Thursday, October 27, 2016

Chicanonautica: Tom Swift and His Old-Fashioned Racism

I had a couple of the Tom Swift, Jr. books when I was a kid. I don't remember much about them, except that the author – Victor Appleton II, who turns out is a pseudonym owned by the publisher – kept mentioning the Blond Inventor's hair color, as if it were the source of his superior intelligence.

Nowadays, Tom Sr., who was also the son of an inventor, whose books were written by Victor Appelton (another house pseudonym) can be accessed through Project Gutenberg.

I find obsolete pop culture fascinating, so I downloaded the first novel in the series, Tom Swift and His Motorcycle, or Fun and Adventures On the Road

The most remarkable thing about the book is the one black character, Eradicate Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln Sampson, usually referred to a Eradicate, or Rad for short. Tom's driving style consists of going as fast as he can, and honking his horn if anyone is in the way. He literally runs into Eradicate with his motorcycle. This sets up a subplot in which Eradicate keeps acquiring more and more advanced technology, but can't figure it out, so Tom has to explain it to him. The impression is made that, with the help of sympathetic and patient white men, negroes just may be able to adapt to life in the twentieth century.

This being 1910, Afrofuturism is a long way off.

Curious about how Mexico and Mexicans were depicted in the series, I next downloaded Tom Swift In the City of Gold, or Marvelous Adventures Underground

This one begins with Tom getting news from white explorers in Africa about the discovery of “gold images” that seem to be from Mexico – one statue holds a globe with las Américas on it, and has a crude map scratched on its base. Tom organizes an expedition, not to find out if there was ancient travel between Africa and Mexico, but to, in the tradition of Cortés and other conquistadors, grab the gold to help finance his new inventions. Of course, resources in places like Africa and Mexico are seen as fair game for white men to come and get, especially if they have an airship.

At first Eradicate – whom Tom has hired as handyman/cook/comic relief/airship mechanic – isn't keen about going to Mexico, but once assured that he'll be able to take away all the gold he can carry, he's game.

Tom has to hire Mexicans to help him with his expedition through the jungles (yeah, sounds more like Mayan territory, even though the word “Aztec” is used) to the lost city of Poltec. For some unknown reason, the Mexicans speak rather ordinary English, while Eradicate's negro dialect is lovingly rendered: “A'right, Massa Tom, I shorely will.” Though it might have been that the person hired to be Victor Appleton for this one simply didn't know much about things Mexican, except for popular stereotypes: “Another reason why some of the Mexicans were of little service was because they were so lazy. They preferred to sit and shade and smoke innumerable cigarettes, or sleep.”

Poltec is guarded by headhunters, degenerate Aztecs who provide the action-packed, climactic chase. And it turns out to be a fantastic underground city, suggesting an advanced technology and sophisticated culture, that Tom and his crew are unimpressed with. Tom thinks nothing of decapitating a statue, but then he was a inventor looking for financing, rather than an archeologist.

Today he would be running crowdfunding campaigns.

Some people will find these books offensive, but I think they need to be preserved. Racism should be dragged into the light of day, exposed, and dissected.We need to know where our culture came from, because a lot of this is still alive and well, and running for president. 

Ernest Hogan, the Father of Chicano Science Fiction has already voted via early ballot.

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