Uncovering Hidden Black History, On Screen And On The Page

Viewers have criticized the lack of characters of color in Marvel's Agent Carter -- K. Tempest Bradford says it's just one of a long line of properties that overlook the presence of African Americans outside of slavery, Reconstruction and the civil rights era. (ABC)
Viewers have criticized the lack of characters of color in Marvel's Agent Carter -- K. Tempest Bradford says it's just one of a long line of properties that overlook the presence of African Americans outside of slavery, Reconstruction and the civil rights era. (ABC)

One of the major criticisms leveled against the popular but problematic Marvel's Agent Carter (which just finished up its first season on ABC) is that it lacks black characters. The show takes place in New York City in 1946, and to some people that means the lack of diversity makes sense — and it's only the most recent example in an ongoing conversation/argument about books and other media set in the past — whether it's the real past or an alternate history — that are missing people of color.

And when critics comment on that absence, the loudest and most vehement reaction tends to be "but that wouldn't be historically accurate!" (You can find a condensed chronology of that argument here; contributors to the excellent MedievalPOC blog came up with a lengthy list of notable black people from the Agent Carter era who didn't qualify as The Help.)

Honestly, I blame Black History Month for this. So often, we focus on history that fits within a narrow range: The civil rights movement, the Civil War, American slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. While those are all important pieces of history to focus on, they are not the whole story — and they lead people who've only ever paid attention to black history during February to presume that we did not exist outside of those particular moments in time.

Here are some books that'll introduce you to a few potentially surprising places and times where blacks not only existed, but made a lasting impact.

And here's one more: When the BBC's Merlin debuted, fantasy fans on both sides of the pond cried foul on the casting of Angel Coulby in the role of Guinevere. Coulby is Guyanese, but she read to many viewers as black, which prompted some to denounce the show's creators for introducing historically inaccurate elements in order to be PC.

These viewers clearly had not heard of Sir Morien, a black knight from Arthurian legend.

Morien is the son of a Round Table knight and an African noblewoman who's not just some random knight mentioned in passing. No, there's a long saga written just about his exploits, including how he came to England to search for his father, how he and Lancelot were so well matched in skill that neither could best the other, and how he finally ended up a king in his mother's native land.

You can read an English translation of Morien's saga at the Celtic Literature Collective.

These are just a handful of examples, and very Western-centric at that. They're only a small part of black history — but I hope they'll inspire you to discover more parts of it, and expand your understanding of this long, rich story.

K. Tempest Bradford is a speculative short-story writer by night, a technology journalist by day, and an activist blogger in the interstices.

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