The M(N)STRY: Black Speculative Fiction Is Protest Fiction

51edfd0c935845331d22b290da44e9deI’ll be honest. These past couple of weeks has made writing for me difficult. I was lacking encouragement to keep writing my fantasy novel and wavering back and forth between if being a writer mattered. But attending events like Writers Resist in Queens and reading my own work, reading from Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to a Slave is The Fourth of July,” and listening to the various other writers in the room helped to reinvigorate me.

Oppressive systems and tyrannical leaders gain power off of our silence, our complacency, our acceptance of how it imagines the world should be. Stories have helped to motivate people to keep going when times were dire. To believe in a different possibility of the world. Douglass, an abolitionist who was able to break through the chains of slavery through reading and writing, said that knowledge was the pathway to freedom. His desire to learn to read and write gave him the tools to fight the oppressive institution of slavery and determine a different future for himself. Enslaved people learning to read and write was a threat to the social order of the day. They gave the enslaved tools to question authority and to imagine something else, which is a danger to the status quo.

Today we have those in power wanting to remove or minimize factual history from textbooks and remove classes about marginalized groups. Our knowledges are described as hyperbole or false in relation to their “alternative facts.” With all that is happening to suppress our truths, I need to remember that our stories need to be told because as Zora Neale Hurston said, ““If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” We must share our knowledges.

This essay from Troy L. Wiggins, which was part of 2015’s Black Out Day, reinforced for me the tradition of black writing as protest in the face of such oppression. The essay was partly a response to the conservative backlash towards the increasing diversity at the Hugo awards:

African American literature has long contained a deep thread of dissent. In a way, African American literature itself is protest, as slaves and the descendants of slaves were often forbidden from attempting to master the language of their oppressors. Historically, literature produced by African Americans served as a way of reckoning with their unique social situation, either through philosophical rumination, haunting memoir, lyrical prose and poetry or a purposeful, shocking address of the conditions that surrounded them. Consider the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, who painted a vivid portrait of United States system of violence and psychological terrorism on the African American populace. Or, perhaps, Victor Séjour’s Le Mulâtre, or Martin Delany’s Blake or The Huts of America, both brooding fictional works of slave revolution.

Faced with seemingly unending oppression and the constant threat of violence and death, is it any wonder that African American authors turned to the fantastic to assuage their weary souls? Like Séjour, Delany, and countless others, African American authors of proto speculative fiction heavily considered the future, the fantastic, and the scientific in their attempt to reckon with their present. Pauline Hopkins’ Of One Blood imagines a technologically advanced Ethiopia. Scholar W.E.B. DuBois’ The Comet imagines a post-apocalyptic future world populated by two people: an African American man and a white woman. Frances E.W. Harper’s Iola Leroy is a work of fiction that imagines an African American feminist utopia.

Decades after these works, literary scholars spurred by “an interest in speculative fiction from the African Diaspora” turned to a new and different mode of expression, some of which was championed by existing African American authors of speculative fiction. The work of those authors dealt explicitly with the concerns of members of the African Diaspora contextualized within the idea of a rapidly approaching technofuture. The authors are recognizable: Samuel Delany. Nalo Hopkinson. Sheree Renée Thomas. Octavia Butler. The expression was called “Afrofuturism” and it intersected primarily with speculative fiction, often serving as a means of social and political protest of issues salient to members of the African Diaspora. Black speculative fiction authors who identified as Afrofuturists synthesized the early themes of futurism and necessary upheaval in the form of protest with the idea of a “future history” and deep appreciation of our unique cultures to create a revolutionary genre of literature, a genre that worked closely with and alongside other forms of black speculative fiction to remove the idea of black savagery and black catastrophe from our history, mythology, spacetime, and futurescape.

Read the rest here.

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