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.