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

  1. 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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