To believe the hype, it was white authors like Jules Verne who created science fiction. But was it? Are you sure that white authors were at the core of the development of horror? Of a huge variety of other genres and literary movements? You might be aware that the Beats weren’t all white (hello, Langston Hughes), but what about other movements in the poetry community? As in other fields of the arts, people of colour are often erased from the histories and stories of literary movements, despite the contributions they made — and, in some cases, their formative roles.
This says a lot about us culturally, even if it’s not terribly surprising. We live in a world where the work of people of colour is freely appropriated and used to the advantage of white people, but it is not acknowledged as something of intrinsic cultural value. Instead, art produced by people of colour is primitive and trashy, while derivative art produced by whites is suddenly elevated, a commentary, sophisticated, something notable and remarkable.
I often challenge readers to think about the absence of people of colour from narratives about contemporary fiction, but it’s an issue when looking at older literary movements, too. I can assure you that people of colour were writing, publishing, and working to be seen — even as their work was being suppressed, not as widely distributed as that of white authors, and generally treated as lesser. Historical authors of colour faced many of the struggles endured by their contemporaries, even as they paved the way for important progress.
Take, for example, speculative fiction, science fiction, and related genres (there’s a great deal of overlap and fluidity here). The literary luminaries who shaped the modern iteration of the genre that come to mind for you might include H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Jonathan Swift, maybe even Mary Shelley, if you want to be generous and include women. But what about the army of people who wrote for pulp magazines, which played a critical role in the popularisation of science fiction? Little is known about these authors, many of whom wrote under pseudonyms if they were given bylines at all, and many of whom weren’t given biographies. They’ve faded into obscurity, and undoubtedly included women alongside men, and people of colour along with whites.
Writing in the 1800s, Martin Delaney crafted a riveting alternative history revolving around a successful slave revolt, while Frances Harper, Sutton Griggs, and Charles W. Chestnutt also wrote and successfully published in the science fiction genre, which was, at that time, still very nascent. They were helping to define, shape, and push the limits of the genre — but their names are much lesser-known today, and their contributions have largely been erased from narratives about the history of science fiction, except in the Black community. Meanwhile, Black women like Octavia Butler played a key formative role in the development and expression of science fiction, but their contributions are erased by the white establishment, which views Lovecraft as more relevant.
Black science fiction was in fact an incredibly lively genre that grew and grew into the 20th century. During the Civil Rights era it exploded, with many authors exploring alternative histories and possibilities of new worlds, wrapping racial commentaries into their fiction. Afrofuturism was born in the 1990s, creating a rich body of mixed media works from members of the African diaspora, exploring science, culture, and race in innovative and striking ways. Alaya Dawn Johnson, pictured above, is one among many Black women writing amazing science fiction today (including Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Nisi Shawl, and N.K. Jemisin), and men like Samuel R. Delaney are also critically important voices in Black science fiction. Meanwhile, Latinos like Daniel Older are lively contributors to the world of speculative fiction.
People of colour have in fact been contributing to and creating science fiction since before it was recognised and popularised as a genre by white people — there’s a long tradition of what looks a whole lot like science fiction in both China and the Middle East, for instance, with authors who were widely read and beloved. What some people sandwich into ‘mythology’ or fantasy (like the magical realism tradition) takes on aspects of speculative fiction, and includes rich traditions with their roots deep in communities of colour — notably, magical realism has caught on substantially in the white community in recent years, where it’s treated as something innovative and novel despite the fact that it originated in a Latin-American tradition and experience, and involves cultural themes that exclude white experience.
This barely scratches the surface of the ways in which writers of colour didn’t just participate in the development of speculative fiction, but actively shaped it, and continue to do so. It’s a jumbled, brief, harried synopsis of a vast community’s contributions. Now, imagine applying that across a huge range of literary genres, and start asking yourself, if you aren’t already: Where did the foundational people of this genre really come from? Who am I not reading about? Who is shaping this genre today that I’m not even aware of? How are people of colour being erased from the literary canon as authors, as creators, as innovators, as people who are changing the face of the reading world? And how much do you trust white chroniclers and arbiters to provide you with believable information about literary movements?
Image: Alaya Dawn Johnson at Sirens!, K. Tempest Bradford, Flickr