Science fiction has been a part of the Black American experience from the first moment slaves looked to the skies to follow the "drinking gourd" North to freedom. To enslaved people ripped from their homeland and dragged to a new world, the idea that the stars would lead them to an unknown land of freedom might have seemed a fantastic fiction, an imaginary hope. That the symbol of freedom was both a distant star and a symbol of the African communal past is no small irony. The tension of black existence has always been a pull between the hope of the future and the magical legacy of the past; or to put it another way, between science fiction and fantasy.
As a lifelong fan of science fiction, fantasy, and everything fantastic, and as a young black man, I've always thought that speculative fiction is a largely untapped and misunderstood avenue for expression in the black experience. The genre allows one to explore other worlds where the "laws" we currently live under, both social and physical, can be challenged or replaced by the creations of the imagination. And in an abstract sense, anyone who imagines that the world does not have to remain the way it is, who dreams of a better world, is creating a fiction of the imagination.
And yet why is it that African Americans are so little a part of genre science fiction and fantasy today? Blacks of course are far from absent from speculative fiction (the term commonly used to describe the whole of science fiction, fantasy, fairy tales, horror, magic realism, etc.). The groundbreaking anthology Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000), edited by Sheree R. Thomas, helped set the record straight about the rich contribution of black writers and fans to speculative fiction. But science fiction has been largely dominated by white writers, fans, and editors, more so even than American publishing at large.
So why not more black writers? And what draws the few existing black writers of speculative fiction to this largely white field?
New Worlds for Old
Of course, not only do black writers increase black fandom, but black writers also emerge from black fans. Every young Octavia Butler reader is a potential genre writer of the future. That is definitely true of today's black speculative fiction writers. Butler, Samuel R. Delaney, Nab Hopkinson, and others were all young fans before they became writers. Authors write what they like to read. At least good ones do.
Walter Mosley, author of the popular Easy Rawlins mysteries, has written a few science fiction novels in recent years. Mosley says, "In science fiction you don't have to accept the world the way it is." 'What more could black people ask for? The world "the way it is" has rarely been good to black folk, so why not exchange new worlds for old?
Butler's novel Wild Seed is a wonderful example of fantastic writing, and of a speculative approach to issues of race and gender. Doro is an immortal who possesses others' bodies, killing the host. He therefore has no one gender, race, or color, but hops from identity to identity. He uses his terrifying power to lord over other humans with seemingly supernatural traits in order to breed another immortal presumably to spend eternity with. Anyanwu is a shapeshifter, and is possibly immortal herself (or at least ageless). She also can be any race or gender by shifting her body's biological makeup. In Anyanwu, Dora finds a true peer, and someone who doesn't fear him as easily as others do. The relationship between the two characters--hostile, tender, violent, and potentially redemptive--questions assumptions about race and racism, power, and morality.
According to Hopkinson in her essay "Dark Ink," blacks do write speculative fiction, but "it's unlikely that you'll find it on the SF shelves in your bookstores. Novels such as Gloria Naylor's Mama Day or Devorah Major's An Open Weave end up on the shelves for black authors, not in the SF section." Toni Morrison's internationally best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved could be added to that list.
Charles R. Saunders in his essay "Why Blacks Should Read (and Write) Science Fiction," published in Dark Matter, wrote "[Blacks] have to bring some to get some in outer space and otherspace, as we have done here on Earth. Just as our ancestors sang their songs in a strange land when they were kidnapped and sold from Africa, we must, now and in the future, continue to sing our songs under strange stars.
Black to the Future
The shortage of black speculative fiction writers and fans in no way means there is a lack of interest in outer space, flying saucers, or extraterrestrials in the black community. Quite the contrary, Black America was not free from the futuristic vogue that began with the technological advances of the early 20th century.
Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam (NOI), taught of the existence of "the mother of all planes," a huge spacecraft with thousands of smaller planes inside, that would play a role in the millennial liberation of the black people. "The Mother Plane is made of the finest steel in Asia," wrote Muhammad. "It was made on the Island of Nippon (Japan) in 1929, and also took flight that same year. Black, Brown, Red and Yellow Scientists built the Mother plane. Her flying ability is 9,000 miles per hour up or down, to or fro, in any direction without making a complete directional turn. Her contents are 1,500 small circular planes, as the devil calls them, FLYING SAUCERS."
George S. Schuyler's novel Black No More. Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940, published in 1931, explored the consequences of a technology which makes it possible to turn blacks white.
And there are many other examples from popular culture of black people's fascination with space and the future. Free jazz master Sun Ra claimed to be from Saturn and his Arkestra's wild, space-infused symphonies were good evidence. George Clinton's 1970s innovating bands Parliament and Funkadelic brought us such spaced-out albums as Cosmic Slop, Mothership Connection, The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, and so many more.
Sci-Fi and Sci-Fact
I am not sure what personally drew me to science fiction, but I always felt alone as young black kid who loved Star Trek and the novels of Arthur C. Clarke. I wasn't alone, though. The character Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek television series was a symbol for blacks long before I was born. Martin Luther King, Jr. is said to have personally commended actress Nichelle Nichols for her role in increasing the visibility of blacks in U.S. society. While the 1 960s Star Trek looks awfully white in today's eyes, the makeup and interaction of the cast as well as the antiracist themes of many of the episodes were a reflection of the racial revolution occurring at the time.
A few years ago, an older black man handed me a leaflet in downtown Oakland. "Government satellites are aimed at our communities," read the flyer. It also sported an implausible picture of said satellite and attributed everything from infant mortality rates to poor dietary practices on orbital bombardment of some sort. I had not met a fellow science fiction fan, but I began to realize science fiction was science fact for black people. I am sure the street-preaching "race men" of 1 920s Harlem warned of the white man's use of technology to destroy Black America.
In fact an essential part of the black experience with technology is ambivalence. Futurism is a hard sell for a people who have been harmed by science and technology as much as helped. The Tuskegee experiments, forced sterilization programs, and environmental racism are all good examples of science gone bad for black folks and other people of color. Derrick Bell's "The Space Traders" from his collection of essays Faces at the Bottom of the Well asks, "Would white America trade blacks for the boon of alien technology?"
Bell's answer is yes, and his story ends with the entire U.S. black population being herded onto alien ships headed for an unknown destiny. The story's ending is a mirror image of the mass theft of Africans to the Americas during the Atlantic slave trade.
Lessons from Feminist SF
Feminist and other critiques of gender in science fiction and fantasy are much more developed than a racial analysis of the genre. Women, who were also at the fringes of science fiction writing and fandom well into the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s ,have much more readily taken to the field, winning not only place at the table but critical acclaim and a base of young women readers. WisCon is the annual feminist science fiction convention and the James Tiptree, Jr. award is granted annually to works of speculative fiction that "expand or explore our understanding of gender."
James Tiptree, Jr. was the pseudonym of Alice B. Sheldon, a writer who won acclaim in the genre for works that bent gender barriers as much as her pen name. There are also many recognizable and beloved works of science fiction that directly confronted our notions of sex, gender, and sexuality. Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin, The Female Man by Joanna Russ, and Walk to the End of the World by Suzy McKee Charnas are just a few of the feminist novels that reached beyond science fiction fans and impacted contemporary gender politics and the emerging feminist movement.
While there is not yet a field of "anti-racist science fiction," and speculative writers of color are still few and far between, times are changing. A group of science fiction fans and writers have founded the Carl Brandon Society, which is "dedicated to addressing the representation of people of color in the fantastical genres such as science fiction, fantasy and horror," and which publishes a list of works in the genre by writers of color. Prominent writers such as Nab Hopkinson and Cecilia Tan are on the Carl Brandon Steering Committee. Brandon was a fictional SF fan of color whose persona white writer Terry Carr adopted to mess with the minds of the science fiction community in the 1950s and '60s.
Lately there has been a recent growing intellectual interest in black science fiction writers and writing and generally in issues of race and racism within the genre. In 1998, the first African American Science Fiction Conference was held at Clark Atlanta University. In 2003, the conference "Blacks in Science Fiction: A New Frontier" conference will be held March 27-28 at Howard University. FEMSPEC, "an interdisciplinary feminist journal dedicated to critical and creative works in the realms of sf, fantasy, magical realism, myth, folklore, and other supernatural genres" will be publishing a Speculative Black Women issue in 2003 as well. All signs point to more and better writers of color in SF and more demanding and savvy fans of color too. The field is so open that anyone with a bright idea and good storytelling skills can make an impact.
All speculative fiction rests on the contradiction that tales of pure imagination set in worlds unlike our own are really about the world we live in. The ability to bend or break the rules of physics, species, identity, time, or race does not so much obliterate racial and social realities as highlight them. That is why there is such a rich future for people of color in science fiction and fantasy, because the genre allows us to speculate on our future whether utopian or dystopian. African slaves were the products of an all too real alien abduction, but black writers today can imagine any world they please, past or future.
Libero Della Piana, the former editor of RaceFile, is a lifelong spec-fic geek.
Libero Della Piana, "Under Strange Stars." Libero is a former senior research associate at the Applied Research Center and former editor of RaceFile. He is a lifelong specfic geek.…