From Panther to Princess, Sex Work to Starfleet
Sandra Jackson and Julie Moody-Freeman, eds. A special issue of African Identities 7.2 on “The Black Imagination and Science Fiction.” Routledge, May 2009. ISSN 1472-5843. 160pp. £15 or US$26. May be ordered on this website: <http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/spissue/cafi-si2.asp>.
This special journal issue is dedicated to “critically examin[ing] works in literature and film of the Black and African Diaspora as well as mainstream media and popular culture that seek to engage us in thinking about imagined futures—those in which African descendant people as well as other people of colour are neither conspicuously absent, nor marginalized as background or expendable characters, but who are instead not only present, but rather are active agents” (127). Its further goals are to expand “the definitions of what works and writers can be classified as science fiction” and to offer “fresh innovative critical strategies and approaches to the issues of race, gender, sexuality, power, agency and resistance to domination and imperialism” (130). The venue in which this work is presented necessitates some introductory material so as to persuade a potentially skeptical readership of sf’s significance, but unfortunately much of it is oversimplified and erroneous (e.g., the coining of “science fiction” is confused with that of “speculative fiction”), and the editorial introduction in particular suffers from poor copy-editing. The contents are of variable quality, including two articles that I highly recommend and a couple that seem to have been rushed into print long before they were ready. These cavils and quibbles aside, the issue constitutes an important contribution to the developing body of critical work on Afro-diasporic and postcolonial sf, and to the serious treatment of the genre in non-sf venues. It is well worth tracking down—and easy to get hold of if you have, or can wangle, access to Metapress or Taylor and Francis Journals Online.
Taiwo Adetunji Osinubi’s “Cognition’s warp: African films on near-future risk” comes closest to achieving all three of the issue’s goals. It foregrounds the intertextual relationship between two recent African sf films, Les Saignantes (2005) and Africa Paradis (2006), and Ousmane Sembène’s La Noire de… (1966). Sembène’s moving depiction of a Senegalese woman’s dislocation to (and in) the South of France is not science-fictional in any conventional sense. In the film’s contrast between Dakar and Nice, however, which brings out the combined and uneven development of modernity, Osinubi identifies a striking moment in which a science-fictional unconscious rises to the surface. Looking out from her employers’ window over night-time Nice, Diouanna (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) asks, with ambiguous Afrofuturist polysemy, “Is France that black hole?” (260).
Africa Paradis inverts Diouanna’s journey, imagining a future, democratic, technologically advanced United States of Africa faced with the problem of illegal European immigrants in flight from a bankrupt continent. His immigrant protagonists, Olivier (Stéphane Roux) and Pauline (Charlotte Vermeil), “experience the consequences of exclusion from full political rights” (264). Les Saignantes is set in a “decrepit Yaoundé” in a Cameroon more realistically extrapolated from present-day global structural inequalities. It follows the adventures of “two cyborg-like female sex workers … after a high-ranking political Figure ... dies during a session” (256). Both films are examples of “network narrative,” a form, exemplified by John Sayles’s films or The Wire (2002-08), that enables “explorations of the structural relations unleashed by capital on individual subject worlds” (263-64) and of “the conflicts between individual subjective processes of cognitive mapping and the constraints and potentialities of structural systems in which such individuals are placed” (264). They “juxtapose different scales of exposure to risk by situating a number of characters in multiple social positions and geographic locations through which they are exposed to life-changing potentials of risk or fortuity” (264). The key contrast Osinubi identifies between these films is their relative emphasis or de-emphasis of the nation-state. Les Saignantes insists on the nation-state, perhaps suggesting a necessity within what Manuel Castells calls the black holes of informational capitalism to privilege other forms of community rather than trying to enter into a global economy stacked against the so-called developing world. In contrast, Africa Paradis “missed the opportunity” to offer some “glimpse of how Africa resolved all their differences and achieved continental unity” (272). Both films, however, demonstrate “the potential of African SF” to explore “disturbing questions about the new political, economic, and technological cultures springing up unevenly on the continent” (272).
It is probably worth noting that it took me all of two minutes to locate and order an English-subtitled DVD of Africa Paradis, the film with white protagonists, while I am still pursuing multiple leads in my quest to see anything more than YouTube fragments of Les Saignantes.
Amor Kohli’s “But that’s just mad! Reading the utopian impulse in Dark Princess and Black Empire” is almost as impressive. While W.E.B. Du Bois, the author of the former, has typically been considered an “idealist, optimist humanist,” and George S. Schuyler, the author of the latter, a “cynical pessimistic misanthrope” (162), Kohli sensibly puts aside such stereotypes, and instead traces out the utopian impulse in the “romantic millenarianism” of Dark Princess (1928) and the “melodramatic technocratic messianism” of Black Empire (1936-38) (163).1 Du Bois’s novel reimagines the “color line,” which thirty years earlier he had described as “the looming national problem” of the twentieth century, as the “global problem” (163; emphasis in original). This is manifested not just in the novel’s alliance among Asians, Africans, Latin Americans, and their respective diasporas but, as Kohli observes, by the way in which it demonstrates the capacity of white supremacist power to reorder the globe in its own favor and to the detriment of peoples of color. When a white American in Paris can treat an Indian princess as just another sexually available “nigger,” the world-as-it-is is “an already-existing dystopia” (167).
Dark Princess culminates in the apparent championing of aristocratic oligarchy and in an ecstatic vision. Like others, Kohli excuses the former as standing in for Du Bois’s Talented Tenth, but his treatment of the latter is more innovative. He connects this moment of excess to the euphoria his protagonist, Matthew Towns, felt when working as a laborer, digging a subway tunnel in Chicago. Moments such as these, Kohli argues, embody “the utopian spirit. Matthew digs and digs in the face of a sweeping contradiction. It is a ‘little hole’ [that he digs] but it is symbolic of a vast, almost unfathomable enterprise” (168). In this subway excavation one might find an echo of the deep channel dug by Thomas More’s Utopos so as to separate Abraxas from the mainland and thus transform it into the island of Utopia; Towns’s labor figures the work of revolutionary struggle, but on a smaller, more intimate scale, and the affective charge it sometimes produces, including the climactic ecstasy, is a taste of the utopia yet to come.
Black Empire was originally published as two weekly serials in the Pittsburgh Courier (and, I suspect, its technological vision was heavily influenced by Philip Nowlan and Dick Calkins’s syndicated Buck Rogers daily comic strip). It focuses on the conspiracy, headed by Dr. Henry Belsidus, to liberate Africa and establish a pan-African utopia by any means necessary—terrorism, assassinations, atrocities, plagues, poison gas. While Schuyler’s Black No More (1931)—one of the best sf novels of the decade, vastly superior to anything in the pulps—is an hilarious satire, Black Empire is a pleasingly disturbing and disturbingly pleasing vengeance fantasy (motivated, at least in part, it seems, by anger over the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and the unconcern with which other western nations greeted it). Kohli notes that while it is correct to reject the novel as a utopian fiction per se (despite the arguably utopian society that Belsidus establishes in Africa), “one must also fully account for the almost gleeful satisfaction displayed … as Belsidus’s plan deliberately and precisely unfolds” (172). This is where its utopianism really lies—as is neatly captured in the enquiring letter written to the Courier by “a Chicago reader named Louise Kelly” in May 1937: “I want to understand about this Dr. Henry Belsidus. Is his conquest going on now, at the present time, in Africa?” (173). As Kohli adds,
Although the newspaper assures her that it is fiction, one can reasonably infer, even within the hesitancy that causes her to write to the paper for corroboration, the note of expectancy and even hope in Kelly’s letter. There is, after all, the sense in Kelly’s letter that Belsidus’s activities might actually be possible. That expression of the utopian impulse is after all why Louise Kelly writes her letter.... And yet ... we can hear a simultaneous infusion of doubt and caution ... a hesitancy born of firsthand knowledge of a world often stacked against the hopes, concerns and lives of black people. (173; emphasis in original)
The same contradiction, Kohli concludes, structures both novels.
In contrast to Osinubi and Kohli, the essays by Andrew Plisner, Michael Charles Pounds, and Sandra Jackson struggle to achieve any of the issue’s goals. The obligatory essay on Octavia Butler—Plisner’s garbled “Arboreal Dialogics: an ecocritical exploration of Octavia Butler’s Dawn”—purportedly redresses the lack of ecocritical work on Butler. Pounds’s analysis of the 1995 “Explorers” episode of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (1993-99), which focuses on the station’s African-American commander, Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), and his relationship with his son, Jake (Cirroc Lofton), belabors the obvious for page after page before concluding that this episode is about these characters as men, as a father and a son, rather than as Starfleet officers. Pounds does situate the series, usefully if a little naively, within the context of Clinton’s presidency and the aftermath of the LA uprising, and the essay becomes more interesting when it digresses into an elaboration of parallels between the episode’s plot and real-world contacts between the Mali Empire and South America in the fourteenth century. But getting there feels like travelling to a distant star at sublight speeds only to find on your arrival that FTL was discovered just after you set out. Sandra Jackson’s discussion of Saana Lathan (Alexa Woods), the “black woman warrior” (238) left standing at the end of AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004), bogs down in lengthy plot descriptions of all the films in the Alien (1979-), Predator (1987-), and Alien vs. Predator (2004-) series. To anyone familiar with these films, it serves no real purpose other than to register the author’s surprise at the existence of such a character and her dismay at Saana’s disappearance from the subsequent installment (she is not in the forthcoming Predators , either).2 Jackson does mention in passing several comparable, if less central, characters played by Angela Bassett, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Halle Berry in, respectively, Strange Days (1995), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), and X-Men (2000), and one cannot help but think that addressing Saana in this context might have provoked more interesting ruminations.
The remaining contributions are more successful. Adilifu Nama’s “Brave black world: black superheroes as science fiction ciphers” flounders through an introduction that seems uncertain of its readership before getting to the core of its project: identifying the “problematic incongruity” posed by white superheroes “for blacks who as victims of white racism are further victimised by reading and identifying with white heroic figures in comic books” (134). One response to this has been the drive for black writers and artists to produce black superheroes for black readers—such was, more or less, the mission of Milestone comics (see Brown). Yet a corollary of this has been the belittling of the creative uses to which black readerships have put white superheroes as complex figures of identification and resistance. Turning to black superheroes in Marvel and DC universes, often created, written, and drawn by white artists, Nama “self-consciously adopts ... a critically celebratory perspective,” viewing them not in terms of inadequacy, underdevelopment, or inauthenticity but as “significant (even if problematic) expressions of a science fiction (re)imagining of black racial being that reflects a myriad of racial assumptions, expectations, perceptions and possibilities” (135).
In 1966, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization adopted the black panther as their emblem, and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was formed. In July of that year, as Nama notes, T’Challa, also known as Black Panther, the scientist-prince of the African Kingdom of Wakanda, made his debut appearance in Marvel’s Fantastic Four comic. Wakanda represents a fusion of African tradition and high technology, rejecting common depictions of the continent as being mired in a primitive past, building on the image of advanced ancient African civilizations found in, for example, Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood (1903) and Sun Ra’s astro-black mythology. It offers a vision of resistance to western colonialism and of the modern Africa promised by such leaders as Jomo Kenyatta, Patrice Lumumba, and Kwame Nkrumah. Nama argues that a key turning point in the development of Black Panther came in the late 1970s, when Jack Kirby took over the strip, rescuing the character from endless jungle adventures in Jungle Action comics and pitching him headlong into other times and dimensions. While this might be understood as a depoliticization, detaching the character from something resembling the real world in favor of more fantastic ones, Nama instead reads it as politically progressive because it removes a black protagonist from such clichéd environments as the jungle or the ghetto and situates him in speculative frameworks more typically reserved for white characters. Unfortunately, he makes this point at the expense of such urban “blaxploitation” superheroes as Black Lightning, the Falcon, and Luke Cage, all of whom would benefit from a “critically celebratory” approach. Cage, for example, can be understood as the result of a Tuskegee-like experiment on a black convict; and, at least initially, Cage sees himself not as a superhero but as someone who might, in the right costume, pass as one. Early crossover stories with white superheroes, including the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and Captain America, celebrate black urban identity even as they delineate the limitations faced by African Americans.3
Nama sketches in some high points of Black Panther’s post-Kirby career, and offers brief overviews of three other black superheroes: Steel, one of Superman’s “replacements” after his 1992 death, who combines Iron Man-like technological enhancements with the legendary African-American steel-driving man, John Henry; the new Nick Fury, drawn to resemble—and later played in films by—Samuel L. Jackson; and, rather cursorily, Storm, the leader of the X-men. He concludes that such figures present “a significant (re)imagining of black folk as innovative configurations of hi-tech visions of alternative worlds that stood outside the ideological constructs of America’s racial hierarchy” (143). As this suggests, Nama’s critical celebration identifies the importance of white-created black superheroes, but is hampered by either a limited understanding of ideology or a disastrous inattention to expression. How can these characters and their worlds be “outside” ideology? Surely they represent the complexity of the negotiations that occur within ideology. A stronger essay might have resulted from focusing in more detail and with greater nuance on Black Panther alone, and by paying at least some attention to visual elements of the comics; but as with his recent book on race in sf films, Nama lays some important groundwork, regardless of the shortcomings one might find in his textual analyses.
Elizabeth Boyle’s “Vanishing bodies, ‘race’ and technology in Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber” relates the protagonist’s transportation from Toussaint to New Half-Way Tree to “scenes of decorporealisation” (178) familiar from African-American and Afro-Caribbean literature since Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), arguing that the “The uncanny disintegration of the ‘black body’ re-enacts specific dislocations from family, homeland or racial heritage that occur in the plot, and at a deeper level often recalls the symbolic separation from Africa through the Middle Passage, where the very real possibilities of disease, malnutrition and suicide confronted the slave body just as the extreme psychological impact of the Atlantic separation hit home” (178). Hopkinson’s innovation, Boyle suggests, is to “complicate the magic realist approach” (179) by implicating technology in the disappearing of black bodies. Ultimately, Boyle concludes, this enables Hopkinson “to embrace an increasingly dynamic model of contemporary racial identity” (183) that is both more “fluid” and better able to sustain “itself in spaces of technology, while remaining connected to material and narrative spaces of production” (190).
Julie Moody-Freeman’s “Earthling dreams in black and white: space, representation and US racial politics in ‘The Space Traders’” compares Derrick Bell’s 1992 short story and its adaptation as a segment of the portmanteau film Cosmic Slop (1994). Bell’s story describes the response to alien visitors who promise the US an era of prosperity in exchange for the entire black population of the country. Working from a premise shared by his work in critical race theory (that racism is an integral and permanent part of US society, working as much through preference as through prejudice), Bell’s white Americans go along with the plan. In the Hudlins’ film,4 written by Trey Ellis, the aliens only demand those Americans whose skin contains 2500 milligrams of melanin per centimeter. Whereas Bell points to constitutional precedents that have sacrificed “blacks ... to benefit whites” (197), such as the compromises in the 1787 Constitution that designated individual slaves as only three-fifths of a person, Ellis and the Hudlins rework the source material to indicate the “problematic homogeneity of previous constructions of the black experience in America” (200).
The issue ends with “Organic Fantasy” by Nnedi Okorafor, the Nigerian-American author of such YA fantasy and sf novels as Zahrah the Windseeker (2005) and The Shadow Speaker (2007). Her description of her own fiction resonates strongly with the issues and ideas the other contributors discuss:
At the centre of so many of my stories is the Ooni Kingdom of Ginen. In Ooni, you’ll find a perfect marriage between the ancient and the modern, nature and technology. Here the people live in houses that are grown as opposed to built, computers germinate from CPU seeds, cars are made of hemp and their engines run on electricity produced by plants. Ginen is a series of African stereotypes that I turned on their heads. The people of Ooni truly are close to the land. They do live in trees. And they are the first people. But they aren’t primitive, dirty or ignorant.
It is also a place I created from the discomfort of warring dominant cultures within me, the American and the Nigerian. In actual history, centuries ago, “Ginen” was the name that slaves gave the homeland that they could no longer remember. Ginen was the name of the mythical Africa. (281)
Okorafor blends autobiography with a critical appreciation of Ben Okri and Ngugi wa Thiong’o in order to answer the question, posed to her by a school child, “Why do you write such weird stuff?” (275). Her answer, ultimately, is that it is not weird at all: stories grow organically from the nature of our being in the world. And, ultimately, that is where the value of this special issue really lies. Regardless of one’s assessment of individual contributions, each articulates the often painful and never easy nature of being in a world structured by racial—and other—logics of exclusion, marginalization, and domination. Whatever the flaws of the issue, it requires us to attend.
1. The materialist Du Bois would shudder at being remembered in such a way, while Schuyler would be delighted.
2. Jackson has little time for the Predator franchise, and especially not for Predator 2 (1990), which persuaded her that the series was “filled with too much gruesome violence and needless carnage” (237). Sadly, this squeamishness causes her to overlook what is probably the most interesting of all of these films in terms of its articulation of race. Reworking the interracial queer romance narrative that Leslie Fiedler identified at the core of American literature, and deeply symptomatic of the Reagan-Bush era’s racial imaginary, Predator 2 nonetheless cast middle-aged African American Danny Glover as its action hero. A remarkably contradictory film, it demonstrates the complexity with which ideologies of race are mediated and articulated.
3. In House of M: Avengers (2007), set in an alternate Marvel universe in which “normal” humans are a tyrannized minority in a mutant-dominated world, Cage, who becomes a revolutionary hero through holding a specific community together, is overtly contrasted with T’Challa, who heads the global resistance from his base in Wakanda.
4. Reginald Hudlin also wrote Marvel’s Black Panther comic from 2005-09.
Brown, Jeffrey A. Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and their Fans. Jackson: Mississippi UP, 2001.
Castells, Manuel. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Volume III: End of Millennium. 1996. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
Nama, Adilifu. Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film. Austin: U of Texas P, 2008.
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