We live in a world where more people know names of the Avengers rather than of US presidents. If we take a look at the most popular book and film franchises (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars) we will see that this is indicative of our relationship with speculative fiction: we absolutely love it. Speculative fiction is a brand of fiction that forces readers/watchers/listeners to explore the “what if” question. The type of questions that can only be answered in genres like fantasy, science fiction, horror, and/or alternate history. Speculative fiction challenges the rules of the world, forcing audiences to speculate on what will happen next.
Look at this example: in a non-speculative fiction story, someone with an open cut thrown off a boat into shark infested waters would most likely get eaten by said sharks. This fits in with how we understand the rules of our world: sharks sense blood in the water and they usually feed based off that. Speculative fiction, however, throws in some uncertainties that would force us to think outside of how we understand the world. What if this person could talk to animals? Could they convince the sharks not to eat them? What if the sharks were mechanical? Do mechanical sharks still sense blood in the water? What if this was set in a time before sharks evolved to sense blood in bodies of water, could they still find the person?
In addition to making for a really good story, speculative fiction allows us to use these new worldviews to look deeper into our mindsets. We can use speculative fiction to ask if humans would consider androids with artificial intelligence human enough to respect as people, calling into question our sense of humanity. We can question if we would be brave enough to save the world if given the chance, if we could overcome our fears to protect ourselves, or if what we know about history is actually factual.
The questions raised by speculative fiction give us a greater insight into humanity and our psyche, allowing us to look outside of the norms of our world to learn more about ourselves and our culture. It has for decades, if not centuries, given us the tools to challenge our imaginations to look outside the world as we know it.
What happens then, when for all this imagining and all of this exploration, Black people are excluded from the narrative?
When we have a grand total of three young Black witches or wizards in Harry Potter, when the only Black person in Twilight is a one off villain, and when almost every Black character in a sci-fi or fantasy television show or movie only exists to prop up their white besties, it creates a problem. For all of the imagination it takes to create speculative fiction, speculative fiction is pretty limited in its portrayals of Black people and Blackness in general. We have very limited space in speculative works which has resulted in degrading tropes such as Black people always die first in horror movies, and even real-world impact.
Take The Hunger Games character Rue, for example. Rue was written as the young ingenue who inspired Katniss to rebel against the rich. She is the true mockingjay in the series and she is a young Black girl. This was stated in the source material, but when fans and non-fans alike saw the film interpretation and noticed Rue was to be played by a young Amandla Stenberg the reaction was…harsh. The fact that readers, despite having textual evidence to the contrary, could not picture sweet, innocent, Rue as a little Black girl is unfortunately a perspective reinforced by speculative fiction at large.
When was the last time you saw a Black lead in a science fiction, fantasy, horror, or even an alternate history property? When was the last time you saw a Black superhero on the big screen such as Spawn (1997), Blade (1998) or most recently Black Panther (2018)? A Black man who lives out a horror movie such as in Get Out? A brilliant Black girl use her scientific knowledge to save others such as in the 2019 See You Yesterday? A story about Black history that centers Black experiences and not just white cruelty like in Alex Haley’s Roots?
These types of stories are important to expand the imagination surrounding Black people, to show our humanity, and to allow people to understand our psyche. To cultivate these types of stories, creatives and academics have created the idea of Black Speculative Fiction. Most of us probably automatically go to Afrofuturism when we think of Black people in sci-fi and/or fantasy, and while that is a big part of Black Speculative Fiction, this idea stretches beyond just the Afrofuturist aesthetic.
Black Speculative Fiction encompasses Black people in all of the speculative genres, allowing us to use the full range of speculative fiction to explore the parts of our psyche and our collective experiences that aren’t represented in “mainstream” speculative fiction. Black Speculative Fiction was birthed out of a generation of people who loved speculative fiction but were very aware of the fact that it didn’t include them.
Creators like Samuel Delany, Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, Jewelle Gomez, and the esteemed Octavia Butler are some of the originators of Black Speculative Fiction. More than twenty years after they met at Clark Atlanta University a new generation of creators has emerged. Tomi Adeyemi, Milton Davis, Kyoko M, Gerald Coleman, Valjeanne Jeffers, and M. Haynes, these creators have toyed with some of the definitions and designations of Black Speculative Fiction and created a movement all their own but keeping in mind Black Speculative Fiction’s original intent.
It is this current renaissance of Black Speculative Fiction that we are currently living in: the time of Get Out, Black Panther, See You Yesterday, Roots, and the like. Whether in film, television, or literature, Black creators are taking speculative elements and using them to center Black experiences. We are using our love of what speculative fiction can accomplish to show that Black people can be heroes, that our fears are legitimate, and that we have a place in history and the future. It is vital that as this love affair with speculative fiction continues, we do not leave behind Black Speculative Fiction. We all must embrace diverse voices in speculative fiction to challenge the norms of the genres; that includes sharing the existence of Black Speculative Fiction and incorporating it into our lives as much as the “mainstream” speculative fiction that we cannot get enough of. I encourage each of us to expand our worldviews just a little bit more and give some Black Speculative Fiction works a try. Who knows what untold excellence we may uncover.
Written by M. Haynes
Edited by A. E. Costello
You can find Mr. M. Haynes, an author and writer of “The Ratchedemic” blog site here.