UNAPOLOGETICALLY BLACK: Lack of #DiversityInSFF is NOT a Victimless Crime!
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.”
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:
“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?”
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.
The 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.
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.