It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. Michael Jackson’s hit song rang in my head, slightly annoying, slightly pleasant. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. I definitely hope so, but racism still oppresses many people today, despite valiant efforts to eliminate it. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. Why are people today still against those who don’t look like them? Why wouldn’t you put an image of a black person on a book cover?
A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin, is the first book of the Earthsea series. It tells the story of Sparrowhawk, a young goatherd from Gont. At an early age Sparrowhawk began to learn magic with his aunt, and he eventually travels to the Isle of the Wise, where he fulfills his training to become a mage. But one cool night on a deserted slope, he unleashes something which will eat away at his soul if he does not catch it soon enough.
Since the beginning of time, we have asked ourselves, “Who and what are we?” Some people look to science for answers, others to religion. In Earthsea, people look to their names. Your true name is your true being, and once it is given to you, you know who and what you are. A pebble might be called a rock, a shingle, or a stone, but its true name is tolk. No matter what spell you cast upon it, it will always remain tolk, its true form.
In 1967, when this book was first published, most protagonists were white. Ursula K. Le Guin made most of her characters black, including Sparrowhawk. “I was bucking the tradition, ‘making a statement,’” she wrote in the epilogue of A Wizard of Earthsea (p. 222). Although this makes A Wizard of Earthsea pleasantly unusual, it was met with opposition. Publishers refused to put a black Sparrowhawk on the cover for an entire year. Does it really matter if you’re black or white?
A Wizard of Earthsea is a splendid book, providing ample food for thought. It proved to me that sadly, sometimes it does matter if you’re black or white—but if we work hard enough, Michael Jackson’s song may prove true.
Middle-grade fantasy, ages 10-14.
You can buy this book here.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Afterword. A Wizard of Earthsea, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Michael Jackson. “Black or White.” Black or White, 25 June 1990