DeFlip Side #110: Science Fiction in Black

DS110.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

It’s Black History Month. And in the DeFlip Side tradition of chronicling seminal moments in genre fiction—like the emergence of American Science Fiction, and the lasting legacy of Scientific Romance—I thought it’d be interesting to chart the rise of the first black SF authors to smash down racial barriers and publish stories in the mainstream. What doors did they open? How have they influenced and enriched Science Fiction?

I became excited by what I might find; an author of color standing shoulder to shoulder with Jules Verne or Edgar Allan Poe; a turn-of-the-century visionary who left an indelible, paradigm-shifting stamp on the genre. So I set out to discover the Science Fictional equivalent of, say, W.E.B. Du Bois.

As it turns out, it actually is W.E.B. Du Bois, in part anyway. But let’s back up. The earliest story I found was “The Goophered Grapevine” by Charles W. Chesnutt, published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1887. It’s about an ex-slave named Uncle Julius warning a white Northerner not to buy a cursed Southern grape plantation. Goophered means cursed, it turns out. Chesnutt followed this up with an 1899 collection called The Conjure Woman, which contained further fantastic stories narrated by Uncle Julius, traditional folk tales about hauntings and curses. But this allegorical framework masked deeper commentary on the legacy of slavery and racial inequity.

Though Chesnutt’s writing was respected critically, his literary career never took off and his considerable body of fiction has languished. But he became a leading black activist and worked closely with the likes of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Speaking of whom, Du Bois also used speculative fiction to comment on race in America, most notably with such stories as 1911’s “Jesus Christ in Texas” which is about exactly that, Jesus Christ in Texas calling people to account for theft, hatred and racial intolerance, and 1920’s “The Comet,” in which the Earth passes through a comet’s tail that apparently kills everyone except a black man and a white woman. Sounds like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Of course, these stories have been completely eclipsed by Du Bois’ pioneering sociological, historical and activist writings. But it’s nice to know that we can put Science Fiction on his considerable list of achievements.

And I have to mention George S. Schuyler, a Harlem Renaissance author who, in 1931, published the novel Black No More, in which an African American scientist invents a way to turn black people white. It’s a darkly satiric look at race relations in the early 20th Century that skewers the KKK and the NAACP alike.

Fortunately, you can find these and other pioneering black Science Fiction stories in the anthology Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, by Sheree R. Thomas—apparently the only available collection of its kind. Props to Thomas for beginning the important work of cataloging this overlooked corner of genre history, which paved the way for modern black authors like Samuel R. Delany, Nalo Hopkinson and Octavia E. Butler.

Too bad there’s nothing similar for Fantasy—though, despite rare exceptions like Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, it is a genre predicated largely on white guys hitting each other with swords.

Click the links to these books and stories and make your own judgment. But as far as I’m concerned none of these early works really qualifies as a culture-shifting Science Fiction milestone. That didn’t happen until much later, which is unsurprising, since the struggle for African-American representation has been ongoing in all media. And for anyone listening to me now—black, white or otherwise—our perceptions have been shaped almost exclusively by television.

When I was growing up in the 70s melting my brains with countless hours of reruns, most of the black characters I saw on TV were there mainly to spark debate or facilitate commentary about bigotry or racial tensions. Think Lionel Jefferson on All in the Family. As hilarious as it was to watch him toying with a clueless Archie Bunker, he was as much a means to an end as a real character. There was only one show I can remember whose black characters were never there for the main purpose of being black.

Yeah. You saw that coming from a mile away. But Star Trek never referred to race because it was largely irrelevant. M’Benga wasn’t the ship’s black doctor; he was an expert in Vulcan medicine and ranking chief medical officer in McCoy’s absence. Uhura wasn’t the black subspace telephone operator; she was the communications officer and could take the helm if need be. In fact, the original series referred to Uhura’s race only once, when Abe Lincoln got a load of her in “The Savage Curtain”:

Uhura
Excuse me, Captain Kirk.

Kirk
Yes, Lieutenant.

Uhura
Mr. Scott—

Lincoln
What a charming Negress. Oh, forgive me, my dear. I know
in my time some used that term as a description of property.

Uhura
But why should I object to that term, sir? In our century,
we’ve learned not to fear words.

Kirk
May I present our communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura.

Lincoln
The foolishness of my century… had me apologizing
where no offense was given.

Kirk
We’ve each learned to be delighted with what we are.

"In our century, we've learned not to fear words."

Think of what a remarkable sentiment this is for late 60s television. And how about TV’s first interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura? And even though Trek fans are sick to death of hearing this story by now, consider how Martin Luther King, Jr., implored Nichelle Nichols not to quit the show, since her mere presence on the bridge sent a message that blacks had a place in the future.

I didn’t realize just how color-blind Trek had made me until decades later while watching the Deep Space Nine episode “Badda Bing, Badda Bang,” when Sisko refuses to take part in a holodeck-generated, Rat-Pack-era Vegas casino heist.

This speech struck me as so anachronistic to the Star Trek ideal that it dragged me out of the episode and still sticks in my craw—even though I understand why Ira Stephen Behr felt the need to include it. As he explains in the Deep Space Nine Companion:

“We didn’t want the audience, especially the younger audience, to think that 1962 Las Vegas… had a lot of black people sitting in the audience at nightclubs, or enjoying themselves at hotels and casinos. That just didn’t happen. So by having someone of Sisko’s historical understanding questioning that fact, we could clarify… that he’s well aware that Vegas was very, very, very white.”

Point made, but from a 24th Century perspective—as established by Uhura’s response to Lincoln—I seriously doubt that Sisko would be able to see racism as anything but an abstract historical concept. His impassioned response, and the use of the term “our people” unfairly reduces him to TV’s stereotypical black lightning-rod character.

Still, as interesting as these TV moments are to us, they still amount to little more than inside baseball for Sci-Fi nerds. There has been only one truly mainstream genre sensation in the last 30 years that was the brainchild of a black writer and has had a lasting, game-changing effect on our popular culture.

Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking Thriller music video is as big a cultural touchstone as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with a zombified Michael Jackson and his throng of undead backup dancers revolutionizing the art form and permanently altering America’s pop culture aesthetic. It has deservedly been lauded as a watershed moment for the music industry and justifiably touted as the most influential music video ever made. The Library of Congress considered it significant enough to induct into the National Film Registry. Every one of us in the MTV generation watched that video a million times, even if (like me) you didn’t particularly like the song. There’s little wonder when its key contributors included genre biggies like director John Landis, makeup artist Rick Baker and free-style rapper extraordinaire Vincent Price. And consider this: America’s latest pop sensation Glee just did it’s own Thriller homage, handing the legacy down to the next generation.

Which is probably the most remarkable thing about milestones of black achievement in the SF&F genre: they’re still ongoing phenomena, not yet relegated to the geekier footnotes of history. The Jules Vernes and Edgar Allan Poes have already come and gone, but the next Thriller may be just a viral video away.

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Episode #110 Links
Black Pot Mojo–Sheree R. Thomas
BlackSci-Fi.com
The Black Science Fiction Society Website
Black Science Fiction Society Blog