[Amplify a Voice: How Long ’til Black Future Month?]
Over the past few days I read a request from a person of color to white people – to amplify their voices instead of our own. That resonates. Please read these incredible excerpts from N.K. Jemisin’s “How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? The Toxins of Speculative Fiction, and the Antidote that is Janelle Monae” available in a not-fully-proofed not-final draft version on her website. If you’d like your voice amplified, anonymously or with citation, my blog, my social accounts, and everything I am is yours. #BlackLivesMatter #NotOneMore
Where the Hell Are We?
I’ve been consuming science fiction and fantasy since I was a child. Started with mythology and folklore, worked my way through the Golden Age greats, peppered this with Dungeons & Dragons and endless Star Wars emulations. My father fed my habit by watching classic Twilight Zone and Star Trek episodes with me, every summer holiday weeknight at 2 in the morning, Channel 11. I dreamed of going to Space Camp, though my family couldn’t afford it; I started writing about talking animals and the apocalypse at the ripe old age of eight and never stopped. If there’s anyone who was born a geek, it’s me.
Yet even then I noticed that there was no one like me in most of my geekery. This was in the days before the first black female astronaut, Mae Jemison (no relation), and
when the closest thing to non-white people that anyone saw in fantasy were orcs. There were a few notable examples that I can remember offhand: Ursula Le Guin’s “Earthsea” series, Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End. That was pretty much it.
My father tried to supplement these rare delicacies by introducing me to Afro-futurist staples. Parliament Funkadelic became my new (old) favorite band, and we both loved the indie film “The Brother From Another Planet”. Unfortunately these supplements just reinforced my sense of alienation. Why did I have to travel to the margins of speculative fiction to see anything of myself? Why was it easier to find aliens or unicorns than people of color or realistic women?
Then I began to realize that the exclusions I’d noticed were not just a matter of benign neglect. Robert E. Howard wrote endless pulp stories set in fantastical Africa and Asia — and centered all of them on white men. Nebula- and Hugo-award-winning author Samuel Delany, in his 1998 essay “Racism in Science Fiction”, shares his experience of having a story rejected by one of the most celebrated editors in the genre solely because the protagonist was black. These were conscious choices on the part of the genre’s gatekeepers. This was deliberate, ahistorical, scientifically nonsensical, exclusion. Worse, the fans tacitly supported the gatekeepers in this. A published story containing a single error of theoretical physics might elicit pages-long rage-filled letters to the editor, but if a story depicted black men as white-woman-raping cannibals incapable of sophisticated thought, the response was resounding silence.
These were the people who made the speculative fiction that I loved. They could not empathize with people like me, and they didn’t want to try. They weren’t comfortable letting us into their archetypal playgrounds at all, let alone in any number. When we did appear, the roles we took were limited, non-threatening to the writer’s sense of superiority: the thug, the slave, the exotic sex toy. If I wanted to see people like me, doing things I could relate to, I had to look to my own. Then again, most of what I found from creators of color went to the opposite extreme, probably in an attempt to counter the extreme whiteness everywhere else. But I wasn’t any more interested in all-black futures than I was in all-white futures. I just wanted fantasies of exploration and enchantment that didn’t slap me in the face with you don’t belong here messages. I just wanted to be able to relax and dream.
Enter my psychological lifelines: writers like Octavia Butler, in science fiction. And in music, artists like Janelle Monae.