Black to the Future: On the Misrepresentation of Black People in SciFi and Fantasy

By Anna Gibson

One of the most unsettling trends I’ve seen in mass media is the continual misrepresentation and outright erasure of black people. The history of misrepresentation is long. As late as the late 1800s ,”plantation narrative” novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, romanticize the notion of slavery, framing the slave master as a sympathetic hero. In the 1920s, Sambo was considered the buffoon with a wide ready grin and wide eyes, eager to please white men deemed superior to him. More recently, we’ve seen the stereotypical Angry Black Women in movies and shows like Empire and Madea.

And Science Fiction and Fantasy genre (hereafter called SF/F) are no exceptions.

The racism in SF/F isn’t always explicit; it’s usually subtle. An example of this occurs in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. The entire series is conspicuously absent of black people, except for the villains. Throughout the series, the heroes are all white. But the trolls and minions under the novels antagonist Sauron all have dark skin and dreadlocks.

Whether intentional or not, the villainization of black people within SF/F isn’t new, and of course leads to a terrifying conclusion: A genre dominated by white people has a hard time seeing black people inhabiting the future, even an imaginary one. What does this mean for dominant society as a whole?

This argument has been pointed out to many SF/F enthusiasts. The most common rebuttal is that Middle Earth (the alternate universe that Lord of the Rings) is based loosely on Europe. However, as the existence of the Moors of Europe can attest, this is a ridiculous argument. The truth is, black people are often excluded by authors who use their privilege to ignore an entire group of people within their books. This phenomenon doesn’t just occur within the context of the novels, but within the publishing industry as a whole.

A BuzzFeed article spoke about the obstacles that authors of color have when trying to introduce and sell protagonists of color in their novels. Publishing houses  frequently comment on “not being able to see their protagonist” in the universe narrative. More often than not, the author’s agent also discourages novels with protagonists of color, claiming that the book won’t be marketable to a large audience. Quite often, if black people are included in a genre, its a slave narrative or period piece related to the South.

In order to challenge the illegitimacy of these claims, a number of authors and artists of of color have created their own genre, Afro-Futurism. Afro-futurism seeks to reimagine the past and future through the lens of people of color.

The some earliest traces of Afro-Futurist thought occurred in the 1960s, with heavily influential jazz musician Sun-Ra and his Arkestra. Sun Ra is known to have been a strange, yet influential, figure in the music industry, having created an entire mythological framework around his life.

In Sun Ra: Interviews and Essays, Ra writes:

“People say I’m Herman Blount, but I don’t know him. That’s an imaginary person, he never existed. I have a sister and brother named Blout, but their father died 10 years before I arrived on the planet. He’s not my father. If I tried to do anything with the name Sonny Blount, I couldn’t…I’m not terrestrial, I’m a celestial being.”

While the narrative of being a celestial being may appear to be a little far fetched, black people have always had a curious relationship with the stars. Some claim that the Pyramids of Giza were built directly under Orion’s Belt, and that the Dogon tribe still confounds archeologists with their extensive knowledge of star system Sirius A and B, despite their classification as “uncivilized.” While the validity of these claims are often disputed, ancient African civilizations and Aboriginal tribes were known to have exceedingly advanced astrological technology.

During the 1970s Octavia Butler would take the reimagining of African culture to the next level. Books such as Kindred, The Xenogenesis, and the Patternmaster Series routinely tackled a number of heavy topics such as slavery, colonialism, and space travel with protagonists of color. Butler is considered a forerunner in Afro-Futurism, who inspired a litany of well known Afrofuturist authors such as N.K Jemisin, author of the Hundred Thousand and Dreamblood series, and Nalo Hopkinson a phenomenal author responsible for such titles such as The Salted Road, Mojo: Conjure Stories, and more recently, The New Moon’s Arms.

This is the quintessence of what Afro-Futurism does; it allows us to take back our agency and reinvent ourselves with revitalized stories. No matter what form Afro-Futurism shows up as, the necessity toward telling our story and controlling how we’re represented in popular narratives is extremely important. Writing ourselves into narratives that we create helps us redefine our past, and determines how we want to approach our future.

Anna GibsonAnna Gibson is a student at Wayne State University, Buddhist, social activist. She is passionate about illuminating the stories of the marginalized. You can catch up with her on Twitter @TheRealSankofa and on Facebook where she’s hiding under the name of Introspective Inquiries.

Get at us @BlkMillennials.

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12 responses to “Black to the Future: On the Misrepresentation of Black People in SciFi and Fantasy

  1. Thank you for the vast information about the lack of black characters in sci-fi genre. As a writer I have been struggling to to write a story that can influence my kind and make a difference. I’m also interested in looking at books by these authors recommended and learn more about it.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you very much for this. I love SF/F, but I don’t have a favorite African-American character because of how our people have been excluded. That’s one reason the protagonist of my novel, Sacred Swords are African American. I want to add positive color to the Genre

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  3. For what it’s worth, it’s not just “authors of color” that face this problem. As a white author, I received precisely the same feedback, encouraging me to change the cast of “Everything I Know About Zombies, I Learned in Kindergarten” from a group of black and Latino children from the Bronx into paler children from the ‘burbs. I’m glad I persevered, but, sadly, I’m finding that the publishers weren’t 100% wrong. It’s been a hard sell, and I have received feedback from readers that they had a hard time relating once they figured out the cast wasn’t white. Surprises the hell out of me: they can enjoy reading about elves, orcs, hobbits, and even rabbits, but they can’t relate to a black child.

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  4. what a splendid article. Kushite Prince was the one who introduced me to your blog and this article, and I must say that this has been a God-send. Also I am currently writing my own sci-fi superhero novel, a prologue and three chapters are currently available on my blog…. so if you’re interested you can check it out, thanks again for this wonderful post sis, keep up the good work

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  5. I love the fact that this resonates so deeply with you guys. That just proves our point. Representation is so important. We need to ‘see ourselves’ especially in the future. The one with the longest view cast the greatest legacy.
    Thanks for the love guys,
    Anna

    Like

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