Why Black Children Need to Read & Write Science Fiction
A few months ago, I had the pleasure – hmm, no, pleasure is not a fitting description – A few months ago, I had the experience (yes, that’s it) of having my son, Oluade (“Ade”, for short – pronounced “aah-DAY”), who is nine years old, as one of my writing students. No matter what assignment I gave the class – an essay; a newspaper article; a short story; a poem – Oluade would find a way to write himself into it – in an epic battle with a horde of zombies or cyborgs with “zombified” (his word) flesh…oh, yeah, and a skateboard with cool insignia painted on it.
I realized that no matter how much I complained about it, Ade was always going to turn his writing into Science Fiction.
Luckily for him, he has a father who is an author – and fan – of Science Fiction (although turning a newspaper article about a young man suing his parents for emancipation into a zombie yarn was, of course unacceptable).
I realized that Oluade is like most Black children – he is driven by a search for the interesting; a desire to twist the mundane and flip it on its head in order to see the ordinary from a different perspective; to explore the boundaries of creativity; and, indeed, to discover or create new boundaries. What these children seek is found within the realms of Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Oluade’s teachers in the public school he once attended did not agree. They felt he was being rebellious and a bit…strange.
That is a shame.
And, for many misunderstood – and thus, mislabeled – children, this is a crisis that has devastating, lifelong consequences.
When children use Science Fiction and Fantasy writing techniques and tropes they are often using their writing to explore themselves and their world, without any need for guidance and literal knowledge.
On the surface they are writing about zombies, spaceships and vampires, but do not be fooled –they are using these devices in the same way as Octavia Butler, Charles Saunders, Tananarive Due and Walter Mosley – to cloak methods of exploring and explaining – and finding explanations for – their worlds – both internal and external – in a way that straightforward ‘literal’ fiction cannot.
Realism has become a trap for black children and they realize it. According to my young students, who range in age from nine to fifteen, they tire of reading and writing stories that are about “problems” and crave fantastic tales of derring-do with cool, young, Black heroes and heroines.
Science fiction and fantasy offers black children an alternative way of dealing with legacy, tradition, and memory.
Parents and Teachers, our children have a big problem…us
In conversing with other English teachers, I often ask if they teach creative writing in their classes. Most do not. One teacher told me that she tried “that creative writing stuff” with her students, but quickly gave up on it and returned to a more “practical syllabus”. Upon further investigation, I discovered that she believed creative writing – particularly Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy – to be something outside – and, indeed, beneath – the instruction of English.
Most educators of English / Language Arts focus on the mechanics of the subject – how to read and write, rules of grammar, use of verbs, adverbs, adjectives, pronouns and nouns and sentence comprehension – without the context of why and how those mechanics are used by students to express themselves.
Yes, we need to teach the mechanics – how to hold a pen; how to read; how words work – but we should not confuse use of a thing with understanding of it. Training in the mechanics of writing produces writing technicians However, it does not make you a writer. So, you know how to spell; you can answer questions on grammar; you can repeat someone else’s literary criticism of a text – you are a technician. You can fix my text as a garage mechanic can fix my car. The garage mechanic can’t design a car. They can’t improve a car. They can’t build one from scratch. They can only ever work on someone else’s car.
This is why we – and our children – need to read and to write Science Fiction and Fantasy – so that our children do not only work on other people’s texts, they create and build their own. So they are not limited to just reading a story written by someone else and providing a report on it – they are out there in the field, experimenting with new stories and questioning old ones…if only for the reason that they can.
We need to teach our children to go out into the world to add to the pantheon of human creation and endeavor, not to dissect the words of long dead men.
In a 1999 New York Times essay about Science Fiction, author Walter Mosley wrote, “The genre speaks most clearly to those who are dissatisfied with the way things are: adolescents, post-adolescents, escapists, dreamers, and those who have been made to feel powerless. And this may explain the appeal that science fiction holds for a great many African-Americans….Science Fiction promises a future full of possibility, alternative lives, and even regret.”
Horror author Tananarive Due revealed that when she started writing, all of her characters were white. “I had to force myself to see myself,” Due said. “It’s not that I don’t write about white characters, because I do, but my protagonists are extensions of my own humanity. I was raised by civil rights activists and I have a keen awareness of racial history—lessons I think Americans of all colors should know—so I would consider it artistic dishonesty to write primarily from an experience that was not black. Does that limit my readership? I’m sure it does. But hopefully, it does less and less all the time.”
7 Science Fiction Writing Projects for Children
To get your children, students and even yourself writing, try tapping into their enjoyment of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Children gravitate towards writing based on magic, space ships, aliens, and peril-filled quests. Ask them to incorporate these themes into their own writing and you will find a fun way to help them sharpen their writing skills at home.
To encourage kids that this isn’t homework, but is, instead, a fun at-home creative activity like painting or doing other crafts, do not spend a lot of time correcting your child’s grammar or spelling; just let the creative juices flow. Writing more is a key to writing better, and knowing they can write without being scrutinized is a key to getting your children to enjoy writing, thus, write more.
A common thing children like to do is to use colorful markers, pens or paper for their writing projects. Let them. This helps signify that what they’re doing is something special, creative and fun. For science fiction-theme writing projects, you might try glow in the dark ink, or stationary from movies like Harry Potter or Star Trek, or whatever your child likes.
Below are seven Science Fiction and Fantasy writing projects that will help you get your child started on his or her Science Fiction or Fantasy writing adventure. I chose seven projects in honor of Oluade, the Zombifying Language Arts Rebel, who is my seventh child (of eight) and my only son.
Writing Project 1: The Time Traveling Machine
Ask your child to pretend he or she has gone into a time-travel machine and ended up in the distant past or far future. What do they see? Who do they meet? This is a good project for encouraging children to compare and contrast in a creative way. Older children can be encouraged further to create a story based in the future or the past.
Writing Project 2: Build-An-Alien!
Ask your child to consider what an alien might look like. Is it tall or short? Friend or foe? Ask your child to consider the sounds and smells associated with the alien, too. They may also want to consider how it walks, communicates and eats; where it comes from; and what it wants.
Writing Project 3: Your New Super Power
Some of the greatest Science Fiction and fantasy stories of all time involve superheroes gaining and using some super power. Ask your child to pick a super-power, be it speed, invisibility, super-human strength, or whatever. If they like, they can choose more than one power, or give other powers to sidekicks like their little brother or a friend. They may also write about the type of costume they wear – if any – and if they fight crime, or just use their powers in everyday situations?
Writing Project 4: A Whole New World
Ask your child to pretend he or she has landed a spacecraft on a new planet or has found a door to an alternate earth. Let us learn about this world from their description of what is seen, heard, smelled, and tasted there. Who, and / or what, resides there? Does it seem like a nice place for you or others to live? Let your child be a space – or dimension – explorer and create a whole new world.
Writing Project 5: The Secret Formula
Ask your child to pretend he or she has been given a drink (or sandwich or cookie, etc.) from a mad or silly scientist or shaman. What’s in that drink? What does it look like, taste and smell like? And if you eat or drink the scientist’s crazy concoction, what will happen to you? Older children can be encouraged to create a story based on what happens after they consume the secret formula.
Writing Project 6: The Griots Academy
What would happen if your child went to school to become the next “Harry Potter”? Ask your child to describe the teachers at the school and to describe what they teach and their personalities. Which teacher is your child’s favorite at the school and why? What is the curriculum? Where is the school located? Children can come up with a large faculty and rich history for their own school of magic.
Writing Project 7: The Shaman’s Assistant
Ask your child to write about working for a renowned wizard or shaman. What is the wizard / shaman’s appearance and personality? What does he or she ask your child to do to assist him or her? Older children may be encouraged to create a whole adventure for the “assistant” and his / her boss.
Science fiction and fantasy theme projects can really help your child’s imagination take flight. Use these fun and creativity-inspiring ideas to help your children enjoy the writing process and realize writing isn’t just for school or homework; it can take them anywhere in the universe – and beyond – that they desire to explore.
Please, join us for the State of Black Science Fiction 2012 Youth Symposium in which authors will teach young students how to write Science Fiction and Fantasy; students will perform original works of Science Fiction and Fantasy; and authors and editors of African descent who write Science Fiction and Fantasy will engage participants in a lively and highly informative panel discussion on the State of Black Science Fiction and Fantasy. After the panel discussion, the authors will meet and greet participants and have their Blacknificent novels, films and artwork on hand.
Until next time…happy writing!