BUILDING BLACK YOUTH THROUGH SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY
Renowned Author, Neil Gaiman (the novel, American Gods; The Sandman comic book series) shared a fascinating fact. While appearing as Guest of Honor at China’s largest state approved Science Fiction convention, Neil decided to inquire why Science Fiction, once frowned upon by the Chinese government, was now not only approved of, but encouraged, with China now the world’s largest market for Science Fiction, with the highest circulation of Science Fiction magazines and the largest Science Fiction conventions.
The answer Neil was given is very interesting.
China is the world’s manufacturing powerhouse. But it doesn’t invent or design most of the things it manufactures. China wants to capture the creativity and imagination of the culture that has produced companies like Google and Apple. So Chinese researchers talked to people involved with those and other Fortune 100 companies to see what factors they had in common. The answer?
All of their CEOs, Presidents and Vice Presidents read science fiction.
The Chinese acted upon this research and today, throughout China, Science Fiction is a thriving and respected genre, read widely; which is very different from the early eighties, when Science Fiction was declared to be “spiritual pollution” and banned by the government. Back then, Science Fiction in China all but disappeared. But it has come back stronger than ever, appealing to a new generation of Chinese who see themselves as part of a world-wide cultural phenomenon, which includes Hip Hop, Fashion, Movies and Science Fiction.
In the past decade, Science Fiction has overtaken fantasy as the popular literary form, even though fantastic fiction is an integral part of the history of Chinese literature.
Science Fiction studies continue at Beijing Normal University, the largest research and editing center of science-fiction theory and criticism in the world. Western authors and scholars visit there often and in the future, this center is expected to be the center of international Science Fiction research.
Science Fiction is an essential influence in the development of top level creative thinkers, especially those dealing with technology. We live in an age of unparalleled technological development, which is creating change throughout society of an unprecedented magnitude. Science Fiction, in all its forms, is a valuable tool for helping train people to creatively work with that change.
Science Fiction does not just show us possible futures, it trains us to anticipate new technology, model how it will impact our lives and exploit that insight.
Aside from Nnedi Okorafor’s Zahrah the Windseeker and the Shadow Speaker; Wendy Raven McNair’s novels, Asleep and Awake; Alicia McCalla’s Breaking Free, Tananarive Due’s and Steven Barnes’ Devil’s Wake and Domino Falls and this writer’s own Once Upon A Time In Afrika and Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman, it is difficult to find Speculative fiction (Science Fiction and Fantasy) with Black protagonists, or even secondary characters, written for young adults by Black authors.
Middle Grade novels are even harder to find, with L.M. Davis’ Interlopers and Milton Davis’ Amber at the fore.
In their 2003 study of middle school genre fiction, Agosto, Hughes-Hassell, and Gilmore-Clough found that of 976 reviews of youth Fantasy novels, only 6 percent featured protagonists or secondary characters of color, and that of the 387 reviews of youth science fiction, only 5 percent featured protagonists or secondary characters of color.
Yet, as more Black authors of adult Science Fiction and Fantasy – like Charles Saunders, Walter Mosley, Keith Gaston, Valjeanne Jeffers, Milton Davis, Cerece Rennie Murphy and Balogun Ojetade (smile) – grow in popularity and fill a much needed void, more Black writers are getting the opportunity to fill that void in youth literature as well.
As the Chinese have come to realize, filling that void is important for several reasons and is a must for people of color, particularly those of African descent.
Studies have shown that, in the general population, Science Fiction and Fantasy has an impact on the teaching of values and critical literacy to young adults. Science Fiction challenges readers to first imagine and then to realize the future of not only the novel they are reading but, also the future of the world in which they live.
Looking at the most visible popular examples of Epic Fantasy – J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard and bestselling authors J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan – a casual observer might assume that big, continent-spanning sagas with magic in them are always set in some imaginary variation on Medieval – and, sometimes, even modern – Britain. The stories include the common tropes – swords, talismans of power, wizards and the occasional dragon, all in a world where Black people rarely exist; and those who do appear are decidedly peripheral and usually work for the bad guys.
That same casual observer might therefore conclude that Epic Fantasy – one of today’s most popular genres of fiction – would hold little interest for Black readers and even less for Black writers. But that casual observer would be wrong.
Young adults of African descent can – and do – relate to the experiences in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Indeed, they crave these experiences and read speculative fiction just as voraciously as young adults of other races. But the lack of self-images in this literature can have a negative effect on the psyche of young readers and can, indeed, contribute to negative behavior. We derive our perceptions of self by what we hear, see, and read and our perception directly affects our actions.
The Process of Action works as follows:
- Perception (precedes Thought)
- Thought (precedes Impulse)
- Impulse (precedes Action)
If the Perception of ourselves is a person who lacks courage, integrity and goodness – because we do not see ourselves possessing heroic qualities in most books – the Thought creeps into our minds that we lack those heroic qualities, so we are – by default – villains. The Thought grows into a strong Impulse to be the villain; and finally, the Action of villainy takes place.
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.
Above, we mentioned authors who have published books of Science Fiction and Fantasy featuring Black youth as protagonists. An analysis of these books reveals plots that are fun and adventurous; Black protagonists who are gifted, insightful youth surrounded by functional, supportive family units; and themes common to the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, like courage, integrity, and good versus evil. While race and ethnicity are not ignored in these books, the race or ethnicity of a character does not drive the plot.
Our youth need stories that do not deny race or the historical implications of race, while remaining unhindered by the racism that may be present.
On May 5, 2012, in Atlanta, a group of Black authors of speculative fiction – in conjunction with the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History – came together to host The State of Black Science Fiction 2012 Youth Symposium, an amazing and day-long symposium that spotlighted Science Fiction and Fantasy as a signature intersection of science, history, technology, and humanistic studies. Fun was had by all and the students who participated, who ranged in age from 5-15, all eagerly purchased books to read during their lunch break.
The symposium featured panel discussions, workshops and games that inspired the imagination and challenged minds.
The authors involved were Balogun Ojetade, Milton Davis, Alicia McCalla, L.M. Davis, Wendy Raven McNair and Ed Hall. A performance of an interactive Choose Your Own Adventure story, written by the students was featured and famed author Tananarive Due – the world’s first and most popular Black author of horror and suspense – honored us with an inspiring key-note address.
I mention the symposium because I would like to host another such conference in April or May of this year (2014). I invite my fellow authors – and anyone else who would like to become involved – to join me in creating a special event for our youth; our future.
I invite all African-centered, private and public schools who serve and care about Black youth to participate. Bring your students. Have them write works beforehand to share during the performance portion. Make it a weekend field trip. Let’s give them a day of fun, learning and transformation. Let’s give them all that speculative fiction has given us, or what it would have given us if we saw ourselves in it.
So, there it is: a full day of Black speculative fiction workshops, performances, art, games, contests and vending – all for our youth.
Are you down?
The Black Science Fiction and Fantasy Youth Symposium is set for Saturday, April 26, 2014; from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm.!