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The Hunger Games: Blacks and science fiction

William Covington | 4/11/2012, 5 p.m.

When author Suzanne Collins created the "The Hunger Games" trilogy, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in the country of Panem, she simultaneously created social debates on race. The fictional country consists of a wealthy capital and twelve surrounding districts. District 11 is the home of Rue and Thresh, who are supporting characters in both the book and the movie, and it is depicted as an area near what had once been Atlanta, Ga.

District 11 residents are portrayed as being dark-skinned and having brown eyes. They are unskilled and are housed in small rundown shacks. They specialize in harvesting fruit, managing crops and picking cotton.

They work from sunrise to sunset. The inhabitants--known as citizens of the district--have knowledge of herbs and keep a supply of medicinal leaves on hand for insect bites. Children work alongside adults and are excellent tree climbers, so they are used to pick fruit from branches that otherwise would be unreachable.

Like in South, citizens of the district are sometimes lynched, and everyone in town knows the song "The Hanging Tree."

If any of the residents are caught stealing crops they are publicly whipped. District 11 maintains a large police force known as peacekeepers whose main duty is to suppress the residents. The fence surrounding the district is 30 feet high and topped with razor wire. Metal plates are located along its perimeter to prevent anyone from digging underneath the fence and escaping.

If it sounds similar to a history you've heard or known before, join the club.

"The description of Thresh and Rues' hometown, District 11, has antebellum South written all over it," says African American science-fiction aficionado and USC Professor Javon Johnson, who has read all three novels. Johnson says the American Library Association in its annual report on the state of the nation's libraries ranked "The Hunger Games" third on its list of inappropriate reading and does not want to stock the trilogy in school libraries due to its racist and sexist views. But Johnson loved the movie and feels that it is a reflection of a part of our society that once existed.

The nation of Panem is governed by a repressive system, where citizens barely survive. Everyone is starving, with the exception of the people in the capital. As punishment for an attempted rebellion against the capital, one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district are selected by lottery to participate in the hunger games, a televised event. Participants must fight on an island controlled by the capital. Only one participant may remain alive.

Former motion picture industry prop and model maker and science fiction buff Alfred Johnson has also read the "The Hunger Games" trilogy, and has also worked on the movies "Aliens," "Men in Black," and was a prop builder on the NBC television series, "I Spy."

The movie has become tremendously successful both commercially and socially. It has surpassed $300 million in sales. It has spawned a rash of Tweets, e-mail and blog complaints. Many Whites, who probably have not read the book, are upset that Rue and Thresh are portrayed as Black.