Many people state that they do not like to read science fiction, that it is a genre with no appeal. There also is the cliché that life imitates art, and vice versa. How closely now does this society resemble the novel 1984? We would like to turn this on its head and propose that those of us who are involved with the African Diaspora have been a part of science fiction from the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade.
Writers such as Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid, Earl Lovelace and Jean Rhys, just to name a few, have presented in their works descriptions and events that seem in every day experience to be unreal, scientifically impossible. Theirs are stories of people flying, magical practices, myths, spirits, abilities that enable characters to move from one space in time to another – unbelievable. Yet, we live in a universe that frequently expected everyone to accept the impossible: that enslavement was rational and beneficial, that denying a person’s identity and humanity was necessary and feasible, that people of African descent are/were inferior. There is a body of thought even to this day that is based upon those fictitious concepts and many believe them, accept them as plausible in spite of contrary empirical evidence.
One of the most popular cinematic masterpieces of science fiction, The Matrix, was based upon “The Third Eye” written by Sophia Stewart, an African American woman. It took her years of legal challenges to finally win her case of copyright infringement. Perhaps because of a history of challenging accepted knowledge and science, believing in the possible in spite of externally imposed restrictions, investing in what we have repeatedly been told is the impossible, our community has developed griots and creators of fantastic fiction. This fiction may be more real and appealing to us because it serves as a means to explain, endure, compensate, resist and flee the everyday experiences of an oppressive and unjust social status. Among African Americans there are more inventors and creators of solutions to everyday problems than other ethnic groups: traffic lights, light bulbs, refrigeration, open heart surgery, blood plasma. Why? Have we developed by circumstance the ability to more easily think “outside of the box,” and to respond differently to demands placed upon us by necessity?
The “draw” to science fiction for some is to explore the possible. The most attractive of the genre is the use of real science and cutting edge theories to enable the story’s plausibility. Definitely what is reality today was fiction, even science fiction, one hundred years ago. To have fostered throughout the Black Atlantic intellectuals, artists, theorists, scientists and engineers who subscribe to the possible is an exciting notion. If we acknowledge that we know very little about this universe, then to entertain possibilities may be humanity’s means of defining and molding a world that is rejected and dismissed by some as purely fictitious, only wishful conjecture, today. Most people are familiar with the Negro College Fund adage: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” If we recognize and foster that potential in each young person think of where we could go! Our ancestors refused to accept other’s fictitious definitions and unjust realities; we must continue to create what best serves our needs as responsible human beings in this world.
In a 1986 interview with Christina Davis for Conversations, author laureate Toni Morrison summed up the tradition of using the fantastic, the magical, the unreal by explaining that the characters she portrays in her art have had: this other knowledge of perception, always discredited but nonetheless there, which informed their sensibilities and clarified their activities. . . It seemed impossible . . . to write about black people and eliminate that simply because it was unbelievable. . . That is reality.”
Source Document: Black Imagination and the Middle Passage edited by Maria Diedrich, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Carl Pedersen (1999)