Author Topic: The Black Fantastic: Highlights of Pre-World War II Black Sci Fi  (Read 1570 times)

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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The Black Fantastic: Highlights of Pre-World War II African and African-American Speculative Fiction

Africans, and those of African descent, have not been treated well by speculative fiction, both inside its texts and in real life. Anti-African racism is a fact of life in Western culture, and was even more pronounced before 1945. Not surprisingly, the number of works of speculative fiction written by black writers is low. But that number is not zero, and it's worth taking a look at the fantasy and science fiction stories that black writers produced before 1945.

Top image: "The Day We Surrender to the Air" by Antonio Jose Guzman


I'm using "speculative fiction" in a broad sense here, to include science fiction, fantasy, and horror of all degrees. I'm similarly using "black" in a broad sense, to any of the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa. And I'm using "history" in the broadest sense possible. A fully accurate history of black speculative fiction would be book length and would be impossible to write. As Harlan Ellison once noted to Samuel Delany, nothing is known of dozens of the writers of the pulps of the first half of the 20th century. Many of them might have been women or people of color. The same is true of many dime novel authors in the 19th century — all that we know of them are their names. They, too, could have been black. So exhaustiveness is not possible. What is possible is a shorter essay which concedes at the outset to being flawed and incomplete.

Too, the word "history" implies some sort of connection or continuum between the subjects addressed. There is none such with the texts and authors listed here. It can be argued that there the concept of science fiction as a discrete literary genre existed through the second half of the 19th century, but the authors listed below seem to have had no effect on each other. The 1827 proto-police procedural novel Richmond: Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner could have established the genre of detective fiction, but it appeared in isolation and disappeared without influencing other authors. So, too, with these early works of black speculative fiction.

The 19th Century

There was speculative fiction in the 1850s, ranging from the future history of Jane Ellis' A Vision of Our Country in the Year Nineteen Hundred (1851) to Fitz-James O'Brien's "The Diamond Lens" (1859) and its microscopic world. But no speculative fiction was as radical as Martin Delany's Blake, or the Huts of America, partially published as a serial in the Anglo-American Magazine in 1859 and then republished as a whole in the Weekly Anglo-American in 1861 and 1862. In 1859 Delany was, along with Frederick Douglass, one of the foremost black leaders of the time.

The Black Fantastic: Highlights of Pre-World War II African and African-American Speculative Fiction
Written by in response to the slave insurrection panics of 1856 and the Dred Scott decision of 1857, Blake describes the heroic black revolutionary Henry Blake in his attempt to rouse black Americans into a slave revolt and establish a new black country in Cuba. Blacks across the South rise up and successfully revolt. The ending of the novel has been lost, so it remains unknown whether the new black country is successfully achieved. As Samuel Delaney points out, Blake "is about as close to an SF-style alternate history novel as you can get."

The Black Fantastic: Highlights of Pre-World War II African and African-American Speculative Fiction
Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932) was an author, activist, and lawyer who is now best known for his wide range of writings and his work with the newly founded N.A.A.C.P. In between 1887 and 1899 he wrote a variety of "conjure" stories, about Uncle Julius, a former slave, who tells folklore-heavy stories of hauntings, magic, and "hoodoo." The earliest, "The Goophered Grapevine" (Atlantic Monthly, Aug 1887), is Uncle Julius' attempt to scare off a northerner from buying a ruined plantation by telling the story of the goopher which haunts the vineyard. "The Goophered Grapevine" is ultimately rationalized, but the other stories in Chesnutt's collection, The Conjure Woman (1899), are not, and The Conjure Woman is the first known speculative fiction collection written by a person of color.

The Black Fantastic: Highlights of Pre-World War II African and African-American Speculative Fiction
Frances E.W. Harper (1825-1911) was a writer and social reformer. She was the foremost black woman poet of the 19th century, and was known as the "Bronze Muse" to her readers, both black and white. Her Iola Leroy (1892) is seen as the first African-American utopia, although a utopian strain runs through much of 19th century African-American literature. The feminist utopia of Iola Leroy is not a fantastic one, but embodies what critic M. Giulia Fabi calls a "radical this-world-liness" and what critic Claudia Tate describes as a "desire for an ideal polity." In the novel the titular character, a pro-slavery Southern belle, discovers that her mother was a mulatta slave who never gained her freedom, which means that Iola is herself legally a slave. The rest of the novel follows her adventures, and concludes with the establishment of Harper's version of the "ideal polity"-women active as doctors and activists, large schools taught by married women, and an area in which former slaves can live peacefully and productively. In the context of 1892 and Reconstruction South, this image was indeed a fantastic utopia.

The Black Fantastic: Highlights of Pre-World War II African and African-American Speculative Fiction
Sutton Griggs (1872-1933) was an author, Baptist minister, and social activist. He is best known for Imperium in Imperio (1899), a direct response to Edward Bellamy's famous utopia Looking Backward (1888) and its unsatisfactory and unrealistic handling of racism. In the novel, two African Americans, Belton Piedmont and Bernard, graduate from college, but experience different fates: Bernard is elected congressman, while Belton becomes the head of a black college in Louisiana, only to be lynched. He survives the lynching and kills the doctor who tries to vivisect him. Belton is acquitted because of Bernard's legal defense, and Belton invites Bernard to join him as a member of the Imperium in Imperio, the secret African American government based in Waco, Texas. Belton argues for assimilation, while Bernard proposes a violent takeover of Texas, the emigration of all black Americans to Texas, and then, if necessary, a race war. The Imperium accepts Bernard's proposal, leading to Belton's resignation. The novel ends with Belton's execution by the Imperium and its preparation for the conquest of Texas.

20th Century

Pauline Hopkins (1859-1930) was the most prolific African-American woman writer of her time and the most influential black editor in the first decade of the twentieth century. Critics describe her as one of African-American literature's foremothers. Although her Of One Blood (serialized in Colored American, 1902-1903) is not considered one of her best novels, it is of interest for its fantastic elements, which are absent in her other works. In the novel, Reuel Briggs travels to Ethiopia on an archaeological expedition, but what he finds is the source of all human civilization — an epiphany for Briggs, who previously didn't care about African-American history of culture. Briggs also discovers the hidden city of Telessar and its inhabitants, the direct descendants of the Ethiopia of 6000 B.C.E. and the possessor of advanced crystal-based technology, including suspended animation for the most beautiful in the city and technology-based telepathy. Of One Blood is the first Lost Race novel by an African-American author, and has been interpreted by critics as Hopkins' attempt to invert the racial and gender politics of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885).

The Black Fantastic: Highlights of Pre-World War II African and African-American Speculative Fiction
Edward A. Johnson (1860-1944) was a lawyer and educator. In 1917 he became the first African American elected to the New York State legislature. In 1904, following Bellamy's example in Looking Backward, Johnson wrote Light Ahead for the Negro, about an African-American from the turn of the 20th century visiting the United States in the year 2006 and discovering it to be a kind of racial utopia: "Negroes in the South were allowed the use of the books, and …were encouraged to read by various prizes." Too, "an act of the highest statesmanship" has led to the long-awaited distribution of forty acres of cotton land "to young Negroes at a small price." Much of the novel contains documents from the century between 1904 and 2006, describing how American society made the transition from racism to post-racism. Light Ahead for the Negro is notable for Johnson's attempt at creating a feasible, realistic post-racist society, as opposed to the more sweeping utopia of Harper's Iola Leroy.

It was commonplace in the early 20th century for newspapers to run fiction. This was not limited to the United States and Europe, but took place around the world. In 1919 the pseudonymous "Night-Hawk" published a series of stories in the Uganda Herald about Pfalzer, a tall, blond German pilot and "mad political desperado" who after the end of World War One avenges himself on the enemies of his country by flying a dead black "fifty-ton Lanz Rumpler seaplane," arming it with high-tech guns and bombs, and robbing and sinking ships at sea. Interestingly, the Pfalzer stories are pure pulp adventure and never touch on racial matters; it's possible that "Night-Hawk" wanted to write a story that was just entertaining, in much the same way that later writers of West African marketplace fiction would write romances that had no political content.

W.E.B. Dubois (1868-1963) is well-known as a sociologist, historian, writer, and activist. Less well-known is his "The Comet," which appeared in Du Bois' collection Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (1920). "The Comet" is about the aftermath of the destruction of New York City by a comet's gasses. The only survivors seem to be a black man and a white woman. "The Comet" displays a momentary hopefulness for inter-racial harmony before other survivors appear and reality harshly intrudes. Previous post-apocalyptic tales had treated African-Americans as objects to be disposed of or fought; "The Comet" is the first to treat them as subjects, and to address post-apocalyptic miscegenation, a fraught topic in 1920.

The Black Fantastic: Highlights of Pre-World War II African and African-American Speculative Fiction
Thomas Mofolo (1876-1948) is seen as the greatest author of the Basotho of south Africa. His Chaka (1925) describes the life of Shaka Zulu (1787-1828), the "Black Napoleon" who was the greatest of the Zulu kings. Mofolo's account of Shaka's rise and fall is a tragic epic; Mofolo's Chaka, who is similar in many ways to the Satan of Milton's Paradise Lost, has great ambition but also great pride and ultimately succumbs to evil and sells his soul to a sorcerer in exchange for power. In the world of Chaka magic exists and is used by both the evil umthakathi (sorcerer) and the good royal diviner and servant of the shades Isanusi. Chaka is not outright fantasy but belongs in the class of magical realist novels, similar to the later The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) by Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola.

The Black Fantastic: Highlights of Pre-World War II African and African-American Speculative Fiction
George Schuyler (1895-1977) was notable in his lifetime as a conservative critic and writer, sometimes called the "Black Mencken." He also wrote a substantial amount of speculative fiction, which successfully uses pulp tropes as a framework for racial concerns: Black No More (1931), about a machine which can turn blacks into whites; "Golden Gods" (1933-1934), about an African-American woman who discovers a hidden, technologically-advanced African city; "Strange Valley" (1934), about an African-American academic who goes into an isolated valley with other African-Americans to plot the liberation of Africa from the white man; "The Beast of Bradhurst Avenue" (1934), a murder mystery about a German mad scientist who attempts to transplant the brains of black women on to dogs' bodies; "The Ethiopian Murder Mystery," about an agent in the Ethiopian intelligence service acquiring a death ray for use against the Italians who are invading Ethiopia; and "The Black Internationale" (1936-1937) and "Black Empire" (1937-1938), about a global conspiracy of black professionals dedicated to throwing whites of Africa, and how they eventually achieve their goal.

In 1932 Cameroonian author Jean-Louis Njemba Medou (?-?) wrote the novel Nnanga Kôn, variously translated as "phantom albinos" or "white ghosts." In the novel, Eyene Ndongo, a member of the Bulu/Pahuin people, and his friend Asomo Ngono witness the hugely negative impact of first contact between the Bulu and the colonialist whites, who are almost supernatural in the devastation they wreak, possessed of unnatural and evil technology, and who foist materialism and consumer goods on the Bulu, with results that haunt Ndongo and Ngono. Ndongo and Ngono were so popular with the Cameroonian public that they became the subjects of various folktales which continue to be told today.

In 1934 the Nigerian Hausa writer Muhammadu Bello Kagara (1890-1971) wrote Ganďoki (1934). In the 19th century, Ganďoki is a brave young Hausa from Kontagora, in northern Nigeria, who opposes the arrival of the British military and the imposition of British rule. He fights against the British, and when the ruler of the city of Kano orders the Hausa to surrender, Ganďoki refuses, and with his brave son Garba Gagare fights a last battle, at Bima Hill, against the British. They both fall asleep, and when they awaken they are in an Africa with jinn and other mythical creatures. Ganďoki and his son fight various battles, successfully, while also converting many people to Islam. They eventually return home.

That same year the Nigerian writer Abubakar Imam wrote Ruwan Bagaja. Centuries ago, in some undefined period in the past, Alhaji Imam, a boastful, roguish young Hausa of Kwantagora, in northern Nigeria, suffers two tragedies: his real father is murdered by Sakimu, a stepson; then Imam's adopted father, an imam, is humiliated at court by the king. To vindicate the adoptive father and avenge the murdered father Imam goes traveling in search of the ruwan bagaja, the "water of cure," and goes all the way to India to find it. He cheats Lebanese, Fulani, and Europeans, encounters monsters, is helped by jinn, repeatedly meets and competes with fellow rogue Zurke ďan Muhamman, encounters kindly water spirits, finds the water of cure and has the jinn transports him home via a well. Imam succeeds in vindicating his adoptive father and killing Sakimu.

Six years later, in 1940, Abubakar Imam wrote Magana Jari Ce. The novel is about Aku, an exceptionally intelligent and clever parrot who is ordered to delay the departure to battle of a young Hausa man. Aku does so by imitating Scheherazade and telling the man Hausa versions of stories from the Brothers Grimm, Arabian Nights, and many other sources. Aku succeeds and keeps the man from joining the battle, and as a reward the king, returning from battle, replaces his evil vizier with Aku. Aku later gets into a story-telling competition with another parrot, Hazik, and then teaches his son the art of story-telling.

In 1941 the Togolese writer Felix Couchoro (1900-1968) wrote Amour de Féticheuse. The protagonist of Amour is a voodoo queen and fetish priestess who gets involved in a series of love affairs. Also betrayals, murders (by poison), and lies, all of which she must cure, solve, or otherwise take care of, by realistic means and magical ones. Like Chaka, Amour is magical realism, but romance rather than high adventure, and an unusual example of west African marketplace literature.

Finally, in 1945 Ethiopian Amharic writer Mäkonnen Endalkaččäw (?-?) published the collection Arremuňň. One of the stories, "Yayne Abäba," is about an Amhara tween who is kidnaped and sold into slavery. She escapes, and after various adventures is reunited with her mother in a monastery. In one sequence she dreams of a microscope which allows her to see the "Reality behind mere Appearance." "Yayne Abäba" is notable as an early example of Muslim science fiction, with the "Reality" seen being both terrifying (cosmic horror) and awe inspiring (the workings of Allah).