Steven Barnes

Must-read: Sci-Fi Author Steven Barnes Offers Analysis of Legend of Tarzan

ERBDOM, Legend of Tarzan (Movie), Tarzan

Note:  “Must-read” is basically a note to myself, as it will not please everyone — but I feel it is fair and insightful, and is  is among the very best cultural commentary on Legend of Tarzan I have seen.  I will circle back to it later and provide a reaction — but for now, I just want to make it available and urge the reading of it in full. Barnes is author or co-author of 26 books.  “My bedroom was literally LINED with ERB paperbacks.   That was the womb I slept in. . . ” he writes.  His perspective is a unique and insightful one that won’t necessarily please everyone, but is important to read.

The Legend of Tarzan 2016

by  Steven Barnes

In short, I am fully aware of the problematic nature of the Tarzan films and books. Let’s be clear:   Tarzan is not a racist trope.  It is THE racist trope, arguably the most specific and powerful one in American literature or film.    But it is not more racist than the Encyclopedia Brittanica, which used to state specifically and clearly that blacks were less intelligent than whites  Or more than all America was at the time, which makes those who want to believe the playing field leveled before about 1970 AT THE EARLIEST to be…well, let’s be polite and just say deluded.  Or more than about10-20% of human beings in general today, as the tendency to believe your tribe is superior runs deep and explains human history and current events quite nicely, thank you.

It also, affects movie reviews.  I’ve noticed for years that when there is material in a film that is objectionable to a critic or viewer, it punctures the suspension of disbelief and in essence they sit back and look for a reason to dislike it. As art is subjective, there is ALWAYS something to object to, if you look for it.  It its politics are wrong (and both Left and Right wingers do this0, if it depicts a group in a way that knocks you out of your comfort zone, if it depicts a philosophy in some way contrary to your world view or any number of other transgressions, you are likely to seek a reason to say “it’s bad”.  Frankly, I noticed this in audience reactions to black male sexuality onscreen, for decades.  I could actually WATCH white guys push themselves back away from the screen.  Yep, it was just that obvious, a photographable aversion reaction.

Read the full article. Highly recommended.


  • I won’t be following this link. I know he means well, but I just can’t go any farther down the “racism r us” rabbit hole that has been so heavily promoted these last several years. I’m sick of it, it’s wildly exaggerated (since, as he says, the 70’s were 45 YEARS AGO) and, most importantly, it is *POISONOUS*. There is no healthy level of racial awareness. There can only be healthy striving to transcend race.

    I hope he gives ERB credit for slowly moving beyond the occassionaly, automatic racism expressed in a few places in the early books. Since he loves the character, I assume he does. But I’m old enough (and southern enough) to have known plenty of open racists as a boy and young man, and I can tell you right now – Tarzan is NOT “the” racist trope in American culture or literature, and claiming that he is marks you as somebody with not just a chip but a tree on your shoulder. And it’s simply not my job to help someone with that problem. They have my symapthy and I wish them luck, but I have better things to do with my time.

    • Gregory I’m sorry that you find it that way. For me — it’s important in a kind of “take your medicine” way. I wonder how I would have felt if, when I was ten years old and reading ERB, I had been a young black boy and saw this, from Jungle Tales: “He had seen Tarzan bring down a buck, just as Numa, the lion, might have done, leaping upon its back and fastening his fangs in the creature’s neck. Tibo had shuddered at the sight, but he had thrilled, too, and for the first time there entered his dull, Negroid mind a vague desire to emulate his savage foster parent. But Tibo, the little black boy, lacked the divine spark which had permitted Tarzan, the white boy, to benefit by his training in the ways of the fierce jungle. In imagination he was wanting, and imagination is but another name for super-intelligence.”

      The fact that Barnes got past that and found value in Tarzan is pretty remarkable. That said I get your point. I hope you will also accept that although I’ve become something of a cheerleader for Legend of Tarzan, and am supporting to the hilt the idea of a sequel, I also feel like I have to listen to the other side and especially listen to those who, like Barnes, fall into the thoughtful center of the argument. So I won’t apologize for sharing what he wrote, but I hope you’ll understand why I did, and why I won’t just bury it or ignore it. It’s also significant that people like Craig Brewer, the screenwriter (one of them) of Legend of Tarzan, considers this to be a well thought out piece that deserves attention.

      • As is often the case — the conversation migrates to Facebook. I want to save some of the comments that I’m seeing over there, so here they are:

        Carol GirlWonder Pinchefsky Great read. Thanks for posting.
        Like · Reply · 6 hrs
        Don Kraar
        Don Kraar Thank you, Steven Barnes for your thoughtful insights!
        Like · Reply · 1 · 4 hrs
        Abraham Sherman
        Abraham Sherman There is so much here that is debatable, yet taken for granted by the writer due to his modern political lens, that it’s difficult to take his analysis completely seriously. There are blanket statements about the intentions and cultural context of ERB’s writings that are unsupported, except by an entrenched defensive racial perspective, and even contradicted by many more frequent clear messages in ERB’s writings (see “The Black Man’s Burden,” the conclusion of Warlord of Mars, the good-and-bad humanity that ERB instills in every race he portrays, etc.).

        Mr. Barnes seeks to strike a balance between the excellence of ERB’S inspirational quality and the thematic elements he interprets as problematic. In so doing, the identifier of “self-loathing ERB fan” begins to seem apropo. His response to those who would argue from ERB’S own writing that his perceived racial objections are inaccurate is literally “bite me.”

        Are the supposedly objectionable racial references in the books an accurate reflection of ERB being a product of his times, or are they phantoms projected by perspectives that have been widely promulgated in OUR times, for political purposes? No doubt many who share Mr. Barnes’ perspective on supposed racial superiority subtexts in ERB’s writings do so honestly and with zero intention of political manipulation – it is the lens they have been raised with. Can the same innocence be attributed to the leaders who teach such perspectives?

        Some writers in the past and present have exhibited racial animus, which is evil and sickening; ERB is NOT among them. If anyone is being forced to walk on broken glass, it is the ghosts of ERB and other writers from the past who portrayed every culture and race as inherently good AND inherently evil. If we cannot have both white heroes and villains, and both black heroes and villains, then we have sacrificed honesty on the altar of victim narratives, for the purpose of political objectives completely extraneous to the storytelling at hand. Our stories will no longer be a messy rainbow, but rather a sanitized and tortured gray that is politically safe yet hollow, fake and disrespectful in a narrative.

        Some members of every race do truly hate members of other races. There is no excuse for that. Such attitudes tell us more about the people doing the hating than about those being hated. How is the reprehensible truth that all races share in the guilt of racism going to be confronted constructively if any race is given prohibitive victim status? Are real solutions accomplished on a one-way street? If we cannot get over ourselves to allow an honest back-and-forth, then the ugly head of racism has simply raised itself in a different way.

        Mr. Barnes’ assumption that racist attitudes were harbored by “all America” at any point in history is unsupportable. There have always been some racists in every race, but there has never been a time when every individual was racist. The men who argued for the incremental step of regarding slaves as 3/5 of a person, rather than the 0/5 of a person status preferred by others, were the anti-racists of their day. The men who fought to free the slaves deserve something better than the label of “racist”. The messy rainbow deserves something much more precise than a dismissive broad brush.

        Progress has been made, and needs to be made, but it should be on a two-way street. If the progress is to be true and substantive, rather than manipulative and vindictive, it cannot depend on politically convenient narratives and ought not be furthered by one-sided cultural taboos in entertainment.

        ERB wrote Tarzan as a white man because he, the writer, and his culture, were white. In accordance with the famous axiom of writing, it was what ERB knew. The idea that Tarzan as a white man was intended to be a statement of inherent racial superiority is unsupported by the books. ERB was interested in the furthest possible contrast between the savagery of nature and the restraints of civilization. The jungle is about as savage as it gets, and being an English Lord is about as restrained as it gets. The lens of the jungle is brought to bear on civilization, and the lens of civilization is brought to bear on the jungle.

        Attitudes about members of various races are expressed in the books, in accordance with the different perspectives of the characters which ERB created. To pin every one of those attitudes on Burroughs himself is to betray one of the primary tenets that makes fiction both possible and effective at raising unassuming critiques of ideas. In light of ERB’s poem “The Black Man’s Burden,” an excoriation of the idea of inherent racial/cultural superiority, the attitudes expressed at times in the books deserve a much more nuanced interpretation.

        Looking at ERB’S body of work, we see that he took a two-way-street approach with every race he portrayed. There are cannibalistic black tribes in the jungle, as well as the honorable Waziri. There are both assassins and scoundrels, as well as sacrificial heroes, among the Red Men of Barsoom. The Apache in his western novels include both heroes and villains.

        Can today’s critics navigate the complexities of real race relations, or are they too ensnared by our culture’s “fashionable” (and lauded) forms of stereotyping? Rather than seeking to silence Burroughs and consign him to the dungeon of a mischaracterized past, we should listen to what he has to say about what dwells in the heart of every human being – red, yellow, black, or white. That might mean we’ll have to stop thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought, and will have to think more highly of others than we’re used to, but it’ll be worth it.
        Like · Reply · 2 · 3 hrs
        Michael Sellers
        Michael Sellers I dunno. I wonder how I would have reacted to ERB if I were a black 10 year old and I read this (from Jungle Tales):

        He had seen Tarzan bring down a buck, just as Numa, the lion, might have done, leaping upon its back and fastening his fangs in the creature’s neck. Tibo had shuddered at the sight, but he had thrilled, too, and for the first time there entered his dull, Negroid mind a vague desire to emulate his savage foster parent. But Tibo, the little black boy, lacked the divine spark which had permitted Tarzan, the white boy, to benefit by his training in the ways of the fierce jungle. In imagination he was wanting, and imagination is but another name for super-intelligence.

        I’m not citing that to trash ERB — I’m as big a fan as exists, I think. But if we want more movies, we just can’t reject this kind of commentary. We have to think it through and figure out a path forward . . . . I don’t mean to suggest is is “our” responsibility …. but in a way it is. Somewhere from all this discussion I’m hoping there will emerge some insights that we can pass through and embed on whatever sequel pitches are eventually happening. Because you can be 100% sure that the people receiving the sequel pitch are aware of this criticism and may view it as a very good reason to not dip their toe into the Tarzan sea again . . . . I guess what I’m saying is that when I find a guy like this who can voice the concerns within the context of overall appreciation for ERB and Tarzan, I hold out hope that he might at some point offer thoughts that help, not hurt, the prospect of more Tarzan.
        Like · Reply · 1 · 1 hr
        Michael Sellers

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        Deuce Richardson
        Deuce Richardson The “Negroid mind” quote is problematic, for sure. Tibo was from a long line of degenerate cannibals, though. All I can say is, the Waziri were not “dull”. ERB depicted many, many groups of degenerate whites. Someone should really do a statistical survey of race in all the ERB novels. Anybody remember his positive depiction of Japanese-Americans in THE MOON MEN? I love how just because ERB doesn’t score an “A” on the new scale, his works should go in the dustbin. Booker T. Washington, from some of his comments, would also fail in today’s climate.
        Like · Reply · 2 · 1 hr
        Michael Sellers
        Michael Sellers My father was not a racist and he raised me to not be a racist — but he was from a different generation and would occasionally say things that, if held up to the light of a 2016 day, would make me cringe. This scene in Jungle tales is like that for me. I know ERB had a much more nuanced view of race than that, and it pains me to see that passage on the page. But there it is. I prefer to read “Black Man’s Burden” — that puts a smile back on my face and is closer, I believe, to ERB’s true thinking even if he does occasionally come out with something like the Tibo quote.
        Like · Reply · 2 · 1 hr
        Michael Sellers

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        Geoffrey A. Hamell
        Geoffrey A. Hamell At least Barnes is trying to get past the simplistic all-or-nothing attitude that Burroughs-haters employ. They love to condemn him for racist bits like “dull Negroid mind”, but they never note that Tarzan was adopted by the Waziri – that he calls them “my brothers” and is proud to be one of them. Where are the critics quoting his statement that “I trust them more than I would most white men”? ERB’s thoughts on race and nationality were complex and confused and not always consistent; in other words, he was human. I can relate to what Barnes experienced as a child reading these books – I came to feel offended whenever Burroughs used “effeminate” as a pseudonym for “weak and decadent”. But I don’t reject all the positive ideals and the positive portrayals of minorities that also appear in his work. To focus on a single weakness is to ignore the bigger picture.
        Unlike · Reply · 1 · 55 mins
        Michael Sellers
        Michael Sellers Good perspective….I want to find that quote about trusting the Waziri more than most white men. That works better than most of the other Waziri references, which still carry with them the issue of paternalisim/colonialism. That one straight-up measu…See More
        Like · Reply · 51 mins · Edited
        Geoffrey A. Hamell
        Geoffrey A. Hamell It was actually used twice, in two of the later books. I can’t recall which, though. In case a white guest star character asked if they could trust the Waziri, and that was Tarzan’s response. If it speeds up the searching, I feel positive it was on the first page of a chapter in one book.
        Like · Reply · 46 mins
        Michael Sellers
        Michael Sellers Okay, that helps. I’ll find it.
        Like · Reply · 46 mins

        and from another FB thread
        Don Kraar “I’ve noticed for years that when there is material in a film that is objectionable to a critic or viewer, it punctures the suspension of disbelief and in essence they sit back and look for a reason to dislike it.” Steven Barnes. That is almost precisely the point that I have made in my rpevious posts. Many people who wrote negative reviews revealed their own predisposition not to give the film a fair chance.
        Like · Reply · 5 hrs
        Norman Ray
        Norman Ray There are interesting things in the article, but for me it’s ultimately built on sand, and thus collapses under its own weight. It seems to me that Steven Barnes definitely has his own biased predispositions. If you don’t consider the whole picture, your analysis can only be, at best, half-thought out. Still best that many other analysts I guess.
        Like · Reply · 4 hrs
        Michael Sellers
        Michael Sellers I think the fact that he is black, and embraced ERB and Tarzan as a child, and had many of his values formed through the reading — gives him an unusual perspective and he mines that perspective in the piece. I don’t agree with everything but find it …See More
        Like · Reply · 4 · 4 hrs · Edited
        Don Kraar
        Don Kraar I don’t expect to agree with everything that someone says about LOT. I’ve refraiend from expressing some of my own views because I don’t want to spoil the film for other people.
        Unlike · Reply · 2 · 4 hrs
        Michael Sellers

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        Brett Bradshaw
        Brett Bradshaw It is a fascinating analysis from what might be a unique perspective. I agree with much of it, without subscribing to the notion that any Tarzan movie is doomed to failure.
        Unlike · Reply · 2 · 3 hrs
        Ward Orndoff
        Ward Orndoff It is very well thought out and very well written. To me, saying the film deserves to fail equates to saying that Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice should fail today because of his anti-Semitic treatment of Shylock. But I admit I’m Caucasian and honestly cannot put myself in his shoes. Also, as Don say, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me.
        Like · Reply · 1 hr

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