(Author!Author!) I’ve been reading fantasy and science fiction since I was a child. From Winnie-the-Pooh to Tom Swift and his Jetmarine; from Marvel Comics to Ray Bradbury to Gabriel García Márquez. Any book that offers an alternative account for the way things are, catches my attention—at least for a few chapters. This is because I believe that the world we live in is so much larger, has so many more possibilities, than our simple sciences describe.
Anything conceivable I believe is possible. From the creation of life itself (those strings of molecules that twisted and turned until they were self-determinate) to freedom. The ability to formulate ideas into words, itself humanity’s greatest creation, opens the door for all that comes after. Science fiction and its relatives (fantasy, horror, speculative fiction, etc.) have been a main artery for recasting our imagination. There are few concepts or inventions of the 20th century—from submarine to newspeak—that were not first fictional flights to fancy. We make up, then make real. The genre speaks most clearly to those who are dissatisfied with the way things are: adolescents, post-adolescents, escapists, dreamers, and those who have been made to feel powerless. And this may explain the appeal that science fiction holds for a great many African-Americans. Black people have been cut off from their African ancestry by the scythe of slavery and from an American heritage by being excluded from history. For us, science fiction offers an alternative where that which deviates from the norm is the norm.
Science fiction allows history to be rewritten or ignored. Science fiction promises a future full of possibility, alternative lives, and even regret. A black child picks up a copy of Spider-Man and imagines himself swinging into a world beyond the limitations imposed by Harlem or Congress. In the series of “Amber” novels, Roger Zelazny offers us the key to an endless multitude of new dimensions. Through science fiction you can have a black president, a black world, or simply a say in the way things are. This power to imagine is the first step in changing the world. It is a step taken every day by young, and not so young, black readers who crave a vision that will shout down the realism imprisoning us behind a wall of alienating culture.
In science fiction we have a literary genre made to rail against the status quo. All we need now are the black science fiction writers to realize these ends.
But where are they?
There are only a handful of mainstream black science fiction writers working today. There are two major voices: Octavia E. Butler, winner of a coveted MacArthur “genius” grant, and Samuel R. Delaney, a monumental voice in the field since the ’60s. Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due are starting to make their marks. There are also flashes of the genre in such respected writers as Toni Morrison and Derrick Bell. But after these notables, the silence washes in pretty quickly.
One reason for this absence is that black writers have only recently entered the popular genres in force. Our writers have historically been regarded as a footnote best suited to address the nature of our own chains. So, if black writers wanted to branch out past the realism of racism and race, they were curtailed by their own desire to document the crimes of America. A further deterrent was the white literary establishment’s desire for blacks to write about being black in a white world, a limitation imposed upon a limitation.
Other factors that I believe have limited black participation in science fiction are the uses of play in our American paradise. Through make-believe a child can imagine anything. Being big like his father. Flying to the moon on an eagle’s back. Children use the images they see and the ones that they are shown. Imagine whiteness. White presidents, white soldiers, the whitest teeth on a blond, blue-eyed model. Media images of policemen, artists, and scientists before the mid-’60s were al-most all white. Now imagine blackness. There you will find powerless-ness ignorance, servitude, children who have forgotten how to play. Or you will simply not find anything at all—absence. These are the images that have made war on the imagination of Black America.
It is only within the last 30 years that blackness has begun appearing in even the slightest way in the media, in history books and in America’s sense of the globe. And with just this small acknowledgment there has been an outpouring of dreams. Writers, actors, scientists, lawyers, and even an angel or two have appeared in our media. Lovers and cowboys, detectives and kings have come out of the fertile imagination of Black America.
The last hurdle is science fiction. The power of science fiction is that it can tear down the walls and windows, the artifice and laws by changing the logic, empowering the disenfranchised, or simply by asking, What if? This bold logic is not easy to attain. The destroyer-creator must first be able to imagine a world beyond his mental prison. The hardest thing to do is to break the chains of reality and go beyond into a world of your own creation.
So where are the black science fiction writers? Everywhere I go I meet young black poets and novelists who are working on science fiction manuscripts. Within the next five years I predict there will be an explosion of science fiction from the black community. When I tell black audiences that I’ve written a novel in this genre, they applaud. And following this explosion will be the beginning of a new autonomy created out of the desire to scrap 500 years of intellectual imperialism. This literary movement itself would make a good story. The tale could unfold in a world where power is based upon uses of the imagination, where the strongest voices rise to control the destiny of the nation and the world. Maybe, in this make-believe world, a group is being held back by limits placed on their ability to imagine; their dreams have been in-filtrated by the dominant group making even the idea of dissent impossible. The metaphor of this speculative and revolutionary tale could be language as power—the hero, a disembodied choir that disrupts the status quo. “Jazz in the Machine” could be the title. Black letters on a white page would suffice for the jacket design.
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