Hugo Award-winning author NK Jemisin asserts that it’s political for a black woman to write about dragons. As an indie author, I’m often asked why dragons? My answer is always the same. Why not?
Before I dive into the hot and heavy let me just say as a fantasy author (no matter the color of your skin or sex), use your active imaginative voice to write out loud. Build your world as colorful and bright as you desire while focusing on your target audience. Now, on to the hot and heavy.
There is this notion that dragons belong to Asian and Caucasian people. Now I’m not saying this notion is anyone’s fault or wrong, I’m just stating the obvious. The obvious, you say? Yes! Let’s take a look.
Dragons: A Wee History
What’s unclear is why the mythological creatures were brought to life, but it’s clear that some accounts of dragons may have derived from the misinterpretation of the remains of dinosaur bones.
Scholars believe that the belief of dragons evolved independently in both Europe and Asia (specifically China) Depending on historical accounts, dragons first came on the scene in China. The earliest known art depiction was carved in Jade and found in Eastern Mongolia. It was believed to have belonged to the Hongshan culture which thrived between 4500-3000 BCE.
The Chinese revered dragons, unlike many European cultures. According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Dragons appear in the mythology of many ancient cultures but nowhere else in the world was the creature quite so revered as in China. There, in marked contrast to other world mythologies, the dragon was almost always seen in a positive light and particularly associated with life-giving rains and water sources. Considered the most auspicious year sign, worn on the robes of emperors, depicted in the most precious materials from gold jewelry to jade figurines, and with countless references in literature and the performing arts, the dragon was everywhere in ancient China and looms as large today in the Chinese psyche as ever (2017, Cartwright).
In contrast, in European mythology dragons are considered powerful, wicked, and dangerous. Throw in Christianity, and dragons are evil, symbolizing Satin, and sin. The word dragon, itself in European mythology comes from the ancient Greek word “draconta,” meaning “to watch,” suggesting that the beast guards treasure, such as mountains of gold coins or gems (2019, Radford, A Life Science Contributor).
In European mythology vanquishing a dragon meant the knight was a grand strong, brave, hero because he destroyed such a treacherous dangerous creature.
So, What About The Fire:
Scholars believe that the fire-breathing element of dragons came from medieval depictions of the mouth of hell; for example, art by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, among others. The entrance to hell was often depicted as a monster’s literal mouth, with the flames and smoke characteristic of Hades belching out. If one believes not only in the literal existence of hell but also the literal existence of dragons as Satanic, the association is quite logical (2019, Radford, A Life Science Contributor).
In most Asian cultures, dragons were depicted as serpents. They didn’t have legs nor wings. Many European cultures gave the creatures two legs ( wyverns) which were rarely fire breathing. Some may argue that wyverns are not considered dragons at all, but that’s a completely different topic.
Dragons themselves are diverse creatures having features from other beasts including the head of an elephant (India myths), lion or bird (Middle Eastern Myths), and numerous heads of snakes as depicted biblically.
Hot and Heavy:
Back to NK Jemisin’s assertion that black women writing about dragons is political. Why would that be the case in the past and modern times? First, for Americans of African descent, the myth of dragons is seen as a white myth or belonging to caucasian cultures. One of the reasons are, you guessed it, slavery.
As slaves, our ancestors had nothing. They were stripped of their cultural identity. They saw the world (America) through the lens of nothingness. They owned nothing not even themselves. They were considered less than animals, property, things. Their skin color was seen as evil, sinful, dangerous, and treacherous.
They were not allowed to read or write so what of myths/religion. Well, myths and religion (Christianity) were used to keep slaves in line. Some slaves were taught that being a slave was a gift and that their works would take them to a better place in the afterlife. Others were taught that Satin would bring down hellfire upon them if they did not do what God intended for them. Thurs a link between Satin and white people was born. The idea that the evil one Satin would bring down hell in fact happened to slaves. They were living in damnation and hell on earth.
So Satin, fire, dragons. Yes, dragons. They begin the believe the creatures were real and that their white masters could call upon them to devour the innocent slaves if they didn’t do what was expected of them. So the knights of myths defeating mighty beast didn’t exist for them. Some slaves also believed they themselves were evil dragons depending on how religion was used to control them.
Fast forward in American Society literature in general still belonged to white people. All we as Americans of African descent could read was about European based fiction. Like many myths, black people were not seen as a part of those worlds. Why would we? We were considered discounted, incapable, unintelligent, cursed (our skin), and overlooked. We were still fighting for equality and equity (political).
The inner city black kid may have never heard of the Chinese myths of dragons though he/she may have heard of the European myths. Again we weren’t represented, but the age of technological advancement would bring about change.
Due to the age of information technology Americans of African descent can now learn about myths and legends across all cultures, including African cultures. Some of those myths include myths of serpent-like dragons as follows:
Akhekhu came from Egyptian mythology that later would cross over to European mythology (Griffin). Masingi was a South African tale. Bida originates from Ghana Folklore. Ayida was based on Haitian and Caribbean Mythology.
So why not dragons? My fascination with the grand beast comes from a mixture of many cultural myths. I see dragons as powerful, intelligent creatures that are capable of destruction but also bringers of peace and equality. I view dragons as a symbol of justice and freedom. The freedom to use the world around you as a canvas or a journal. For young black writers/artists to use dragons to show we are not inferior.
Lastly, to the point of using dragons is more political as it relates to black women. To that, I will simply say we are intelligent, capable, talented, and nurturing human beings. But, we are no damsels in distress. We are brave and powerful beings who are constantly watching and waiting.