more progressive ideas. For instance, in “Beyond the Black River” the people of color actually win. Surprisingly, they are not scattered like wayward children when Jhebbal Sag dies. They are still there at the periphery. The Picts are obviously Native American analogs. But the ending is framed as the triumph of barbarism, not the triumph of indigenous over colonizers. (Balthus had no business being there. I was glad when he died. And his little dog too.) Even though the Picts won a major battle, it is like a victory for no one. Sometimes I wonder if Howard’s weariness with civilization in general was what kept him from completely siding with Euro-American supremacy. He saw what the end result was an didn’t like it. I’m sure some scholar has addressed that at some point.

    Very interesting take on the swamp blacks. It certainly makes them seem like they have agency within the tale. I find it interesting that, even before Stark comes, the whites view them with fear. They aren’t always in the open bowing and scraping, so they are distrusted. And, yes, they are just trying to mind their own business. This still speaks to white fear. At the time of the story’s writing, American blacks were at their most politically docile, but the prevailing image of the black man was a beast who wanted to rape white women. This anxiety over black agency just oozes from the story. Even Saul Stark’s desire to be a king is an admission that Africans HAD kings. And could, god forbid, be kings again. Howard’s own Conan cycle is about a guy coming out of nowhere to be a king, doing lots of foul stuff along the way. But he’s the hero.

    But pointing out obvious examples of prejudice in Howard’s writing isn’t something I’m interested in. I find it hard to tell how much he is aware of his own cultural fears, versus how much he is toting the party line, and THAT is fascinating. That there is some Flannery O’Connor under all that Margaret Mitchell. I will go read that essay about his poetry. Thanks a lot for the rec.

    Comment by Elwin Cotman - August 17, 2014 7:58 pm

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