“Black People Don’t Do Sci-Fi.” Who Told That Lie?
For some strange reason, there is a misconception that Black people do not like or do science fiction. I am not sure where that stereotype came from, but if you follow Black popular culture, you know that Black folk do science fiction, but mainly through music. For the record, I do now own the copyrights to the music below and am not including the music so that I can make money. I actually teach with everything you are about to view!
Some stereotypes have a modicum of truth. Some are total fabrications. One of the fabrications that irks me is that “Black people don’t do science fiction.” I am not sure where that stereotype originated, but it is pure fabrication. It has no basis in reality. And it also reveals that the dominant culture can assign these mysterious stereotypes to Black folk without even once bothering to examine these assumptions. This is lazy. And I feel that one of the reasons why skin-color-based racism is so enduring and prevalent is that it flatters the racist while perpetuating laziness. Yes, racism is in the Bible, but you actually had to have conversations with folk before you discriminated against them in those times. Racism, in those times, was based on what language one spoke and the god he served. Today, you can easily look at physical characteristics and make assumptions. That’s mentally lazy.
Don’t believe me? I am using science fiction as an example here. Every people has a vision for themselves in the future. Every people. Every culture has a beginning of the world story, an end of the world story, a flood story, and a Cinderella story. Since Black people are part of the human family, why would we be an exception to those tropes? The fact is, we are not.
I am going to go out on a limb here and say that this stereotype about Black folk and science fiction comes from what we think of as traditional science fiction. Most of it was written by white males. In traditional science fiction, the world is chrome, steel, and gray. Science reigns. And people of color, any color, do not exist. And while I applaud science fiction writers of the past for literally crafting the ideas that give us most of our modern-day technology, there is something downright racist in crafting a world with no people of color. There is something sexist in crafting a world where women remain subordinate, in spite of their advanced educations. And I could rail against some of these writers, but I would be committing presentist biases. Science fiction writers, though they were able to envision the future in ways that other people could not imagine, were still creations of their culture as they created culture. It is often difficult to see past our current cultures and into a future one.
For a great list of all of the things that we have from Star Trek, click on the following link.
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The creation of science fiction from its inception without Black people is not, in any way, an indicator of Black folk and how we feel about science fiction. If anything, let me tell it, Reader, a future without Black folk is wishful thinking on the part of the texts’ creators.
Nevertheless, Black folk have ALWAYS embraced science fiction, though not always through the same medium as the dominant culture. Let me take you, Reader, back in time when the Mothership was orbiting the earth and landing in various chocolate cities. But wait! Before we get into the Mothership and all of the fun that it entails, I have to pay homage to Sun-Ra. Though not mainstream by any stretch of the imagination, Sun-Ra and his Arkestra have been beaming to us live from the planet of Saturn for almost 50 years now! The late, great Sun-Ra was jazz, soul, R&B, and simply out of sight. The unique way that he conducted his orchestra continues to influence Black bands. And for his inspiration, he said in more than one interview that nature was one of his inspirations. Hear and see him in action below.
Far more popular than Sun-Ra is George Clinton and Parliament/P-Funk. Dressed as Dr. Funkenstein, Clinton comes from the future to remind all of us our funky past, so that we can stop the cross-over whitewashing in our attempts to crossover in the present. Crossover appeal causes Black artists and musicians to wipe away the Funk. But what is Black music if not for the Funk? And Funk, whatever we declare Funk to be, is based on improvisation and not formulation. In order to improvise, we must be willing to really play with the music and experiment, bringing in all elements. Dr. Funkenstein informs us, that “ain’t nothing good unless you play with it.”
Now, in the following video, the band will perform its coming-from-the-future-to-remind-us-of-the-past-in-order-to-change-the-present Funkiness. Glen Goines sings/preaches, “Swing down sweet chariot stop and let me ride” in order to bring on the Mothership. Well, this is taken from an old African American spiritual: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The concept of a ship is prevalent in African American hymnals, “The Old Ship of Zion.” The futuristic ship that will rescue us all from ourselves is brought to us courtesy of the Nation of Islam. Making the conditions right for the Mothership’s Landing is also directly from the old African American church, when the mothers, deacons, and the choir prepared the congregation for the coming of the Word. And the preacher, when he began rhythmically preaching may pause and say, “I feel my help coming on.” See all of it in action at the link below.
Right now, there is a replica of the Mothership at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and I CANNOT WAIT to see it when COVID-19 is finally over.
To date, African American musicians continue on into the future. Andre 3000 anyone?
Big K.R.I.T based a whole album on the creation of life, recasting it in the form of African American hip hop.
Here, K.R.I.T. and art, a woman’s voice, engage in the very act of creation.
While this post features male artists heavily, Black women artists have also taken us back to the future.
Here is a throwback from the 1990s when Missy cast herself and pals as video game characters, transcending planets and keeping it funky.
Because I have focused on music, I do not want to suggest that Black people do not write science fiction. Actually, the contrary is true: Black people do produce science fiction at a rapid pace. Most of us who teach and read Black science fiction are most familiar with the late Octavia Butler and her parables series.
Black writers continue to produce award-winning speculative and science fiction. Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, Samuel Delany, Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, Karen Lord, Jelani Wilson, Derrick Bell, and Nisi Shawl are just a few. Though the science fiction music scene is male-dominated, speculative and science fiction are dominated by Black women writers. And while I could use the term, “Afro-futurism” here, I have refrained from doing so, because I feel that label leaves out the speculative writings of Nisi Shawl and Dionne Brand.
Again, Black writers of science fiction do not craft the chromed-out, steel/gray worlds of post-apocalyptic despair as their white counterparts do. Just as in the music, Black science fiction writers come from the future, to remind us of the past, and comment upon the present. Once, I taught Butler’s “Bloodchild” to a group of high school students who were enrolled in a robotics camp. Right away, the students interpreted it as a commentary on the crack epidemic and trapping Black folk in large projects such as the notorious Cabrini Green Projects. Of special note is that we also read Sister Souljah’s No Disrespect. Right away, the students were able to make an intertextual comparison between the human pens of “Bloodchild” and the welfare hotels in Souljah’s semiautobiographical narrative.
Artistically, Black people still embrace science and science fiction. Basquiat’s priceless paintings were based on the human anatomy.
In this particular painting, Basquiat comments on jazz, especially Charlie Parker. Some of his more modern paintings feature robots, nearly-perfect skulls, and other graffiti-type art.
Reader, I know this post has gone on for a rather long time, but this post is based on one of my specialty courses. From time-to-time, I love collaborating with my colleagues in science. It seems that Black students are now terribly afraid of science and math. And it is not surprising. Many Black students come from districts where they have been tested, Tested, and TESTED. Many of those high-stakes tests are in science and math. Our students have been pressured to perform on these tests, because sometimes, district funding and teacher employment depend upon them. It has led to real fear of numbers and the scientific method. The things that I have shown you in this post are a way to introduce students to science, help make them comfortable with science and math, and teach them that college knowledge is interdisciplinary. While some of our students have the attitude that “English don’t matter,” I do not know any scientists who have not read analytically and write their solutions out.
Furthermore, I teach students that governments that suppress creative writers and free speech lag behind in scientific innovations. Scientists, mathematicians, and engineers give us inventions, but in the West, they have traditionally had creative writers to dream those inventions up first.
This post comes directly from a specialty course binder. If you like it, press the hands. Or, I’ll see you in class next semester!