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"Black is Black and before that Original."—X-Clan, "Earthbound"

"Black like the planet that they fear, why they scared?
Black like the slave ship belly that brought us here"—Black Star, "Astronomy (8th Light)"

Speculative fiction and its relationship to Black people has been a topic of recurring discourse within genre that waxes and wanes with the political moment. Usually these discussions revolve around contributions, often beginning with the greats like Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany—though in reality Black speculative fiction has existed far longer. Debates are had on inclusion, or lack thereof, and SFF conventions include the requisite number of diversity panels. All of these are welcome, and needed. But beyond inclusion or diversity, what can be lost in these ongoing conversations are more in-depth analyses of Blackness itself and its relationship to speculative fiction.

In Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction André M. Carrington offers up a perspective of Blackness in speculative fiction, which, as he states, the existing scholarship has yet to articulate. What does speculative fiction mean to African-Americans? How is it received, discussed, enacted, and culturally reproduced? And what does the relationship between race and genre reveal about the significance of Blackness in African-American literature and culture? Carrington, a professor of English and Philosophy at Drexel University, examines these questions through an intersection of identities: as both fan and critic, as both Black and an academic. This is a bottom-up look at speculative fiction, away from the often discussed and studied giants of the genre (like Butler and Delany); and one that pulls on an interesting array of sources: fanzines, media publications, novelizations of the screen, and more. Starting with the peculiar history of the fictitious Carl Brandon, Speculative Blackness touches on diverse topics from Lieutenant Uhura of the original Star Trek to Captain Benjamin Sisko of Deep Space Nine, from Storm in Marvel comics to the groundbreaking characters of the Black-owned Milestone comics, and the discourses of online fan fiction in iconic speculative fiction brands like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Harry Potter series. As Carrington points out, this is a book that places Blackness at the center of discussions about genre, and examines what, in turn, speculative fiction has to say about what it means to be Black.

Carrington begins with perhaps one of the more bizarre events in speculative Blackness: the inventing of the Black fan "Carl Brandon" by white members of 1950s fanzines. The chapter reads as something of a detective story, as Carrington teases out this history of staged personas and racial ventriloquism through a well-carried-out hoax. This includes a comprehensive survey of the formulation and development of fanzines, and the role they played in furthering popular interest in genre in the years following science fiction’s Golden Age. Most interestingly, Carrington treats Carl Brandon the way his white readership would have received him in his day—as an actual Black writer. The chapter revisits Brandon’s writings, his parodies of literature, his fan fiction and interaction with fans. In this warping of reality (in which the fictitious character takes on a life of his own) Carl Brandon is cast as a Black innovator whose work offered fans new ways of engaging with speculative fiction. For Carrington, Brandon’s peculiar and imaginative Blackness is central to this process. While his invented persona highlighted the inherent Whiteness of fandom (and, paradoxically, nullified the need to address issues of inclusion), it also provided his creators with a disruptive interlocutor through which they might "uncouple fandom" (p. 32) from its traditional relationship with professionally published science fiction.

In his next chapter, "Space Race Woman," Carrington shines the spotlight on science fiction icon Nichelle Nichols. Taking its lead from Nichols’s memoir Beyond Uhura, the chapter is both an exploration of the iconic Star Trek character and the actor that gave her life. Through Uhura, Carrington examines Nichols’s role in helping break the glass ceiling in 1960s cinema, for Black women who had previously mostly been relegated to the domestic sphere as the Mammy or maid—a trope for women of color, he points out, which was carried over into print science fiction. Yet, even as Uhura escaped this caricature, Carrington argues that her character was still subordinated to the racial and gender limitations of its day—revealing the shortcomings in Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision. It’s tempting, in our celebration of Uhura’s symbolic importance, to gloss over the struggles Nichols traversed as a Black woman in 1960s Hollywood. Carrington allows none of this nostalgia, highlighting the blatant inequity Nichols faced as an undervalued actor even as she carried the burden of depicting Star Trek’s enlightened future. Forced to fight behind the scenes for the right to be more than a day player, given a paucity of lines and trotted out when the directors needed to show off diversity, Nichols complained wearily: "I felt like the scullery maid" (p. 73). It is this paradox—of Blackness experienced in real life, contrasted with the staged Blackness of Star Trek—that Carrington seeks to disentangle. "To promise Black women’s future liberation from limited, degrading roles in the future," he notes poignantly, "Nichols had to perform their continued subordination in the present” (p. 73). But if the Nichols presented here moves beyond the tidy Civil Rights metaphor and imaginary into which we’ve placed her, she also reveals her own agency in combatting the attempts at her marginalization and exploitation. Drawing on Black feminist critiques from Madhu Dubey, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Hortense Spillers, Carrington highlights Nichols’s active role in reclaiming Uhura as a character representing a more fully realized Black womanhood: complete with a contemporary Black aesthetic and an empowered sexual identity.

Speculative Blackness’s turn to comics takes two divergent paths placed contiguous to each other within the text. The first deals with Marvel’s most famous Black mutant, Storm. The chapter takes readers through a brief history of the X-Men franchise’s deployment of Storm as the very embodiment of what Carrington calls "an international, interracial, gender-equitable utopian destiny" (p. 109). Naming herself as a "bridge" between "humanity and mutant children" (p. 116), the first Black woman mutant served as a ready personification of Professor Xavier’s dream, with its many allusions to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Yet, as Carrington shows with a meticulous reading of X-titles (complete with panels), Storm did not remain a static figure, instead undergoing several transformations since her inception in 1975. Carrington argues that these varied incarnations of Storm are themselves revisionist interpretations of popular images of Black womanhood, that served the comic’s attempts to address marginalization through the mutant metaphor. While recognizing the inherent limitations of this deflection away from dealing directly with race or Black womanhood, Carrington fleshes out numerous ways in which Storm’s makeovers in appearance worked to negate this negation of real life difference. In doing so the text inadvertently reveals the inherent flaw of the SFF metaphor trope, as no one vision of Blackness or Black womanhood can be fully synonymous with the invented category mutant.

Juxtaposed with this chapter is another on Milestone Media’s short-lived 1990s Black-owned and created Icon. The comic, written by the late Dwayne McDuffie, followed the story of Raquel Ervin, a Black teenager who befriends a wealthy Black conservative, Augustus Freeman IV. Freeman reveals himself to be a long-lived extraterrestrial (complete with superpowers) who landed on Earth in 1839. Taking a Black form, he was adopted by an enslaved Black woman on a nearby plantation. Raquel, learning of Freeman’s true identity, convinces him to become the superhero Icon with herself as his sidekick, Rocket. Together, the two work to defend the fictional Dakota City. Whether it is Carrington’s intent to create a comparison and contrast between the two chapters (and their characters) it’s almost impossible not to engage in the assessment. Where the X-Men comics employ the metaphor of the mutant to decentralize Blackness in an examination of difference, Icon embraces Blackness and its multitudinous reflections (rich and impoverished, conservative and radical, young and adult) within its storylines. Where Storm exists often as a sole Black character divorced from the lived lives and cultural productions of real-life Blackness, Icon and Rocket emphasize and celebrate Blackness, Black history, and Black culture—complete with references to Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston interwoven into the writing. They are superheroes and members of a fully conceived Black community enriched with historical and cultural affinities of Blackness. What’s more, the narrative of Icon is told from the point of view of Raquel, making, Carrington argues, "the fantastic discourse of superhero comics subject to the critical insights and political priorities ascribed to Black youth in the urban United States" (p. 118). Carrington similarly makes Raquel the center of the chapter, exploring her role as an uncommon protagonist that defied the restrictions placed on young Black women’s lives in the 1990s,and dealing directly with intersecting issues of race, class, gender, and sexual politics alongside the more common elements of the comic book genre. Taken together the two chapters invite readers to dwell on how depictions of Blackness in speculative fiction are often determined by a creator’s familiarity (or lack thereof) with the rich complexity, history, and dynamics of the Black experience.

If Icon offered up something new in its approach to speculative Blackness in comics, the 1990s gave us another groundbreaking figure in popular science fiction television: commanding officer Benjamin Sisko, played by actor Avery Brooks, of Deep Space Nine. The series holds a special place in Black speculative fiction: featuring perhaps the most able officer in Starfleet, relegated to an assignment on the edges of Federation Space and forced to do the best he can with the little he’s given. Far more than other television series in the canon, Deep Space Nine broached topics that complicated the Star Trek franchise’s futurist utopia: colonialism, military occupation, genocide, and even a morally ambiguous Starfleet that secretly allows torture, assassination, and race-specific germ warfare. For Carrington, in a chapter aptly titled "The Once and Future Benjamin Sisko," the symbolism of a Black actor at the forefront of this troubling of the harmonious Trek vision deserves exploration. Benjamin Sisko’s Blackness, after all, was central to his character: in his role as a Black father, his romantic involvement with a Black woman (herself a captain), his ties to his Black ancestral roots in New Orleans, and evoked in everything from his collection of African art to his allusions to Negro League baseball players. As writer Jenn at NerdsofColor underscores: "In short, with Benjamin Sisko, race is not convenient and easily digested. It is not superficial or unassuming. It is not seasoning. Benjamin Sisko is not just a Starfleet man, he is a Black Starfleet man."

Speculative Blackness examines this "Black Starfleet man" through the Deep Space Nine episode "Far Beyond the Stars." Originally written by Marc Scott Zicree, the story was adapted to a teleplay by writers Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler and directed by Avery Brooks. Brooks had directed seven episodes of Deep Space Nine previously, but this was the first that directly addressed issues of race. In the story, Benjamin Sisko is transported back to mid-twentieth-century America. There he is recast as a Black science fiction writer Benny Russell, who dreams up a story of a far distant future where a Black man is in command of a space station. Throughout the episode, Russell deals with the hardships of racism, white supremacy, and mental illness in 1950s New York. In a move towards realism, the regular starring cast of the series are portrayed as white co-workers all of who have power and privilege over Russell. Deep Space Nine’s alien villains are cast without makeup in the role of white police officers, who help enforce the racial oppression of the era with stark state-sanctioned violence. Racism here is a literal institution, an asylum where Russell ends up and where he begins to write his story as a means of escape. "Far Beyond the Stars" thus becomes a story within a story that allows the twenty-fourth century to meet the twentieth and address racism (perhaps for once) within the television Trek genre head on, without allegory or metaphor.

While much has been written about "Far Beyond the Stars" by critics of race and media, Carrington approaches the episode through a different lens: by comparing the original television adaptation with the novelization of the same name (Far Beyond the Stars) by Black SFF writer Steven Barnes. It is the act of adaptation and novelization that Speculative Blackness spends much of this chapter exploring. Carrington argues that while Brooks as a director worked to bring a performance about race and prejudice by white writers to the screen (while engaging in his own, albeit limited, agency), Barnes took on a different challenge: to bring a sense of self-authorship to the story; to move beyond a faithful adaptation that merely swaps out one medium for another; to shift the readers’ perceptions in ways that disrupt the established narrative. Barnes’s novelization provides Benny Russell with an expanded backstory as a young man who is both connected to the far distant future that he dreams for Benjamin Sisko and impacted by lethal racialized police violence in the 1940s. In his detailed analysis of this process, Carrington addresses the multiplicity of dynamics and influences upon Barnes’s critique of the original "Far Beyond the Stars" and ties it to a history of "reparative" intervention in genre by Black speculative writers.

The final chapter returns us to where Speculative Blackness began, with the culture of fandom, this time through the lens of fan fiction. In this reversal of the usual top-down approaches to cultural production, Carrington looks at the ways developing media technologies have allowed fans to join in the creation of popular speculative fiction. In particular, the chapter examines how technology allows fans to envision and form identities of Blackness in ways perhaps never intended by the original narratives. As source material, Carrington draws on his personal experience maintaining the archives of a website called Remember Us, dedicated to fan fiction featuring characters of color. Specifically, he centers on Black characters from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe: Kendra Young, a Slayer, and Olivia Williams, the love interest of the character Rupert Giles.

Editor and writer Troy L. Wiggins has written on the tendency in speculative fiction of creating "black characters that come seemingly out of nowhere." As Wiggins points out, lacking a backstory with family, culture, and homeland, these characters in the end are rendered as "exotic outliers" and, hence, come off as "disappointingly flat." Through excerpts from works of fanfiction, Carrington displays how fan writers attempt to repair these blind spots, by filling in backstories for Black characters whose presence in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series was short-lived. In fanfiction, Kendra’s off-screen history is expanded with Jamaican culture, home life, family, and folklore; Olivia’s innermost thoughts are illuminated in a personal diary and her background is reimagined through an association with Afro-diasporic deities. The choice here of two Black women characters who are also British is deliberate, allowing Carrington to explore what he calls "the persistence of racial distinctions" (p. 202) across transnational boundaries and the ways in which fandom imagines Blackness within the greater diaspora.

The other major examination of speculative Blackness in the chapter is from the Harry Potter universe, through a fan fiction story based on the character Angelina Johnson. In the books and films, Johnson is a secondary character. Not much is known about her, other than her skill as a Quidditch player and a possible romantic attachment to Fred Weasley. In later (canonical) expansions of the universe, Johnson is revealed as having married George Weasley. Her personal background or family, however, beyond attachments to the Weasleys, remains woefully underdeveloped. Carrington highlights the ways in which fan fiction imagines a new role and backstory for Johnson through a set of stories imbued with themes of trauma that both problematizes the tidy Harry Potter narrative and (once more) evokes the diaspora as a means of globalizing the existent genre—at least a decade before Pottermore. This chapter places new importance on the power of media fandom to recognize, critique, and build on limitations of race and identity in popular speculative fiction.

What Speculative Blackness brings to our ongoing discourse of race and genre is a fresh perspective that explores each as self-existent categories in relationship to one another. Carrington forces us to think about how Blackness is constructed alongside the construction of speculative fiction, rather than merely how one phenomenon exists within the other. Through this framework, we might better understand how our performances and perceptions of race impact or reinforce our cultural productions of speculative fiction, as well as how moving beyond such limits has the potential to transform both.



P. Djeli Clark is a historian who also writes stuff. He blogs on race, diversity, and genre at the aptly named The Disgruntled Haradrim (https://pdjeliclark.wordpress.com/).
One comment on “Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction by André M. Carrington”
Chaundra Jones

A thorough- and thoroughly interesting- review. Thank you for this write-up. I've been thinking about the state of Black Science Fiction, and it's nice to get a perspective I hadn't come across. I never knew about the Icon comic book series, so now I get to research and enjoy that bit of speculative fiction, too.

 

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