Each day between indie and professional publishing, thousands of books are released. Most of these novels will never achieve notoriety, but a select few manage to rise above obscurity and create a space in our collective imaginations.  Victoria Foyt’s Save the Pearls is one such novel and it recently won the prestigious Eric Hoffer award in the category of Young Adult.  This novel first caught my attention when I noticed several people of color tweeting about the racism in the plot and expressing horror that such a novel could possibly receive a literary award.  The following is Eden’s (the protagonist) mating video, in which she lists what she wants in a partner and why.

As you can see from the video, Eden is wearing blackface and this is because Foyt’s work is set in a dystopian world wherein Pearls (read: White People) are actively oppressed and outnumbered by Coals (read: Blacks).   Humans live in caves and fear something called the Heat, due to the destruction of the environment and ultraviolet rays. The amount of melanin in one’s skin is the primary indicator of which bodies are considered valuable and who is most likely to survive. Essentially, in Foyt’s vision of our future, there will be a role reversal in terms of social and institutional power, as blacks benefit directly from the skin color which has plagued us since humanity decided to apply a negative value to difference.

In her piece at the Huffington Post, Foyt makes it clear she subscribes to a color-blind mentality and suggests that her book has not received many negative reviews in spite of the subject matter. Foyt goes so far as to discuss a positive reaction by African-American reviewers and argues against negative reviews by saying that the youth are more progressive. Though  Foyt makes it clear that she is cognizant that we are not post racial, she heavily implies otherwise by suggesting that generational riffs have resulted in youth who have not experienced Jim Crow and in particular segregated public education.  So Foyt’s understanding of black youth is that they are detached from the racism they experience and view relations between blacks and whites as negligible.

Her suggestion that Save the Pearls “will give those who have never experienced prejudice the opportunity to think about it in a new way, especially in terms of how our decaying environment one day may turn around the status quo” highlights one of the many problems with this novel.  If one has never experienced oppression based in race, how exactly can one accurately put into perspective what it is be stigmatized because of the color of one’s skin? This turns the subject of race into something abstract  because from this perspective, it becomes a theory rather than something that meaningfully affects lives.  Black people are the best people to argue about the oppression based on race that we face, and no amount of white liberal guilt will impart a level of expertise beyond our lived experiences.

Foyt lack of understanding about the historical concepts she puts into play are obvious when, on page 40, she has a band called the Lost Caucasian Tribe perform in white face.   This, coupled with the fact that Eden wears black face in an attempt to pass as black and to protect her skin, shows complete ignorance of the historical concept of black face.  Black face has its origins in minstrel shows and its purpose is to mock and ridicule. This is nothing but the appropriation of the experiences of color for the purposes of justifying the so-called oppression of Pearl.

It is highly problematic that the term “pearl” is considered a slur for whites, “coal’ for blacks, and “amber” for those of Asian descent.  A slur is used by a dominant group not only to denote difference, but to strip the targeted group of humanity while affirming power. Giving every racial group a slur tells me Foyt has no idea exactly how slurs work.  If blacks were truly in a position of power, no slur would exist. It is further worth noting that a pearl is a gemstone, which is actually valued; whereas, coal is dirty and black. Of the two, which group is actually being marked with a slur?

This story is not the simple futuristic inter-racial romance Foyt portends. We are told the male love interest is admired for his social power and the darkness of his skin; however, before even reaching the halfway point of Save the Pearls, Ronson Bramford is turned into a hybrid of three different animals. He essentially becomes a beast that struggles to hold onto his humanity.  Though Foyt declares this harmlessly to be a futuristic beauty and the beast story, it is problematic that once again it is the black man who is framed as animalistic. The animal-like nature of Bramford is something that Eden comes to hope will teach him about oppression.

“But how would Bramford feel when he looked in a mirror or when he saw the damming looks in others’ eyes? Maybe now he would know how it felt to be judged by your appearance.” [page 71]

There is also the issue that even in a world in which black women are supposedly held up as the ideal of female perfection, it’s the white protagonist who is the beauty; it is the white protagonist who is loved.  Bramford actually falls in love with not one, but two white women.  Eden spends a lot of time bemoaning that no one sees the real her. Eden invests a great deal of energy on holographic flashbacks to a time when white women could reveal their flesh freely, and so at the same time that she is complaining about not being beautiful, she constantly refers back to a time of social white female superiority. This is the only time that Foyt puts race into an accurate historical context.  This means that white privilege is only discussed in a positive nostalgic manner.

Despite the popularity of science fiction and dystopian fantasy, there is a tendency to erase not only people of color, but also the issue of racism. Though Foyt does attempt to interrogate race in this novel, it simply fails on so many levels because she has not conquered her white privilege enough to engage intelligently on this issue. Awarding this novel legitimizes the racist world building and implies that Foyt’s vision is inventive rather than an exercise in racist navel gazing nonsense. When your plot is based on deifying racist ideals, while supporting the idea that white people have something to fear from blacks, it serves as nothing more than a recruiting manual for the KKK.

  • http://blueknightbooks.com Blue Knight

    As an indie author, I can attest to the fact that it’s hard to get noticed. I’ve also noticed that writers are becoming more cut throat, resorting to shock value content, in an effort to get sales, especially in this economy. In this case, Victoria Foyt achieved what many of us can only hope for… a subject-matter so controversial that even disinterested readers will pay to have a look just to be part of the conversation. Oh well, “that’s the way the ball bounces.”

  • wallofcheese

    The Hoffer award isn’t exactly prestigious. According to Absolute Write, it’s essentially the sort of award you buy for yourself, for a $40 entrance fee, from the parent organization Hopewell Publications. Hopewell makes a habit of spamming self-published writers to advertise its contest. You can read about the history of the Eric Hoffer Award (previously the Hoffer Award, and, before that, the Writers Notes Award) at:

    http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=48328

  • http://UnapproachableBlackChicks.Tumblr.com Iola Leroy

    An amazing summation of this literary rubble! I have reviewed some of the backlash that she has been receiving over the last few days and I consider her position to be very reflective of issues with well intentioned White Liberals. I wonder what will become over her series as a result of this ?

  • Amber

    Although she oversimplifies such a role reversal, and maybe even the favorable reaction of “the youth”, I think this could be an interesting read. It’s really easy for us to get defensive about someone who is not of color to tell such a story. But what if the roles really were reversed? It seems like a fair question to ask, especially in the world of sci-fi literature, if I could call it that. Keep the video in the context of the book. Darker skin is more valuable according to the story. That’s the point. It’s not “blackface” because in the world of the book “blackface” as we real people know it does not exist. I just think its worth it to keep everything in the context of this ironic story. I’m not saying there is nothing to criticize, I have not read it, but I think it has more to do with lack of insight or perspective, versus racism.

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com Val

    This book sounds like an attempt to write a story like the film “White Man’s Burden”.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114928/

  • ???

    Some people are really into that “I’m white and oppressed” stuff these days. It doesn’t sound like a book showing white people what oppression might look like if it were on them. It sounds like a book that makes white people look all innocent and pure and black people mean and animalistic. Of course the poor, innocent white woman who has to deal with not being considered beautiful would snag a powerful black man. White people barely want to talk about slavery or the civil rights movement, but they would probably love to read a book like this showing them as the innocent ones and de evil black man. LOL. You are definitely right about the pearl coal thing. Do you think the author honestly didn’t get that? Pearl and amber vs. coal.

  • S.

    It’s like Twilight for racists O_o

    Some White folks have a sick obsession with Black people
    …will never understand this

  • http://elegantblackwoman.blogspot.com Elegance

    Here are some questions: 1) Would the negative critics be okay with this book if the author was Black? 2) How will White people understand what it feels like to be oppressed if they don’t witness or experience being the one’s oppressed because many aren’t understanding real life examples? 3) How could she show oppressors (even if they are Black) in a positive light, wouldn’t that be saying being oppressed isn’t that bad? 4) Maybe she wrote this book for White people who will understand it? 5) How does someone “conquer” their privilege?

    Obviously in the future if having dark skin is a positive thing then she is not in Black face, she is conforming to the new standard of beauty. Complaining at every attempt to understand Black people is really annoying, like you are expecting perfection. No one will EVER fully understand what it is like to be you and once you accept that you won’t be so shocked by things like this. It’s not a big deal. Seriously you couldn’t find anything positive to say about this book? Coals turn into diamonds by the way and they are more valuable than pearls and amber.

  • http://www.womanist-musings.com/ Renee Martin

    Have you even read the book, because if you haven’t you have right suggesting that my critique wasn’t valid.

  • http://tontonmichel.tumblr.com/ Tonton Michel

    Steven Barnes wrote something similar along the lines of an alternate world were black were the dominant race and whites were enslaved, Lion Heart and Zulu Heart. I am going to read Save the Pearls to see how it compares, I like the concept.

  • Sandra

    I thought this book was going to be like Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses trilogy (which you guys should totally read). Hmm, not sure whether to trust her intentions about this book and saying you’re ‘colourblind’ doesn’t really help. The book sounds so interesting that I just might check it out. Maybe.

  • Sashay

    I have not read the book, but I think I just might. Sometimes liberals can over simplify issues on race with theories about being “color-blind”. Being colorless does not address the issue of racism. The point is to see my color and not feel that I am inferior because of it. great discussion.

  • Haley

    I think that Elegance is one of the people who have been fairly sheltered in his or her life, never really having any experience with real life racism outside of a textbook. These are the people who need to be schooled on the reality of racism, both in today’s world and in the past.

    Yes there’s a history of African-Americans bleaching their skin, (I guess that’d be the best non-blackface equivalence of this) but it wasn’t exactly something everyone did. It’s not like everyone bleached their skin in order to “appease their white overlords”.

    In any case, I agree that Elegance probably hasn’t read the book or if s/he has, that she read it with a large degree of ignorance and should probably pick up some books that deal with actual racism post-haste. That much ignorance isn’t healthy.

  • NancyP

    Mega-fail. I guess she missed out on the last ten years worth of Fans of Color and Writers of Color discussions and ‘Con panels, not to mention a ginormous online discussion a few years ago. She needs to review the last several WisCon panels (compiled as books) and “Writing the Other” long essay (Nisi Shawl).

    Besides: Coal is useful. Pearls aren’t useful. You can’t get electricity by combusting pearls.

  • http://elegantblackwoman.blogspot.com Elegance

    No I haven’t read the book that is why I am asking those questions. Otherwise I would just do my own critique of the book. I am wondering why there are so many other positive reviews and this one is so negative. Why bother leaving the comment about reading the book instead of answering the questions?

  • http://elegantblackwoman.blogspot.com Elegance

    To Haley,

    Learn how to make a constructive response. Instead you just go into speculations about me instead of questioning the critique. Who I am has nothing to do with anything. I have a right to ask questions about the book. Unless the writer just wanted people to applaud her totally negative critique without thinking for themselves. It’s a freaking science fiction book and it sounded pretty cool like Logan’s Run or Enemy Mine. Did you read the book Haley? If not then why do you assume it’s so bad and you will view the book exactly the way this poster did?

  • Haley

    Actually Elegance, I have. That’s how I know it’s so bad. I generally figure that I should read it to see if there’s anything in there that’s redeemable. I don’t think that Foyt could have pulled in any more racist stereotypes unless she’d had Bramford or Eden carrying watermelons around with a bottle of grape soda. The only reason I don’t think she included that was because she just didn’t think about it.

    There isn’t and the book is actually far more racist and ignorant than this article is making it out to be. The positive reviews are more than likely written by white reviewers who have never experienced racism outside of what they see in the classroom or on television.

    If you read the book you’d know how bad this book gets, but you want to defend the book without actually reading it so…

  • Keke

    I think the concept of the book is an interesting one. However, I have a feeling that the execution may be waaay off. I will give it a read for myself to see how I feel. I have enjoyed books written by authors who do not share the same race as major characters. But I usually enjoy these novels because they’ve been well-researched, critiqued, analyzed and ask deep, sociological questions while staying true to historical legacies and past events. So, *shrugs* I’ll check it out, if only to quell my curiosity.

  • Keke

    How does someone “conquer” their privilege? Why, that’s easy. By confronting it! This places the onus on those who have privilege to do the work necessary to learn to recognize that privilege. It will happen by confronting the ways in which they as an individual contribute to systems of oppression and how they treat other human beings NOW. Not in some future place where Whites secretly long for the days when they were beautiful (yeah, I read the preview on Amazon. *shudders*). It’s like saying it’s okay to turn a blind eye to oppression as long as it’s not happening to you.

  • Haley

    The author went so far as to say that she did not think there was an African-American reading audience out there. How awful is it to say that when you have piles of African-American themed teen books out there?

  • Dan

    It is written by a white woman about a white girl so no cross race research or thought. I borrowed it and read all of it. It is boring, badly paced, cliched, and has less developed characters than twilight. You can read it but it’s a hard thing to suffer through even if NOT bigoted and sexist.

  • http://elegantblackwoman.blogspot.com Elegance

    To me this is a more informative critique than the actual post because it’s criticizing the writing and the character development and looking at the literary merit of the work. Whether the book is controversial, the idea behind the book, and who wrote it don’t matter to me if I am interested in the subject and intrigued by the idea. But if it is boring and poorly written then I would skip it. There have been great movie ideas for instance but the presentation was awful.

    I think that the post is criticizing the idea ofthe power switch between Black and White people but I think that’s an interesting idea, especially reversing the standard of beauty. But the criticism of the writer because she is White and will never understand is unfair and who wrote it should not matter only if it is good or not. I’m sure we wouldn’t want anyone discrediting Black authors writing for similar reasons.

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  • http://greaterthanlapsed.tumblr.com/ Bridget

    1. I don’t believe a black person would ever write a book this racist and plainly full of white supremacist ideals. However, as a white person I would be a little more hesitant to be extremely critical of the book if it were written by a black person as I do tend to defer to POC on racial issues.
    That being said, I just picked up Naughts and Crosses from the library. It’s written by a black woman and seems to be highly regarded as a novel that explores race issues through role reversal.

    2. Empathy. By simply recognizing the humanity of POC and listening to what they have to say about the oppression and marginalization they face, we can learn about it, how we contribute to it, and what we can do to help.

    3. The problem here is less that she is showing the oppressors in a negative light–of course oppressors will be described negatively from the perspective of the oppressed. The problem is that the author uses a whole host of real-world racist tropes to describe the people who are supposed to be the oppressors: black women as hypersexual and “uppity,” black men as animalistic, even going so far as having her supposedly oppressed protagonist hurl a slur at them in the first 20 pages of the book.

    4. Maybe she did write the book for white people, but a lot of the critics of the book are also white people who saw the cover, excerpt, promotional materials, and so on and realised right away that it was really horribly racist. I mean, the whole premise of the novel is that a really scary dystopian future would be if black people somehow were in charge of things. It does very little but feed into long-held white supremacist fears that if black people were ever to get into power they’d treat white people the way we’ve treated them or be out for revenge.
    That’s a pretty messed up message to put in a book that is supposedly aimed at teens, especially when it’s a message that already exists for real–coming from the right-wing when talking about out current president. Have you heard Mitt Romney’s coded racism lately?

    5. I’m not sure that “conquer” is the right word, but it is definitely possible for people to be aware of and understand their own privilege. It’s definitely possible for, say, white people to let the voices and experiences of POC set the standard for discussion of race issues rather than talking about it in terms of how we can understand it. A lot of it goes back to my answer to #2 above–empathy.
    What Victoria Foyt has done with Revealing Eden is recentered the discussion of race on how it might effect white people, and she uses a lot of racist nonsense to do so. Instead, it would be better to make POC the center of the story and focus on their ACTUAL experiences instead of an absurd hypothetical.

  • K. Michel

    Actually, she sounds like some of the African-American women I’ve seen online. So much so, that I think the author’s been perusing a few Black blogs for source material.

  • http://rocksattiffanys.blogspot.com/ Rocks

    hahah @ twilight for racists, haha oh no..Smh.

  • JJFab

    the obsession is sexual IMO

  • Hayder

    This issue actually HAS been addressed before in sci-fi literature. Read the Noughts & Crosses series by Malorie Blackman. Victoria Foyt’s tripe is nothing compared to those books.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Rivkasmom Grace Acosta

    Oh boo boo boo. White woman’s tears. *yawn* Oh, and don’t forget her white dog, too!

    I read a bit of this online, and it was so badly written that I couldn’t bear to go further. I’d rather be doing the dishes than waste my time with that tripe.

  • http://legioninfo.blogspot.com Julio

    sci fi version of The Help, please?

  • Name~

    The thing the bother me the most is that this story takes place on Earth, in the future. It’s like the author is saying, “What would black people do if it was the other way around and they had the privilege instead? Oh, they would be just as racist — or even worse!”.

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