Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora

Dark Mat­ter: A Cen­tu­ry of Spec­u­la­tive Fic­tion from the African Dias­po­ra is right up there with Dan­ger­ous Visions in terms of qual­i­ty and per­spi­cac­i­ty in sci­ence fic­tion antholo­gies. I could go spout­ing off on how won­der­ful it is to see black writ­ers grow­ing in a field nor­mal­ly dom­i­nat­ed by white guys, but all the is addressed in the book, espe­cial­ly in Samuel R. Delany’s essay “Racism and Sci­ence Fic­tion” at the end, which is one of the most cogent and thought­ful essays on racism that I’ve ever read. [excerpts at the bot­tom]

Instead I’m going to briefly delve into the qual­i­ty of the sto­ries them­selves, as works of craft, and then give some thoughts on my own reac­tions to some of them. Briefly, the qual­i­ty of the sto­ries is very high. The first half dozen or so required me to put some time aside after read­ing them for mas­ti­ca­tion and diges­tion. They are potent tales. W.E.B. du Bois, Octavia But­ler, Amiri Bara­ka, Samuel R. Delany are just a few of the slew of folks who have tales in this book. I now have a bunch of new authors to check out as well, espe­cial­ly Nalo Hop­kin­son. For me, the qual­i­ty slow­ly tapered off after the first few head­chew­ers, again much like DV. Not to say that any of the sto­ries were bad [none of them are], but amidst the mas­ter­pieces the oth­ers don’t shine as bright­ly.

Since I’m a crack­er from down­coun­try Indi­ana and attend­ed a pri­vate Catholic col­lege whose per­cent­age of black stu­dents sus­pi­cious­ly match­es up with the per­cent­age of non-Catholics on cam­pus and the per­cent­age of non-white ath­letes, I don’t have a whole lot of expe­ri­ence when it comes to diver­si­ty. Hell, I don’t think I even met a Jew until I was in my twen­ties. The clos­est thing I knew to a minor­i­ty grow­ing up was the old coun­try Ital­ian grand­moth­er down the street. Basi­cal­ly, I’m say­ing that what I’m about to say is most like­ly going to be some­what igno­rant.

It seemed like many of the sto­ries could be eas­i­ly inter­pret­ed as ful­fill­ing black stereo­types. For instance, prob­a­bly a good half of the sto­ries have music and rhythm as cen­tral themes and tropes. Thank­ful­ly they are often used to high­light oth­er con­cerns, avoid­ing a tru­ly shal­low and unpro­duc­tive inter­pre­ta­tion that black folks can dance and sing while white folks have rhythm like a fat man’s heart­beat [although Evie Shockley’s “sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety” doesn’t do so well at that]. Sim­i­lar­ly, there are con­stant ref­er­ences through­out of slav­ery and the slave trade, often with anger still seething under the sur­face. This is some­thing I can’t under­stand at all, and I’ve tried. My ini­tial reac­tion to the resent­ful men­tions of slav­ery was “Man, that was over 150 years ago, you should be over it by now.” Unfair to say the least, since I can have no idea how long it takes to heal the eth­nic trau­ma of hun­dreds of years of slav­ery. I also don’t have any per­son­al expe­ri­ence with con­tem­po­rary race rela­tions from the black side of the equa­tion. What I’m deplor­ing here is my igno­rance and also my inabil­i­ty to effec­tive­ly find sources to alle­vi­ate that igno­rance. I learn best through empa­thy, but how can a priv­i­leged white boy empathize with black­ness?

I guess I had the expec­ta­tion that black sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers would be more like­ly to avoid what I per­ceive as a heavy-hand­ed use of America’s less than savory past. I think I expect­ed to engage in exam­ples of black­ness that wasn’t defined by dis­en­fran­chise­ment and ostra­ciza­tion. Instead I felt that these writ­ers don’t have much hope that things will get bet­ter for them and theirs. For us. But then, maybe I was expect­ing black writ­ers to write like white writ­ers. I don’t real­ly know. Dark Mat­ter is the per­fect name for this anthol­o­gy on a whole bunch of lev­els [dark­ness of con­tent, dark­ness of out­look, dark­ness of the authors, not to men­tion the main metaphor of the anthol­o­gy; that black influ­ence is the dark mat­ter of our soci­ety] and it is def­i­nite­ly some­thing I want to add to my sci-fi book col­lec­tion.

These are some of my imme­di­ate reac­tions, tem­pered a bit by sub­se­quent thought. Obvi­ous­ly I’ve not been able to untan­gle the skein of my soci­etal pre­con­cep­tions. I’ve known I’m nev­er real­ly going to do that on any top­ic, which is why I try to ignore the sub­con­scious mur­mur­ings of sex­ism and racism that bub­ble up from time to time and deal with each per­son as a per­son and not some spe­cif­ic thing in a pigeon­hole. Every­body seems to live much hap­pi­er that way.

Excerpt from Racism and Sci­ence Fic­tion by Samuel R. Delany [via]

Racism for me has always appeared to be first and fore­most a sys­tem, large­ly sup­port­ed by mate­r­i­al and eco­nom­ic con­di­tions at work in a field of social tra­di­tions. Thus, though racism is always made man­i­fest through indi­vid­u­als’ deci­sions, actions, words, and fee­ings, when we have the lux­u­ry of look­ing at it with the longer view (and we don’t, always), usu­al­ly I don’t see much point in blam­ing peo­ple per­son­al­ly, black or white, for their feel­ings or even for their spe­cif­ic actions — as long as they remain this side of the crim­i­nal. These are not what sta­bi­lize the sys­tem. These are not what pro­mote and repro­duce the sys­tem. These are not the points where the most last­ing changes can be intro­duced to alter the sys­tem.

[…]I don’t think you can have racism as a pos­i­tive sytem until you have that socioe­co­nom­ic sup­port sug­gest­ed by that (rather arbi­trary [place­ment of walls]) twen­ty percent/eighty per­cent pro­por­tion. But what racism as a sys­tem does is iso­late and seg­re­gate the peo­ple of one race, or group, or eth­nos from anoth­er. As a sys­tem it can be fueled by chance as much as by hos­til­i­ty or by the best of inten­tions. (“I thought they would be more com­fort­able togeth­er, I thought they would want to be with each oth­er…”) And cer­tain­ly one of its strongest man­i­fes­ta­tions is as a socio-visu­al sys­tem in which peo­ple become used to always see­ing blacks with oth­er blacks and so—because peo­ple are used to it—being uncom­fort­able when­ev­er they see blacks mixed in, at what­ev­er pro­por­tion, with whites.

[…] As such, [the sys­tem] is fueled as much by chance as by hos­tile inten­tions and equal­ly by the best inten­tions as well. It is what­ev­er sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly accli­mates peo­ple, of all col­ors, to become com­fort­able with the iso­la­tion and seg­re­ga­tion of the races, on a visu­al, social, or eco­nom­ic level—which in turn sup­ports and is sup­port­ed socioe­co­nom­ic dis­crim­i­na­tion. Because it is a sys­tem, how­ev­er, I believe per­son­al guilt will nev­er replace a bit of well found­ed sys­tems analy­sis.

Links to oth­er stuff on DM:ACoSFftAD:

SciFi.com- Makes the DV com­par­i­son right off the bat too!
The AALBC has an excerpt of W.E.B. du Bois’s “The Comet” and a Table of Con­tents.

One Reply

  • I just wrote a long com­ment, but then an error on your page erased it. Here we go again.

    It seemed like many of the sto­ries could be eas­i­ly inter­pret­ed as ful­fill­ing black stereo­types. For instance, prob­a­bly a good half of the sto­ries have music and rhythm as cen­tral themes and tropes. Thank­ful­ly they are often used to high­light oth­er con­cerns, avoid­ing a tru­ly shal­low and unpro­duc­tive inter­pre­ta­tion that black folks can dance and sing while white folks have rhythm like a fat man’s heart­beat […]”

    What you notice does not, I am bet­ting, serve to ful­fill any par­tic­u­lar stereo­type about African-Amer­i­cans or Africans in gen­er­al. Instead, the music you find present in these works of lit­er­a­ture belong to a long tra­di­tion of the trope in the lit­er­a­ture of that cul­ture.

    In Amer­i­ca, at least, the pres­ence of music in African-Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture is often traced back to the spir­i­tu­als and hymns of the slaves. Music was the lit­er­a­ture of these peo­ple, for it was in song that they expressed them­selves with words. Often these spir­i­tu­als con­tained mean­ings beyond the lit­er­al words sung, which is by far a sophis­ti­cat­ed lit­er­a­ture in itself. For exam­ple, some spir­i­tu­als have been inter­pret­ed as being both about Jesus and God and all that, as well as offer­ing warn­ing to slaves or offer­ing sig­nals to slave regard­ing escape, word on the well­ness of oth­ers, and things of that nature. The lan­guage of the spir­i­tu­al was var­ied and splen­did in its abil­i­ty to tell two sto­ries at once. It was a sophis­ti­cat­ed oral lit­er­a­ture.

    Music, then, was an impor­tant to ear­ly African-Amer­i­can lives, and as more African-Amer­i­cans became lit­er­ate and began pro­duc­ing writ­ten lit­er­a­tures, the impor­tance of music did not dis­ap­pear. Instead, that musi­cal tra­di­tion became ever-present in the writ­ten word as well. Music, it turns out, became a com­mon trope or theme that could be traced through many instances of African-Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, not as a stereo­typ­ing, but more­so as a nod to the past.

    Poet­ry by African-Amer­i­cans was often musi­cal in nature (unless, as some ear­ly African-Amer­i­can poets did, the poet­ry served to mim­ic white man’s poet­ry). This per­sist­ed in the 18th and 19th cen­turies. After the free­ing of the slaves, and then the sub­se­quent growth in lit­er­a­cy and writ­ing among the for­mer-slave pop­u­la­tion, writ­ing by African-Amer­i­cans grew, and with it did the influ­ence of music in this writ­ing.

    Music con­tin­ued to be a trope or theme in the 20th cen­tu­ry, as many African-Amer­i­can writ­ers adopt­ed jazz themes in their writ­ing. One notable exam­ple is the book Invis­i­ble Man by Ralph Elli­son. It has been shown time and time again that music, par­tic­u­lar­ly jazz, plays a major role in the devel­op­ment of this nar­ra­tive, work­ing as a some­times qui­et, some­times loud trope that can be traced through­out the text.

    The use of music isn’t meant as a stereo­type by any means. Instead, it is the lin­ger­ing tra­di­tion of this cul­ture to include music in its writ­ing since music, for as long as can be remem­bered, played a sig­nif­i­cant role in this culture’s devel­op­ment and growth.

    The same empha­sis on music can be found in native African lit­er­a­ture as well, since music plays such a vital role in the lives of those cul­tures as well.

    So, it doesn’t serve to stereo­type. Instead, it serves to pro­pogate the tradition…a tra­di­tion with a long past and a grow­ing future.

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