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Tarzan versus Tarzan
Part 1 of 4
(Or, Will the Real Ape-Man
Please Stand Up and Be Counted?):
Investigations in American Mythology
by F. X. Blisard
F. X. Blisard is a freelance writer and editor living in the Trenton area. Among the many books on African and African-American affairs he has edited are: Fulcrums of Change: Origins of Racism in the Americas and Other Essays by Jan Carew (AWP 1988); Race and Reparations: A Black Perspective for the Twenty-First Century by Clarence J. Munford (AWP 1996); The Making of a Racist State: British Imperialism and the Union of South Africa, 1875-1910 by Bernard M. Magubane (AWP 1996); and Shakespeare in Africa (and Other Venues): Import and the Appropriation of Culture by Lemuel Johnson (AWP 1998).
Tarzan versus Tarzan--Part 1:
Tarzan--Not Just for Kids Anymore (As If He Ever Was):
The Checkered Career of a Much-Misunderstood Superhero
by F. X. Blisard"Countless billions died before the first black man broke through his prison walls. Prompted by curiosity, he broke open other shells and the peopling of Barsoom [i.e., Mars] began."
--The Gods of Mars, Chapter 6
In the thirty-odd years since first I read these strange words, they have come to seem eerily prophetic of the pioneering role played by Africans and African-Americans in the series of liberation movements that have swept across the latter half of the twentieth century. Stranger yet, the words were penned way back in 1912 by a fledgeling author named Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950), who had just sold his first two stories -- both tales of violent, darwinian struggle for survival and dominance among various races and species in environments that were as alien as possible to the white, middle-class, middle American author and his white, middle-class, middle-American readers. The two heroes introduced in those two stories -- Captain John Carter, Warlord of Mars and John Clayton, Lord Greystoke (of "British West Africa") -- have barely survived the more "polite" but no less darwinian struggle between their creator and the nameless forces of the modern mass media. Poor Captain Carter's place in the public eye has long since been usurped by a legion of copycat heroes, from Flash Gordon to Luke Skywalker. Lord Greystoke, however, has enjoyed successive incarnations (novels, movies, a syndicated comic-strip, several comic-book and TV franchises, even a Saturday-morning cartoon show) to emerge as the strangest and most popular (and certainly the most controversial) of twentieth-century folk-heroes -- Tarzan of the Apes.
Tarzan! The mere name strikes terror in the hearts of ivory-poachers and treasure-seekers in some mythical "deepest Africa." Sadly, it also triggers an infuriating mix of emotions in the hearts of black men and women in the real world. Recalling their own childhood hunger for heroes, their inevitable fascination with this African lone ranger (the only publically approved "African" hero in the white man's media), and their gradual realization that Tarzan was actually being used as powerful "juju" in the cause of white supremacy, they naturally fear for their own children's self-esteem. With all those old MGM-Tarzan re-runs on TV every weekend and yet another Tarzan movie (T. & the Lost City) coming out on video soon, what's a brother (and/or sister) to do?
I'll tell you what to do--read, baby, read! Read everything you can get your hands on that Mr. Burroughs ever wrote; only then will you be in a position to know whether the man was a racist or not. For starters, try his first two novels (A Princess of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes) and their respective sequels (The Gods of Mars and The Return of Tarzan), all of which are still in print and available (on demand) at your local bookstore and/or public library. If you're at all into science fiction, Princess is sure to appeal to you whatever your ethnic background, as it is the prototype of just about every subsequent sci-fi fantasy-adventure tale ever told. Apes, however, will just as surely prove very difficult reading for any person of color, at least from Chapter 9 onwards, as that portion of the novel portrays in stark detail the increasing conflict between the adolescent i.e., immature) Tarzan and the longsuffering citizens of "the Village of Mbonga." This is hardly "kid stuff," but then Burroughs never intended to write "juvenile literature." He wanted his work to be regarded as serious, adult fiction; but, of course, during his lifetime (thanks largely to Hollywood), it never was. Even today, the amount of socio-political commentary contained in his works is just beginning to be appreciated, even though such equally "fantastical" classics as Gulliver's Travels and Alice in Wonderland are universally regarded (and taught) as works of satire. There is, however, a mounting body of evidence (surfacing in recent years from the Burroughs family archives at Tarzana, California) that Edgar Rice Burroughs--in his Tarzan novels as much as his other flights of fantasy -- was attempting to engage in the same international "racial dialogue" that such disparate authors as Mark Twain, E. W. Blyden, E. D. Morel, and W. E. B. DuBois were conducting in their literary and journalistic musings at the dawn of the twentieth century.
One such piece of evidence in particular--a scathing parody of a well-known poem of Rudyard Kipling's--would actually seem to place Burroughs squarely in the ranks of a (now largely forgotten) late-19th-century anti-imperialist movement headed by Twain himself. The anonymous parody, titled "The Black Man's Burden," appeared in the April 8th, 1899 edition of The Pocatello Tribune, just around the time that the young Ed Burroughs was leaving the town of Pocatello, Idaho, where he had been struggling for nearly a year to manage a general store. At least a dozen such parodies (some anonymous, some by well-known political commentators of the day) had already appeared in various newspapers and magazines nation-wide, all in reaction to the February 5th, 1899 publication, in The New York Sun, of Kipling's pro-colonialist anthem, "The White Man's Burden." (see: Zwick, Jim, ed. Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898-1935
[http://www.boondocksnet.com/ail98-35.html ];updated: April 4, 2000) Kipling's poem ostensibly "celebrated" America's recent victory in the Spanish-American War, but clearly expressed British support for the "expansionist" policies of the McKinley Administration (and, by implication, the birth of Anglo-Americanimperialism"). Clippings of both Kipling's poem and the anonymous Pocatello parody were found in Burroughs' scrapbook during research in the Tarzana archives in the early 1970s and are published in the authorized biography, Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan by Irwin Porges (Brigham Young University Press, 1975). Porges makes a strong case for attributing authorship of the Pocatello parody to the then 24-year-old Burroughs. Whether the young Ed Burroughs did not write the poem in question but merely admired it and saved it for inspiration (and who else in Pocatello, Idaho in 1899 could have written it?), or whether he actually did write it but for personal reasons wished to remain anonymous, it does seem clear that at some level he identified with the ideas and sentiments expressed therein--which, in Pocatello, Idaho in 1899, was reason enough to seek anonymity.
The shock which such a positive juxtaposition of the syllables "Tarzan" and "racial dialogue" is sure to register in contemporary intellectual circles is a testimony to the manipulative power of modern mass media --beginning, of course, with "Hollywood," which, ever since the very first "Tarzan" motion picture in 1918, has been altering Burroughs' original material in ways that were as unacceptable to the author as they were (and still are) to African Americans. To those who are familiar with the man's actual works, however, the discovery of a long-lost anti-imperialist parody by Ed Burroughs will come as no surprise whatsoever--nor will several other related facts disclosed decades ago by his biographer, but which, to date, have eluded the attention of his critics:
A. The virtual adoption of a black Civil War veteran (James M. Johnson) into t he Burroughs family (1865-1888) during Ed's most formative years;
B. Ed's childhood doodlings (1885) and post-adolescent drawings (1896) displaying his sympathies with oppressed Native Americans;
C. Ed's lifelong admiration of the legendary "Buffalo Soldiers" under whom he served briefly during his stint in the U.S. Cavalry (1896);
D. The abrupt "about face" in race relations in the first "Tarzan" sequel (1912)and the introduction of a "black supremacist" Martian society in the first "Barsoom" sequel (1912).
These "newly discovered" data (especially the poem "The Black Man's Burden: A Parody") are more than mere isolated facts. They put all of Burroughs' published writings (especially his Tarzan novels) in a whole new light. Perhaps 21st-century students of race relations will find in those writings insights which the 20th century could not.
[Next issue--Part 2: Tarzan Friend...Not Kill All Black People: An Inquiry into the Politics of the Bogeyman Business]
The United States and
the Philippine Islands, 1898*
by Rudyard Kipling
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Take up the white man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half-child.
*Originally published in
Take up the white man's burden,
The yoke ye sought to spurn;
And spurn your fathers' customs;
Your fathers' temples burn.
O learn to love and honor
The white God's favored sons.
Forget the white-haired fathers
Fast lashed to mouths of guns.
**Originally published, anonymously, in The Pocatello Tribune, April 8, 1899, but preceded by a tanta-lizing editorial note:
"The following clever lines, in imitation of a recent very celebrated poem, are the composition of one of the well-known young men of Pocatello.--Ed."
(Pocatello is a town in south-eastern Idaho where Burroughs worked from June 1898 to March 1899.) Information courtesy of the Idaho State Historical Society, Boise, Idaho.
Clippings of both this poem and Kipling's were found in Burroughs' scrapbook, in the course of research in the Burroughs family archives in Tarzana, California, in the early1970s, and were reprinted in the authorized biography, Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan by Irwin Porges (Brigham Young University Press, 1975).
Samples of diverging opinion on the burning issue of the day, from the Op/Ed page of the April 8, 1899 edition of The Pocatello Tribune. (Photocopies courtesy of The Idaho State Historical Society, Boise.)
0457 MEET FRANK X. BLISARD: Bio ~ Photos ~ Contents
ERBzine 0291 Tarzan vs Tarzan I
ERBzine 0292 Tarzan vs Tarzan II
ERBzine 0293 Tarzan vs Tarzan III
ERBzine 0286 Disney's Multicultural Gold (Tarzan vs Tarzan IV)
ERBzine 0359 Memoirs of Mars ~ Blisard Art & Nkima Commentary
ERBzine 0280 JACK OF TIME: ERB Time Shift Novel Intro