ARE STEAMFUNK, DIESELFUNK and SWORD & SOUL NECESSARY? Countering Negative Images of Black People in Science Fiction and Fantasy
ARE STEAMFUNK, DIESELFUNK and SWORD & SOUL NECESSARY?
Countering Negative Images of Black People in Science Fiction and Fantasy
We have become so insensitive or desensitized to our own negative typecasting and even dehumanization that we are no longer conscious of what we see, hear and what is going into our minds. We have become a party to our own brainwashing. We have joined in and become our own victimizers.
In the old days, white comedians put on black cork and made a living humiliating and ridiculing Black people. A few years later, their senses dulled by this illusion called “progress”, Black comedians said to the white comedians “Hey, you don’t have to ridicule and humiliate us, we’ll do it. We’ll take it from here, boss.”
And they took it from there…and carried it straight to Hell.
Let’s take the use of the word “nigger”, for example; so talked about now because of its use 110 times in the movie Django Unchained. Black comedians took this wicked, destructive word and took ownership of it as if to call ourselves a nigger was empowering, as if it was a term of endearment and still vehemently defend its use to this very day. And no, saying “the N-word” is no better. It is just foolish and strangely, makes us even less human than our use of nigger does.
“Man, you my N-Word!”
Or Kanye West and Jay-Z’s popular Niggas In Paris, now the politically correct N-Words In Paris:
“What’s Gucci my N-Word?
What’s Louis my killa?
What’s drugs my deala?
What’s that jacket, Margiela?
Doctors say I’m the illest
Cause I’m suffering from realness
Got my N-Words in Paris
And they goin’ gorillas, heh?”
Yeah…that shit cray.
The historian Carter G. Woodson said that Black people have been conditioned to go around to the back door, and if there is no back door, we will insist on one.
If you can get a Black comedian to show up on a late-night talk show and act the clown, it’s comforting to those people who say, “See they are a happy people. They aren’t angry with us for five hundred years of slavery and oppression.” It is like approaching a dog you have abused, neglected and chained up in your kitchen for a week, thinking “Boy, I sure hope it doesn’t bite.” And if, instead of tearing out your throat, the dog starts wagging its tail, you breathe a sigh of relief and say “Whew, good dog.”
We have been conditioned to expect little of ourselves and of each other.
Many Black authors lament that they create great content, but Black people pass by their table at geek conventions and head straight to Jim Butcher’s table to purchase his Dresden Files novels, or to the Marvel Comics booth to pick up the latest X-Man graphic novel.
Don’t lament, Black author. Remember, we have been conditioned to expect little of ourselves and of each other, so most Black people will assume, without any evidence, that your work is wack. You have to reach out and educate them; show them that your work is just as good as – or better than, what they are used to. Most will still flock to the Marvel booth. They love – and have faith in – good ol’ Stan Lee. To chastise them for that will gain you enemies, not friends and certainly not fans.
Now, outside the Black geek community is where I have found my greatest support. There is a hunger among “regular” Black people – those who do not identify as geeks, nerds, or science fiction fans – for speculative fiction written by and about Black people.
At the Westview Festival last year – a neighborhood festival in the predominantly Black, lower-to-middle-class area near Atlanta’s West End – I sold out all of my books in less than a half hour. Mind you, my table was next to a table that sold – at less than half price – mainstream fiction and science fiction and fantasy by authors such as Isaac Asimov, J.R.R. Tolkien, Frank Herbert and George R.R. Martin.
At the recent 3rd Annual Ujamaafest – a festival celebrating Kwanzaa’s principle of Collective Economics – Milton Davis and I shared a table. Once again, Black Speculative Fiction sold like hotcakes. At this festival, the participants were mainly culturally conscious Black people from all walks of life.
At both festivals, most of the people who purchased books said that if Black authors were writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, with Black heroes, when they were young, they would have been into it, but they were eager to get their children and grandchildren into Black Speculative Fiction.
Are Steamfunk, Dieselfunk, Sword & Soul and other Black Speculative Fiction necessary? Damn right, they are.
While many of us want to see ourselves as the heroes and sheroes and recognize the need for Black Speculative Fiction, many of us cannot fathom ourselves as star-spanning, evil-crushing, saving-the-world heroes. The horse wrangler for the Steamfunk feature film Rite of Passage told me he never imagined we could be the heroes in a Fantasy or Science Fiction story, or that such a movie would ever be created.
The media is directly responsible for this. The perpetuation of stereotypes is always done through print, television, film, radio, music and, now, the internet.
Flip the channel or turn the page and there are the “baby mamas” and “baby daddies” so ubiquitous in common American culture that they become plot points or titles for mainstream comedies and movies.
The syndicated television program Maury, hosted by Maury Povich, is known for its “Who’s Your Daddy?” segments. Much of the content is based on issuing paternity tests to teens and young adults in hopes of determining fatherhood.
Many of Maury’s guests are Black, and the sheer number of these cases is damning. Shows like these, along with court television shows that promote the same dysfunction, are very popular.
Even Black millionaire housewives, doctors and business moguls are portrayed as argumentative, catty, incapable of being unified and downright ig’nant.
Millions of viewers are indoctrinated by these images of Black family chaos. And we watch these programs like a gory highway car wreck because they involve so many people who look like us.
And we accept and share these perceptions without question, qualm or quarrel.
At a very young age, Black men and women are inundated with messages that they cannot trust or depend upon one other. Children see images of – and hear comments and jokes about – lazy, greedy, irresponsible, or otherwise flawed Black adults.
Black characters have appeared in American films since the beginning of the industry in 1888, but Black actors were not even hired to portray Black people in early works. Instead, white actors and actresses were hired to portray the characters while in “blackface.”
In addition, Black people have, for nearly a hundred years, been purposely portrayed in films with negative stereotypes that reinforce white supremacy over us. Since motion pictures have had more of an impact on the public mind than any other entertainment medium in the last ninety years, this has had a tremendous effect on society’s view of Black people.
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. After over a century of movie making, these horrible stereotypes continue to plague us today, and until negative images of Black people are extinguished from the media, we will be regarded as second-class citizens and will regard ourselves as such.
We have not come that far since 1914, when Sam Lucas was the first black actor to have a lead role in a movie for his performance in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
1915 is a significant date in motion picture history because D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation, which supported the Ku Klux Klan and is possibly the most anti-Black film ever made.
The Birth of a Nation – with its vicious portrayal of Black people as subhuman compared to the glorified Ku Klux Klan – was important because it led to the creation of a new industry that produced “race films” for Black People. These films portrayed us in a positive light and addressed many social concerns of the community.
Before “race films,” Black people in films were nothing more than shuffling, shiny-faced, head-scratching simpletons with bugged out eyes who leaned on brooms and spoke bad English, but after the introduction of “race films,” we were depicted with more dignity and respect.
In order for Black people to ensure that they would have positive roles and stop reinforcing negative stereotypes through film, we had to make our own movies. The same holds true today.
I am asked, quite often, if there is such a thing as a Black Science Fiction movie. Supposing by “Black Science Fiction movie”, they mean a science fiction or fantasy movie that features a Black protagonist and majority Black cast and deals with issues that strongly impact Black people, I tell them that Black Science Fiction movies began in 1939, with the release of Son of Ingagi and that filmmakers continue to make quality Black Science Fiction movies today.
Contemplating fictional characters helps us examine the nature of heroism and villainy. Through fiction, film and television, we develop our view of the ideal person; we learn what to expect from good guys and bad guys, even in real life.
What distinguishes a superhero from a supervillain? How do their basic personalities differ — and how has the media affected our perception of ourselves and heroism?
Most people see themselves as being close in personality to their favorite superheroes and mimic their heroes’ characteristics in an effort to live up to that perception.
However, if the fiction you read or see consistently portrays those who look like you as less than heroic; as savage – whether noble, or not – as the eternal sidekick; as the first to die; as the one to sacrifice him or herself so that the real heroes can save the world; as the thug; the pimp; the whore, then how do you see yourself?
In Blueprint for Negro Literature, Richard Wright discussed the problem of Black literature:
“They [Black authors] entered the Court of American Public Opinion dressed in the knee-pants of servility, curtsying to show that the Negro was not inferior, that he was human, and that he had a life comparable to that of other people. These were received as poodle dogs, who have learned clever tricks. … In short, Negro writing on the whole has been the voice of the educated Negro pleading with white America.”
Wright went on to say that every story Black people write “should carry within its lines, implied or explicit, a sense of the oppression of the Negro people, the danger of war, of fascism, of the threatened destruction of culture and civilization; and, too, the faith and necessity to build a new world.”
While such pleading – such “curtsying to show that we are not inferior” – may have been the goal of Black writers during Wright’s time, it is certainly not my goal or the goal of my colleagues.
On the contrary, I seek to show Black people, in general – teens and tweens, in particular – that we are not inferior; that we are heroic; that we are beautiful, courageous, brilliant and strong.
Furthermore, while I appreciate a good story that deals with the ills of racism, sexism, classism and the destruction and rebuilding of Black civilization, I do not feel that every story must, or even should, deal with such issues.
What I do feel Black Speculative Fiction should do is tell our stories, because they have gone untold in Speculative fiction for so damned long. And I feel those stories should feature Black heroes and an occasional Black villain, too…a criminal mastermind, that is; not a damned street thug, or other walking stereotype.
And please, no more Black heroes who begin as gangsters, prostitutes, drug dealers, or dope fiends. Thanks.
If you are seeking a list of works of great Black Speculative Fiction, check it out here. For a list of great Black authors of Speculative Fiction, you can find that here. For a list of Black Speculative events in Atlanta in celebration of Black History Month, look here.
So, do you feel Steamfunk, Dieselfunk and Sword & Soul are necessary? Is there a type of Black Speculative Fiction you’d like to see created or more of? Horror? Dystopian? Young Adult glittery vampires?
Comment and let your opinion be known!
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.!
HAPPY BLACK SPECULATIVE FICTION MONTH!
In early June of 2013, author Milton Davis and I had a discussion – as we often do – about the importance of Black people reading, writing and watching Science Fiction and Fantasy and the Black authors, artists and filmmakers currently creating in these genres.
The conversation shifted to the various fan conventions we attend and the fact that the fastest growing demographic at these conventions is Black people. We became optimistic about this year’s Alien Encounters celebration and the audience that it is sure to draw. We also talked about how Alien Encounters is going national, with celebrations in the DC / Maryland / Virginia area, Philadelphia and even as far as California.
At some point, we began to kick around the idea of Black Speculative Fiction Month. Since Alien Encounters takes place in October, it made sense that Black Speculative Fiction month should also be celebrated in October.
On June 26, 2013, Milton Davis and I met with the Program Coordinator at the Auburn Avenue Research Library to plan the program for this year’s Alien Encounters when the concept of Black Speculative Fiction Month came up again. Milton discussed that meeting with famed writer and film producer, Reginald Hudlin and others the next day:
“So yesterday Balogun Ojetade, Morris Gardner (program coordinator for the Auburn Avenue Research Library) and myself were discussing the upcoming Alien Encounters program in October. We talked about a similar event being organized in the DC area the same month, and another event that will take place in Philly. At that point I brought up an idea Balogun and I were contemplating: let’s designate October Black Speculative Fiction month! Morris loved the idea. ‘Let’s claim it!’ he replied.
And there you have it. We’re shouting it out as we speak, encouraging others to plan events highlighting Black authors of speculative fiction. We’re contacting libraries, encouraging them to spotlight speculative fiction books by and about black people during this month. Why? Because every day we meet Black people who have never imagined Black folks writing and reading speculative fiction; especially science fiction. Why? Because a recent poll among young people found that the most popular genres were science fiction and fantasy. Why? Because every prominent scientist in the US listed that they read science fiction.
So there you have it. We hope you’ll join us.”
In celebration of this august – well, October – occasion, Milton Davis has launched the Black Speculative Fiction Month website, which features events, in celebration of the holiday, that are happening worldwide throughout the month.
My Black Speculative Fiction Month gift to you – well, one of them, because there is much more to come – is a short list of Blacktacular books of speculative fiction, by – and about – Black people.
Imaro by Charles Saunders – A masterwork from the father of Sword and Soul. Imaro is the definition of great Heroic Fantasy.
The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler – Widely considered Butler’s best work, this is an incredible story of a dystopian future and a heroine with hyper-empathy.
Immortal by Valjeanne Jeffers – The first in a series of exciting books that takes place in the world of Tundra. Jeffers deftly combines Science Fiction, Horror and Romance in telling the story of Karla, a shapeshifter who fights the forces of evil of which she dreams.
Wind Follower by Carole McDonnell – This epic fantasy romance explores race, ethnicity, and imperialism in a beautiful – and sometimes brutal – ancient African setting.
A Darker Shade of Midnight by Lynn Emery – Mystery, Horror and Romance combine to give you this masterpiece that is a first in an incredible series. LaShaun Rousselle – the protagonist, who uses her paranormal abilities to solve the mystery of who killed her cousin and what lives in the woods on her family’s land – is one of the most interesting heroine’s in fiction.
Order of the Seers by Cerece Rennie Murphy – This thrilling tale of discrimination, love, retribution, lust for power and the great potential that lies dormant in us all follows the life and struggle of Liam and Lilith Knight – a brother and sister duo who are hunted by a ruthless and corrupt branch of the U.N., which seeks to capture and exploit Lilith’s unique ability to envision the future.
Hayward’s Reach by Thaddeus Howze – a series of short stories told by Mokoto, the last survivor of an unexpected cataclysm. Mokoto, even in his current state of in-humanity, learns what it means to be truly human.
Steamfunk edited by Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade – This is the definitive work of Steamfunk – a philosophy or style of writing that combines Black culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – featuring fifteen masterfully crafted stories by fifteen amazing authors.
Woman of the Woods by Milton Davis – A powerful Sword and Soul tale, set in Davis’ intriguing Uhuru universe, first experienced in his seminal series, Meji. Woman of the Woods draws us into the world of demon-hunter, Sadatina and her “sisters”, a duo of twin lionesses who aid her in her battle against the vicious Mosele and their demon allies, who seek to destroy her people.
Redeemer by Balogun Ojetade – This is an edge-of-your-seat adventure that is both gangster saga and science fiction epic. A tale of fatherhood and of predestination versus predetermination. An entertaining mash-up that Science Fiction, Urban Fantasy and Urban Fiction fans alike will enjoy.
If you are interested in finding more authors of Black Speculative Fiction check out Black Speculative Fiction Reviews.
WE’RE HERE: Ending the Search for Black Fandom
Recently, I read an excellent – and somewhat saddening – post on the Rude Girl Magazine blog entitled A Search for Black Fandom.
The author laments: “A lot of times when I watch things, and am seeking out internet reactions and discussion, I wish I had access to other black opinions. Sometimes fandom is like watching a movie with a room full of white people – when someone does something kinda shady and racist, you want to lean over and be like ‘did this motherfucker just really,’ but then you realize you’re the only black person there so you have to weigh whether or not you’re in the mood for bullshit, because that’s what you’ll get by bringing this up with white people.”
The author thought that she was all alone in the nerdiverse. That there were no other Black people into Science Fiction, comic books, cosplay, Steampunk and Dungeons and Dragons and she felt crippled by this: “It’s no secret that fandom can be racist. Like, really, really racist…if you, as a black person, want to enjoy something – anything – in most popular fandom, you kind of have to decide not to bring up problematic aspects of the source material if you’re not ready to break out the bingo card for yet another tragic game of ‘No That’s Not Racist Toward Black People, Let Me Tell You Why,’ during which white people from all corners of the globe will gather to attempt to invalidate your thoughts, feelings and experiences.”
I am constantly reminded of just how important the work I and the other members of our authors, filmmakers and artists collective – State of Black Science Fiction – do really is. We tell the stories that need to be told – stories of heroes that have been ignored; history that has been forgotten…or denied.
Steamfunk, Sword and Soul and Rococoa are subgenres of fiction, fashion and film that convey the heroes and history of Africa, African-America and, indeed, the entire Diaspora. There are also many great tales of science fiction, horror, action-adventure and the paranormal with heroes of African descent.
I have been a guest and panelist at several small and major fandom conventions and I – along with my friend and author Milton Davis – am the curator of the popular Black Science Fiction Film Festival and The Mahogany Masquerade and I am happy to say that there is a multitude of Black fans of speculative fiction and film and the numbers are growing rapidly and immensely.
However, every time I get comfortable, a blog, an attendee at a panel discussion, or a fan at a convention will say “I thought I was the only one reading, doing and / or writing this,” or “If I had known Black people were writing this kind of stuff (or making these kinds of movies), I would have gotten into this a long time ago.”
Statements like that tell me that there is a lot more work to do and that there are a lot more people to reach.
I want my sister at Rude Girl Magazine to know that she need lament no longer and that she is certainly not alone.
We’re here my dear sister.
Below is a list of great recent fandom events with a strong Black presence. Most are annual events, so put them on your calendar and be sure to attend.
Black Speculative Fiction Film Festival, August 2012 – Auburn Avenue Research Library; Atlanta, GA
OnyxCon 4th Annual Black Age of Comics Convention, August 2012 – Southwest Arts Center; Atlanta, GA
State of Black Science Fiction Panel, August 2012 – Dragon*Con; Atlanta, GA
The Mahogany Masquerade: An Evening of Steamfunk and Film, October 2012 – Alien Encounters (an annual Black Fandom Symposium); Atlanta, GA
The Afrofuturist Affair Museum of Time 2nd Annual Charity & Costume Ball, November 2012 – Philadelphia, PA (an annual costume ball and afrofuturism presentation / performance)
Black Science Fiction Film Festival, February 2013 – Georgia Institute of Technology; Atlanta, GA (an annual film festival featuring fantasy, science fiction and horror films by and about people of African descent from around the world); Atlanta, GA
Multiculturalism in Alternate History Panel, February 2013 – AnachroCon; Atlanta, GA
Octavia E. Butler Celebration of the Fantastic Arts, March 2013 – Spelman College; Atlanta, GA
12th Annual East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention (ECBACC), May 2013; Philadelphia, PA
State of Black Science Fiction Panel, June 2013 – SciFi Summer Con; Atlanta, GA
State of Black Science Fiction Panel, June 15, 2013 – Wesley Chapel Library; Atlanta, GA (upcoming)
STEAMFUNK IS A TURKEY DRUMSTICK
For my safety and the safety of my family – who loves bacon (in case the BLA is monitoring this post), by the way – I have decided, for this post, to reserve my comparisons to turkey.
Not the whole turkey, mind you…just a turkey drumstick.
Recently, it was said to me that “Research isn’t necessary. After all, I am just writing fiction. A simple ‘it happens’ should suffice.” To that, I say that the reader is more sophisticated than you give them credit for.
I would also say that fiction is not the art of just ‘making things up’. Fiction – especially Steamfunk and other forms of Alternate History / Alternate Reality – is a turkey drumstick: It is the bone of reality covered by the meat of creativity. Meaning, at the core of good Steamfunk is reality and then you add layer after layer of creativity around that core.
For me, Steamfunk allows me to explore, question and alter history.
I use history as a source and creative tool in most of my writing. Real world history has heavily influenced my writing since elementary school, since –after English – History was my favorite subject. History has been used as a source of terror in most of my writings, and speculative history is a major part of my Steamfunk and Sword & Soul settings.
Among all spheres of knowledge, History – as a device for storytelling – best rewards our research. It is not the absolute that it is often treated as, however. From the perspective of the present, the past cannot be known with great certainty. Thus, history tells stories of past events, and – like all stories – is told by someone for a purpose.
History can be used to enlighten, educate, entertain, inspire, and influence.
The other type is Speculative History. This includes the “what if” of alternate history, as well as the projection of possible events into the future, which is the history of most science fiction settings.
Both types use historical analysis to generate a plausible set of events. This allows us, as writers, to tap into these created histories to add depth and life to our stories.
By far, the simplest technique is to take a bit of real world history and use it for inspiration. Alter a few things, combine fragments together, and you can create something with depth and character.
Begin with a change point – a historical event that you want to alter. From there, you can move on, creating changes until you end at the point your story begins. There are two theories with regards to change points. On one hand you can choose a major event, such as Germany winning WWII, the African Slave Trade never happening, or Frederick Douglass becoming President. The other theory is to change one small event and write what happens as a result, such as President Obama choosing Hillary Clinton as his Vice President, or Martin Luther King avoiding assassination.
Of course, you can combine these theories and come up with something really unique.
Whatever you decide to write, the next step is to show how and why the change in history occurred. For smaller changes, this is easier. The larger changes often require a summation of smaller changes, which result in the larger change. The earlier the change point, the greater the ‘snowball’ effect of changes. To be believable, you must do your research. Otherwise, you may make a mistake in some detail in setting or dialogue and readers who have done their research – a common phenomenon in science fiction and fantasy – are going to call you out on it. The readers’ suspension of disbelief will fade; they will close your book; and they will tell the world – via all the social media sites – how much your book sucks.
Although you do not need to be an expert, it helps to be well versed in history. I cannot stress enough that, if you are going to write speculative history, you must research…research…research!
You sit down to write a new story or novel. You want your story to be alternate history, with strong elements of fantasy and science fiction mixed. In fact, you want your story to be about Harriet Tubman. You want the world she operates in to be of the Steampunk subgenre and you want her – and others in her world – to possess “superpowers” (by the way, this has already been done in a cool and funktastic manner). What you are now writing is Alternate Reality – you are going to have to change not just history, but reality itself.
This means adding magic, anachronistic science based on clockwork mechanics and steam technology, psionics, super powers and the like. As with the altering of history, this will cause cascading effects on the timeline that need to be addressed.
If magic is possible, what does that mean to history? How would aether-based physics effect the development of social and political structures? If people can read minds, what does that do to concepts of privacy? If you have people flying around and throwing horses over houses, what purpose does society put these powers to? These are questions intrinsic to certain genres, but they also apply to the alternate history that introducing changes in reality can bring.
One of the pitfalls of altering reality is that suspension of disbelief becomes an issue. The degree to which you convince the reader these things are possible depends – once again – on the degree of your research and on your level of creativity.
Steamfunk is a turkey drumstick.
Hmm…is there a Boiled Turkey Lovers of America?
Here’s a list of some of my fellow Steamfunkateers. We’re celebrating the release of Steamfunk, so check out their sites for a funky overdose – which, unlike most overdoses, is a good thing!
Milton Davis – Milton Davis is owner/publisher of MVmedia, LLC . As an author he specializes in science fiction and fantasy and is the author of Meji Book One, Meji Book Two and Changa’s Safari. Visit him: www.mvmediaatl.com andwww.wagadu.ning.com .
Ray Dean – Growing up in Hawaii, Ray Dean had the opportunity to enjoy nearly every culture under the sun. The Steamfunk Anthology was an inspiration she couldn’t pass up. Ray can be reached at http://www.raydean.net/.
Malon Edwards – Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Malon Edwards now lives in the Greater Toronto Area. Much of his speculative fiction features people of color and is set in his hometown. Malon can be reached ateastofmars.blogspot.com.
Valjeanne Jeffers – is an editor and the author of the SF/fantasy novels: Immortal, Immortal II: The Time of Legend and Immortal III: Stealer of Souls, Immortal IV: Collision of Worlds and The Switch: Clockwork. Visit her at: http://valjeanne.wordpress.com and http://qandvaffordableediting.blogspot.com/ .
Rebecca M. Kyle – With a birthday on Friday 13, it’s only natural that the author is fascinated with myths, legends, and oddities of all kinds. Ms. Kyle lives with her husband, four cats, and more rocks and books than she cares to count between the Smokies and Cumberland mountains. Visit her at http://bexboox13.blogspot.com/.
Carole McDonnell – is a writer of Christian, supernatural, and ethnic stories. Her writings appear in various anthologies, including So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonialism in Science Fiction, edited by Nalo Hopkinson; Jigsaw Nation; and Life Spices from Seasoned Sistahs: Writings by Mature Women of Color among others. Her reviews appear in print and at various online sites. Her novels are the Christian speculative fiction, Wind Follower, and The Constant Tower. Her Bible study is called: Seeds of Bible Study. Her website is http://carolemcdonnell.blogspot.com/.
Balogun Ojetade – Author of the bestselling “Afrikan Martial Arts: Discovering the Warrior Within” (non-fiction), “Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman” (Steamfunk); “Once Upon A Time in Afrika” (Sword and Soul); “Redeemer” (Urban Fantasy) and the film, “A Single Link” and “Rite of Passage”. Finally, he is Co-Author of “Ki-Khanga: The Anthology” and Co-Editor of “Steamfunk!” Visit him: http://chroniclesofharriet.com/.
Hannibal Tabu – is a writer, a storyteller, and by god, a fan. He has written the novels, “The Crown: Ascenscion” and “Faraway” and the upcoming scifi political thriller “Rogue Nation.” He is currently the co-owner and editor-in-chief of Black geek website Komplicated at the Good Men Project, and uses his Operative Network website (www.operative.net) to publish his poetry, market what he’s doing, rant at the world and emit strangled cries for help.
Geoffrey Thorne – Geoffrey Thorne has written a lot of stuff in a lot of venues and will be writing more in more. It’s his distinct pleasure to take part in another of these groundbreaking anthologies. Thanks for letting me roll with you folks. For more (and God knows why you’d want more) check outhttp://www.geoffreythorne.com/.
IS STEAMFUNK JUST ‘BLACK’ STEAMPUNK? – The Illusion of Genre & Subgenre
Recently, while discussing the business of writing, a fellow writer took a jab at Steamfunk and the writers of it, saying “I’m not really into the whole making my own version of it bit. IF I see one more black Steampunk story that is nothing more than black Victoriana, I’ll scream.”
Mind you, this is from a person who doesn’t write Steampunk and who probably does not read much of it either, based on her comment. While she is an excellent writer, her excellence does not make her qualified to give an intelligent analysis of something she does not do. She was incorrect in her assessment of Steamfunk, thus her ‘screams’ – which are sure to come, as more “black Steampunk” will, indeed, be written – will make her look silly, like a man running around shouting “The world is gonna end December 21st!”…on December 22nd.
And this is the danger of genre and subgenre. A person reads the definitions of the genre and thinks he or she knows what it is. I would argue that if you do not do a thing – and, in the case of a literary subgenre, that would be faithfully reading and / or writing it – you cannot really know it.
“No participation, no right to observation”, as we say in the ‘hood (I don’t know if the affluent area of Hyde Park in Chicago – where I picked up these words of wisdom – qualifies as the hood, but you get the point).
Another saying, I learned in that Hyde Park ‘hood was “Each one, teach one”, thus I will now define genre and subgenre for those who may not know what they are.
A genre is a classification of artistic works into descriptive categories. A subgenre is a sub-category of a specific genre, and can apply to literature, music, film, theater, video games, or other forms of art. Subgenres break down genres into more specific subjects.
The concept of genre emerged around 300 B.C.E., when Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato organized various written works into three categories. Numerous genres have been added since, and the list of subject matter continues to grow.
Due to the amount of artistic material in the world today, subcategories of major topics make searching material easier. Genres and subgenres are also powerful marketing tools for publishers and distributors of artistic works. When singer Anthony Hamilton first came on the scene in 1996 with his album XTC, he was hailed as a neo-soul artist, because that was the rage at the time, as people sought a return to the days of “real” music. The XTC album found moderate success, however, as people were not too keen on taking a risk on buying neo-soul at the time, nor were record companies keen on putting their marketing dollars behind neo-soul, because it was just that – neo…new.
Literature became one of the first topics to be listed into separate genres and subgenres. Before the subgenre was introduced there were only a select number of categories to choose from, including romance, horror, thriller, science fiction, and mystery.
As writers put their unique spin on the stories within these categories, publishers closely observed what types of stories sold the most and decided they would sell more books if they created a niche that would attract a specific type of reader within those broad genres. Thus, the subgenre was born. Romance stories are now broken down into the subgenres of contemporary, erotic, historical, regency, gothic, paranormal and young adult. Horror fiction adopted categories such as psychological, supernatural, and Lovecraftian. Science fiction is now broken into such subgenres as hard, soft, space opera and, of course, Steampunk (which is also often categorized as a subgenre of Fantasy or as ‘Science Fantasy’).
Film and theater often have similar types of categories as literature because they are both based on written works.
Modern technology has assisted in the growing popularity of subgenres – check out Netflix and you will find several subcategories of film under each of the twenty categories. The subgenre feature is the primary search format that Netflix customers use in order to find movies.
Another problem with genres and subgenres is that they lead to bullying from self proclaimed ‘genre experts’.
Recently, I posted a short story, Lazarus Graves: The Scythe of Death, which was my experimentation with Dieselpunk. A reader told me he loved the story, but I should not say what I wrote is Dieselpunk because it is definitely Pulp Fiction. I answered him the same way I answer anyone who has taken the time to read one of my stories – “Thanks.”
If he says the story is Pulp – which is actually a style, not a genre or subgenre – and he likes it, then the story is Pulp. If a reader tells me he or she likes my Dieselpunk story, then it’s Dieselpunk. I just write what I like to read and let the readers and publishers decide what it is. When I began writing Steamfunk, I just wanted to write a story similar to one of my favorite television shows – Wild, Wild West – with Harriet Tubman as the protagonist. When my publisher said Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman is a great Steampunk story.” I shrugged and responded “Thanks.” Then, I turned to my wife and said “I guess I finally have a name for what I have been writing.”
I have since accepted that I primarily write what is called Steampunk / Steamfunk and Sword & Soul, but I mash-up these genres and others, because I continue to write what I want to read and what I feel others will also enjoy. And I remain bully-proof, by agreeing with all who read my work that the genre is whatever they want, or need, it to be.
Others are not so bully-proof, however. Recently, author Gail Carriger suffered at the e-hands of e-bullies when she dared to call her bestselling series, The Parasol Protectorate, Steampunk. The genre-police felt her work did not qualify as Steampunk and should be classified as “Bustlepunk” – a term used to describe a softer, “girlier” version of Steampunk.
My advice for writers is – write first; worry later. Do not fixate on what genre or subgenre you are writing. Just tell the story you want to tell to the best of your ability. And while you should not argue with those who try to define your work as this or that subgenre, because they happen to enjoy this or that subgenre and also enjoy your work, you should not allow the genre-police to bully you, either.
Should you adopt a genre or subgenre as your own, then learn all you can about it; practice it; master it…so that you can turn it inside-out, upside-down and sideways if you so desire. I write Steamfunk and Sword & Soul because, for one, there is a deficit of stories told from an African / Black perspective in Steampunk and Sword & Sorcery and secondly, because I like to write without the restrictions of genre. Both of these sub-subgenres are malleable and alive, thus they are being defined as we write stories within their categories. If I want to mash-up Steamfunk and horror, it’s fine. If I want to have my Sword & Soul hero use an arsenal of Steamfunk gadgets, it’s okay.
As we say in the ‘hood – “It’s cooler than a Polar bear in an igloo, with air conditioning during a snowstorm, baby.”
My advice for readers is – READ! Oh yeah, and stay humble. Do not perceive yourself as the defender of some genre, attacking those whose writing within that genre is not what you view as ‘authentic’. Heed my words – they can save you from a ton of embarrassment and a world of hurt.
Now, in regard to “Black” Steampunk – Steamfunk is not a gimmick – we do not use “Blackness” as a selling point, we just tell great stories, with heroes that we want, and need, to see; heroes that everyone can relate to. It is not “Victoriana” – an outlook and design style from the Victorian era (1837–1901) – and neither is Steampunk (more on that in a future post). Furthermore, Blackness is not homogenous. There is not just one way of being “Black”.
As we say in the ‘hood – “Miss me with that shit.”
STEAMFUNK REFORMERS: Black Activists in the Age of Steam
Every month, in The League of Extraordinary Black People Series, we feature members of the League of Extraordinary Black People who fit specific Steampunk Archetypes. This month, we examine Reformers – the suffragettes; the revolutionaries; the protesters and abolitionists.
As always, your feedback is welcomed and encouraged.
Although Nat Turner led his rebellion a bit before the beginning of the Steampunk / Victorian Era (1837 – 1901), it did happen during the Age of Steam, the period of industrialization, which actually takes place between roughly 1797 and 1914. Besides, Nat Turner’s rebellion fueled the abolitionist movement, thus he certainly deserves a place within ‘The League’.
By far the most notorious and successful slave rebellion was led by Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831.
Born in Southampton County on October 2, 1800, Turner, who was the slave of Joseph Travis, was a preacher who had visions and felt divinely inspired to lead his people to freedom. He plotted his revolt for six months, sharing his plan with only four others.
On the day the revolt took place, Turner and his men gathered in the woods and then began what is known by many as the “Turner Insurrection” by attacking the Travis plantation and killing the entire family. Turner’s group, which had grown to 60, then stormed the county, killing at least 57 whites. As the revolt progressed, the ranks of Turner’s army continued to swell, rising to the hundreds within hours.
Finally, on their way to Jerusalem, Virginia, the county seat, where they had hoped to gain additional support and replenish their ammunition, most of Turner’s forces were caught and subdued. Thirteen slaves and three free Blacks were hanged, but Turner was not captured until two months later, after returning from hiding to free more of slaves.
Turner was hanged on November 11, 1831.
After escaping enslavement in 1849, Tubman dedicated her life to fighting for freedom, equality, and justice.
Born Araminta (“Minty”) Ross in early 1822 on the plantation of Anthony Thompson, south of Madison in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was the fifth of nine children of Harriet “Rit” Green and Benjamin Ross, both slaves.
From early childhood, Tubman was often hired out to temporary masters, many who were cruel and negligent.
One day, while working as a field hand, Tubman was nearly killed by a blow to her head from an iron weight, thrown by an angry overseer. The severe injury left her suffering from headaches, seizures and sleeping spells that plagued her for the rest of her life. They also left her with powerful and accurate visions.
In the late fall of 1849, Tubman took her own liberty. She tapped into the Underground Railroad, which was already functioning well on the Eastern Shore. Traveling by night, using the North Star as her guide, Tubman found her way to Philadelphia, where she sought work as a domestic, saving her money to help the rest of her family escape.
From 1850 to 1860, Tubman conducted approximately thirteen escape missions, freeing – by her own account – “thousands of slaves”. Among those she freed were her brothers, parents, and other family and friends.
Tubman brought many of her charges to St. Catharines, Ontario, where they settled into a growing community. Her dangerous missions won the admiration of abolitionists throughout the North who provided her with funds to continue her activities.
In early 1862, Tubman joined Northern abolitionists in support of Union activities at Port Royal, South Carolina. Throughout the Civil War she provided badly needed nursing care to black soldiers and hundreds of newly liberated slaves who crowded Union camps. Tubman’s military service expanded to include spying and scouting behind Confederate lines and she went on to become the most famous among the revered and feared Black Dispatches.
In early June 1863, Tubman became the first woman to command an armed military raid when she guided Col. James Montgomery and his 2nd South Carolina black regiment up the Combahee River, routing out Confederate outposts, destroying stockpiles of cotton, food and weapons, and liberating over 700 slaves.
After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn, New York. There she rose even higher as a community activist, humanitarian, and suffragist, her humanitarian work triumphing with the opening of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, located on her own property in Auburn, New York, which she eventually transferred to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1903.
Tubman remained active in the suffrage movement, appearing at local and national suffrage conventions, until the early 1900s. She died at the age of 91 on March 10, 1913 in Auburn, New York.
Born a slave, Douglass escaped at the age of twenty and went on to become a world-renowned anti-slavery activist.
Douglass’ work as a reformer ranged from his abolitionist activities in the early 1840s to his attacks on Jim Crow and lynching in the 1890s. For sixteen years, he edited an influential black newspaper and achieved international fame as an inspiring and persuasive speaker and writer. In thousands of speeches and editorials, he levied a powerful indictment against slavery and racism, providing an indomitable voice of hope for his people and preacheing his own brand of American ideals.
Douglass welcomed the Civil War in 1861 and portrayed it as a moral crusade against slavery.
During the war, he labored as a propagandist of the Union cause, a recruiter of black troops, and an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln.
After the war, he continued to travel widely and lecture on racial issues, national politics, and women’s rights. In the 1870s Douglass moved to Washington, D.C., where he edited a newspaper and became president of Freedman’s Bank. As a stalwart Republican, Douglass was appointed marshal and recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia, chargé d’affaires for Santo Domingo and minister to Haiti.
Douglass died in 1895 after half a century of activism.
Truth spoke only Dutch until around the age of nine when she was forced to speak English by John Neely, a cruel and brutal slave master, but she spoke with a Dutch accent for the rest of her life.
In 1799, the state of New York began to legislate the gradual abolition of slaves, which was to be put into full effect on July 4, 1827. Truth’s slave master had promised her freedom a year before the state emancipation, “if she would do well and be faithful.” However, he reneged on his promise, claiming an injury to her hand had made her less productive.
Infuriated, Truth escaped with her infant daughter, Sophia, later saying “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”
Truth then immediately set to work freeing her five year old son Peter. With the assistance of Quakers, Truth made an official complaint in court. After months of legal proceedings, Peter returned to her, scarred and abused.
During this time, Truth had a life-changing religious experience, becoming “overwhelmed with the greatness of the Divine presence” and inspired to preach. She quickly became known as a remarkable preacher and soon changed her name from Isabella Baumfree to Sojourner Truth, telling friends, “The Spirit calls me East, and I must go.” She wandered in relative obscurity, depending on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter. She eventually met and worked with abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and David Ruggles, giving her most famous speech at the Ohio Woman’s Rights Covention in Akron, Ohio, the legendary “Ain’t I a Woman?”
During the Civil War, Truth spoke on the Union’s behalf and helped enlist Black troops for the freeing of slaves. After the Civil War ended, she continued working to help the newly freed slaves through the Freedman’s Relief Association and the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.
In 1870, Truth began campaigning for the federal government to provide former slaves with land in the “new West.” She spent a year in Kansas, helping Black refugees and speaking in white and Black churches to gain support for the “Exodusters” as they tried to build new lives for themselves.
On November 26, 1883, Sojourner Truth died in Battle Creek, Michigan at the age of 86.
Maria W. Stewart
Stewart was born in Hartford, Connecticut, as Maria Miller.
Orphaned by age five, she became an indentured servant, serving a clergyman. Using the clergyman’s extensive library, she taught herself how to read and comprehend. When she was fifteen, left the clergyman and went on to work for herself as a servant.
In 1826 she married James W. Stewart, taking not only his last name but also his middle initial. With her marriage to a shipping agent, she became part of Boston’s small free Black middle class. Stewart became involved in some of the institutions founded by that Black community, including the Massachusetts General Colored Association, which worked for immediate abolition of slavery.
Upon the death of her husband in 1829, she became convinced that God was calling her to become a “warrior” “for God and for freedom and “for the cause of oppressed Africa.”
In 1831, abolitionist publisher, William Lloyd Garrison published Stewart’s first essay, Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, as a pamphlet. She also began public speaking, at a time when religious bans against women teaching prohibited women from speaking in public, especially to mixed audiences that included men.
In her first address, in 1832, Stewart spoke before an audience of only women at the African American Female Intelligence Society, an institution founded by the free Black community of Boston. She used the Bible to defend her right to speak, and spoke on both religion and justice, advocating activism for equality. The text of the talk was published in Garrison’s newspaper on April 28, 1832.
On September 21, 1832, Stewart delivered a second lecture, this time to an audience that also included men. She spoke at Franklin Hall, the site of the New England Anti-Slavery Society meetings. In her speech, she questioned whether free Blacks were much more free than slaves, given the lack of opportunity and equality. She also questioned the move to send free blacks back to Africa. Garrison published more of her writings in The Liberator and, in 1832, published a second pamphlet of her writings as Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart.
Stewart eventually made a move to New York, New York, where she remained an activist, supporting herself by teaching in public schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn, eventually becoming an assistant to the principle of the Williamsburg School. She was also active in a Black women’s literary group and supported Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, The North Star, but did not write for it. Stewart moved to Baltimore in 1853, where she taught privately.
In 1861, she moved to Washington, DC, where she taught school again during the Civil War. During that time Stewart was appointed to head housekeeping at the Freedman’s Hospital and Asylum in the 1870s. A predecessor in this position was Sojourner Truth. On December 17, 1879, Stewart died in the hospital in which she worked. She is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
I hope you enjoyed the latest in the League of Extraordinary Black People Series. Be sure to join us next month when we examine Aviators…yep…Aviators!
Funk is a very distinct style of music based on R&B, soul and jazz which is characterized by a strong bassline – often in the percussive “slap bass” style of Larry Graham (originally of Sly & the Family Stone), complex rhythms and a simple song structure.
The name “Funk” originated in the 1950s, when “funk” and “funky” were used increasingly as adjectives in the context of soul music — the meaning being transformed from the original one of a strong, pungent odor to a strong, distinctive groove.
Funk de-emphasizes melody and harmony and brings a strong rhythmic groove of electric bass and drums to the foreground. Funk songs are often based on an extended vamp on a single chord, distinguishing it from R&B and soul songs, which are centered on chord progressions.
Funk typically consists of a complex groove with rhythm instruments such as electric guitar, electric bass, Hammond organ, and drums playing interlocking rhythms. Funk bands sometimes have a horn section of several saxophones, trumpets, and in some cases, a trombone, which plays rhythmic “hits”.
In early jam sessions, musicians would encourage one another to “get down” by telling one another, “Now, put some stank on it!” At least as early as 1907, jazz songs carried titles such as Funky Butt.
Characteristics of Funk
A great deal of funk is rhythmically based on a two-celled onbeat / offbeat structure, which originated in sub-Saharan African music traditions. New Orleans appropriated the bifurcated structure from the Afro-Cuban mambo and conga in the late 1940s, and made it its own. New Orleans funk, as it was called, gained international acclaim largely because James Brown’s rhythm section used it to great effect.
Funk creates an intense groove by using strong guitar riffs and bass lines, using bass lines as the centerpiece of songs. Slap bass’s mixture of thumb-slapped low notes and finger “popped” (or plucked) high notes allowed the bass to have a drum-like rhythmic role, which became a distinctive element of funk.
In funk bands, guitarists typically play in a percussive style, often using the wah-wah sound effect and muting the notes in their riffs to create a percussive sound. Guitarist Ernie Isley of The Isley Brothers and Eddie Hazel of Funkadelic were notably influenced by Jimi Hendrix’s improvised solos. Eddie Hazel, who worked with George Clinton, is one of the most notable guitar soloists in funk. Ernie Isley was tutored at an early age by Jimi Hendrix himself, when he was a part of The Isley Brothers backing band and lived in the attic temporarily at the Isleys’ household. Jimmy Nolen and Phelps Collins are famous funk rhythm guitarists who both worked with James Brown. On Brown’s Give it Up or Turn it Loose (1969), Jimmy Nolen uses his guitar like an African drum, pounding out a rhythm that moves the soul.
Some of the best known and most skillful soloists in funk have jazz backgrounds. Trombonist Fred Wesley and saxophonist Maceo Parker are among the most notable musicians in the funk music genre – both of them working with funk maestros, James Brown, George Clinton and Prince.
The distinctive characteristics of African-American musical expression are rooted in sub-Saharan African music traditions, and find their earliest expression in spirituals, work chants/songs, praise shouts, gospel, blues, and “body rhythms” (hambone, patting juba, and ring shout clapping and stomping patterns).
Famed and flamboyant singer and musician, Little Richard led a saxophone-studded, R&B road band in the mid-1950s, which was credited by James Brown and others as being the first to put the funk in the rock-and-roll beat. Following his temporary exit from secular music to become an evangelist in 1957, some of Little Richard’s band members joined Brown and The Famous Flames, beginning a long string of hits for them in 1958.
By the mid-1960s, James Brown had developed his signature groove that emphasized the downbeat – with heavy emphasis on the first beat of every measure to etch his distinctive sound, rather than the backbeat that typified African American music. Brown often cued his band with the command “On the one”, changing the percussion emphasis / accent from the one-two-three-four backbeat of traditional soul music to the one-two-three-four downbeat – and featuring a hard-driving, repetitive, brassy swing. This one-three beat launched the shift in Brown’s signature music style, starting with his 1964 hit single, Out of Sight and his 1965 hit, Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.
Brown’s innovations led to him and his band becoming the seminal funk act, pushing the funk music style further to the forefront with releases such as Cold Sweat (1967), Mother Popcorn (1969) and Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine (1970). Late 1960s – early 1970s
Also from the West Coast area, more specifically Oakland, California, came the band Tower of Power, which formed in 1968. Their debut album East Bay Grease, released in 1970, is considered by many as an important milestone in funk. Throughout the ‘70s, Tower of Power had many hits, and the band helped to make funk music a successful genre, with a broader audience.
In 1970, Sly & the Family Stone’s Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) reached #1 on the charts, as did Family Affair in 1971, afforded the group and – and funk – crossover success and greater recognition.
George Clinton, with his bands, Parliament and Funkadelic, produced a new kind of funk sound heavily influenced by jazz and psychedelic rock. The two groups shared members and are often referred to collectively as “Parliament-Funkadelic”.
The breakout popularity of Parliament-Funkadelic gave rise to the term “P-Funk”, which referred to the music by George Clinton’s bands, and defined a new subgenre. Clinton played a principal role in several other bands, including Parlet, the Horny Horns, and the Brides of Funkenstein, all part of the P-Funk conglomerate.
Funk music was also exported to Africa, and it melded with African singing and rhythms to form Afrobeat. Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, who was heavily influenced by James Brown’s music, is credited with creating the style and terming it “Afrobeat”.
Rick James was the first funk musician of the 1980s to assume the funk mantle dominated by P-Funk in the 1970s. His 1981 album Street Songs with the singles Give It To Me Baby and Super Freak resulted in James becoming a star, and paved the way for the future direction of explicitness in funk.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the artist Prince used a stripped-down, yet dynamic, instrumentation similar to James, combining eroticism, technology, an increasing musical complexity, and an outrageous image and stage show to ultimately create music as ambitious and imaginative as P-Funk.
Similar to Prince, other bands emerged during the P-Funk era and began to incorporate synthesizers and other electronic technologies to continue to craft funk hits. These included Cameo, Zapp, The Gap Band, The Bar-Kays, and The Dazz Band.
Influenced by the Japanese band, Yellow Magic Orchestra and the German band, Kraftwerk, the African-American musician Afrika Bambaataa developed electro-funk – a minimalist, machine-driven style of funk – with his single Planet Rock in 1982. Also known simply as electro, this style of funk was driven by synthesizers and the electronic rhythm of the TR-808 drum machine. The hit single Renegades of Funk followed in 1983.
After 1983, Funk saw a decline, with hip-hop taking over the spotlight.
However, with the growing popularity of Steampunk among Blacks worldwide, Steamfunk music had to happen. And it has happened in a big way! Today, the popularity of funk is seeing resurgence as artists of African descent in hip-hop, rock and even club dance music are bringing the funk to Steampunk – artists such as T-Pain, Alex Cuba, Props! And Nikki Minaj.
Join us at the Mahogany Masquerade on Friday, October 26, 2012 as we explore the Steamfunk Movement in music, cosplay, films, literature and more!
Come out in your (Steam)funkiest gear and enjoy The Mahogany Masquerade: An evening of Steamfunk and Film!
Enjoy the four short films that will be screened; engage authors, filmmakers and artists in a panel discussion on the Steamfunk Movement; shop for books and movies in our bazaar and meet and greet your fellow Steamfunks, Steampunks, and lovers of Science Fiction and Fantasy!
part of “Alien Encounters III”, the four-day convention on Black Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy!
Friday, October 26, 2012
6:30pm – 9:00pm.
This event is FREE and open to the public!
Wear your Steampunk / Steamfunk Clothing, Costumes, Gadgets and Gear and receive a Blacknificent Science Fiction, Fantasy or Horror novel free!
CHICKS IN CHAINMAIL BRASSIERES:
Sexism in Fantasy Fiction
I love reading and writing Fantasy. I really do. But I am growing increasingly disgusted by the racism and sexism within it. I can no longer read books in which people of color and women are constantly oppressed and seen as lesser beings in a world based on fantasy.
Lately – as the father of seven daughters who are all avid readers of Fantasy – I have become particularly disgusted with the continuing sexism in Fantasy fiction and visual art.
Writers, you can create a world with any rules you choose. In your world, you don’t have to continue to perpetuate the sexist tropes so prevalent in Fantasy since its inception.
Are you that lacking in creativity that you cannot write something better? Are you that apathetic to the plight of our Sisters? Or have you convinced yourself you have to maintain some sexist status quo to sell?
Shame on you.
Certain tropes have been formed and propagated. Given the overwhelming number of Fantasy novels set in a sort of idealized, white, medieval Europe…given the grossly oversimplified and homogenized concept of medieval gender roles, stereotypes and sexist archetypes have arisen in Fantasy. Some examples are:
- The Spirited Woman Married Off Against Her Will To A Man She Doesn’t Love
- The Lone And Exceptional Woman Warrior In A Culture Of Male Warriors
- The Widowed Queen Fighting To Keep Her Throne Against An All-Male Cast Of Contenders
- The Woman Who Runs Away Rather Than Be Married Off Against Her Will But Who Then Needs Rescuing From Worldly Perils
- The Woman Whose Love Of Books And Scholarship Is Exceptional And Odd And Therefore Deemed Socially Awkward
- The Unmarried Woman Who Is Happy Being Unmarried And Therefore Considered An Oddity
- The Unmarried Woman Who Was Forbidden To Marry The Man She Loved And Is Therefore Sad And Unfulfilled
- The Woman Who Ran Away To Marry The Man Forbidden To Her And Who Is Now A Social Pariah
- The Penniless Woman Who Needs To Be Rescued From Penury As Her Gender Prevents Her From Working
- The Girl Forced To Dress As A Boy In Order To Live Out Her Socially Unacceptable Dreams
- The Adventurous Daughter Whose Parents Let Her Run Free But Threaten Her With Marriage Should She Fail
- The Female Scholar/Magician Trying To Make It In A Largely Male World
- The Lone Female Soldier/Technician/Magician/Scholar Whose Male Colleagues Don’t Take Her Seriously.
Come now. That’s all you got?
Shame on you.
Regarding the existence of sexism in the real world both historically and currently, I’m not trying to suggest that any of the above tropes are unrealistic; nor am I suggesting they should be avoided at all costs, or that they are inherently bad. What I am saying is that as writers, we are not bound by these tropes and have chosen to portray worlds that involve societies in which sexism plays a part. We can choose otherwise.
Or we can choose to take our exploration of sexism further.
In most Fantasy, we are left with sexism as a background detail; a tool used to justify the plight or origins of particular female characters, but never actually addressed.
You, dear writer, can follow sexism to some of its natural conclusions rather than focus exclusively on those few exceptional women who have avoided it, forcing characters – and, by extension, the readers – to view sexism as more than an inevitable background detail.
Or, you can avoid writing default sexism in the first place by actually considering how gender roles work in your story, building a cultural, social and historical setting that usurps the expectations of the reader. You can create an equal society, or one whose inequalities are unusual; you could write a typically sexist society, but make sexism a major narrative focus. Lots of different ways to explore the topic…if you are willing.
Shame on you.
As writers, we should not perpetuate sexism by training readers to take its presence for granted: to refrain from so much as questioning or calling it out, let alone showing its worst consequences.
Most Fantasy authors write sexist stories without any conscious thought, simply because it never occurs to them to do otherwise. The freedom to ignore the relevance of women is just another form of privilege; one more malignant than benign. And remember: if your equality looks homogeneous, then it’s probably not equality.
Modern sexism has become cunning; sly; codified. In the same way a closet racist would never dream of openly saying “nigger” but might refer to killing “zombies”, or make a pointed reference to someone Black having a natural rhythm, or liking fried chicken, a closet misogynist has a vast array of words, comments, phrases and attitudes they can employ to subtly put a woman down, or disconcert her, but without it being immediately apparent that that is what they are actually doing.
Intelligent writers are particularly adept at this.
In my research for the novel – and in my life as an African traditionalist, which requires an in-depth study of African history and sociology, I discovered some amazing facts about the women-warriors of Africa and the Diaspora that many of you may find useful in your writing:
The “Dahomey Amazons”
The “Dahomey Amazons”, referred to as Mino, meaning “Our Mothers” in the Fon language, were an all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey which lasted until the end of the 19th century. They were so named by Western observers and historians due to their similarity to the semi-mythical Amazons of ancient Anatolia and the Black Sea.
For The Mino were recruited from among the ahosi the king’s wives – of which there were often hundreds.
The Mino trained with intense physical exercise, with an emphasis on discipline. Units were under female command.
Considered exceptional and brutal warriors by all unlucky enough to encounter them, those who fell into the hands of the Mino were often decapitated.
The Aje of Yorubaland
A story, that teaches the tenets of African wrestling, is as follows:
There was a boy named Omobe (“rascal”, “troublesome child”) that had great physical ability and was trained to be a wrestler. As he grew older his wrestling abilities grew stronger and before long he was considered the greatest wrestler in the world. At his birth the local priest/diviner warned his parents to not allow Omobe to climb palm trees. But one day while his parents were away he decided to climb a palm tree any way. From high up he could peer into the spirit world and he noticed that several divinities had gathered for a fantastic wrestling match!
Omobe immediately climbed down and made his way to the spirit world to test his own luck amongst a variety of spirits. He beat every opponent: Egungun (ancestors), Orisa (Forces of Nature) and all others lost at his hands. Finally he prepared to wrestle Olokun. While he summoned all of his physical strength, Olokun drew on her spiritual powers.
During the match Omobe attempted to throw Olokun to the ground, but instead Olokun ended up firmly attached to Omobe’s head. All attempts at removing Olokun from his head failed and Olokun declared Omobe’s head her permanent abode as a sign of Omobe’s arrogance and disrespect towards the other spirits.
When Omobe returned home the local priest/diviner advised him to appease Olokun or die. So for seven days Omobe made sacrifice. On the last day Omobe was initiated as the first Olokun priest. After Omobe’s initiation into the priesthood, Olokun loosened her grip on Omobe’s life.
Amongst African traditionalists, the palm tree represents the ancestors and the elders. Omobe climbed a palm tree even though he was not supposed to, which means he learned the higher levels of wrestling technique – and gained the ase (power) of the wrestler – through crafty means and then abandoned his teachers (he climbed down from the tree) and used what he had learned to fight those who taught him.
This act of arrogance and disrespect led him to fight against the Forces of Nature, themselves. Finally, Olokun, the spirit of unfathomable wisdom and matron spirit of the descendants of Africans who were taken captive during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, defeated Omobe. This means, though Omobe had mastered the physical aspect of wrestling, his disrespect of – and disconnection from – the community and its spiritual support prevented him from learning the deeper wisdom found within the study and training of the martial arts.
It was not until Omobe devoted himself to the attaining of deep wisdom and respect for the African traditions as an Olokun priest, that he was able to save himself from an early death.
This story teaches us that in order to learn the depths of wisdom found in the African martial arts, reverence of one’s ancestors, respect for one’s elders and adherence to tradition is paramount.
Furthermore, the “deep wisdom” Omobe had to learn in order to redeem himself and to save his life was the wisdom rooted in respect for, and understanding of, the “Aje” – referred to as Awon Iyawa, also meaning “Our Mothers” – which is primal, female power.
It was Olokun, a female Force of Nature, who defeated Omobe and threatened to take his life until Omobe became her priest. Omobe was socialized by Olokun, which is in accord with Aje’s function as a biological, physical and spiritual force of creativity and social and political enforcement.
War, defense and anything associated with Ogun, the Warrior Spirit of the Yoruba, is also associated with Aje.
It is recognition of – and respect for – the power women and girls that gives the African warrior the authority to defend and to take life.
Nupe Women-Warriors, called Isadshi-Koseshi, fought as fiercely as the men, opposing invasions of the Fulbe conquerers who raided the Nupe for cattles and slaves.
Ibo Women and the Aba Rebellion
In protest, Ibo women bound their heads with ferns, painted their faces with ash, put on loincloths and carried sacred sticks with palm frond wreaths. Thousands marched on the District Office, dancing, singing protests, and demanding the cap of office of the colonial chief Okugo.
This protest spread into a vast regional insurrection. The Ibo women’s councils mobilized demonstrations in three provinces, turning out over 2,000,000 protesters.
The British District Officer at Bende wrote, “The trouble spread in the 2nd week of December to Aba, an important trading center on the railway. Here there converged some 10,000 women, scantily clothed, girdled with green leaves, carrying sticks. Singing angry songs against the chiefs and the court messengers, the women proceeded to attack and loot the European trading shops, stores, and Barclay’s Bank, and to break into the prison and release the prisoners.”
Elsewhere women protestors burned down the hated British “Native Courts” and cut telegraph wires, throwing officials into panic. The colonials fired on the female protesters, killing more than fifty and wounding more. Marches continued sporadically into 1930. These mass actions became known as the Aba Rebellion of 1929, or The War of the Women. It was one of the most significant anti-colonial revolts in Africa of that day.
Black Women in Ohio
In the summer of 1848, ten African-Americans, fleeing their enslavement, made it across the Ohio River into Cincinnati. The slave catchers tracked them down, but the bounty they were after proved to be quite difficult to acquire:
Cincinnati’s North Star newspaper’s August 11, 1848 issue reported the event thusly: “The women began to gather from adjoining houses until the Amazons were about equal to the [slave-hunters] – the former with shovels, tongs, washboards and rolling pins; the latter with revolvers, sword-canes and bowie-knives. Finally the beseigers decamped, leaving the Amazons in possession of the field, amid the jeers and loud huzzahs of the crowd.”
Let us all strive harder for awareness of – and sensitivity to – sexism in our writings and our readings. Let us be more critical of it, for to do – and say – nothing about sexism is to help propagate it. Are you helping to propagate oppression?
If so, shame on you.
As always, your comments are welcome and encouraged.
Countering Negative Images of Black People in the Media by Thinking Inside the (Becoming) Box: An Interview with Filmmaker Monique Walton!
Countering Negative Images of Black People in the Media by Thinking Inside the (Becoming) Box: An Interview with Filmmaker Monique Walton!
At the Black Science Fiction Film Festival, which took place August 4, 2012 in Atlanta, GA, the amazing film The Becoming Box screened, receiving rave reviews and high praise. The audience was blown away by the masterful storytelling that could only be done by a director of the highest caliber. That director was none other than the incomparable Monique Walton – director, screenwriter and film producer.
Ms. Walton was kind enough to grant me an interview, which happens to be this post. Read and enjoy!
And, as always, your feedback is always welcome and encouraged.
What is your film, The Becoming Box, about?
The Becoming Box is about a family of three siblings dealing with the tragic and sudden loss of their mother in a storm. It’s about how each of them deal with the aftermath of that tragedy, and it’s about rebirth and re-invention.
What is your role in the making of the movie and how did you become a part of this project?
This is my second fiction film project as a grad student in UT Austin’s film department. I co-wrote this piece with my classmate, Paavo Hanninen (who was also the DP), and then I co-produced and directed it.
What were your experiences in the creation of The Becoming Box?
So all of the locations had a localized, historical and emotional significance. The mural pillars under the I-10 overpass and the African American History Museum were a good example of that. It was definitely a challenge getting my crew and equipment down there from Austin, but luckily I was able to enlist some great crew members in New Orleans as well, and everyone ended up getting along on set, which I was really happy about. The one thing I didn’t anticipate was how cold it got in the city in January. The house we shot in had no heat so it was far from the humid, swampy weather we were hoping for!
How do you think the negative images of Black people in the media affect society?
How can we counter those negative images?
We counter those images by making our own, simple as that. And it’s happening more everyday with the democratization of image making on the internet, but Black folks have been representing themselves and countering negatives images since the beginning of cinema, despite direct efforts to degrade Black characters on screen.
As a filmmaker, how important is it to you to have creative and financial control of your work?
Ideally, it will be the only way I’ll make work. Once you give up creative control, you might as well be making a commercial. And I’ll do that too, but that’s working to pay the bills, not making art.
Is there such a thing as a “Black Science Fiction movie”? If so, what makes it such?
Looking back and reading about the Harlem Renaissance, Dubois and Locke were having the same critical debates. I think the arguments continue to come up because, at least if we’re talking about film, Black directors, writers, and stories are still not appropriately represented in the mainstream. So I think it’s important to continue to work to get your voice out there, and whether or not the viewing public calls your work Black, will be a representation of the times.
How do you come up with ideas for films?
The best ideas are spontaneous. They come up (usually in the shower) and then they take off. With The Becoming Box it was a discussion I was having with my classmate Paavo about alternate realities and identities that just snowballed into the idea for the film and kind of took off. But I’m inspired on a daily basis by things I watch, read, experience etc. So the challenge is acknowledging and cataloguing that information and using it when the time is right.
What upcoming film projects are you planning?
My next film is a documentary about gentrification in Austin. The basis of the narrative will be non-fiction, but it will still have some science fiction elements to it.
What advice can you give to someone who also wants to make an independent film?
Do it! I love that the Black Sci-Fi/Speculative Fiction genre is taking off, and I can’t wait to enjoy the fruits of everyone’s labor. There’s no formula for success, except you have to be creative and relentless and surround yourself with positive supportive people.
Monique Walton was born and raised in Long Island, New York. A 2004 graduate of Yale University, she has directed and produced numerous documentary and narrative films focusing on racial identity and belonging. Ms. Walton’s first film, a short documentary entitled Still Black, at Yale, screened at over ten film festivals and at universities across the country. She worked at Viacom for four years producing on-air and web videos for Nickelodeon and then relocated to Austin, TX in August 2009. Her sci-fi short, Dark Matters, premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Creatively Speaking series in September 2010.
STEAMFUNK MAD SCIENTISTS & MECHANICS: Black Inventors of the Steam Age!
This month, I feature the Mad Scientists / Inventors and Mechanics / Tinkerers.
As always, your feedback is welcomed and encouraged.
What we know about early African-American innovators comes mostly from the work of Henry Baker, who was an assistant patent examiner at the U.S. Patent Office. Baker was dedicated to uncovering and publicizing the contributions of Black inventors.
Around 1900, the Patent Office – under Baker’s guidance, conducted a survey to gather information about Black inventors and their inventions. Letters were sent to patent attorneys, company presidents, newspaper editors, and prominent African-Americans. Henry Baker recorded the replies and followed-up on leads. Baker’s research also provided the information used to select Black inventions exhibited at the Cotton Centennial in New Orleans, the World’s Fair in Chicago, and the Southern Exposition in Atlanta.
By the time of his death, Henry Baker had compiled four massive volumes of Black inventors and their inventions, called The Baker Papers.
Lewis Howard Latimer
Lewis Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1848. He enlisted in the Union Navy at the age of 15 and upon completion of his military service, returned to Massachusetts and was employed by a patent solicitor where he began the study of drafting.
His talent for drafting and his creative genius led him to invent an improved toilet system for railroad cars called the Water Closet for Railroad Cars, in 1874; and a method of making carbon filaments for the Maxim electric incandescent lamp in 1881. Also in 1881, he supervised installation of electric light in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London.
Latimer was the original draftsman for Thomas Edison and as such was the star witness in Edison’s infringement suits. Latimer had many interests. He was a draftsman, engineer, author, poet, musician, and, at the same time, a devoted family man and philanthropist.
Granville T. Woods
Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1856, Granville T. Woods dedicated his life to developing a variety of inventions relating to trains and street cars. To some he was known as the “Black Edison”. Woods invented more than a dozen devices to improve electric railway cars and nearly fifty more for controlling the flow of electricity.
In 1887 he patented his most noted invention – the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, a device that sent messages between train stations and moving trains, informing the engineer of a train how close his train was to others. This device helped cut down accidents and collisions between trains.
In 1885, Woods patented an apparatus which was a combination of a telephone and a telegraph. The device, which he called telegraphony, would allow a telegraph station to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. Alexander Graham Bell’s company purchased the rights to the telegraphony, enabling Woods to become a full-time inventor.
Among Woods’ other top inventions were a steam boiler furnace and an automatic air brake used to slow or stop trains. His electric car, powered by overhead wires, was the third rail system to keep cars running on the right track.
Success led to law suits filed by that wicked little shark, Thomas Alva Edison, who claimed ownership of the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph. Woods eventually won. Unable to defeat Woods, Edison became a stalker, wooing Woods and – in an attempt to win him, and his inventions over – offered Woods a prominent position in the engineering department of Edison Electric Light Company in New York. Woods, wisely, declined.
George Washington Carver
Carver profoundly affected the lives of people throughout the world by successfully shifting Southern farming away from risky cotton, which depletes soil of its nutrients, to nitrate-producing crops such as peanuts, peas, sweet potatoes, pecans, and soybeans. Farmers began rotating crops of cotton one year with peanuts the next.
From his laboratory at Tuskegee, Carver developed 325 different uses for the peanut, including 105 food recipes and over 100 products made from peanuts that were useful for the house and farm, including adhesives, axle grease, bleach, buttermilk, chili sauce, fuel briquettes (a biofuel), ink, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, meat tenderizer, metal polish, pavement, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, talcum powder, wood stain, cosmetics, dyes, paints, plastics, gasoline, and nitroglycerin. He also developed 118 products from the sweet potato. Other Carver innovations include synthetic marble from sawdust, plastics from wood shavings, and writing paper from wisteria vines.
Upon his death in 1943, Carver contributed his life savings to establish a research institute at Tuskegee University. His birthplace was declared a national monument in 1953, and he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990.
When you say “I want the real McCoy”, you are saying you want the ‘real thing’ – what you know to be of the highest quality, not an inferior imitation. This saying refers to the famous African American inventor, Elijah McCoy, who earned 57 patents, most to do with lubrication of steam engines, but also including a folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler. Machinists and engineers who wanted genuine McCoy lubricators would demand “the real McCoy”.
McCoy was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1843, the son of slaves who fled Kentucky. Educated in Scotland, he relocated to the United States to pursue a position in his field of mechanical engineering. The only job available to him was that of a locomotive fireman / oilman for the Michigan Central Railroad. Because of his training, he was able to identify and solve the problems of engine lubrication and overheating. Railroad and shipping lines began using McCoy’s new lubricators, and Michigan Central promoted him to an instructor in the use of his new inventions.
Later, McCoy moved to Detroit where he became a consultant to the railroad industry on patent matters.
Jan Matzeliger was born in Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana (now Suriname) in 1852. He immigrated to the United States at age 18. After a while, he went to work in the Harney Brothers Shoes factory in Massachusetts. At the time, no machine could attach the upper part of a shoe to the sole. This had to be done manually by a “Hand Laster”; a skilled one could produce 50 pairs in a ten-hour day.
Matzeliger obtained a patent for his invention – the Shoe Lasting Machine, which adjusts the shoe leather upper snugly over the mold, arranges the leather under the sole and pins it in place with nails while the sole is stitched to the leather upper – in 1883. His machine could produce up to 700 pairs of shoes a day, cutting shoe prices across the nation in half.
George “Speck” Crum
In 1853, french fries – thickly sliced fried potatoes, a concept brought to the U.S. from France by Thomas Jefferson in the late 1700s – were on the lodge’s menu.
It is said that George Crum was a tough, crusty old man who had previously been a trapper. If any of the diners at the Moon Lake Lodge had the nerve to complain about their food, Crum would release his wrath upon them. He would send back any food that had been returned to his kitchen, only after he made it nearly inedible.
On August 24, 1853, a customer complained that Crum’s french fries were “too thick”. George Crum grumbled, but he sliced the customer up a thinner batch of potatoes, fried them, and sent them back out to the dining room.
Still, the plate of potatoes were returned to the kitchen. The diner complained that they were still too thick. He also requested that his potatoes be crunchy.
This angered Crum. Hoping to gain personal satisfaction and annoy the complainer at the same time, Crum took his sharp knife and sliced another batch of potatoes as thin as he possibly could. Crum then fried the sliced potatoes in grease until they were hard and crunchy. There was no way now that the customer would be able to eat them with a fork! He then piled them on a plate, sprinkled an over generous amount of salt on them, and sent them back to the disgruntled diner.
Crum expected the customer to dislike them very much, but he actually loved them.
Crum dubbed his creation “Saratoga chips” or “potato crunches”.
They soon became so popular that they were made up in large batches, packaged in bags, and sold in New England.
Eventually, Crum left the Moon Lake Lodge and, in 1860 with the profits he made selling his new chips, started his own successful restaurant.
The chips remained a local delicacy until the Prohibition era, when an enterprising salesman named Herman Lay popularized the product throughout the Southeastern United States.
Stay tuned for more in the League of Extraordinary Black People Series. Next month: Adventurers / Explorers!
Steampunk: What in the hell is it, really?
Many will argue that when H. G. Wells was writing, people believed in the possibility of time machines, making animals sentient and traveling to the center of the earth and finding live dinosaurs down there.
Now, if what H. G. Wells wrote was science fiction and most people agree that – along with Jules Verne – Wells created the model for anachronistic fiction (i.e. Steampunk, Dieselpunk and the like), then is Steampunk science fiction?
Yet, you find Steampunk on the fantasy bookshelves, not the science fiction ones. Unless, of course, the Science Fiction and Fantasy titles are, annoyingly, combined onto one set of shelves, a la Barnes and Noble.
So, is steampunk science fiction, or is it fantasy?
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “Steampunk”, please check out http://chroniclesofharriet.com/2012/05/24/punk-101-steampunk-dieselpunk-and-a-three-year-old-genius/, or http://chroniclesofharriet.com/2012/01/23/state-of-black-sci-fi-2012-why-i-love-steampunk/.
The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy
Both science fiction and fantasy present things that do not exist. All fiction does this, of course. That’s what makes it fiction. But science fiction and fantasy include not only imaginary characters and events but settings, creatures, concepts, or devices that are qualitatively beyond our normal, everyday experience.
While Science Fiction and Fantasy share some characteristics, there is a clear and unambiguous distinction between them.
Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are two of the earliest true modern science fiction writers. Both stretched the bounds of what was known at the time to posit things that did not exist. Unlike earlier, and even much of the other speculative fiction of the time, though, they based their plot devices on extrapolations from current science and technology. Previous visits to improbable lands, encounters with strange creatures, and even fictional travels through time were often the result of a dream or mystical insight. Both Wells and Verne presented their readers with fantastic machines, but these were based on scientifically explained principles. They included strange creatures, but they were natural rather than supernatural, with abilities explainable, at least in theory, solely in terms of biology and evolution.
Fantasy is less constrained. It can include just about anything – magic wands; fire-breathing dragons; shiny, shimmering vampires; werewolves; genies in lamps; lizard men and sentient swords. These things just ‘are’ and don’t need to be explained from a scientific perspective.
While the magical elements must be internally consistent, they do not need to be based on known science. If the story includes supernatural or mythological characters or forces that are not supported with plausible sounding techno-babble, then it is fantasy.
When asked to explain the difference between science fiction and fantasy, Isaac Asimov, the prolific writer of science and science fiction, replied, “Science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not.” We authors can – at times – be quite presumptuous and this statement is presumptuous to the nth degree, as Asimov implies that he knows everything that is possible and all that is real. He doesn’t (didn’t – he passed away in 1992). We don’t.
A better distinction was provided by the science fiction writer, Robert J. Sawyer who said, “There’s discontinuity between our reality and fantasy; there’s continuity between our reality and science fiction.”
He is saying that fantasy proposes the existence of things we cannot yet explain rationally. Science fiction, on the other hand, must present some rationale for how such things could exist and demands a plausible theoretical explanation rooted in what we currently know. The explanation does not need to answer such questions in detail, but the reader must feel that a scientific explanation is possible and links back to our current scientific understanding of the real world.
Science fiction is supportive of a scientific outlook and optimistic about humanity’s ability to use science to explain the universe and create a brighter future. Fantasy, which has a mystical basis, supports the idea of the existence of things science cannot explain or deal with.
There are those who believe a magic wand is no less implausible than a TV remote control or that the binary system of African divination is as viable as Boolean logic. Both types of people can, however, read and enjoy science fiction and fantasy.
Stories from both genres can be insightful, thought provoking and evoke a sense of wonder. Both genres can take us to strange and fascinating worlds.
Now, there are stories in which both magic and science work, science is so sophisticated it simulates magic, or characters possess psychic powers so strong they resemble magic. A term that has been applied to these stories is ‘science fantasy.’
An example would be Star Wars, a fantasy adventure with science fiction elements. The fantasy element is the Force, which is described as a mystical ‘energy’ field. The science fiction elements, obviously, are extraterrestrial aliens and space ships, although there is never much of an explanation for how the latter are supposed to work. Another example would be Van Helsing – a popular Steampunk movie. The science fiction element is the weapons and even the creation of Frankenstein’s monster. The fantasy aspects of Van Helsing include the existence of vampires and werewolves.
Stories involving time travel are generally considered science fantasy as well.
So, if Steampunk is, science fantasy, why not just call it – and Star Wars, Van Helsing and time travel stories, for that matter – fantasy?
Well, even the best Steampunk story – a story like Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman Books 1 & 2 (shameless plug) – may not appeal to someone who strictly enjoys high fantasy. A pure fantasy reader may not appreciate a story with a dwarf who wields a steam-powered war-hammer or an elf who pilots a dirigible.
The hard science fiction fan would, most likely, loathe the inclusion of Orcs, fighting alongside the Cassad Empire in the far reaches of the Dark Universe.
So, the science fiction elements make it not purely fantasy, but the fantasy elements make it not purely science fiction either.
And the debate continues as to just what Steampunk is.
I asked the members of the State of Black Science Fiction – a group of which I am a proud, founding member – whether Steampunk is Science Fiction or Fantasy and got some interesting answers. I thank all of them for their insight and happily share them with you.
Cm Talley, noted P-Funk scholar and author: “Well, there’s very little science involved, so, it is very definitely fantasy. If there are elements of Wellsian aliens or Vernsian explorations, then you might straddle the ‘science’ line, but for the most part it’s a variation of historical fiction. Steampunk uses a different paradigm: post-feudal, post Age of Reason, New World colonization. Antebellum to height of industrial revolution to Reconstruction, Gilded Age (Victorian Era if you’re British). I call it the ‘alternate history’ branch of fantasy.”
Diop Malvi, author: “Always considered Steampunk/funk as science fiction of the alternate world variety.”
Valjeanne Jeffers,author of the Immortal series of novels and the Steampunk novel, The Switch II: Clockwork: “Steampunk didn’t just come into being – it’s been around for a while. Think Adam Ant; Sherlock Holmes; and the movie, Time After Time (based on H.G. Well’s The Time Machine).
Steampunk is an island of fantasy – of escape – within our technological, very stressful 21th century. Just like every other type of speculative fiction. And a way of making one’s own personal statement.
Someone on a Steampunk blog, described it as ‘poorly defined’. Really? Seriously? How about open to experimentation and imagination. Steampunk is a glorious mixture of other fantasy/SF genres. And the settings and plots reflect this – plots set in the post-civil war; Victorian England; Post-Apocalyptic America; or a futuristic world, as in my Steampunk story: The Switch II: Clockwork .”
Maurice Broaddus, author of The Knights of Breton Court series of novels and the Steampunk story, Pimp My Airship: “Alternate history, which so much of Steampunk is, falls under science fiction.”
Vincent Moore, Senior Media Correspondent at Komplicated.com and author of the Total Recall comic book series: “I agree with Maurice. Where most Steampunk gets going is the argument about what would have happened if the Babbage Difference Engine actually started the Computer Age early. Everything else descends from that argument.”
Geoffrey Thorne, writer for USA network’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Ben 10: Ultimate Alien and TNT’s Leverage.: “It’s sci-fi if it uses science as its central technological engine. It’s fantasy if there are dragons and wizards powering the stuff.”
Cynthia Ward, Market Reporter for the SFWA Bulletin and – with author Nisi Shawl – teaches the workshop Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction: “Alternate histories are usually classified as science fiction, but then the Soulless/Umbrella Protectorate series, by Gail Carriger, is urban fantasy with its parallel-Victorian werewolves, vampires, and ghosts. So I’d say the content of the individual Steampunk titles determines whether they’re science fiction or fantasy (or science fantasy).”
Ronald Jones, author of the novels Chronicle of the Liberator and Warriors of the Four Worlds: “I’d say it depends on the author. Steam technology is real world, based upon real science and engineering principles. Add steam tech to a fictional tale, create a fantastical setting, but don’t introduce magical elements, your Steampunk story will be science fiction. If magic is added to your story then I would consider it fantasy.”
Alicia McCalla, author of the Teen Dystopian novel, Breaking Free: “Balogun Ojetade I think it’s both depending upon the direction the story takes. Alternate History with steam power would be more like Science Fiction but a new or alien world that uses steam technology would be more like Fantasy. Hoping you find a way to explain that. LOL!”
Hmm…so many opinions.
Maybe that is another reason I love Steampunk / Steamfunk. It freely draws from science fiction, fantasy, horror and history, yet is not bound by any of them.
Perhaps Steampunk is just…Steampunk.
As always, I am interested in hearing your thoughts on the matter. Please share.
DOING AWAY WITH TRADITION: The Savior of Black Entertainment!
Calling something “traditional”, or oneself a “traditionalist”, or referring to “traditions” is often an implication of Right and Wrong. However, a tradition, in actuality, is a ritual, belief or object passed down within a society, still maintained in the present, with origins in the past.
I am an African traditionalist. For me, that means I practice a spirituality that predates Judeo-Christian religion on the African continent and has been passed down, for eons within Yoruba society. Although I do consider my spirituality to be right and exact (or else, why practice it?), I do not consider someone else’s to be wrong. However, for many, the term traditional is used to say “Hey, what I do is the right way and your way is bullshit.
Filmmaking is full of “traditions”. These traditions are “the way things are done”, they are “industry standard”, they are “what is expected and accepted”, implying that there is a correct way to do things and deviations from that way are incorrect and unacceptable.
One such long-standing and entrenched tradition is the significance of the Short Film.
The Short Film is generally accepted to be significant to the emerging and aspiring filmmaker primarily, as learning experience and secondly, as a calling card. The short film allows you to gain experience without the overhead. Similarly, as a calling card, the short film serves as a demonstration of your abilities as a filmmaker in order to convince potential investors to trust you with the responsibility – and budget – to make a longer project.
The theory is that a good short film allows you to proclaim “If this is what I can do in 10 minutes of screen time, on a shoestring budget, just imagine what I could do with 90 minutes and millions of dollars!”
Learning experience; calling card. If this is what short films are for they have epically failed on both accounts.
The short film fails as a learning experience because making a short film only really teaches you about making short films. The structures, patterns and conventions of short film have little to no relationship to feature films.
A short film is not just a feature film shoved into a tiny house. A short film, simply by its duration, cannot fully expand your understanding of the elements of story, character, theme, myth and metaphor.
Furthermore, a short film will not prompt you to ask who your audience is; what they expect; what they want; what excites and challenges them; or how they will respond.
Ironically, film schools all over the globe make short films the fundamental learning experience, but spend nearly 100% of their class time discussing and analyzing feature films. That is like going to a karate school, studying day after day, month after month, year after how to snatch a man’s torso off and then, for your black belt exam, having to run like hell from some 126 pound orange belt. While running is sometimes the best strategy and a hasty retreat can be an art in itself, it really proves nothing about competence in the snatch-off-a-torso technique.
Now, if you are happy making short films as a mode of artistic expression, more power to you. However, I would wager that most of you aspiring filmmakers want to make feature films and will do so as soon as the budget allows.
No matter how dope / raw / funky / cold / hot your short film is, if your intention is to make bigger, longer dramatic works, it will largely fail to serve your intent. Short films do not demonstrate the crucial things that fill financiers with confidence. A short film, regardless of how “good” it is, can’t effectively demonstrate you can sustain character arcs and it doesn’t show you understand narrative structure.
A short film does not prove you know how to develop a story over time, or construct consistent dramatic tension and release. A short film doesn’t demonstrate you understand genre and know how to attract an audience.
Without these things there is no real evidence you can effectively make a viable feature film.
Well, if not short films, then what? Is there something better?
Lacking time and resources to make a feature film or a TV pilot, the answer is the web series, or webisode.
What is a Webisode?
A webisode – also known as web originals, web shows, web series, and online series – is a show in episodic form released online, or in some cases, across various mobile platforms. The series is created to live on the web and individual shows within a web series tend to run between 3 minutes and 6 minutes, with an entire season, from beginning to end, averaging an hour to an hour and a half.
When making a web show, the question is what kind of web show will you make? While web series take many forms, typical categories include sci-fi/fantasy (The Silent City; Osiris: the Series), comedies (Awkward Black Girl; 12 Steps to Recovery) and dramas (Touye Pwen: Kill Point; Celeste Bright).
Advantages of the Web Series
While most producers and financiers may currently ask to see your short film and inquire what festivals it has been in, many are now asking where your web series website is and how much traffic you webseries gets.
The advantages of the web series, as both learning experience and calling card, are myriad and obvious.
The web series is resource-viable. It takes no more money, technology or logistics to make an episodic online series than it does to make a short film.
The web series can easily find a far larger international audience than a short film on the festival circuit ever could. In doing so the web series proves the ability of the filmmaker to create for, gather, keep and motivate viewers.
While webisodes are generally short, the nature of their spacing and structure connects very well to feature film narrative turning points, and television episodes and seasons.
The web series may be small scale but the core structure is tangibly applicable and demonstrable, unlike most short films which – like running away, in relation to snatching off a man’s torso – offer little direct overlap.
In regard to the web series, transmedia – the development of stories across multiple forms of media in order to deliver unique pieces of content over multiple channels – is part and parcel of what a web series is. Where short and feature film projects the world over are being asked to add these elements (websites, trailers, games, etc), the web series is integrated tightly to this model from the start.
A good short film can be a great work of art but emerging and aspiring filmmakers need much more than a short work of art to build a career. The short-format, online, episodic webseries is the most dynamic, audience-driven, self-publicizing, learning vehicle independent filmmakers have ever had access to.
Find Your Audience
No matter how good your story is…if you can’t find someone to watch it, then you’re not likely to get much traction from your work.
If you can’t sit down and easily identify what kind of person will like your show and name five places that person might go to on the internet to hype your series, you will have a hard time getting the word out about your masterpiece.
As much as you may dread the idea, you’ll have to put in major work in order to alert the masses to your series. You have to market and promote. Even if your series is the best ever, you may have to work just as hard to convince people to watch as you did to make it.
However, within the last year more money has been devoted to original web content than at any time in the past. Youtube recently committed $100 million to nurturing new web-based talent. And Hulu has earmarked a half billion dollars for original content. Yep, $500 million.
Much of this interest comes from web series demonstrating their ability to reach larger groups of people and generate revenue. Most successful web shows appeal to very specific niche audiences and then grow from there.
That growth, or course, is a function of perseverance. If you can produce a series, find an audience and keep it, then the industry might just catch up to you with sponsors.
Five Keys to Success
- Have Something to Say – With the cost of filmmaking dropping all the time, creating your own series can be enticing, but you have to have something to say. Have a story to tell. No matter what your topic, the story needs to be compelling.
- Manage Your Imagination – Scale down your vision into something that’s shootable; something that you can make without waiting for approval or money. The greatest advantage of a producing a web series is that you do not need anyone’s okay to make it, and you don’t need anyone’s funding. You can shoot something compelling and engaging without lots money as long as you remain realistic about your ability to shoot it within the confines of your resources.
- Use The Resources at Hand – There are many people around you that can help you produce your project. There are actors, editors, sound people, hair and make-up people, wardrobe experts and camera operators who will work with you for little to no money because, like you, they seek to build experience and their portfolio. Also recruit talented friends and family members. Hiring your cool uncle Rollo to be your cinematographer might not be a great idea unless he has some training in film and experience as a director of photography and camera operator.
- Be a Leader – If it is your web series, then you are the leader. Everyone is looking to you as the captain of the ship. And trust me, you will be held responsible for everything – from your assistant director showing up drunk to an actor’s costume being a size too small because they chose to binge on Big Macs the night before a shoot. Have a plan. If not, then you are in for a world of grief and your project will probably go nowhere.
- If You Build It, Money Will Come – This might sound unrealistic, but it has been proven time and again that if you do good work consistently, the money will come – whether someone wants to buy your web series, or buy your talent and have you put the same effort into a television show or a feature film. Do not limit yourself to being a writer or a web-series producer – you are a creator. Create!
The Webseries: Savior of Black Entertainment?
New series that target the Black community are popping up every month.
Savior or not, this emergence of original Web programming is, indeed, good news for black art and expression.
In regard to our project, Rite of Passage, co-producer, Milton Davis and I are deciding whether to produce and pitch the show as a television series for independent television networks that celebrate the Black experience, such as Bounce TV (http://www.bouncetv.com/) and ASPiRE TV (http://www.aspire.tv/) or produce it as a web series.
Which do you think we should do?
McDojos: Over 40 Million Served
On occasion, I like to deviate from my regular posts on Steampunk, Steamfunk and / or the craft of writing and talk about some aspect of the martial arts.
I am honored to have the opportunity to share with you what little knowledge I have acquired in my forty years of training in – and twenty-five years of teaching – traditional African martial arts and I welcome your questions and comments.
A martial artist, like any other artist, has the responsibility to render the truth as they see it, so I will do just that. If this blog wounds anyone, so be it. Band-Aids only cost $2.99 a box. Now, here goes:
In this blog, we will discuss the bane and shame of the martial arts world: The “McDojo”.
McDojos are martial arts schools that – like the restaurant chain with a similar name – fill their patrons with garbage disguised as something good and, in the end, help to create soft, martial arts pooh-bears, or overly aggressive brutes.
The McDojo’s motive is profit.
McDojos teach impractical, ineffective martial arts and send unprepared, over confident students from the pristine, safe and controlled environment of the McDojo into the real world, armed with the false belief that they can defend themselves and teach others to do the same.
In actuality, these bamboozled students have no real combat or self-defense skills. They have wasted valuable time and money and are the victims of fraud and deception.
McDojos crank out thousands of “Black Belts” each year, who open schools after one or two years of training. Over half of these “Instructors” are twelve (12) years old and younger.
We have people who have never been hit, or who have never actually hit anyone, teaching self-defense to ourselves and our children. I have even been told of McDojos that convince unwitting students that they can learn to fight through the practice of dance steps. These instructors are basically ballet – or belly – dancers in a “karate suit”.
Learning to dance prepares the nervous system, mind and muscles for dancing, not combat. Next time you see someone disarm a knife wielding attacker with the “Stanky-Leg”, let me know.
With McDojos now outnumbering credible martial arts schools, it is essential that you learn to distinguish between the two, if you are serious about defending yourself and your loved ones
While visiting a martial arts school, listen for these McDojo warning signs:
- “You don’t have to experience pain in order to learn to fight effectively.”
- “We have techniques that can stop any grappler from taking us to the ground.”
- “If you have enough control to punch or kick inches from someone’s face without actually hitting them, you can easily hit them on the street.”
- “If you can break a board, you can break a bone.”
- “We train slowly and softly in class, but on the street, when adrenaline’s pumping, we hit hard and fast.”
- “We can make you a Black Belt (or Red Sash, or Instructor, etc.) in one to two years.”
- “If a child can perform the same techniques as an adult, then they are capable of teaching as an adult.”
- “I am Grandmaster of this style and the only person alive qualified to teach it.”
- “I teach Kemetic Kung Fu.” (Since when is anything Chinese “Kemetic”?)
The Making of a Mythster
We really do not realize how influenced by martial arts movies we really are.
We believe in – and actively seek out – Mr. Miyagi (or Mr. Han, in the remake), from The Karate Kid; Stick, from Marvel Comics’ Daredevil and Elektra books; or Pai Mei, from Kill Bill, Vol. 2.
The more mystical and mysterious the better. Damn practical self-defense technique when you can just snatch out your opponent’s entire ribcage and show it to him before he hits the ground.
While teaching my students in the park a couple of years ago, an onlooker, who claimed to be a lifelong student of the martial arts, observed me “take a student’s strength” and then “give it back to him” and then watched as the entire class tried – futilely – to push me backward, even while I was standing on one leg.
I explained to the students that this had nothing to do with magic, but had everything to do with my knowledge of physics and biomechanics – something that is extensively studied in indigenous African martial arts.
The onlooker approached us and exclaimed “You’re foolin’ ‘em! You’re foolin’ ‘em!”
“Fooling them?” I inquired. “How so?”
“You’re a chi master, pretending that your power is just physics and biology and whatnot,” he replied.
That poor man would rather believe I was a sorcerer than a scientist. Sad, but the truth is: most people are just like him.
This is why so many myths abound in the martial arts and why McDojos around the world are raking in big bucks…from you.
Let’s kill a few myths right now:
This is one of the oldest American martial arts legends, and has absolutely no basis in truth.
First, the U.S. government doesn’t regulate the martial arts, which means there is no process to identify people practicing the fighting arts and there is no governmental method by which practitioners can be evaluated…at least no process of identification they have revealed to the public.
Actually, there is not a country on earth in which martial artists are required to register themselves as weapons, deadly or otherwise.
This myth has its roots in three different events that occurred within the mid-20th Century:
In post-World War II Japan, the traditional martial arts were banned and records were kept of experienced practitioners. The ban and keeping of records only lasted a few years and never spread beyond the borders of Japan.
Another event is the regulation of the activities of U.S. servicemen overseas.
Following World War II and even into the 1960s, military personnel who enrolled in martial arts programs were asked to register their participation, though not themselves.
When a person joins the military, he’s essentially the property of the U.S. government and engaging in activities that needlessly result in injury is like damaging military equipment. If a school was causing a lot of injuries, the military wanted to know about it. They would forbid military personnel from training at such schools and in some cases, the U.S. government would shut a school down.
The third event is rooted in the soil of the rich and often outrageous history of professional pugilism. In the era of boxer Joe Louis, it was common to have police on hand during a press conference to “register” the boxer as a deadly weapon.
This was merely a publicity stunt and carried no legal weight.
In court cases involving violent confrontations, lawyers and judges may advise the jury to bear in mind a person’s martial arts, boxing or military training when evaluating the facts of the case, as in the Matter of the Welfare of DSF, 416 N.W.2d 772 (Minn. App. 1988), where the Minnesota Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant, who had “substantial experience in karate,” was aware enough of the potential of his blows to deliberately break the plaintiff’s jaw.
That is a lot different, however, from legally stating that the person in question is a registered and/or licensed deadly weapon.
What is disturbing, however, is that some martial artists carry “registration cards” which they have received from their McDojo, who charged them a hefty fee to be registered. These unwitting students believed that they were registered as deadly weapons. Sad.
Nose in Brain
Inevitably, at every workshop I teach, I am asked to demonstrate a quick “death move” that anyone can do to take out any opponent. Someone will invariably shout: “Push his nose into his brain!”
Now, tell me: Can a person really strike someone in a way that will drive the nose bone into the brain? The answer is an emphatic “No!” I repeat: No! You cannot drive any part of the nose into the brain!
This cannot be done and never has been. Anyone who argues to the contrary is misinformed or outright lying and stands in opposition to overwhelming medical and anatomical fact.
Firstly, the nose is primarily composed of malleable cartilage which does not possess the tensile strength necessary to penetrate the thick bone of which the skull is composed. Secondly, even if the nose was entirely made of bone - and it is NOT – it would not be long enough to reach the brain.
This is one of the most popular myths in American culture and has grown to urban legend status from its appearances in books and movies.
In Stephen King’s novel Firestarter the assassin John Rainbird contemplates killing someone in this fashion and in the movie, he actually does it; the author Shirley Conran used the nose-in-brain technique as a plot device in her novel Savages. For the use of this mighty mythological technique, you can also see the Bruce Willis action flick, The Last Boy Scout, the Nicholas Cage film, Con Air and A History of Violence, starring Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris.
The structure of the nose makes the nose-in-brain death-blow impossible. The nose bone, or crista galli, is a thick, smooth, triangular piece of bone that projects from the bone that forms the roof of the nasal cavity (cribriform plate).
Though there are small openings in the cribriform plate, which allow nerves to pass through it, these openings are not large enough to allow a piece of splintered crista galli to enter the brain case, nor are these openings direct conduits to the brain.
So the nose-in-brain death-blow, as dynamic and spectacular as it is in fiction, is just that…fiction.
A Black Belt Is a Master
Nope. Not even close.
First of all, most martial arts do not even use belts (or sashes, for those that wanna be cute).
For those that do, a first-degree black belt is merely an advanced beginner. The belt signifies his or her passage from the ranks of those who are still learning to the ranks of those who’ve learned how to learn.
The transition from white belt to black belt has less to do with techniques than with learning the methodologies necessary to think like a martial artist.
A black belt should be able to grasp the principles upon which the arts are based, which is far more important than his ability to perform any technique. The black belt has learned how to learn and therefore becomes more proactive in his own education.
Most of my colleagues in the traditional Asian martial arts maintain that a person becomes a true expert by the time he reaches fourth degree, which is, for many arts, the point at which a person can begin teaching.
These days, first- and second-degree black belts are often assigned to teach, and many are even called sensei. This is a marketing tactic; one that, in fact, confuses people, especially when we learn to equate anyone with a black belt with instructor-level expertise.
If you’re already enrolled in a McDojo, I suggest you break that lengthy and expensive contract you signed, on the grounds that you were defrauded, throw that belly-dancing six-year old master instructor over your knee and whoop his little ass.
Nah, just sue that McDojo for every dime you ever paid them, plus pain and suffering, then e-mail me and I’ll direct you to a reputable school in your area.
Until next time: Stay strong and keep it (Steam)funky!
FURIOUS FATAL FISTS OF STEAMFUNK: How To Write Fight Scenes That Ain’t Wack!
I write speculative fiction – mainly, Steamfunk and Sword & Soul (for more on those genres, check out http://chroniclesofharriet.com/2012/05/13/the-steamfunk-movement/ and http://chroniclesofharriet.com/2012/04/13/sword-soul-much-needed-new-genre-or-simply-something-old-with-a-new-coat-of-paint/, respectively).
My Steamfunk and Sword and Soul novels contain lots of exciting action and fight scenes.
My friend, renowned spoken word artist XPJ Seven, told me “Dude, I like your fight scenes.”
“What do you like about them?” I inquired.
“They’re not like the fight scenes in most of the fiction I’ve read.” He replied, his brow wrinkling as he scowled.
“What’s wrong with those fight scenes?” I asked.
The wrinkles in XP’s brow deepened into canyons as he frowned in disgust. “Dude…they’re wack!”
Can’t argue with the wisdom of XP.
Thus, I write this as a helping hand to my fellow writers who may struggle with writing fight scenes. If writing fight scenes for you comes easy, please, keep reading; You’re already here…you might as well. And – in the spirit of all things not wack – if you will be so kind as to contribute your wisdom to this post, it will be greatly appreciated.
First and foremost, let the following Fight Scene Plan guide you toward the light at the end of that dark, dank tunnel called wackness.
Just remember – all good plans are malleable. As author, Milton Davis says, “A plan is a work in progress. It must be adjusted and modified based on results. An inflexible plan will eventually lead to failure.”
Fight Scene Plan
1. Show, don’t tell
I put this point first because it seems to be the one most writers have difficulty with when writing a fight scene.
Here is an example of telling:
After taking eight punches and several kicks to now vital areas all over her sinewy frame – such as her solar plexus, spine and head – Harriet Tubman staggered backward, wailing in agony.
This is “telling” because the punches and kicks are all lumped together, making it impossible to say, with any certainty, how many blows Harriet actually suffered.
Furthermore, we cannot be sure of exactly which body parts are suffering all the punishment, although we get a grocery list of a few parts that might be getting damaged…or might not – who knows?
Finally, what is Harriet doing while she is taking that beat-down? Just accepting it all willy-nilly? Does she throw a counterpunch? Beg for mercy? Scream “Feets don’t fail me now” and then haul ass? We don’t know. We cannot see this scene. We cannot see Harriet. We’re just being told about it. Wack.
2. Show sequence, not simultaneity
It rarely makes sense to make two different actions simultaneous in a fight scene.
Because a fight scene is loaded with different sorts of actions, each of which takes a different amount of time.
If one action takes a tenth of a second and another takes two seconds, the action will feel distorted if the author asserts that they happen simultaneously.
John Wilkes Booth ducked his head and whirled to the right, simultaneously kicking furiously with his right heel as he shouted “Harriet Tubman, you just will not die, will you?”
Now, you can whirl to the right pretty quickly. You can kick pretty quickly. But how long does it take to shout ‘Harriet Tubman, you just will not die, will you’? All this action cannot happen simultaneously. So, writing something like this? Wack.
3. Enforce causality
A Cause should be shown first, and then the Effect shown afterward. Showing the Effect and then the Cause? Wack.
Case in point:
John Wilkes Booth ducked his head and whirled to the right. He kicked furiously with his right heel as he shouted “Harriet Tubman, you just will not die, will you?” Just after he spotted Harriet throwing another punch at him.
So, what happened first? Booth saw Harriet throw another punch at him. However, that is shown last in the passage. The Effect is shown first, followed by a long sequence of events: Booth ducks his head. Booth spins to the right. Booth kicks. Booth shouts. Only after all that are we shown the Cause of it all.
4. Show the fastest action first
When you sequence a group of actions that happen at roughly the same time, show those actions that happen fastest before you show those that happen slowest.
Do not write the passage this way:
The steambot was no longer a threat to Harriet, as it lay broken in the dirt, wondering if it would ever see its beloved creator – Mistress Nakamura – again, the very woman who had nurtured it and taught it love, as an agonizing scream escaped its metallic throat.
We see the steambot pondering whether it would see its creator again and then we see it scream in agony. A scream usually takes less time than a deep pondering, so it is better to show the steambot scream first and then show it ruminate.
Showing the slower action before the faster one? Wack.
5. For every action, show a reaction
A fight scene should be written in this order: Action then Reaction. The Steambot slams an elbow into Harriet Tubman’s jaw; she staggers backward. Harriet whips a roundhouse kick at the Steambot’s head; it blocks and swings a back-fist at her temple.
See? Action…Reaction. Writing the character’s Reaction before the Action is backpedaling toward wackness. Case in point:
Harriet staggered backward when the steambot slammed its elbow into her jaw.
The Reaction – staggering backward – took place before the Action – the elbow to the jaw. Wack.
Each Action – Reaction should have its own paragraph. This, however, is not always possible. Sometimes, the sentences are too short to have their own paragraphs and can be combined. It’s up to you how to format it.
The steambot swung exploded forward with a powerful uppercut.
Harriet leaned backward to evade the blow. A breeze slithered up her face as the steambot’s iron knuckles swished past her nose.
The steambot exploded forward with a powerful uppercut. Harriet leaned backward to evade the blow. A breeze slithered up her face as the steambot’s iron knuckles swished past her nose.
6. Make it happen in Real Time
When writing your Action – Reaction, be sure to make it happen in Real Time. When a fight is happening, you see one punch and then right away, you see the response; and then right away, you see the next punch. During a fight in Real Time, you do not have time for such contemplations as this:
The steambot’s elbow slammed into Harriet’s jaw. She staggered backward. She was hurt quite badly; perhaps not as badly as when she shattered her shin against the thigh of that giant knoll, but badly, just the same.
This should be written this way:
The steambot’s elbow slammed into Harriet’s jaw. She staggered backward.
7. Control the pace
Pace is important in a fight scene.
It is not cinematic – and you want your fight scene to play like a movie in the reader’s head – to show a nonstop flurry of actions and reactions.
Even a warrior who possesses extraordinary gifts like Harriet Tubman has to catch her breath.
A cinematic fight has ebbs and flows in the pacing.
You show the faster parts of the scene with short sentences that show only the Actions and Reactions.
Use short sentences and phrases to make reading flow run faster. Long, descriptive sentences slow the reading pace.
In a fight scene, you want your reader to roll with each punch; shift in his or her seat with each kick.
Fast reading pace is essential. Use only a phrase, sentence, or – at most – two short sentences for each action. You can also combine short phrases together, since each phrase will still let the action move along:
Harriet paused, listening for movement. The whisper of a footstep to her right. She whirled, exploded forward, felt her knee connect with muscled flesh and then heard a soft thud as Booth fell to the floor.
Conversely, reading flow can also become bogged down if there are too many sentences of the same length one after the other. Cases in point:
He kicked. She ducked. He chopped. She whirled.
Harriet turned at the sound of running feet. Booth crashed into her as she stood there. Her body struck the table with a thundering crash. Splinters stabbed into the back of her neck.
Continue to avoid long, rambling description, but vary your sentence and phrase length:
Running feet. Harriet turned. Booth crashed into her, slamming her into the table with a thundering crash. A low gasp escaped Harriet’s lips as splinters stabbed into the back of her neck.
You can also show the slower parts of the scene with longer sentences that show Actions and Reactions interspersed with dialogue and interior monologue.
To do otherwise? Wack.
8. Favor completed verbs over continuing action verbs
Use simple past tense verbs, such as kicked, ran or leapt rather than participles such as kicking, running or leaping.
When you say Harriet head-butted Booth, you imply that it happened quickly and the act is now over. When you say Harriet was head-butting Booth, you imply that the act is going on and on and on. A head-butt happens in a fraction of second, so writing “head-butting” causes the reader to envision the head-butt happening over and over and over again. Or they envision it happening in slow motion. Either way, it is not much like a fight anymore, is it? Wack.
Finally, remember that a good fight scene is about momentum and rhythm.
Jackie Chan once gave me some advice on choreographing a fight scene (yep, the Jackie Chan – I’ll tell you that story one day) that I use in my writing. “The rhythm of a fight scene sells it. I use African and Japanese drum rhythms for my fights. Those rhythms draw the audience in and make them love the fight.”
Each move should flow from where the last one ended. If your hero throws a spinning back kick, where is her weight when she lands? Is she standing straight or bent at the waist? In what direction is her body leaning? The next blow she delivers should follow the same line of momentum. If she kicked in a clockwise motion, her next kick will also probably be clockwise.
Try to act out fight sequences – or, if you live off a steady diet of Krispy Kreme donuts and Coca Cola, ask someone else to do it – in order to figure out momentum and balance, which creates rhythm. Throw a punch and observe how your weight shifts, or what area of your body is exposed.
I often act out the entire fight scene with my wife. We are both career martial artists, so, for us, it comes easily. However, if you do not happen to have a spouse that is a martial arts expert handy, watch movies for ideas (or call me – I choreograph fight scenes for films, theater, comic books and novels…for a meager fee).
Finally, choose the type of fights you want in your story. Do you want gritty, brutal fight scenes such as the ones in Steven Seagal’s Above the Law or in the Bourne Identity (the 2002 movie, not the 1988 television miniseries)? Or do you want Hong Kong Cinema-styled fights, such as the the ones in The Matrix, Inception, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Most readers will follow either style as long as they make sense and are a good match with the genre you are writing in.
If you have more to add to this post, please comment. I am always looking for effective ways to shield myself from wackness.