The Sci-Fi Soul of Black Folk
By L. M. Davis December 11, 2011
Black folks have a conflicted and complicated relationship with the fantasy genre. Ask any given black person on the street what they think of fantasy, and they might respond as Melanie Crutchfield did: “I do not like sci-fi/fantasy…it’s silly and unrealistic,” says the Cherry Hill, NJ resident. Yet many of these same people are the first in the theaters to see movies like “Transformers” and “Iron Man.”
We cheer to see the diverse casts featuring cultural luminaries like Cornell West in “The Matrix,” so that, at times, there seems to be a disconnect between our stated preferences and our activities as consumers of popular culture. With fantasy enjoying a resurgence in everything from books: Hunger Games, to movies: 2012’s “The Avengers,” and even in television with the proliferation of fairytale-based programming such as ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” and NBC’s “Grimm,” it seems like whether black folks are into sci-fi and fantasy or not, the genre is here to stay.
When it comes to why many black people, ostensibly at least, eschew fantasy as a genre, the reasons are varied. Some, like Shantrell Lewis of Miami, FL, find the genre boring. Others think that marketing is the issue. Marcus Williams, the owner of Nubian Bookstore—a store geared towards African American interests in Morrow, GA—sells very little fantasy.
Fantasy materials represent only 1% of the items that he stocks in his store, and the stock is driven by customer demand. Mr. Williams states that “sci-fi/fantasy literature has not been properly marketed towards African Americans.” Crutchfield concurs with this assessment, noting: “The only sci-fi fanatics that I see on television are usually white, which is what I think of when I think of the fantasy/sci-fi genre.”
To a degree, this is true. Mention the idea of a sci-fi/fantasy fan and the image that comes to mind is the quintessential geeky, mid-twenties white man; someone like Sheldon Cooper, played by Jim Parsons on CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.”
Moreover, even a brief perusal of recent fantasy box office offerings like “The Vampire’s Assistant,” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” “Transformers” and mega-blockbusters like “Harry Potter” reveal a scant—if not non-existent—black cast. Even where black characters appear fleetingly on the big screen, as with Grover from Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” series, one needs only to read the first few pages of The Lightening Thief to discover that Grover was not originally black. For some, it’s hard to get invested in a genre where they feel “overlooked.”
On the other hand, black authors have a long and venerable history in the sci-fi/fantasy arena. Paulina Hopkins, for instance, most well-known for her social and political activism along with her novels Winona and Hagar’s Daughter, also penned Of One Blood, Or The Hidden Self (1902-1903). A serial novel that first appeared in the pages of The Colored American Magazine, Of One Blood falls firmly in the fantasy camp, engaging elements of eastern mysticism that were popular at the time and concluding in a mythical African utopia.
Samuel Delaney, a prolific author, professor and literary critic, has published more than 19 novel-length works in the genre since the release of his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor, in 1962. Of course, we all know of Octavia Butler’s contributions to the genre, not the least of which is her last novel Fledging, in which Butler offers a new spin on vampire lore.
Fantasy films with black main characters have also enjoyed great box office success. The first “Blade” trilogy, starring Wesley Snipes, grossed more than $415 million. Will Smith’s various jaunts into the genre, including the “Men In Black” movies, “Independence Day,” “I Am Legend” and “Hancock” have grossed more than $3 billion worldwide.
Even as many black folks say they just aren’t that into fantasy, the genre has always enjoyed a strong contingent of black fans. Andrea Smith, of Des Moines, IA, has loved the genre for as long as she can remember. “All books are a form of escapism,” she says. “But more so for the fantasy/sci-fi genre. You literally go into different worlds, different species and grand inventions.”
Ms. Smith grew up reading Eerie, Creepy, Conan and Vampirella, and enjoys being an “unexpected” fantasy fan. “People don’t expect women—especially Black women—to know anything about sci-fi, comic books, any of that. When you can carry on a conversation about any of these topics, people are amazed.”
The tide definitely seems to be turning. With the unprecedented global success of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and the phenomenon that Stephanie Meyers has enjoyed with her Twilight series, there is an entire generation of young people—of all colors—that read fantasy as their bread and butter. Young book-bloggers like the authors behind Books Ahoy and LesLivresReviser illustrate the growing appetite for all things fantasy among black youth. Ms. Smith hopes that the growing mainstream appeal of fantasy will lead to more books with black main characters. “Right now, my favorite black character is Peter Grant [of the series by Ben Ben Aaronovitch]—he’s a normal guy who just happens to be able to do magic. We need more of that.”
L. M. Davis wrote her first fantasy short story in the third grade. Since that initial foray into fantasy, Davis has penned many fantasy tales, several of which have been published in various literary magazines, including Saracen. Her newest work, Interlopers: A Shifters Novel, was released in October of 2010.
Find out more at www.shiftersnovelseries.com