It’s getting harder for me to look at the news these days without feeling like I’m staring into the void of our own self-destruction. The current US administration seems obsessed with assuaging the bruised ego of the President, making the lives of the poor and working class as difficult as possible, and letting the rich and powerful get away with whatever they want. It’s times like these where I need an escape more than ever, and science-fiction/fantasy provides a wonderful avenue for that — up to a point. It’s also getting harder for me to ignore that most characters in science-fiction and fantasy stories don’t look like me or even share a lot of my same experiences. That’s why I need to read and write Afrofuturism stories more than ever; I want to have characters like me going on adventures, and I want to imagine a future where people like me can thrive — but most importantly, I want to be comfortable in my own skin and tell stories from my particular perspective.
There aren’t a lot of characters of color in modern science-fiction and fantasy, even though there are a lot more than there were. The biggest thing going in the genre right now is arguably Blade Runner 2049, the incredible sequel to Ridley Scott’s seminal cyberpunk masterpiece. While it’s wonderful to be sure, you see more Asian writing on the screen than actual Asian characters; there are only a few black characters who are never seen beyond a single scene; and Hispanic characters are limited to a cameo appearance or two. Like so many movies in the space today, people of color are used to fill out crowd scenes and give the appearance of diversity, but the characters you spend the most time with are overwhelmingly white — with a few exceptions. American Gods and The Expanse, I’m looking at you.
We never get to read a portal fantasy where the protagonist pulled into a strange new world is a person of color, or how their race and background experience would influence their reaction to such an incredible event. We don’t often get to see people of color doing their thing in some far-off future, especially in stories where we extrapolate the history of their culture into that distant imagining. When people of color are stripped out of these stories by casting directors, the pushback against the outcry revolves around not making everything about race; whenever people of color are added to these retellings, people often complain by posing the hypothetical question of taking one of “our” characters to illustrate how silly that is. “When do we get a movie with a white Black Panther?” “I can’t relate to Rue as much now that you made her black.” Boosting our visibility is always decried as political correctness run amok; erasing us from a possible future or an imaginary past is never a big deal, though.
The #OwnVoices movement has been in full swing for a little while now, at least, and we’re starting to see stories told about people of color, queer and transgender people, people with disabilities, and all kinds of other minorities, written by members of those groups themselves. The space is changing, and these stories are getting recognition for introducing us to different ways of thinking and being — not only in different times and places, but right here and now. That’s tremendously exciting to me, and I want to be a part of that. I want to read and promote stories that center on non-white experiences; I want to write stories with non-white, LGBQTIA protagonists, or characters with disabilities. I want to promote worlds in my fiction that has a place at the table for all of these people, that present the world not as we wish it to be, but as it IS — a diverse and wonderful place filled with folks from different backgrounds. Poor, inner-city black geeks deserve to go to Narnia too.
We also deserve to go into space. We deserve to have the lands of our ancestors share in future advancements, have their economies explode in ways they never thought possible, reach the stars and explore the galaxy on their own terms. There are so many futures written where black people are all gone, or alluded to as poor sods worse off than the protagonist for some reason. There are so many books where Africa has been left out of the unified government taking humanity into its next phase as a multi-planet species, or where African scientists are simply along for the ride as exceptional examples of a culture that still hasn’t ‘caught up’ to the rest of the world. Even those stories that feature Africa as a technological power — like Black Panther, for instance — finds ways to skirt around spotlighting the culture and history of the continent, or the astonishing variety of civilizations that flourished before being stamped out or forever changed by European colonialism. One of the only SFF movies I can think of set in Africa, District 9, used aliens as a metaphor for the actual treatment of people of color in South Africa and refugees of color all around the world.
There aren’t many stories that spotlight African culture without exploiting the problems or historical bloodshed that has taken place on the continent. Where are the stories that feature a healthy, confident African diaspora honoring their culture and traditions while also embracing the future? Does every story that centers on blackness have to be about slavery, rape, poverty, or war? Where are the hopeful stories about what Africa could be? About what her many children all around the globe could aspire to?
We desperately need these stories. All around us, there are these markers that point to how little progress we’ve made overcoming the historical disadvantages forced upon our ancestors. The natural resources of Africa are being plundered to increase the wealth of foreign corporations; the many African-descended people who live elsewhere around the world are forced to suffer continued institutional racism that others refuse to even acknowledge; in America, so many of us live and die in hopeless poverty, unable to believe in the possibility of getting a fair shake. We need to be able to envision a world where that’s true if we hope to make it so. Stories give us that power, a signpost to work towards. We have to conjure hope for the people who have none.
This deeply matters to me, personally. I grew up in inner-city Baltimore as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I never felt accepted by the culture I was raised in. At school, my religion and my geekiness made me an easy target for the students who fit in more easily to the black experience; at the Kingdom Hall, my family situation and lack of social skills made it impossible for me to be accepted by my peer group. I grew up thinking that my own culture was hostile and dangerous, that there was nothing there for me, that my only choice was to leave and never look back.
Now I see that’s not true. There are a ton of black geeks out there with varying experiences and relationships with black American culture. It’s been a revelation to me, the idea that I could be myself — a gay black Buddhist furry — and still embrace my culture and background at the same time. Now that I know it’s possible, I can’t stop until I make it real.
That means learning how to absorb my personal history and accept what happened, putting it in the context of the societal pressures that drive that behavior, and teasing out the lessons that I can take from that to improve myself — but also talk about how black American culture can be improved. We limit ourselves by adopting the limited historical perspective of the past; we dishonor our own values by denying our brothers and sisters the right to self-determination; we keep ourselves down by continuing to dismiss and demean those who think and believe differently. We are so much more than what we have been; we could be so much more than what we are now. Wild, imaginative, authentic stories could show us how.
Afro-futurism is more than a genre to me; it’s a lifeline. It feels like the thing I’ve been moving towards all my life, the thing that will give me hope at a time where that’s been so hard to come by. It’s a framework I can use to understand my past and imagine my future; it’s what I need to have a complete sense of myself. It’s a beautiful, complicated, contradictory thing. That suits me perfectly.