This February saw numerous articles and lists touting the work of award-winning black authors, and works that have quite literally shaped the narrative for black people of the diaspora. We’ll hear names such as Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglass, and Langston Hughes. Their contributions are and should be forever venerated in the canon of literature.
What we didn't hear as much about are the writers of genre fiction: thrillers, romance, and in particular, science fiction and fantasy. Why is this relevant? In the last decade, sci-fi and fantasy narratives have taken the media by storm. Marvel has been dominating the box office, Game of Thrones had us glued to our TVs and Twitter feeds (Black Twitter’s #demthrones hashtag in particular had me rolling), and people are making seven-figure salaries playing video games online. It’s a good time to be a nerd. The world is finally coming to appreciate the unique appeal of science fiction and fantasy. It’s wondrous, fun, escapist and whimsical, dazzling and glamorous. It takes the mundane and makes it cool. And for the longest time it’s been very Eurocentric. With sci-fi and fantasy growing exponentially more popular year by year, it’s necessary that, alongside black fiction’s rich history of award-winning literary giants, we also shine the spotlight on black works of speculative fiction.
There is a curious phenomenon surrounding black stories, where the ones that see the most mainstream success are also the stories where black people suffer most. I’ve received comments on my own writing that boil down to some variant of “there wasn’t enough racism.” Is this simply that old journalism adage “if it bleeds, it leads” at work in the literary sphere? Or is it something more sinister?
Narratives like Roots, Beloved, and Twelve Years a Slave unflinchingly depict the horrors of slavery. It’s a historical fact that black people were traded like sacks of grain, bred like cattle, put down like disobedient dogs, and to this day the legacy of chattel slavery lingers like cultural radiation, poisoning black communities in the form of economic disparity. Practices like redlining, gentrification and the prison-industrial complex maintain the wealth gap between blacks and whites. But when the only stories about black people that are given prominence are the ones where black people are abused and oppressed, a very specific and limiting narrative is created for us and about us. And this narrative is one of the means through which the world perceives black people and, worse, through which we perceive ourselves.
It should be noted that black literary fiction does not focus exclusively on black suffering—far from it. The beauty of black literature is that black characters are centered and nuanced, and sci-fi and fantasy narratives can build on that. Through sci-fi and fantasy, we can portray ourselves as mages, bounty hunters, adventurers, and gods. And in the case of sci-fi narratives set in the future, as existing—period.
Sci-fi stories in particular are troubling for their absence of those melanated. Enter Afrofuturism, a term first used in the 1990s in an essay by a white writer named Mark Dery. In a 2019 talk on Afrofuturism at Wellesley College, sci-fi author Samuel R. Delany breaks down what the term meant at the time—essentially fiction set in the future with black characters present. Delany also explains why this is potentially problematic: “[Afrofuturism was] not contingent on the race of the writer, but on the race of the characters portrayed.” As previously stated, science-fiction and fantasy has historically been overwhelmingly Eurocentric, and sci-fi and fantasy authors, largely white men, have not had the best track record for writing black characters of any depth. They had no skin in the game, after all—no vested interest in doing so.
But as the term used to describe fiction about us has been claimed by us, it has been refined and remade. Afrofuturism now invokes the glowing towers of Wakanda and the plight of Janelle Monáe’s android fugitive Cindi Mayweather. In response to the erasure of black people in sci-fi and fantasy, the parameters of Afrofuturism have been solidified, and the expectation now is that Afrofuturist narratives not only contain black characters, but be specifically about them. And who better to lovingly craft fantastical worlds and cultures rooted in black and African traditions than black authors?
That’s why this Black History Month, in addition to Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglass, and Langston Hughes, we must also mention Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, Fiyah Literary Magazine, Jordan Peele, and as many of the growing number of sci-fi and fantasy authors and creators we can manage. Because in spotlighting black speculative fiction, we’re creating new narratives for black people. Narratives that are out of this world.
Nandi Taylor is the author of the debut novel Given (Wattpad Books).