In a 1999 New York Times essay about science fiction, author Walter Mosley wrote, "The genre speaks most clearly to those who are dissatisfied with the way things are: adolescents, post-adolescents, escapists, dreamers, and those who have been made to feel powerless. And this may explain the appeal that science fiction holds for a great many African-Americans.... Science fiction promises a future full of possibility, alternative lives, and even regret." (1)
Science fiction is sometimes characterized as literature that predicts the future, but social evils such as racism are harder to solve than technological dilemmas. Some SF stories take the easy way out and just posit a future when racism will have just... disappeared. Others are blinkered to racism entirely, with characters that are either all white or that are assumed by readers to be white. Very few introduce racism as a system within human culture, although it shows no signs of dissipating. Although, as Mosley says, science fiction promises future possibilities, it is sometimes hard to find black voices in the genre.
Walter Mosley was one of the featured guests recently at Black to the Future, a Seattle event held June 11-13, 2004. The festival was the first-ever black speculative fiction con. Its sponsoring group, the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas, is a local non-profit group that presents progressive arts and lectures programs focusing on the role of African-Americans in American culture.
Other guests of honor included authors Octavia Butler, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, and National Book Award winner Charles Johnson. Film buffs, authors, critics, artists, dancers, and musicians rounded out the multimedia schedule for the weekend.
(Used by permission of Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas)
What If... If Only... If This Goes On...
The festival kicked off with a big opening night program offering a variety of speakers and talented performers onstage at Seattle's Leo Kreielsheimer Theater. After a dance theater piece called "And I'll Be There," produced by Timeca Briggs, Octavia Butler was the star of the show. She recalled her experiences starting out in the genre, and why she stuck with it.
During the Saturday and Sunday daytime programming schedule at Seattle Center, attendance at various panels and events was mixed, with the big name authors drawing the largest audiences. Each discussion panel and performance examined how blacks influence or are influenced by three central questions of speculative fiction: What If... If Only... If This Goes On...
Guests of honor were invited to discuss their writing, read from new works, and sign books. Steven Barnes, author of Lion's Blood, focused on technological developments in communications and how they might revolutionize our world. Horror author Tananarive Due revealed that when she started writing, all of her characters were white—a surprising revelation that many other black authors at the event shared.
(Photo © 2004, Fumiko Yarita used by
permission of Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas)
"I had to force myself to see myself," Due said. "It's not that I don't write about white characters, because I do, but my protagonists are extensions of my own humanity. I was raised by civil rights activists and I have a keen awareness of racial history—lessons I think Americans of all colors should know—so I would consider it artistic dishonesty to write primarily from an experience that was not black. Does that limit my readership? I'm sure it does. But hopefully, it does less and less all the time."
In an interesting twist on typical science fiction fare, Michael Davis, comic book publisher and creator of the WB animated series Static Shock, presented a discussion entitled "Why Black Superheroes Can't Fly." The talk centered around the limitations put on black characters, even those with superhuman powers.
To help writers examine how they use race in their work, the festival included a four-hour workshop conducted by authors Cynthia Ward, Nisi Shawl, and Victoria Elisabeth Garcia, called "Writing the Other." The workshop's central message is that writers can learn to create characters unlike themselves—and that they might do well not to assume they already know how.
No examination of black science fiction would be complete without a look at director John Coney's 1974 tribute to legendary Sun Ra, "Space is the Place," and John Sayles' 1984 film "Brother from Another Planet." These movies were part of a two-night film festival with short works, animated adventures, and feature-length films.
Hopes and Fears
The final panel discussion of the festival was called "Hopes and Fears for the Near Future." In the conference room where the panel was scheduled, three writers were on the stage, about thirty people were in the audience, and dozens more were coming in—nearly all of whom were black.
Why was this surprising? After all, this was a black festival, a gathering of brilliant writers, musicians, and artists, almost all of whom shared African ancestry. Nevertheless, Seattle is a city with many more white faces than black, and the city is more than a bit segregated as well.
But that wasn't what made this crowd unusual. It was the topic at hand—science fiction, fantasy, and horror—that made the black turnout surprising. Speculative fiction is still dominated by white authors, publishers, filmmakers, fans, and readers. As author Charles R. Saunders wrote as recently as 2000, the number of prominent black speculative fiction writers "can still be counted on the fingers of two hands." (2)
But like all the weekend's events, this last gathering represented a surge of interest that the festival had sparked. Black to the Future had drawn black participants, fans, and activists from as far away as Holland. This final panel drew in the crowd for a chance to discuss race and speculative fiction in a room where black voices would be dominant, black concerns paramount.
(Photo © 2004, Fumiko Yarita, used by
permission of Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas)
The panel discussion featured Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, and Charles Johnson, all of whom shared personal experiences related to race and writing.
"There's just so much we go through," said Due, explaining why she thinks of her horror fiction as "survival stories." The audience murmured appreciatively.
"We get thousands of messages every day that we are inferior," said Barnes.
"We are trying to make sense of our lives," said Johnson.
These statements—encompassing an entire history of fear, anger, weariness, and hope—were not typical con fare. Here were three prominent authors telling an audience that speculative fiction was a tool for healing, a way to imagine so many kinds of futures that we need never repeat the sins of the past. Everyone in the place nodded and smiled when Steven Barnes said, "I believe in communication as the salvation of the human race."
What if racism ended? What if it never ends? What if more black people were reading and writing science fiction and fantasy? Could science fiction and fantasy help end racism?
The organizers of the Black to the Future festival used speculative fiction to examine some extremely difficult questions about who we are, how we relate, and where we're going. The festival opened a door that's been rusted shut for a while, re-energizing the writers and artists who attended, encouraging us to examine black futures with the same diligence we apply to white ones.