Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Re:mixed people (pun intended)

In this course we have looked at a few different stories that discuss what people in the Middle Ages may have thought about children born of interracial couples and the reflection skin color has on character. In The King of Tars the child that is born of a Christian mother and a Saracen (Muslim) father is literally a formless, monster baby. In the Man of Laws tale the child magically becomes pure white after being baptized.

One story we haven't read in class, though Professor Blake has mentioned it several times, is Wolfram Von Eschenbach's Parzival. Eschenbach takes a contrarian stance on the issue of interracial marriage in the form of Parzival's half brother Feirfiz. Feirfiz is the product of Parzival's Father's first marriage to the Moorish Queen Belecane. Because he has a European father and a Middle Eastern mother Feirfiz is said to have been born spotted. Eschenbach describes Feirfiz's complexion as being made up of white and black patches. His appearance is also compared to that of a magpie which sort of makes sense.

Despite Feirfiz's unusual complexion, he is never treated differently and is said to be quite handsome. He goes on to win a reputation for himself as the best knight in his land. He eventually takes his knighting skills over to Europe and unknowingly engages in a duel with his half brother. After Parzival breaks his sword over Feirfiz's helmet, the speckled knight refuses to continue because he would be forced to fight an unarmed man. The duel is declared a tie and the the combatants realize that they are half-brothers and become close friends. 

So, if Feiriz was so great despite being born of interracial marriage and not being a miraculous convert, why would Eschenbach create a speckled character? Perhaps the inspiration for his character really did have uneven pigmentation. There is a condition known as vitiligo that causes depigmentation of parts of the skin. This condition is fairly rare, affecting less than 1%, of the world's population. But, it is not uncommon and can affect people of any race. 

In 1986 Michael Jackson was diagnosed with vitiligo, a rare non-contagious disease characterized by pale patches on the skin. The causes are not known, but a range of genetic, auto-immune, and environmental causes are suspected.

Over the years Michael Jackson evolved from a charming, young, obviously African American performer into a different looking sort of personal altogether. It is thought that Jackson's case of vitiligo was a result of his use of skin bleaching products and a general lifetime effort of "beautification." Vitiligo is not always or caused by skin bleaching but it may be a contributing factor in some cases.

Music producer Quincy Jones, who worked with Jackson at the beginning of his transformation said, "It's ridiculous, man! Chemical peels and all of it. And I don't understand it. But he obviously didn't want to be black." Jackson's transformation is closest modern comparison to some of the stories we have read in which babies become white due to baptism (rebirth in Anglo-Christian culture). 

Maybe Feirfiz was a real person and Eschenbach assumed that their skin was that way due to mixed heritage. Maybe Eschenbach knew someone who had vitiligo and wanted to write a story in which someone who had speckled skin was as awesome as someone who was white. One thing is for sure though, the myths that people believe about character being a product or reflection of skin color still exist and in real life transformations aren't miraculous. 

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