The Black Experience 2.0: What Happened to Ben — Blackness and Horror

Hello and welcome to The Black Experience 2.0: Giving White Comfort The Backseat.

The Black Experience 2.0 is the second edition of The Black Experience which was held last year in February. The Black Experience is a month long blog series held in honour of Black History Month, which features Black authors and Black bookish content creators and aims at highlighting Black stories and experiences.

TBE 2.0 is especially about giving Black people the space to be fully them and share their stories while centring themselves and their experience of Blackness and without care for the white gaze.

Today on TBE 2.0, horror author, Sylvester Barzey (he/him), talks about the alienation of Black people and Black characters in modern horror and the whitewashing of the genre.


For those of you that don’t know, I’m a horror addict. My love is for everything and anything that falls within the genre, so much so that I started writing within the genre. I didn’t go with haunted houses or serial killers; I went with a section of the genre that I believed was open-minded and accepting to BIPOC within the fan base. I became a post-apocalyptic zombie author and boy was I ever wrong about my beloved genre.

Now, you might say, but Sylvester you silly goose you’re Black, the horror genre has no safe place for you. Normally you would be right, Black voices within the horror genre are non-existent but I feel like they have grown and will continue to grow, but I wasn’t going after the whole genre. I wasn’t trying to take Karen and Ken’s bloody basket and run with it. I stepped into a genre that I believed would be safer for minorities because minorities built the genre.

Look at any zombie author or writer and they will normally cite Night of The Living Dead as the reason they got into the genre, a movie made by George A. Romero (son of a Lithuanian mother and Spanish father) starring Duane Jones (son of a strong Black woman) these two New Yorkers made the movie that became the foundation for the modern zombie genre. So, I assumed the genre was in fact safe and used to minorities within the house they built. What I didn’t factor in is throughout the years since Romero and Jones gave us Ben in Night of The Living Dead, the White fan base has slowly removed strong minorities from the head of the genre to side characters. Most zombie books now have White, ex-military or survivalist major characters who come across a minority in their journey, but you can really only tell they’re a minority by whatever stereotype the authors threw in.

If you look at the Amazon charts for zombie fiction, you see very little non-White characters and writers. Romero the man that people praise for giving birth to the genre had Strong Black Leads in all three of his Dead movies and a Strong Black Villain in his fourth but somehow his fan base didn’t get the memo of this being a trope within the genre. Which is hard to understand because every other horror genre seems to rehash their tropes to death, but having a strong Black character was just one that the zombie genre left in the past, no matter how hard its creator tried to include Black actors?

Now, while many people have modeled their worlds or used Romero’s groundbreaking film as inspiration, few have adapted the use of Strong Black Leads within their worlds. There are some exceptions such as LT Warren in Z Nation and Michonne in The Walking Dead, but given the gap between 1968 and the creation of those characters, you would think there would be many more examples.

Let’s look at some modern examples of how White creators have pushed Black characters to the side in the zombie genre. We consider the Walking Dead the revitalization of the zombie genre, and Robert Kirkman himself has said the comic series was like a love letter to Romero’s Night of The Living Dead, so much so that Kirkman was going to use the same name. While Kirkman pays a lot of tributes to Romero’s creation in his comics, none are strong Black characters until later on in the series when we meet characters like Tyrese & Michonne. The first Black characters we meet are Morgan and his son, but they’re mainly a plot device to explain the issues in that universe. Kirkman’s introduction of Morgan is far from what Romero did with Ben.

The Walking Dead show was even worse for Black characters. They stripped most of the ones that came from the comics of everything that made them great, iconic scenes were cut or given to other characters. Then came the running joke that there could only be one Black male on the show at a time, because of the older Black character being killed off once they introduce a newer one.

It seems when something becomes successful off of the help and labor of minorities; the concept is white washed and replaced with white characters. Is it because the creators are just writing what they know? Or do they buy into the excuse that Black led stories won’t sell? 28 Days Later kick started a zombie craze. The key characters were a White Male and Black female. Now after the success of that project you would think they wouldn’t mess with the formula much, but in 28 Weeks Later we follow a White family as they try to overcome the apocalypse. What happened to the minor representation they had before? Who sat down and decided they wanted to remove one whole element that reaches a whole other fan base?

The Whitewashing of the genre isn’t just in Hollywood movies, but all throughout zombie media. The need to include themselves within the genre has slowly polarized it to the minority community. Now when people think about zombies and the apocalypse it’s a picture of a white survivor overcoming extreme odds but there were no more extreme odds than Ben, a Black man in the 60s trying to take control of a situation from a White man, while the dead surrounded them.

I know a handful of BIPOC within the zombie genre and when it comes time for collaborations for anthologies or marketing, it never seems like they involve those BIPOCs. Much like Hollywood’s horror space, I see slow change coming within the zombie genre, but it’s still disheartening that a space minorities built was taken over and now we’re looked at as outsiders, trying to break in. I just want to say on behalf of all zombie BIPOC authors… We’re taking the genre back, one story at a time.

 

About Sylvester Barzey 

Sylvester Barzey is a best selling horror and fantasy author who grew up in Bronx, NY and was later transpalented to Lawrence, GA. A military veteran with an addiction to all things horror, Sylvester’s goal is to shine a spotlight on BIPOC characters within the horror/fantasy genre. You can find Sylvester at http://www.sylvesterbarzey.com

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