Science Fiction Studies

#102 = Volume 34, Part 2 = July 2007


Mark Bould

The Ships Landed Long Ago: Afrofuturism and Black SF

                        Who put us in a race and for what purpose are we racing?—Rammellzee

From the 1950s onwards, sf in the US magazine and paperback tradition postulated and presumed a color-blind future, generally depicting humankind “as one race, which has emerged from an unhappy past of racial misunderstandings and conflicts” (James 47; see also Kilgore). This shared assumption accounts for the relative absence of people of color from such sf: if race was going to prove unimportant, why even bother thinking about it, when energies could instead be devoted to more pressing matters, such as how to colonize the solar system or build a better robot? And so questions of race remained as marginalized as black characters—at best, it seemed, Chewbacca’s Jim to Han’s Huck. A year after Star Wars, DC Comics put Superman in the ring with Muhammad Ali and then concocted a convoluted narrative that culminated in the speedy declaration of Ali’s victory by a technical knockout as, stripped of his superpowers, the well-whupped Man of Steel refused to hit the canvas (until a split second after the referee announced the result).

The exclusion of people of color from sf’s future had already been noted by, among others, Gil Scott-Heron, whose 1970 track “Whitey on the Moon” (1970) contrasts the corporate profiteering of the US space program (so close, ideologically, to much of the Campbell-Heinlein tradition) with the impoverishment of black urban communities: “I can’t pay no doctor bill (but Whitey’s on the moon)/Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still (while Whitey’s on the moon).” The space race showed us which race space was for. This sense of exclusion even registered in white-authored sf. For example, in “Survival,” a 1971 episode of UFO (1970-73), Commander Straker (Ed Bishop)—the white, American head of SHADO, a secret military organization charged with defending Earth from alien invaders—believes white Colonel Paul Foster (Michael Billington) to be dead and so offers command of the vital moonbase to Lieutenant Mark Bradley (Harry Baird). Initially, this West-Indian officer turns down the promotion, saying that Straker has done his duty by offering the job to the next most senior man, even though he is black, and that he himself has done his duty by refusing it. When Straker demands an explanation, Bradley indicates his skin color. Straker—perhaps forgetting that the series is set in 1980, less than a decade in the future—responds, “Don’t give me that. Racial prejudice burned itself out five years ago.”“How would you know?” Bradley demands.

Whatever their intentions, sf’s color-blind future was concocted by whites and excluded people of color as full subjects; and because of the particularities of US history, the most obvious omission was that significant proportion of the population descended from the survivors of the West-African genocide, the Middle Passage, and slavery. This is not to say that the dominant US sf tradition did not occasionally attempt, with varying degrees of equivocation, to consider issues of race and prejudice in contemporary and future worlds. For example, Allen De Graeff’s Human and Other Beings (1963) collects sixteen such stories, published between 1949 and 1961, by Raymond E. Banks, Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Fredric Brown, Theodore R. Cogswell, C.M. Kornbluth, George P. Elliott, J.T. McIntosh, Frederik Pohl, Mack Reynolds, Eric Frank Russell, Robert Sheckley, Evelyn E. Smith, William Tenn, and Richard Wilson.1 It is not insignificant, though, that only one-third of these stories addressed the position of African Americans with anything like directness; only two or three of them could be seen to have black viewpoint characters, despite the growth of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and such high-profile events as McLaurin vs. Oklahama State Regents (1951), Sweatt vs. Painter (1951), the announced desegregation of the US Army (1951), Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954), the murder of Emmett Till (1955), the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56), and the desegregation of Little Rock (1957).

This problem, too, is perhaps best addressed by a marginal black sf character from the 1970s. In 1972, Marvel Comics launched Luke Cage, Hero for Hire (later Luke Cage, Power Man). Long before Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s wonderful Truth: Red, White and Black (2002) reworked the Captain America origin story (reasoning that if medical experiments had been conducted on US soldiers in the 1940s they would have been on black soldiers), Luke Cage opened with Lucas, a black prisoner imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, consenting to be the subject of an experimental treatment in order to help sway a parole board. When a racist guard sabotages the procedure, Lucas undergoes a remarkable transformation. His already muscular physique becomes hypermuscular, his body mass increases in density, and his skin becomes as hard as steel. He busts out of prison, punching his way through its walls. Back in New York, he tries to clear his name while working as hired muscle, Shaft-like detective, and raging black Robin Hood. He finds himself embroiled with various white superheroes: Iron Man, who, as billionaire Tony Stark, financed the experiment that created him, and the Fantastic Four, whose skyscraper headquarters belongs to an entirely different world from his run-down office over a Times Square movie theater.

In a comic whose unabashed linking of discrepancies of wealth, prestige, and access to technology with skin color provides no more analysis of the situation than one would find in most blaxploitation movies of the period, it nonetheless powerfully articulates the alienated black identity that W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon described in terms of double consciousness and colonized subjectivity. We never know Lucas’s surname, and the one he adopts alludes to an imprisonment he feels even though no longer incarcerated. From the moment Lucas becomes Luke Cage he is always Luke Cage. For all that he must conceal a past from which he cannot escape, he has no conventional off-duty secret identity to protect, no mask to put on or take off. He is always visible in the role he must play to survive. Moreover, despite his superpowers, he does not feel that he is a superhero. Rather, as he muses in issue 2 (1972), superheroing is “one line ’a work where powers like mine seem natural,” the one chance this big, black man has of passing. (Contemplating a change of sobriquet in issue 17 [1974], he rejects “Ace of Spades” as “too ethnic.”) As his superpowers consist of hitting things really hard, while withstanding being hit really hard, he embraces this stereotype of black masculinity, occasionally chiding himself for betraying his intelligence (although fortunately his performance of black male rage is so convincing that his opponents, and perhaps his readers, rarely notice that he also outsmarts them). In issue 9 (1973), Cage makes his way to Latveria, where Doctor Doom’s robot slaves, led by the alien Faceless One, are in armed revolt. The Faceless One seeks Cage’s help: “The plight of these machines is heart-rending, Cage. Other countries have, in the past, imported slaves ... but Doctor Doom manufactures his! Surely you can comprehend their feelings?” Cage replies: “Don’t play that song for me, darlin’—I can dig it right enough!—But jivin’ don’t hook Luke Cage, an’ you couldn’t care less ’bout American history!”

Just as Lieutenant Bradley points to white ignorance of black subjectivity, the oppressor’s ignorance of the oppressed’s life, so Luke Cage points to the problem of sf that uses the indirection of metaphor or allegory to consider issues of race and prejudice. Just as the Faceless One elides all experiences of slavery, thus stripping both fictional robots and real African Americans of specific identities and histories, so the satirical sf tale in which the alien or the android is the subject of prejudice, whatever its merits, also avoids direct engagement with the realities of racialized hierarchies and oppressions. This is evident in the brief discussion of race and sf offered by Scholes and Rabkin in the 1970s:

because of their orientation toward the future, science fiction writers frequently assumed that America’s major problem in this area—black/white relations—would improve or even wither away.… The presence of unhuman races, aliens, and robots, certainly makes the differences between human races seem appropriately trivial, and one of the achievements of science fiction has been its emphasis on just this feature of human existence.… [Its] tacit attack on racial stereotyping … has allowed science fiction to get beyond even “liberal” attitudes, to make stereotyping itself an obsolete device and the matter of race comparatively unimportant. Science fiction, in fact, has taken the question so spiritedly debated by the founding fathers of the United States—of whether the rights of man included black slaves as well as white slave-owners—and raised it to a higher power by asking whether the rights of being end at the boundaries of the human race. (188-89, emphasis added)

While Scholes and Rabkin are clearly involved in the important struggle to get sf recognized as being worthy of academic study—their book was published by Oxford University Press—and thus might be merely over-egging the pudding in the battle for acceptance, this passage is nonetheless redolent of the criticism of the genre that accepts the genre’s own self-image, promulgated in the pulps and some fandoms, as somehow being in the vanguard of literature because of the supposedly more objective stance enabled by its affiliations to science, particularly the longer and broader perspectives opened up by the contemplation of cosmic space and time. The problem with such a gesture, of course, is that rather than putting aside trivial and earthly things, it validates and normalizes very specific ideological and material perspectives, enabling discussions of race and prejudice on a level of abstraction while stifling a more important discussion about real, material conditions, both historical and contemporary. And by presenting racism as an insanity that burned itself out, or as the obvious folly of the ignorant and impoverished who would be left behind by the genre’s brave new futures, sf avoids confronting the structures of racism and its own complicity in them.

Edward James, in his rather more nuanced essay quoted above, found “the message that humanity is one race” perpetuated without any fuss or foregrounding in a sample of stories from 1990. “We may trust,” he concludes, “this is a hopeful sign” (47). Slavoj Žižek’s critique of multiculturalism suggests that this is unduly optimistic. Multiculturalism, he argues, is

a disavowed, inverted, self-referential form of racism, a “racism with a distance”—it “respects” the Other’s identity, conceiving the Other as a self-enclosed “authentic” community towards which he, the multiculturalist, maintains a distance rendered possible by his privileged universal position. Multiculturalism is a racism which empties its own position of all positive content (the multiculturalist is not a direct racist, he doesn’t oppose to the Other the particular values of his own culture), but nonetheless retains this position as the privileged empty point of universality from which one is able to appreciate (and depreciate) properly other particular cultures—the multiculturalist respect for the Other’s specificity is the very form of asserting one’s own superiority. (44, emphases in original)

Sf’s color-blind future is multiculturalist in this way—as is evident when Commander Straker, who has profoundly missed the point, tells Lieutenant Bradley, “I don’t care if you’re polka dot with red stripes, you’re the best man for the job.”2

The term “Afrofuturism” is normally attributed to Mark Dery, coined in an interview with Samuel Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose that appeared in South Atlantic Quarterly in 1993, but even without this term to hand, Mark Sinker was outlining a specifically black sf in the pages of The Wire the year before. To many readers of SFS, Sinker’s pantheon of black sf—which included Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, as well as Sun Ra, Public Enemy, John Coltrane, Anthony Braxton, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Jimi Hendrix, Afrika Bambaataa, Ishmael Reed, and Earth Wind and Fire—might not sound much like the sf we know. But sf is “a point of cultural departure” for all of these writers and musicians, because “it allows for a series of worst-case futures—of hells-on-Earth and being in them—which are woven into every kind of everyday present reality” (“Loving the Alien”). The “central fact” of the black sf they produce “is an acknowledgement that Apocalypse already happened,” that, in Public Enemy’s words, “Armageddon been in effect.”

Taking in contemporary music and sf, Sinker positions hip-hop in “the grand syncretic tradition of bebop, not ashamed to acknowledge that technological means and initial building material are always simply what falls to hand: but that meaning is nonetheless a matter of energetic and visionary redeployment, not who first owned or made this or that fragment” (“Loving the Alien”). Although cyberpunk has typically been discussed in terms of European avant-garde detournement or Burroughsian cut-up, its parallels and affinities with bebop and hip-hop3 have generally gone unacknowledged. Sinker does more than merely point to this omission, however. Just as Thomas Foster argues that cyberpunk “didn’t so much die as experience a sea change into a more generalized cultural formation” (xiv), so Sinker suggests that the black, urban, proletarian experience central to the development of these musical forms speaks directly to the experience of the global underclass created by the intertwined logics of capital, Empire, and race: more-or-less concomitant with the growth of hip-hop, cyberpunk, the “radical leading edge” of “white SF,” was “arguing that the planet, already turned Black, must embrace rather than resist this [relationship to technology]: that … only ways of technological interaction inherited from the jazz and now the rap avant garde can reintegrate humanity with the runaway machine age.”

While Extropians, Transhumanists, and other rich white guys can reimagine white flight not in terms of suburbs, gated communities, or “off-world colonies,” but of libertarian, pro-market, digital disembodiment, the overwhelming majority of the global population can only play in the ruins they leave behind. In musical terms, this is signified by Detroit Techno, which “yearn[ed] for [the] impossible SF futures” projected by Kraftwerk’s semi-ironic celebration of “the excellence of robot-being,” but whose consumers could only find “purely temporary paradisiac freedom, beyond sex rules or racial boundaries” in the “wordless total immersion culture of beat-pleasure.”4 In sf terms, this utopian impulse is suggested by the dance-party in Zion while tunneling Sentinels prepare for a final onslaught that will universalise the Matrix. Blackness as a signifier of the multiethnic underclass, as well as an increasingly commodified image of resistance, is signalled by the presence in The Matrix (1999) and its sequels of Keanu Reeves, a Lebanon-born Canadian Asian-Pacific, passing as white, cast instead of a black man (Will Smith), who fights like a Chinese (specifically, Jet Li), and desperately wants to be as black—as cool—as Laurence Fishburne.

Just as the Sentinels seek to eradicate the Zionites, so western culture generally constructs “Blackness … as always oppositional to technologically driven chronicles of progress” (Nelson 1). This is evident, for example, in such a quintessentially sf story as Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (1954). While much of the criticism of this story has focused on its construction of a newer and higher frontier as a space of transcendent masculinity, and of femininity as that which must be ejected, the one colonized person who fleetingly appears in it—the Gelanese “native girl who does the cleaning in the Ship’s supply office” (445)—has gone largely unnoticed. While the manly colonists do all they can to allow the white girl, Marilyn, an existence in their space, however briefly, the “native girl” is utterly excluded.

Afrofuturism, described by Dery as “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture—and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future” (736), is not restricted to images of exclusion from white technological progress, because only within a certain ideological field is black experience the opposite of technoculture. Just as the futures of “The Cold Equations” and UFO exclude the experience of the subaltern from their self-perception, so Mark Bradley and Luke Cage’s resistances to certain interpellations indicate—even if they struggle to imagine—a much more varied and complex set of relationships between domination and subordination, whiteness and color, ideology and reality, technology and race. In this context, it is not insignificant that much Afrofuturist writing focuses on real-world black access to and use of digitial technologies, or that the second @froGEEKS conference should shift its emphasis from 2004’s “From Technophobia to Technophilia” to 2005’s “Global Blackness and the Digital Public Sphere.”5

It is not the intention of this special issue to incorporate Afrofuturism into sf. Afrofuturism is every bit as irreducible to sf as Bradley is to SHADO’s white hierarchy, or black Americans to Latverian robot slaves, or Luke Cage to the buck stereotype. Rather, it is the contention of this issue that sf and sf studies have much to learn from the experience of technoculture that Afrofuturist texts register across a wide range of media; and that sf studies, if it is to be at all radical, must use its position of relative privilege to provide a home for excluded voices without forcing assimilation upon them. Resistance, as the Borg never said, is utile. It would be easy, in a postmodern multiculturalist age, to fall into the trap of merely celebrating Afrofuturism as resistance (and thus practicing the “disavowed, inverted, self-referential” racism Žižek describes). In the era of digital sampling—and the shift of emphasis from the diachronic to the synchronic encouraged as much by late capitalism as by the linguistic turn—it is easy to lose track of history. The future proposed by Marinetti and the Italian Futurists was young and masculine, obsessed with speed and the foreclosure of the past. In its frequent emphasis on bridging the digital divide, Afrofuturism tends towards the typical cyberpunk acceptance of capitalism as an unquestionable universe and working for the assimilation of certain currently marginalized peoples into a global system that might, at best, tolerate some relatively minor (although not unimportant) reforms, but within which the many will still have to poach, pilfer, and hide to survive. It is the hope of this issue to bring together Afrofuturism and sf studies in anticipation of a transformation.

Isiah Lavender’s idea of the “ethnoscape” proposes a new way of looking at sf. In producing an estranged world, the sf author can formulate an imaginary environment so as to foreground the intersection of race, technology, and power; likewise, the reader of any text can transform its contours by a similar foregrounding of the text’s treatment of these discourses. Focusing on the ethnoscape transforms the perceived object. Afrofuturism can help sf studies to recognize the ethnoscapes in both the texts and practices it studies, as well as in those it constructs itself. Each of the articles in this issue performs a similar task.

Darryl Smith considers short fiction by W.E.B. Du Bois, Amiri Baraka, and Derrick Bell, signifying on the image of the singularity or spike, inverting it, so as not to contemplate the Tip of white, posthuman, post-historical transcendence but the Pit of black, material, human, and historical being. Bould examines a group of African-American novels from the 1960s and 1970s that postulate a now that cannot be gone beyond, and that respond by trying to imagine a black revolution against white power. Inverting the utopian form, they bring the reader right up to the brink of historical rupture that makes utopia possible from this side, but are stopped short by the immensity of the ontological cataclysm their revolutionary action must provoke. While not always superficially resembling sf, these novels are in the vanguard of the current tendency Jameson notes of “finding visions of total destruction and of the extinction of life on Earth … more plausible than the Utopian vision of the new Jerusalem” (199).

Sherryl Vint considers two novels, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), that initially retreat from the future so as to better understand how to approach it. Critical treatments of the neo-slave narrative have typically neglected the significant use made of fantastic devices so as to trouble and confront the history of slavery in the New World (which includes its ongoing legacies). Kindred can perhaps be read as an early third-wave feminist inversion of Marge Piercy’s late second-wave Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). In broad terms, Piercy’s naturalist slumming with Connie Ramos tends to dematerialize difference through a future-orientation that can reach no further into the past than Connie’s present, and makes all of future history hinge on her agency. Butler (whose novel is set, in part, in 1976) insists that present and future are inextricably caught up with the past. As Vint demonstrates, Morrison’s gothic confinements and hauntings suggest the importance of not being trapped by history, while Butler’s time travel argues against any precipitate flight from a history that has not yet been adequately resolved. While Butler is an author who has moved freely among fantastic genres, this essay reconceptualizes her work as always-already neo-slave narratives.

A similarly deep engagement with the history of imperialism and colonialism is evident, Jillana Enteen reveals, in Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000), a novel that tells a cyberpunk story from the point of view of the colonized even as the colonized play the colonizers in a planetary romance. Hacking and splicing genres as deftly as it does language, telling its contradictory tale(s) in North American English and Trinidadian and Jamaican creoles, Midnight Robber activates both sides of history, digging deep to imagine a future. Examining sonic Afrofuturism, Nabeel Zuberi reveals an even more tangled historical weave in the refusal of Afrodiasporic culture, and music in particular, to dematerialize into nothing more than disembodied digital bits in the circulation of globalized information-capital. For William Gibson, dub might have been merely “a sensuous mosaic cooked from vast libraries of digitalized pop” (104), but as Zuberi demonstrates, culture is embodied—and history is bodies. And maybe that color-blind future can still be told so long as it is motley, mottled without hierarchy, rather than blanketed in whiteness, and so long as it is told by those and for those who are propelled towards the Pit rather than those who clamber over them to the Tip.

The articles in this issue bring to our attention generally neglected texts, some of which might conventionally be considered as of only marginal interest to sf, while also casting relatively familiar texts in a new light by considering them alongside non- or marginally-sf texts. Collectively, they not only draw attention to the ways in which sf has traditionally been constructed to privilege white American pulp-and-paperback and European literary traditions but also, inextricably, to exclude black voices and black experience.

I would like to thank Raiford Guins, who set the ball rolling and later put me in touch with Rone Shavers at a crucial juncture; the patient and sympathetic editors of SFS; and my anonymous reader, my hero for hire, whose reports were prompt, precise, detailed, and insightful.


1. Davin offers details of numerous other stories that addressed issues of race and discrimination, and demonstrates some of the complexity of the genre’s liberalism in this regard. His conclusion, however—that sf in the period he studies (1926-1965) was not racist—is predicated on a rather naïve conception of racism that in fact replicates the exclusionary structure of sf’s color-blind future. Recent anthologies of interest include Hopkinson and Mehan, and the two edited by Thomas.

2. Bradley, unfortunately, accepts this reassurance and the promotion, becoming, in effect, one of Anthony Joseph’s “post-earth negroes who believed inner:disembodied: blacknuss” and who

claimed that black as a concept of being was only ever relevant on Earth, and even then it was suspected as the mindset of a con that put afros down and kept negroes terra bound to suffer/when we coulda been interplanetary from way back. Instead of the industrial revolution, we could’ve had niggers in space! They said black was dead.... But black people didn’t want to hear that shit! ’cause in their folly these fools grew lame limbs and underneath and otherwise they appeared impervious to funk. (37-38)

3. Bebop’s reliance on chord progressions and on altering or combining chords from two tunes (so as to ditch melodies unsuited to its fast pace, enable improvisation, and avoid copyright payments) provides a model for hip-hop’s scratching and sampling aesthetic.

4. Key Afrofuturist writings on music include Ellington, Eshun, Lock, Miller, Rose, Szwed, Weheliye, and Williams.

5. See, for example, Eglash; Everett; Kevorkian; Kolko, Nakamura, and Rodman; Nakamura; and Nelson, Tu, and Hines.


Davin, Eric Leif. Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2006.
De Graeff, Allen, ed. Human and Other Beings. New York: Collier, 1963.
Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” South Atlantic Quarterly 92 (1993): 735-78.
Eglash, Ron. “Race, Sex, and Nerds: From Black Geeks to Asian American Hipsters.” Social Text 20.2 (Summer 2002): 49-64.
Ellington, Duke. “The Race for Space.” 1962. The Duke Ellington Reader. Ed. Mark Tucker. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. 293-97.
Everett, Anna. “The Revolution Will Be Digitized: Afrocentricity and the Digital Public Sphere.” Social Text 20.2 (Summer 2002): 125-46.
Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures In Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet, 1998.
Foster, Thomas. The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.
Godwin, Tom. “The Cold Equations.” 1954. The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF. Ed. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. New York: Tor, 1994. 442-58.
Hopkinson, Nalo and Uppinder Mehan, eds. So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004.
James, Edward. “Yellow, Black, Metal and Tentacled: The Race Question in American Science Fiction.” Science Fiction, Social Conflict and War. Ed. Philip John Davies. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1990. 26-49.
Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, 2005.
Joseph, Anthony. The African Origins of UFOs. Cambridge: Salt, 2006.
Kevorkian, Martin. Color Monitors: The Black Face of Technology in America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2006.
Kilgore, De Witt Douglas. Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.
Kolko, Beth E., Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert B. Rodman, eds. Race in Cyberspace. London: Routledge, 2000.
Lock, Graham. Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000.
Miller, Paul D. (aka Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid). Rhythm Science. Cambridge: MIT, 2004.
Morales, Robert, and Kyle Baker. Truth: Red, White & Black. New York: Marvel, 2004.
Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. London: Routledge, 2002.
Nelson, Alondra. “Introduction: Future Texts.” Social Text 20.2 (Summer 2002): 1-15.
─────, Thuy Linh N. Tu, and Alicia Headlam Hines, eds. Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life. New York: New York UP, 2001.
Rammellzee. “Iconic Treatise on Gothic Futurism.” 6 May 2007. <http://www. text/Manifestos/Rammellzee01.html>.
Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1994.
Scholes, Robert, and Eric S. Rabkin. Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.
Scott-Heron, Gil. “Whitey on the Moon” (1969). Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. Flying Dutchman, 1970.
Sinker, Mark. “Loving the Alien.” First published in The Wire 96 (February 1992): 30-33. 5 May 2007. < _alien/>.
Szwed, John F. Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra. New York: Pantheon, 1997.
Thomas, Roy, et al. Essential Luke Cage, Power Man, volume one. New York: Marvel, 2005.
Thomas, Sheree, ed. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. New York: Warner, 2000.
───, ed. Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. New York: Warner, 2004.
Weheliye, Alexander. “‘Feenin’: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music.” Social Text 20.2 (Summer 2002): 21-47
Williams, Ben. “Black Secret Technology: Detroit Techno and the Information Age.” Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life. Ed. Alondra Nelson, Thuy Linh N. Tu, and Alicia Headlam Hines. New York: New York UP, 2001. 154-76.
Žižek, Slavoj. “Multiculturalism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism.” New Left Review 225 (September-October 1997): 28-51.

Isiah Lavender, III

Ethnoscapes: Environment and Language in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, and Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17

Abstract. -- In this essay, I start from some of the central concerns of Afrofuturism to investigate the ubiquity of race in sf. I map out a novel way to think about the various environments that sf provides as well as a way to think about characterization in sf semblances. I argue that social interactions, technology, and physical surroundings all contribute to the systematic nature of a racialized environment—what I term an ethnoscape. Sf ethnoscapes can both fabricate racial difference and reconceive it. The concept of the ethnoscape helps us unpack the racial or ethnic environments that sf can posit or assume. I explore Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972), a marginally sf work, as a fabulist ethnoscape; Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1990) as a counterfactual ethnoscape; and Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 (1966) as a linguistic ethnoscape.

Darryl A. Smith

Droppin’ Science Fiction: Signification and Singularity in the Metapocalypse of Du Bois, Baraka, and Bell

Abstract. -- This essay presents the argument that black speculative fiction can be construed generally as a dialectical riposte to the broader sf megatext. Specifically, I argue, black sf can be understood as refiguring in apocalyptic terms the so-called Spike (or Singularity) as posited by an important quarter of the Anglo-European sf tradition through the critical inversion of this idea by African-American sf. Consideration is also given to the relevant discourse on the posthuman within the genre. To these ends, I focus on the speculative fiction of W.E.B. Du Bois, Amiri Baraka, and Derrick Bell, paying particular attention to both explicit and implicit expressions of this inverted Spike in each, which tend to disrupt dominant paradigms of reality. I draw substantially on the critical signification theory articulated by Ralph Ellison and substantially elaborated by Henry Louis Gates, Jr

Mark Bould

Come Alive by Saying No: An Introduction to Black Power SF

Abstract. -- This essay considers a group of novels from the 1960s and 1970s about African-American revolution, by Barry Beckham, Nivi-kofi A. Easley, Sam Greenlee, Chester Himes, Blyden Jackson, William Melvin Kelley, John O. Killens, Warren Miller, Julian Moreau, Chuck Stone, John Edgar Wideman, and John A. Williams as examples of black power sf. It focuses in particular on their inability to imagine a post-revolutionary future, and the strategies they adopt in place of more conventional sf techniques of extrapolation—such as refusal, immanentization, veil-rending, and pornotopianism—in order to narrativize the problem of what Walter Mosley has characterized as breaking the chains of (white) reality.

Sherryl Vint

“Only by Experience”: Embodiment and the Limitations of Realism in Neo-Slave Narratives

Abstract. -- This essay positions Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Toni Morrison’s Beloved within the slave narrative tradition, focusing specifically on issues of embodiment and authenticity. It argues that the fantastic elements in these novels demonstrate the limitations of realist representation and official discourse for capturing the subjective experience of slavery, while simultaneously revealing the importance of understanding such devices in relation to literatures of both the fantastic and the African-American canon. Both novels reveal the degree to which the consequences of slavery continue to disturb American culture, largely because this history has not been acknowledged and accepted. Through their emphasis on embodiment and the healing made possible by overcoming mind/body dualism, Butler and Morrison challenge the liberal-humanist model of subjectivity and argue for a model of self-in-connection consistent with the self expressed in nineteenth-century slave narratives

Jillana Enteen

“On the Receiving End of the Colonization”: Nalo Hopkinson’s ’Nansi Web

Abstract. -- In the 1980s, cyberpunk helped to revitalize interest in science fiction among academic and popular audiences. The genre offers a singular vision of the imminent production and deployment of technology in the service of capitalism writ large. In this essay, I argue for a broader vision of cyberpunk, including the novels of authors situated “on the receiving end of the colonization,” particularly Nalo Hopkinson, whose future visions render visible current socio-economic inequities and increase the cultural repository of ideas that inspire technological development. Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000) fashions unconventional scenarios premised on technological development and provides unorthodox versions of future societies. Hopkinson combines English with Trinidadian and Jamaican creole, “hacking” a language that recalls the histories of the middle passage, slavery, and imperialism. Her characters break and create code, “hacking” in speech as well as through their conceptions of community. Centered on a feminine Artificial Intelligence commanding a planet and its inhabitants, Midnight Robber challenges the genre conventions of cyberpunk, revealing its ideological underpinnings, and complicates popular accounts of the intersections of gender, technology, and corporate presence.

Nabeel Zuberi

Is This The Future? Black Music and Technology Discourse

Abstract. -- As a dispersed assemblage of ideas and aesthetics, sonic Afrofuturism operates across the porous borders between and among music, sf, the academy, journalism, and the blogosphere. In this article I am interested in the value of these rhetorics for media studies. In particular, how can writing that focuses on the materiality of music inform our understanding of the technological changes associated with digitization? I will argue that music forms, commodities, and practices provide ample evidence of the continuities as well as discontinuities in the mediascape. Today’s popular music culture is marked by the mediations of the past, even as recorded sounds take on more informational characteristics. I also seek to ground the technological sublime of Afrofuturist poetics in the widespread social practices associated with records, sound-system dances, and music networks. Underpinning the sonic imagination in techno-centric writing and music-making are the quotidian practices of music cultures, the more “worldly” fictions behind “sonic fictions,” to borrow Kodwo Eshun’s suggestive adaptation of literary and visual sf for music recordings. This paper examines the material possibilities of techno-discourse for transnational media studies through a discussion of digital sampling, and points to the limitations of technological utopianism in relation to writing about music and black bodies.

Back to Home