By Guest Contributor Kendra James
There are five stories I would love to see added to Supernatural Canon:
- A Gettysburg battlefield ghost haunting focusing on one of the many Civil War era tales.
- Anything dealing with the Salem Witch Trials and Tituba.
- A Gullah or Southern African-American story, like The Talking Eggs that takes Sam and Dean to the Cape Fear region or lower, into South Carolina.
- Anything that deals with a haunting dating back to the days of slavery, in the vein of The Legend of Pin Oak.
- A trickster story where the trickster isn’t a white male, but some personification of Anansi, or Br’er Rabbit. (Or, in my wildest dreams, a Heyoka personification, but that is neither here or now and probably far too complicated for network television…)
Unfortunately, after six seasons I’ve given up on ever seeing these or anything that reflects the folklore and legends I grew up with as an African-American kid.
For those of you not in the know, Supernatural is a show about two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, who travel across America with an arsenal in the back of their old ’67 Impala so that they can battle various supernatural beings across the country. Aside from the good looking male leads — a staple of any CW show, here played surprisingly well by Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki — the thing that kept me coming back when I started watching was the focus on playing around with American Folklore and its use of America itself as a setting. For a show shot in Vancouver it captures the essence of the country with a surprising attention to detail. From the fabled western highways to the roadside diners to the small country towns, America is as much of a character as the characters from her folklore.
Well, part of America, anyway, and therein lies my problem.
When I was younger, I was terrified of the Boo-Hag, and even after devouring pages of folklore and horror tales, I still found them scarier than anything Anne Rice could come up with. Curious about Tarbaby and Br’er Rabbit, I sought out the rest of the Uncle Remus stories after being introduced to them by my mother. Somewhere in my search for tales of supernatural, I vividly remember reading that one might meet the devil at the crossroads to make a deal for all the riches in the world in exchange for your soul. But I also remember laughing to myself when I got to the end of the story only to find out that the devil could be so easily fooled, handed the sole of a shoe instead of the soul he really wanted. The lesson that the devil could only take your soul once stuck with me throughout childhood.
Most of the folklore I could retell came directly from Southern African-American or Gullah Island culture and a lot of it was first recorded during or soon after The Civil War. I was a reader growing up and had books full of folklore and supernatural stories collected by Patricia McKissack, Virginia Hamilton, and Zora Neal Hurston, but having family history solidly rooted in both cultures and a mother who actively read and told me the tales certainly helped ground my interest. Though the themes explored in each of the stories mentioned are somewhat universal in the realm of folklore, fables and morality tales, I enjoyed them because they were all about characters who shared my history and looked like me.
Though they shared lessons with the lore of other cultures, these stories were often collected, written and told in dialect (perhaps more accurately when Hurston was collecting folklore with the Federal Writers Project during the Depression, than when Br’er Rabbit’s scribe, Chandler Harris, took the job upon himself according to some like author Alice Walker. Her ‘Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine’ is an excellent read) unique to the African-American South. Combined with the dialect, the period of enslavement the stories emerge from make them uniquely American. It’s safe to say that without the American history of slavery, the former slave Uncle Remus would not have become quite the character he did.
Supernatural occasionally offers references to Native American mythology (or even, with the episode “Wendigo,” an hour dedicated to the Algonguian wendigo myth — still, you’ll rarely ever see a Native American on the show. My count is once, in the episode “Bugs”), though if we’re luckier still we’ll get a reference to some aspect of Black (not necessarily African-American) folklore, usually from some mention of hoodoo or voodoo. But as rarely as Native mythology is mentioned, any mention of African-American folklore is non-existent. For a show that seems to pride itself on it’s Americanness (again, American cars, American guns, American rock, roadside diners, road trips down scenic western high ways, apple pie, family loyalty to a fault, and everything that makes you wonder why this isn’t Sarah Palin’s favorite show) I find it amazing that they’ve yet to touch on the oral history of a group of people or a point in American history that not only shaped modern America, but gave way (directly and indirectly) to a huge chunk of American folklore.
Like one of my other favorite CW shows, The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural is a show that strives to root itself in the American past while at the same time conveniently ignoring said past. The stories I grew up with will most likely never be featured on the show, even as the sixth season steers back to the Monster of the Week theme, because acknowledging African-American folklore and giving an episode to the Boo Hag might mean having Sam or Dean talk about –or god forbid even explain— the past that so much of that folklore comes from.
This continues a trend that I’ve noticed in way too many of my favorite television shows, leading me to believe that a show runner’s train of thoughts must go something like, “Well, if we have some black people in there on the periphery, maybe even throw them an entire hour of focus once a season, then we never have to go any deeper than that.” If that fails, and a small group of fans does complain about the lack of inclusion or diversity, the next excuse is always, “this is a certain narrative about a certain group of people, hence why we’re not focusing on your group. We’re not excluding you on purpose, there’s just no place for you in this story!” (The latter being Matthew Weiner of Mad Men fame’s personal favorite excuse.)
As far as I can tell using my Google-fu, show runner Erik Kripke has never been forced to publicly answer to any racial or diversity issues concerning Supernatural, so we don’t have any record of how he might respond to hearing that his show has a problem. We don’t even know if he knows his show has a problem (though I’m assuming he doesn’t because if he knew, he would have fixed it. Right? Right??) Maybe I’m not giving him enough credit as an aware individual, but I can’t help but think Kripke assumes he doesn’t have to delve into African-American folklore –saving himself from the awkward question of the African-American past– because he’s given us two episodes: “Route 666” and “Crossroad Blues.”
Here, he says, I’ll give you an episode about a racist truck in a formerly segregated town (never mind that they never say the words ‘segregated’ or ‘Jim Crow’, and the word ‘racist’ is said twice, which I find amazing for an hour-long episode whose plot is comes about completely because of the Segregated South. Or that while the episode tries to disguise itself as a kinda-sorta treatment on Civil Rights, it comes down to the idea that three Black men killed a white man, causing a haunted racist truck to terrorize a bunch of innocent people and thus still managing to make the Black men partially villainous and responsible– something Supernatural loves to do) and next, a full season later, one episode featuring a three minute flashback to the death of blues musician Robert Johnson which is going to end with him being violently ripped apart by hellhounds. Neither of these episodes focus on any kind of African-American or Black folklore specifically, but they are an indication as to how much examining of the American past Supernatural is willing to do.
If a show has to use euphemisms like, “There was a time when this town wasn’t too friendly to all its citizens,” and “this was forty years ago!” to even just allude to the existence of segregation (both uttered in episode “Route 666”), I can only imagine that dealing with a Monster of the Week that makes them think about the realities of slavery would induce a writer’s room full of sweaty palms, nervous looks, and awkward stares.
I’ve read before that I’m being greedy in demanding for representation on certain shows, and trying to wiggle my way into a narrative that is not my own. I’m perfectly willing to admit that this show is about two white brothers from Kansas– there’s no denying that. But it’s also a show that embraces America and Americana to a greater extent than anything else I watch. Sam and Dean travel everywhere from New Jersey, to California, to Texas, To Mississippi exploring folklore, urban legends, and even religion everywhere they go; they also happen to spend a significant amount of time below the Mason-Dixon line. Their father, John Winchester, their pseudo-father, Bobby, and the other older Hunters (some of whom are even Black, like the character Rufus) they run into have been doing it even longer than they have. There is absolutely no reason why I, as an African American, should not have my stories represented on this show. Yet, in six seasons they’ve only managed to run into one ghost story that deals specifically with African-American issues, and have yet to run into or hear about any folklore or legends with African-American origins or themes.
I’m not being greedy as much as Erik Kripke and company are being unrealistic. And if they’re really that hard up for ideas (which, hey, it’s a creative staff of five white males and one white female, so it’s possible?) I invite them to check out Pat McKissack’s Dark Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural and Virginia Hamilton’s Her Stories. They might not be stories about H.H. Holmes’ ghost, but told the right way, with a little of that “Bloody Mary” episode CGI, they’re just as terrifying and, more importantly, just as relevant.