Why Black Children Need to Read & Write Science Fiction

A few months ago, I had the pleasure – hmm, no, pleasure is not a fitting description – A few months ago, I had the experience (yes, that’s it) of having my son, Oluade (“Ade”, for short – pronounced “aah-DAY”), who is nine years old, as one of my writing students. No matter what assignment I gave the class – an essay; a newspaper article; a short story; a poem – Oluade would find a way to write himself into it – in an epic battle with a horde of zombies or cyborgs with “zombified” (his word) flesh…oh, yeah, and a skateboard with cool insignia painted on it.

I realized that no matter how much I complained about it, Ade was always going to turn his writing into Science Fiction.

Luckily for him, he has a father who is an author – and fan – of Science Fiction (although turning a newspaper article about a young man suing his parents for emancipation into a zombie yarn was, of course unacceptable).

I realized that Oluade is like most Black children – he is driven by a search for the interesting; a desire to twist the mundane and flip it on its head in order to see the ordinary from a different perspective; to explore the boundaries of creativity; and, indeed, to discover or create new boundaries. What these children seek is found within the realms of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Oluade’s teachers in the public school he once attended did not agree. They felt he was being rebellious and a bit…strange.

That is a shame.

And, for many misunderstood – and thus, mislabeled – children, this is a crisis that has devastating, lifelong consequences.

When children use Science Fiction and Fantasy writing techniques and tropes they are often using their writing to explore themselves and their world, without any need for guidance and literal knowledge.

On the surface they are writing about zombies, spaceships and vampires, but do not be fooled –they are using these devices in the same way as Octavia Butler, Charles Saunders, Tananarive Due and Walter Mosley – to cloak methods of exploring and explaining – and finding explanations for – their worlds – both internal and external – in a way that straightforward ‘literal’ fiction cannot.

Realism has become a trap for black children and they realize it. According to my young students, who range in age from nine to fifteen, they tire of reading and writing stories that are about “problems” and crave fantastic tales of derring-do with cool, young, Black heroes and heroines.

Science fiction and fantasy offers black children an alternative way of dealing with legacy, tradition, and memory.

Parents and Teachers, our children have a big problem…us

In conversing with other English teachers, I often ask if they teach creative writing in their classes. Most do not. One teacher told me that she tried “that creative writing stuff” with her students, but quickly gave up on it and returned to a more “practical syllabus”. Upon further investigation, I discovered that she believed creative writing – particularly Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy – to be something outsideand, indeed, beneath the instruction of English.

Most educators of English / Language Arts focus on the mechanics of the subject – how to read and write, rules of grammar, use of verbs, adverbs, adjectives, pronouns and nouns and sentence comprehension – without the context of why and how those mechanics are used by students to express themselves.

Yes, we need to teach the mechanics – how to hold a pen; how to read; how words work – but we should not confuse use of a thing with understanding of it. Training in the mechanics of writing produces writing technicians However, it does not make you a writer. So, you know how to spell; you can answer questions on grammar; you can repeat someone else’s literary criticism of a text – you are a technician. You can fix my text as a garage mechanic can fix my car. The garage mechanic can’t design a car. They can’t improve a car. They can’t build one from scratch. They can only ever work on someone else’s car.

This is why we – and our children – need to read and to write Science Fiction and Fantasy – so that our children do not only work on other people’s texts, they create and build their own. So they are not limited to just reading a story written by someone else and providing a report on it – they are out there in the field, experimenting with new stories and questioning old ones…if only for the reason that they can.

We need to teach our children to go out into the world to add to the pantheon of human creation and endeavor, not to dissect the words of long dead men.

In a 1999 New York Times essay about Science Fiction, author Walter Mosley wrote, “The genre speaks most clearly to those who are dissatisfied with the way things are: adolescents, post-adolescents, escapists, dreamers, and those who have been made to feel powerless. And this may explain the appeal that science fiction holds for a great many African-Americans….Science Fiction promises a future full of possibility, alternative lives, and even regret.”

Horror author Tananarive Due revealed that when she started writing, all of her characters were white. “I had to force myself to see myself,” Due said. “It’s not that I don’t write about white characters, because I do, but my protagonists are extensions of my own humanity. I was raised by civil rights activists and I have a keen awareness of racial history—lessons I think Americans of all colors should know—so I would consider it artistic dishonesty to write primarily from an experience that was not black. Does that limit my readership? I’m sure it does. But hopefully, it does less and less all the time.”

 

7 Science Fiction Writing Projects for Children

To get your children, students and even yourself writing, try tapping into their enjoyment of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Children gravitate towards writing based on magic, space ships, aliens, and peril-filled quests. Ask them to incorporate these themes into their own writing and you will find a fun way to help them sharpen their writing skills at home.

To encourage kids that this isn’t homework, but is, instead, a fun at-home creative activity like painting or doing other crafts, do not spend a lot of time correcting your child’s grammar or spelling; just let the creative juices flow. Writing more is a key to writing better, and knowing they can write without being scrutinized is a key to getting your children to enjoy writing, thus, write more.

A common thing children like to do is to use colorful markers, pens or paper for their writing projects. Let them. This helps signify that what they’re doing is something special, creative and fun. For science fiction-theme writing projects, you might try glow in the dark ink, or stationary from movies like Harry Potter or Star Trek, or whatever your child likes.

Below are seven Science Fiction and Fantasy writing projects that will help you get your child started on his or her Science Fiction or Fantasy writing adventure. I chose seven projects in honor of Oluade, the Zombifying Language Arts Rebel, who is my seventh child (of eight) and my only son.

Writing Project 1: The Time Traveling Machine

Ask your child to pretend he or she has gone into a time-travel machine and ended up in the distant past or far future. What do they see? Who do they meet? This is a good project for encouraging children to compare and contrast in a creative way. Older children can be encouraged further to create a story based in the future or the past.

 

Writing Project 2: Build-An-Alien!

Ask your child to consider what an alien might look like. Is it tall or short? Friend or foe? Ask your child to consider the sounds and smells associated with the alien, too. They may also want to consider how it walks, communicates and eats; where it comes from; and what it wants.

Writing Project 3: Your New Super Power

Some of the greatest Science Fiction and fantasy stories of all time involve superheroes gaining and using some super power. Ask your child to pick a super-power, be it speed, invisibility, super-human strength, or whatever. If they like, they can choose more than one power, or give other powers to sidekicks like their little brother or a friend. They may also write about the type of costume they wear – if any – and if they fight crime, or just use their powers in everyday situations?

Writing Project 4: A Whole New World

Ask your child to pretend he or she has landed a spacecraft on a new planet or has found a door to an alternate earth. Let us learn about this world from their description of what is seen, heard, smelled, and tasted there. Who, and / or what, resides there? Does it seem like a nice place for you or others to live? Let your child be a space – or dimension – explorer and create a whole new world.

Writing Project 5: The Secret Formula

Ask your child to pretend he or she has been given a drink (or sandwich or cookie, etc.) from a mad or silly scientist or shaman. What’s in that drink? What does it look like, taste and smell like? And if you eat or drink the scientist’s crazy concoction, what will happen to you? Older children can be encouraged to create a story based on what happens after they consume the secret formula.

Writing Project 6: The Griots Academy

What would happen if your child went to school to become the next “Harry Potter”? Ask your child to describe the teachers at the school and to describe what they teach and their personalities. Which teacher is your child’s favorite at the school and why? What is the curriculum? Where is the school located? Children can come up with a large faculty and rich history for their own school of magic.

Writing Project 7: The Shaman’s Assistant

Ask your child to write about working for a renowned wizard or shaman. What is the wizard / shaman’s appearance and personality? What does he or she ask your child to do to assist him or her? Older children may be encouraged to create a whole adventure for the “assistant” and his / her boss.

Science fiction and fantasy theme projects can really help your child’s imagination take flight. Use these fun and creativity-inspiring ideas to help your children enjoy the writing process and realize writing isn’t just for school or homework; it can take them anywhere in the universe – and beyond – that they desire to explore.

Please, join us for the State of Black Science Fiction 2012 Youth Symposium in which authors will teach young students how to write Science Fiction and Fantasy; students will perform original works of Science Fiction and Fantasy; and authors and editors of African descent who write Science Fiction and Fantasy will engage participants in a lively and highly informative panel discussion on the State of Black Science Fiction and Fantasy. After the panel discussion, the authors will meet and greet participants and have their Blacknificent novels, films and artwork on hand.

Until next time…happy writing!

About Balogun

Balogun is the author of the bestselling Afrikan Martial Arts: Discovering the Warrior Within and screenwriter / producer / director of the films, A Single Link and Rite of Passage: Initiation. He is one of the leading authorities on Steamfunk – a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and writes about it, the craft of writing, Sword & Soul and Steampunk in general, at http://chroniclesofharriet.com/. He is author of three novels – the Steamfunk bestseller, MOSES: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2); the Urban Science Fiction saga, Redeemer; and the Sword & Soul epic, Once Upon A Time In Afrika and contributing co-editor of two anthologies: Ki: Khanga: The Anthology and Steamfunk. At present, Balogun is directing and fight choreographing the Steamfunk feature film, Rite of Passage, which he wrote based on the short story, Rite of Passage, by author Milton Davis. He is one of the leading authorities on Steamfunk –a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and writes about it, the craft of writing, Sword & Soul and Steampunk in general, at http://chroniclesofharriet.com/. He is author of three novels – the Steamfunk bestseller, MOSES: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2); the science fiction gangster saga, Redeemer; and the Sword & Soul epic, Once Upon A Time In Afrika. He is also co-creator of the soon-to-be-released role-playing game, Ki-Khanga™: The Sword & Soul RPG. Balogun is Master Instructor of the Afrikan Martial Arts Institute and Technical Director of Martial Ministries of America, a non-profit organization that serves at-risk youth. He is also a traditional African priest, actor and conflict resolution specialist, who works and lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, his seven daughters and his son.

20 responses »

  1. I was immediately fascinated by this post, and I must say it grasped me entirely. I remember as a child growing up and writing sci-fi and fantasy novels and my parents and teachers associating the writing with fanciful dream association and that my writing wasn’t exactly practical – so I definitely see what you mean by parents and teachers feeling the need for a persistent medium of English study. I was fortunate enough that within my high school and college years I found teachers who embraced my oddities and my creative personas and thus allowed me to just be me. I thoroughly endorse your ideas and I agree, we need to give kids the opportunities to create and advance their minds even if it’s by exploration.

    I’m a practicing student of game design and we’re taught every day to do exactly that. Expand our horizons and explore all possible scenarios that would come about to make a visceral meaningful experience to the player. If you don’t mind I would actually love to borrow your writing prompts as a writing/design exercise for myself. I realize that you had planned them for children, but I feel that it could really lend a wonderful hand to some days when I feel stuck or out of ideas to draw up a writing prompt and just see what ideas come to fruition.

    Thank you so much for this insightful post and wonderful prompts to build from!

    • Balogun says:

      Thank you for your comment! Please, feel free to use the prompts and please, tell me what results come about. I wish you much success in your studies and in the creation of your games!

  2. “Realism has become a trap for black children and they realize it. According to my young students, who range in age from nine to fifteen, they tire of reading and writing stories that are about “problems” and crave fantastic tales of derring-do with cool, young, Black heroes and heroines”.

    This is something that I have always believed, though I did not have anecdotal evidence for it–just my own impressions and experiences. I do think that children want to read more than “Little Johnny/Janie in the hood” stories (though I feel something of the pressure of expectation to write those kinds of stories). Part of the problem is the presumption, implicit in the publishing industry, that all black children relate inherently to those kinds of tales. It almost becomes another way of pathologizing black experience–by suggesting that it be so narrowly defined and represented. This is not to say that those experiences don’t need to be written, it is just to say that black children can read and write about more than just those things.

    Here is a blog about an essay that I wrote as a youth that meshes quite well with your observations. http://shiftersseries.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=405&action=edit

    Good blog. I always feel the need to write essays to respond to your blogs. They are thought-provoking. :-)

    • Balogun says:

      Thank you, so much, L.M., for your comment. I am going to read the blog about your essay and give you feedback.
      I always appreciate your comments and I learn a lot from you. Thanks, again!

  3. [...] a brighter future – they must read science fiction and fantasy. For more on this, please read http://chroniclesofharriet.wordpress.com/2012/04/10/why-black-children-need-to-read-write-science-fi… and [...]

  4. [...] recent post on Chronicles of Harriett explored how black children can gain from writing and reading science [...]

  5. MsTBennett says:

    “Science fiction and fantasy offers black children an alternative way of dealing with legacy, tradition, and memory.”

    It’s amazing how much this post touched on my life. When I was little I nearly lived at the library, near the Science Fiction section. I would read all of the books, shelf by shelf. I was teased by my peers, of course, for reading so much, but I didn’t care. My fascination with the possibilities drove me to keep reading. Till this day I can’t remember reading ONE book that had African American characters. In fact, I distinctly remember asking my mother why none of the characters seemed to “look like me.” My imagination breathes and lives in sci-fi and fantasy – I love the supernatural and the seemingly impossible. Though I have started reading Octavia Butler’s “Kindred,” I lean towards romantic sci-fi for escapism and fun. It’s a question I’ve pondered many a time – I’ve even wished that I could write my own book, just to see these amazing African american characters on the page.

    It’s nice to see someone else that cares about this, and that your son’s imagination is not being stifled. My bond with my mother and her similar love to sci-fi and fantasy created a friendship that we both cherish (not just mother/daughter relationship).

    • Balogun says:

      Thank you, so much, for your reply. It is my mission – and the mission of a group of writers of which i am a part called ‘The State of Black Science Fiction’ – to educate our youth and adults about Black Speculative Fiction and to create great stories with protagonists of African descent.

  6. Just read this from a Facebook shared link. Inspiring and great idea generation tips for writing. Just as valuable to us adults as for kids.

    This is definitely how we groom our next generation of indie Black comic book and graphic novel writers, illustrators and animators.

  7. Very inspiring. And great idea generation writing tips for adult and child alike.

    This is definitely how we groom our next generation of indie Black comic book and graphic novel writers, illustrators and animators.

  8. Oh wow! This is an excellent post. When I was teaching (I taught social studies), my students were so caught up with the hardships of their own lives that it affected their disposition, how they related to other people, and education in general. They need that science fiction outlet and you described the reason so eloquently. They need to escape, if from nothing else, their own lives. The problem with my students was that they couldn’t read well by the time they got to high school. I think introducing them to science fiction would be a good way to entice them to learn to read better. I’m also going to try those exercises you wrote in your post with my own son to stimulate his imagination and get his head out of the computer for a while.

  9. […] 1. Why Black Children Need to Read & Write Science Fiction ….chroniclesofharriet.com […]

  10. […] However, if – through Fantasy and Science Fiction written with Black characters as the heroes – our youth begin to perceive themselves as heroic…as hard working…as good…they will begin to act in accord with how they perceive themselves. […]

  11. […] 1. Why Black Children Need to Read & Write Science Fiction ….chroniclesofharriet.com […]

  12. […] about why Black children should read and write Science Fiction and Fantasy. I also wrote about it here. Now I would like to provide you with a list of books for young adults, teens and tweens. A list of […]

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