Steamfunk * Steampunk * Sword & Soul

UNAPOLOGETICALLY BLACK: Lack of #DiversityInSFF is NOT a Victimless Crime!

UNAPOLOGETICALLY BLACK: Lack of #DiversityInSFF is NOT a Victimless Crime!

Steamfunk Harriet Tubman, the cover for the third installment of Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman. Artwork by Stanley Weaver.

Steamfunk Harriet Tubman, the cover for the third installment of Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman. Artwork by Stanley Weaver.

With all the talk about #DiversityinSFF breaking Twitter and all the following blogs demanding to see more main characters – particularly heroes and sheroes – who are well, less of the old straight, white male default, you would think that authors everywhere would stand up, join hands, sing a little kum ba yah and then sit down to write some real kick-ass stories with some non-default heroes.

And in most communities they are.

However, author Milton Davis, who has been writing and publishing books about Black heroes and sheroes for the past five years and now – in partnership with Yours Truly – is bringing those protagonists to the Silver Screen, recently ranted about an issue that many of we writers in the Black community still wrestle with.

Here is what he posted in the State of Black Science Fiction group on Facebook:

“My fellow writers, this may not matter to you but it’s a big pet peeve of mine. I hate it when black writers say, ‘my character just happens to be black.’ It’s like you’re apologizing for your character’s ethnicity or culture, like you’re apologizing in advance for something that your reader might find upsetting.

If you’re going to do us, then do us with pride and no apologies. How many white writers have you heard say their characters ‘just happen to be white?’ I think I said this before; my characters don’t ‘just happen’ to be anything. If we’re going to make a difference we’ll do it without making excuses or apologizing for disturbing someone’s narrow perception. Let’s do what we do fearlessly.”

Several authors chimed in. Here are a few of our responses.

Balogun Ojetade“Difficult to do something fearlessly when you operate from a position of fear, not power. Apologists operate from fear: ‘What will ‘they’ say if I write this Black hero?’ ‘Will anyone buy my book if I write about a hero who is a dark-skinned Black woman?’ Fear.”

Phillip Kirby: “I have read where black writers have intentionally not written stories with black protagonists because they do not want to get pigeonholed or labeled as a “Black Writer.” I have read interviews where black writers have been angry when their scifi / fantasy novel gets placed in the African American section in book stores.

They are afraid that mainstream, or white, America will not read their novels, thinking that their stories are “just black stories.” The publishing industry follows that way of thinking too. How many novels have you read where the black protagonist is shown in silhouette on the cover? Neil Gaiman’s “Anansi Boys” and Ben Aaronovitch’s “Midnight Riot” & “Moon over Soho” novel covers are examples of this.

Now I know tons of black people who favorite heroes are Batman, Superman, Spidey, and Wonder Woman. The question is whether White, Asian, and Native American people can see a black hero/protagonist as their hero. That will only happen if seeing a black hero/protagonist happens so much in stories, novels, and films that it becomes normalized. That it becomes common. But that has to begin with Black Writers, since most writers will write what that know.

And if Black Writers do not write about Black heroes/protagonist, then who will?”

Afua Richardson: “Its a loaded topic. I think it speaks to the implications of being black. Does being black or having a black character mean you automatically have to write a character about Africa, the hood, the Egyptian dynasty, or Hip Hop?

Where those things are an important part of black culture ( and awesome things at that), there are more dimensions to what black people are and what they’ve contributed to the world. We break stereotypes when we push boundaries, even the ones of ourselves.

We must make our own. No one else will tell my story correctly. Can’t expect them to.”

Tade Thompson: “You can place a black character in ancient Egypt, on a ship looping the Horn, in Wall Street, in a submarine, in a hospital, in a nuclear power plant, at the moment of creation and witnessing the heat-death of the universe. We’re vampires, we’re sorcerers, we’re fighters. Tell the story with your whole heart and don’t bother about who exactly will read it.”

Valjeanne Jeffers: “Awesome comments fam! My characters are vampires, werewolves daemons, queens and kings  They’re also multicultural because that’s the world I grew up in. That’s the world we live in. But you best to believe that the Black folks in my series are not stereotypes or sidekicks.”

Ds Brown: “A shift in perspective in how you say it allows you to embolden yourself if you happen to be one of us straddling the line between righteous self-expression and marketing desire.

However, I will say the best of us will write with passion without thought for book placement or monetary gain. The art is the art is the art irrespective of the market. You write because you must, not because you want to make money. And in this, the perspective on your sentence may change and provide strength, Milt. Not, ‘My character just happens to be black.’ But rather, ‘My characters are black.’ No explanation, no apology. They are fully formed in the dimension of my mind and occupy a relevant place in my universe. It is not to be questioned.

And oh, ‘Yes, that other character is white. You can tell from the characterization. In fact, he’s Czech. Just in case you wanted to know.’

Geoffrey Thorne: “Personally, I don’t care what any writer says about how they feel about their characters or how they describe their process or any of that. Couldn’t care less. How *I* feel, as the reader is the only thing that matters and it should be the only thing that matters to the writer.

All I care about is the actual story they’re telling and how well or poorly they tell it.

It’s about the story, not the writer.

Neither passion nor politics is an excuse to avoid having to tell a story well and at professional standard and neither passion nor politics will help to make the mechanics of a story better.”

Taken on the set of Rite of Passage, the Steamfunk feature film. Photo courtesy of Iyalogun Ojetade

Taken on the set of Rite of Passage, the Steamfunk feature film. Photo courtesy of Iyalogun Ojetade

I believe that the source of Milton’s upset comes from the realization that the lack of Diversity in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Steampunk and Horror has damaged many Black people, who have been forced to make excuses for why we love speculative fiction so; why we eagerly read it; why we are compelled to write it. We have always felt the need to apologize for daring to walk into the “good ol’ boys club” and take a seat. We apologize for our very existence in the world of Tolkien and Asimov and Lovecraft. Some of us promise not to make waves and write only non-Black characters; and then, we justify that.

Think I’m exaggerating? Here are a few words from one such author, who recently spoke on the matter of race in genre fiction on a friend’s blog:

#DiversityinSFF“When I began my career as an independent author, I did not think overmuch about the outer appearances of the characters in my books. I simply write the character as he or she appears in my mind with no thought to race, unless that race plays a role in that person’s personality (accent, attitudes toward others outside of a particular race, etc.).

“For me, connection with a character in a book is not based on race in the least. I have read several books with black heroines and felt no connection, while often being able to connect better with a white or Hispanic character in another book. I have always looked for the common thread between myself and a book hero or heroine. I can identify with the heroine of a book because she is a woman, regardless of her race. Perhaps a white girl from the suburbs speaks to me a bit better than a black girl from Park Avenue. For me, it has never been about race when it comes to reading. So, when I decided to tackle writing, how could I have let it be any different?

 I have encountered many black authors that will only write characters of their own race because they feel they have something to prove, or because they feel that there are too many books flooding the market about white folks, and not enough about black. I have to say that I find it disconcerting, to say the least. To many who maintain this view, I pose this question: How would those words sound to you if they were coming from a white author instead of a black author?

I have witnessed this time and time again, people of a certain race speaking of being true to ‘our people’ and ‘our culture’. If a white author were to conduct an interview and confess to having no intention of writing about characters that were not Caucasian, they would be accused of being narrow-minded, racist, and behind the times. Honestly, it makes me sad that we think this way. 

I feel that this divisive attitude has no place in the literary world…on either side. This is the beauty of America, the melting pot that is our culture as Americans. That I, a black girl from the suburbs, might be able to identify on some level with a white girl from the projects, or an Asian girl from the top of the hill is very powerful. It points to the joint culture that we share as a country, as well as the potential for cross cultural unity. If we can live this way in the real world, why not in the literary world?”

Sigh.

We African Americans have been conditioned to go around to the back door; and if there is no back door, we will insist on one.

Diversity 4The media – and that includes literature, folks (and yes, science fiction and fantasy is literature) –is directly responsible for this. The perpetuation of stereotypes is always done through print, television, film, radio, music and, now, the internet.

The media sets the tone for the morals, values, and images of our culture. Many people in this country believe that the degrading stereotypes of Black people are based on reality and not fiction. Everything they believe about us is determined by what they see on television, read in books and watch on the big screen.

After over a century of movie making; after nearly a century of degradation in the speculative writings of Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft; after all this time of seeing no Black men or women of righteous and heroic stature, it is no wonder we don’t feel a Black hero is something people want to see.

An example of what the cover for a novel collabo with Milton Davis will look like. Artwork by Moises Martins.

An example of what the cover for a novel collabo with Milton Davis will look like. Artwork by Moises Martins.

Hell, we don’t want to see such a hero because, even in a world with fire-breathing dragons and mechanical men and faster-than-light travel, a dark-skinned woman who saves the world seems preposterous.

Lack of diversity in SFF is not a victimless crime.

I will continue to unapologetically give you Black heroes and sheroes in the books and in the films I create. I will continue to push the Steamfunk and Sword & Soul movements – and Black speculative fiction, in general – with fellow authors, artists and filmmakers, such as Milton Davis, Charles Saunders, Valjeanne Jeffers, Hannibal Tabu, R.L. Scott, Richard Tyler, Mshindo Kuumba, James Eugene, Jadon Ben Israel, Bree Newsome and Kia T. Barbee…those who have chosen to be victor; not victim.

Those who are unapologetically Black.

10 responses

  1. Ronald T. Jones

    Excellent article, Balogun. The person who commented about her color blind approach to reading and writing has her heart in the right place. What she does not have is the luxury of excluding black protagonists from her literature, not in the present environment we as black authors are operating in, where black protagonists in speculative fiction are in such short supply and where the dominant images of black folk in America are as athletes, thugs, rappers and angrily animated black women.

    I won’t demand that black authors in the science fiction/fantasy genres make their protagonists black, but I would strongly encourage it. Because given the shortage of black heroes in all manner of heroic fiction, we are in desperate need of those types of images. I remember reading a fantasy novel by a black writer several years ago. His characters were diverse, but the African element was relegated to the background. His protagonists shared similar physical profiles to East Indians in the real world. That was a distraction to me in spite of the story being a breathtaking epic on a Tolkienesque scale.

    I know this author wanted to add his contribution to diversity in fantasy, but if he endeavored to make his lead characters East Indian looking, it couldn’t have hurt to go a step further and make them black. We definitely need to reach a point where black authors can confidently present their characters as black, whether the characters’ blackness is essential to the story or not. And I agree with Milton that we do not need to add qualifiers when describing our characters as black. Nor do we need to extol diversity in our works while doing the same thing that majority fiction does: reduce the black presence to sidekicks or exotic scenery. We do not have the luxury as black writers of imagining black characters in anything other than leading roles.

    September 17, 2013 at 12:01 pm

  2. While I’m not a fiction author YET — because my stories are still works in progress — the color/race/ethnicity in the two WIP novels’ main characters are integral parts of the story. They CAN’T be White, or it would be a different story entirely.

    My main characters are all women and based in part on my own Welsh/Native American/mutt heritage. Mostly mutt. LOL, most definitely mutt!

    What drives me wild is when people immediately assume that if you want to read, or write, stories with diverse characters, that you have an agenda. An agenda? What? Because I want stories that step past the great white male hero, I have an agenda? REALLY? I can’t simply want to read something that isn’t steeped in the stereotypical main character found all too often in science fiction or fantasy? I can’t write the character that’s in my head, telling me the rest of her story? I have to make her into a white male to be taken seriously?

    Well, you know, I’m going to write the stories that are in me, and if mainstream sci-fi/fantasy fans don’t like it, well then, they don’t have to read them. I’m stubborn like that.

    As a long-time science fiction and fantasy fan, I’m honestly sick and tired of the same old dark-haired, grey-eyed Celtic hero who rescues the red-headed (or black haired), green-eyed, white Celtic female. There’s a whole world past the British Isles and Ireland. Come on now, can’t I have stories that feature people of Native American or African or Asian or Hispanic/Latino ancestry? People of Color, no matter what color? And women. Come on writers, write some stories with strong female main characters and don’t gum it up with a bunch of mushy romance, sex or sparkling vampires.

    Keep up the good work Balogun, Milton, Ronald, Valjeanne, and all of the other authors. There’s people like me looking for good books, for ourselves and for our children, where fantasy, the future and the universe are exciting and imaginative, filled with diverse peoples, aliens, robots, clones, elves, dragons, dwarves, and more.

    I’m greedy. I want it all and I want it now.

    September 17, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    • Thank you so much for the comment on searching for inspiration outside of the British Isles and Ireland!!! I love the genre of fantasy in that it’s a way to explore what if (my favorite question) so hate when “Fantasy” automatically means Tolkien, King Arthur or vampires. What imagination is there in that? Yes I’m sure it’s less work because that world is already built, but it’s also so Expected. When I read I want something new and original (if that’s possible anymore…. I love books that makes me think.

      I’m also (perpetually) at the work in progress stage, but race/color definitely plays a role. I chose to have my people reflect their environment so they’re every color of the rainbow. Partly this is because it’s always bugged me that birds and fish get to be so many beautiful hues while humans only come in boring shades of neutral, but also as a statement of how ridiculous a concept racism is.

      More often than not when people see my picture of a character the first thing they ask is “why is he/she [fill in favorite color here]?” (My response: Why NOT??? And thanks for the utter lack of appreciation for the details I’m so proud of!) However the first thing people comment on is viewed in my world pretty much like we’d view eye or hair color. It’s of note in a description, offering an idea as to the person’s genetic origins perhaps, but not much else.

      They all have their prejudices, though: One Kingdom basically judges on height, another based on intelligence, and another the age old issue of gender, but not skin color. So when people are thinking: How stupid are they to judge based on [x factor]? I’m thinking yes, and how stupid are people to judge based on race?

      Here I will unapologetically state characters and worlds that break the mold Rock!!!

      October 26, 2013 at 12:04 pm

      • Thank YOU, so much, for your spot-on feedback! Well said, V.A. Marchi!

        October 27, 2013 at 1:08 pm

  3. Ronald T. Jones

    Thank you, Ruth! Long live science fiction, sword and soul, and Steamfunk!!!!!

    September 17, 2013 at 3:51 pm

  4. Fujimoto

    Right on! This is one of the reasons I want to write fantasy and horror: to show you don’t need exclusively white protagonists.

    When it comes to horror, Wrath James White is a writer angry about the lack of black protagonists, so he does his part to correct that with novels like Yaccub’s Curse and Sacrifice. White once told a story about trying to put together a black horror anthology, and a bunch of horror fans told him they thought that was racist. How would he feel if someone wanted to make a white horror anthology? White pointed out how the majority of horror anthologies are exactly that, and that’s why there needs to be black horror anthologies.

    September 17, 2013 at 4:57 pm

  5. Excellent article Brother Balogun– as always :)! And this is such a great discussion I just have to wade in. I’ve often said that my books are multi-cultural. I do this so that my readers know, when they pick my books up, that they’re entering a diverse world. I’ve never intended this statement as an apology.

    Truth be told, I never even considered writing a book in which the first heroine and hero were not people of color (e.g. in my Immortal series the heroine is Black; the hero is Native American); although as I begin to write, others may emerge and take shape as characters.

    My point is, as an African American woman, my writing comes out of the Black experience–something which I’m very proud of. We write coming from a space of who were are and what defines us. Case in point: many of Stephen Kings’ novels are set in Maine. Why? I’d be willing to bet that that’s his comfort zone.
    Well, my comfort zone is the Black community of the 1960s and 70s– whether it’s found through time travel, a post apocalyptic Earth, etc. Can you dig it? I knew you could :) Again, Brother B I loved the article!

    September 17, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    • Thanks, so much, for your feedback, Sister Valjeanne! Very well said!
      And yeah, i can definitely dig it! :)

      September 18, 2013 at 10:40 am

  6. Reblogged this on The Seal of Oblivion and commented:
    Thought this was interesting and totally and utterly sums up some of my arguments with the portrayal and lack of black protagonist in Science fiction and fantasy.

    September 18, 2013 at 12:35 am

    • Thanks, so much!

      September 18, 2013 at 12:20 pm

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