Black In The Imaginationscape
Why is it so difficult for some readers and filmgoers to imagine that space, the dystopian or utopian future, or dragon/elf inhabited lands... might have Black people in them?
Like many lifelong fans of Star Wars, when buzz of a new sequel hit my news feeds I was anxiously thrilled. Thrilled, about the continued relevance of something I have loved since childhood. Anxious, because film credits revealed J.J. Abrams was involved. Though my appreciation for Star Wars is considerable, it pales to my love of Star Trek, and Jeremy James “Dream Smasher” Abrams and his creative reinterpretations of Trek canon had been met by passionate fans with howling protest and scathing criticism. Abrams’ Trek debut in 2009 and equally anti-canonical sequel Star Trek: Into Darkness showed a director committed to his vision, fans be damned. As I scanned through early reviews, thinkpieces and write-ups of The Force Awakens, praying a Lucas-and-Abrams pairing would not result in a complete
annihilation revisionist overhaul, I made the mistake of reading reactions from other fans:
“Just saw the Force Awakens and thought it was weak. The black guy was bland and not appealing whatsoever, the white girl lead, who can miraculously work a light saber and apparently has jungle fever, was basically the lead. All this PC correct crap is really getting out of control.”
“I am sorry but the whole point of a movie is to become the character and live the life….I am not black or a women so I felt like an outsider watching some other people doing something instead of me feeling the thrills as they happen, like the other star wars……sorry that most people who watched this were white and male……”
“I really hated it when Samuel L Jackson was cast, and I hate this guy too, why? With Samuel L Jackson it’s his speech impediment and Black accent, he always sounds the same and he can’t adapt. As for the rogue stormtrooper, it has nothing to do with him being black, but why does he act like he’s a black guy from Earth 1980-2015 era? He sounds like Will Smith when he shoots the battlestar guns. I thought that was really distracting and broke the feel of the movie. “who’s the man” bleh.”
“Those castings Brought me right back to earth. Exactly where I am trying to leave when I see the movie.”
And of course, my personal favorite, from user Satanen Perkele:
“No niggers in space please :)”
This was from one write-up, but comments with the general sentiments abound. One of the most curious aspects (aside from REPEATED erroneous references to British actor John Boyega as “African-American”) is the idea that a Black character with spoken lines automatically “ruined” the filmgoing experience. White people and aliens in a galaxy far, far away in the past that was somehow also the future made perfect, unquestionable sense; the appearance of a Black face, however, violently and instantly unsuspends the state of disbelief: suddenly, (White) viewers are reminded that they’re watching a movie.
This isn’t the first time we’ve witnessed this reaction from White fandom. Four years ago, the first film installment of The Hunger Games opened nationwide, generating an impressive $155 million in revenue during opening weekend alone. However, a substantial chunk of the series’ White fans had imagined supporting characters Thresh, Cinna and Rue as non-Black, though the characters were described as having dark skin in the book, and author Suzanne Collins herself envisioned Thresh and Rue as African-American. Nonetheless, the racist outcry from fans was so widespread it caught the attention of mainstream media, and even inspired a Tumblr blog documenting such overt racism from a generation reared on multiculturalism and diversity.
Science/speculative fiction and fantasy genres have racially diverse audiences and consumers, and arguably have had them since their nascence. Why, then, is it so difficult for some readers and filmgoers to imagine that space, the dystopian or utopian future, or dragon/elf inhabited lands, might have Black people in them?
During the earliest phases of what we now call science fiction and fantasy, writers were mostly White, cisgender, heterosexual, and comfortably classed. (Pre-cursors to the genre like Ibn al-Nafis’s Theologus Autodidactus, first published in 1274 C.E., Margaret Cavendish’s highly influential 17th century fiction classic “The Blazing World”, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein suggest that speculative and science fiction were not exactly closed to women or people of color, but the fields themselves were not especially diverse.) With the industrialization and mechanization of European and American commerce came the expansion of 19th century imagination. Here was a world of machinery, telegraphs, electricity; the future was suddenly a realm of infinite and exciting possibility. Extraterrestrial life and (possibly hostile) alien worlds were the natural next step in science fiction’s evolution; the previous centuries had, after all, been largely defined by colonialism, ruthless imperial expansion, chattel slavery, and the vigorous implementation of multiple campaigns of genocide by European and American powers. Trepidation and optimism about the future intermingled, and sci-fi accurately reflected the anxieties of the times.
The introduction of comic strips in the early 20th century added a new visual dimension and level of accessibility to science fiction. John Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction fostered future giants Isaac Asimov, E.E. Smith, James Blish, and many other members of “(Campbell’s) Futurians.” This group would set the tone of science fiction print media, film and television for decades to come. It is in part for this reason that the pervasive and unrelenting Whiteness of science fiction persisted; this alone, however, does not explain the racist outrage concerning Black characters and their placement in proximity to the primary narrative in present day.
In other words, in the past, there HAVE been Black characters in speculative and science fiction works – but they were never really that important. Black characters served as part of whatever background had been created; their presence was silent and sometimes quite literally atmospheric. The breezily unself-conscious racism of the period before 1950 or so is encapsulated in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where perceptions of Black people carried over from centuries of chattel slavery remain embarrassingly present. Darker-skinned people of all races – but particularly those identified, per the parlance of the times, as “Negro” – are relegated both to lower social classes and occupations, most of which entail some kind of service to the “higher” races; in high school, I was unexpectedly traumatized – as a writer of color and a Black woman – by Mr. Foster’s commentary about the “negro ovary” and its robust response to pituitary compared to “European material.”
The growth of television during the Civil Rights Era provided a singular and vital opportunity for the further evolution of sci-fi. Gene Roddenberry’s groundbreaking series Star Trek presented a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, interspecies crew into American living rooms, in 1966, and in prime time. The Star Trek universe introduced a pivotal half-Vulcan crew member, an endearingly non-threatening ultra-post-Cold War Russian prodigy, heavily Sino-Russian coded Federation enemy Klingons, and Tribbles, but the character that drew the most vitriol was Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, portrayed by African-American Nichelle Nichols. Critics stated that her presence as a Black woman in a position of authority and visibility onboard a starship several centuries in the future was an outrageous leap of the imagination; apparently, even at the final frontier, the only place for a Black woman was housekeeping. In the racist backlash that followed, she received hate mail and death threats so regularly that barely into the first few aired episodes, Nichols nearly left Star Trek, and was only persuaded to stay after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself pleaded with her to reconsider.
The negative reception Nichols experienced has its 21st century counterpart in the contemporary reboot of Doctor Who. (Dr.) Martha Jones was the first companion of color to the overwhelmingly young, indescribably brilliant, boyish, immortal (but for some reason always White) Doctor. Dr. Jones (rendered wonderfully by the talented and gorgeous Freema Agyeman) was, undebatably, an ideal companion: highly intelligent, situationally adaptable, a life-savingly quick thinker, and overall Crown of the Companions.
However, according to a small but vocal group of fans, the character represented no more than an empty affirmative action-type of inclusion, the show’s producers bowing to “p.c” culture. As far as the NuWhovian commentariat were concerned, Dr. Martha Jones was an inorganic throw-in, who had no place in the otherwise sensibly structured pretend world of the last of the Time Lords. (Encouragingly, many of the not-frothing-racist fans were vocal in calling out this bigoted and shameful treatment).
Over and over again, we see the dishearteningly consistent theme of Black characters somehow not “belonging” in spaces that, at least at first, only exist conceptually – because they are Black. This perspective requires the application of two separate but distinct cognitive processes. First, a White reader/filmgoer/media maker must “unsee” Black people. (An excellent example of this, though not science/speculative fiction or fantasy in the sense used here, is Woody Allen’s Annie Hall; you can read about Allen’s continued determination to be a part of the problem here.) And in order for this kind of erasure to be possible – and to stick – a person must first believe, however unconsciously, that Black people unequivocally do not belong in “their” spaces.
Children of color absorb this social message of omission as exactly what it is. When we see Black people NOT doing things, and anti-Black racism and White supremacist ideology are introduced, the secondary narrative that emerges is that we CAN’T do these things. As a child growing up Black and nerdy in the 1980s, I was fortunate enough to be raised by a mother who told me that I could do and be anything (and encouraged my self-taught literacy with my first book to read at 3), and to live in a world featuring a (s)hero who is Black, a woman, and one of the most powerful mutants who ever existed. I had Saturday morning cartoons with Black characters who defended the planet against villains always bafflingly dead-set on destroying the environment. I had Black and brown heroes who traversed magical realms and became mages. (You can read about Le Guin’s awesome reaction to the Whitewashing of her works when televised here.) And last but absolutely not least, I had the incomparable Octavia Butler, who introduced me to primary protagonists who were messiahs and prophetesses, ancient and possibly extraterrestial or divine beings, rare and incredibly special superhumans, and accidental chronic time travelers, and every one of them Black women. Butler’s works would have been enjoyable to me even with White and/or male protagonist, but the fact that they unapologetically decenter White men – often, not even making them central antagonists – is what makes them precious and vital to me, and to other readers and writers of color; Pulitzer Prize winner and general literary phenom Junot Díaz cites Butler as one of his earliest influences.
Today, the worlds of science/speculative fiction and fantasy have expanded even further to include traditionally marginalized views and voices. We have series with both cult and popular followings where characters of color, variously abled characters, queer characters, and any variant mash-up of those categories are alive, thriving, and saving their worlds. They’re in books, comics, graphic novels, and cartoons.
Yet the racist backlash is as vehement as ever.
Ultimately, the wider incorporation of Black characters into sci/spec fiction and fantasy – and processing those characters as they are written and/or presented – is the responsibility of media consumers. As Whiteness indoctrination is an integral component of the primary socialization of most White Americans, asserting and reinforcing White normativity is often reflexive. The solution may lie in not just “seeing” Black characters, but also in being conscious and aware of – and eventually evolving beyond – their own White lens. Acknowledging, confronting, and dismantling the virulent sociopathy of Whiteness indoctrination, consciously and brick-by-brick, is the only way to truly move beyond racism, the final frontier.