My reading tastes trend mostly toward non-fiction, but about five years ago I developed a love of speculative fiction — urban fantasy, high fantasy, supernatural fiction, a dash of dystopian fiction and the like. I love the escapism, the alternate worlds, the opportunity to believe, for 300 page or so, that vampires and magic and mind-reading are real. But I have been routinely disappointed by the most feted authors in the genre, who can dream up intricate hierarchies of supernatural characters and develop rich new worlds, but have a failure of imagination when it comes to race. In a genre where most real-world rules don’t apply, racial biases hold fast. Often when I write about this failure, a reader retorts that I am taking the genre too seriously. They ask why I don’t abandon fantasy or they insist it is not for people of color. They’re wrong. Inclusion matters. Even in “fluffy” creative genres.
Mind, when I complain about the absence of blackness in works of speculative fiction and the films and TV shows they spawn, I am not overlooking the excellent work of black writers like Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due and Nalo Hopkinson. And I understand that there are exceptions to this critique, like the excellent Iron Druid series by Kevin Hearne that deals respectfully with a variety of cultures and beliefs. But it is not this work that has come to define the genre. And it is not, sadly, the work of these writers that is being adapted by HBO and Hollywood.
And so, I have to ask, in fantastical worlds, where men can be monsters, why can’t monsters be of color? Where are the sparkling Navajo vampires, Caribbean wizards, and Puerto Rican shapeshifters? Do people of color have no place even in America’s fantasies?
The preponderance of popular fantasy draws on Celtic or other European mythology, but rarely involves the beliefs of African, Asian, or indigenous peoples, except to render those beliefs dark and dangerous. And I might overlook the absence of black folks in ancient Ireland, but I cannot give pass to popular TV shows set in the American South that alternately marginalize or erase black characters and glorify antebellum culture. (Ex, “The Vampire Diaries” never tires of genuflecting to its town’s founding (read: slave-owning) families.)
Protagonists of paranormal romances are overwhelmingly white women. And it is their whiteness and the purity, innocence, beauty, and vulnerability that Western culture associates with white women that helps propel and influence the narrative. To the casual reader, it may appear that demon chasers, feisty Southern waitresses, and lusty fae princesses subvert traditional ideas of femininity. On closer analysis, though, most of the genre reinforces hegemonic femininity. Now, I’m not speaking of the real lives of white women, but the characteristics that society has long assigned to white women, often without consideration for those women’s own needs, desires, and personalities.
Yeah, speculative fiction doesn’t so much get gender politics right, either, much less sexuality. And all of this, along with the shoddy treatment of race, is worth the attention of the genre’s fans. African-American science fiction writer Charles R. Saunders shed light on why these biases matter in a 2000 essay titled “Why blacks should read (and write) science fiction” in the book, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora.
The human imagination manifests itself in stories. Those stories become legends, myths, the defining elements of culture … Writers in [fantasy and science fiction] serve a function similar to that of the bard or the griot in ways “literary” writers cannot approach.
We blacks have more than made our mark in the Western world’s popular culture. Imagine how diminished the arts would be without the contributions of people from Duke Ellington to Alice Walker. We need to contribute to our culture’s overall mythology as well, and provide alternatives to the stereotypes that continue to plague us within that mythology.
A recent post on Chronicles of Harriett explored how black children can gain from writing and reading science fiction.
On the surface they are writing about zombies, spaceships, and vampires, but do not be fooled; they are using these devices in the same way as Octavia Butler, Charles Saunders, Tananarive Due, and Walter Mosley to cloak methods of exploring and explaining – and finding explanations for – their worlds, both internal and external, in a way that straightforward “literal” fiction cannot.
Realism has become a trap for black children and they realize it. According to my young students, who range in age from nine to 15, they tire of reading and writing stories that are about “problems” and crave fantastic tales of derring-do with cool, young, black heroes and heroines.
Science fiction and fantasy offer black children an alternative way of dealing with legacy, tradition, and memory.
The existence of characters of color (indeed all marginalized people), and their treatment in popular speculative fiction books, television, and film, matters because we deserve a place in modern mythology. Our children deserve the escape that high fantasy and science fiction and urban fantasy provide. And, dammit, any creative mind that can dream up a werewolf political hierarchy should also be able to envision a world where black men are sometimes swaggering supernaturals and black women are sometimes plucky objects of desire — or vice versa.
In bringing a host of otherworldly creatures to life, writers shouldn’t be allowed to erase the people and cultures that are a part of real life.