Type
Article

the unbearable whiteness of SF

Junot Díaz’s Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao made (or at least implied) two interesting arguments about SF and minorities. Firstly, the preoccupation of the central character with SF (or more strictly fantasy) is portrayed as part of his general weirdness and isolation. It’s middle-class white kids who obsess about Tolkein, not teenagers from the Third World. Secondly, however, Diaz demonstrates how well SF — a genre inherently concerned with alienation and identity — works to reflect Wao’s circumstances. Indeed, reading the book left me wondering about the relationship between the first point and the second. Why aren’t there more voices of colour in SF?

OK, I know there are some. Offline, Maxine and Rjurik and I were recently talking about Nalo Hopkinson, a Jamaican-American SF writer (about whom I know very little). There’s Octavia Butler, too, and I’m sure there’s others. Nonetheless, SF is still overwhelmingly whitebread.

What makes the question more interesting is the prevalence of SF themes in black popular music. On the way to work, I was listening to Lee Perry’s Time Boom X De Devil Dead, the only really great album he made after his Black Ark days. In his mid-career phase, Perry took the black nationalism of his early years into outer space, developing his own weird mythology in which Rasta rhetoric mixed with spaceships and aliens and so forth.

Perry’s lyrical preoccupations are often discussed purely in terms of his own eccentricities (burning down his recording studio, worshiping bananas, etc). But the mad scientist persona he adopts is actually quite a common one amongst his generation of dub producers. Thus the Mad Professor, shown here giving a lesson in how dub works.

Even the more rootsy Scientist made records like this:

If you listen to the dub greats, you can see how a science fictional rhetoric dovetails with the more usual reggae themes about race and oppression, just as in Junot Díaz’s book.

There’s something similar in American popular music. In an article for Slate last year, Jonah Weiner wrote about the connection between SF themes and black musicians:

In 1927, the Rev. A.W. Nix, a preacher from Birmingham, Ala., entered a recording studio to commit several of his sermons to wax. He intended to release them commercially on the burgeoning gospel-music circuit. A Southern Baptist, Nix had an ear for the musical possibilities of oratory and a taste for fire and brimstone. His sermons, delivered in the rich, ravaged singsong of a Delta bluesman, bore darkly chastening titles like “Death Might Be Your Christmas Gift” and “The Prayer Meeting in Hell.” Tucked into this catalog of apocalyptic warnings, though, was “The White Flyer to Heaven,” a rapturous, six-minute homily about riding a spaceship piloted by Jesus up to the pearly gates: “Higher and higher! And higher! We’ll pass on to the Second Heaven, the starry big Heaven, and view the flying stars and dashing meteors and then pass on by Mars and Mercury, and Jupiter and Venus and Saturn and Uranus, and Neptune with her four glittering moons.”

“White Flyer to Heaven” is probably the earliest recorded evidence of a phenomenon that’s persevered in black music ever since: Call it the Afronaut tradition. Last Tuesday, rapper Lil Wayne put this tradition atop the pop charts with his No. 1-debuting album Tha Carter III, which sold a stunning 1,005,545 copies in its first week. Lil Wayne starts from a hardened gangsta-rap template, but outer space has figured into his increasingly loopy songs for more than a year now: During the 2006 freestyle “Dough Is What I Got,” he claimed Martian provenance in a boast about his otherworldly skills; on the woozy 2007 drug track “I Feel Like Dying,” he imagined playing “basketball with the moon,” adding, “I can mingle with the stars and throw a party on Mars.” On Tha Carter III, Wayne devotes an entire song, “Phone Home,” to the subject of his alien origins: “We are not the same, I am a Martian,” he announces in an E.T.-inflected croak.

The whole article is worth reading for its discussion of people like Afrika Bambaataa and George Clinton. Here, for instance, is a clip of Funkadelic in full outer space mode.

Sun Ra, of course, was kinda the Godfather of similar themes.

And you could go on and on. But back to my original question. If SF imagery has been so useful and important to black musicians, why is SF writing so very white?

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

More by

Comments

  1. I'm not sure that I agreed that it's as cut and dried as you're suggesting. When I was teaching in the Northern Territory recently several of the indigenous writers were writing Sci Fi. And at Allen & Unwin I published Archie Weller's futuristic novel 'The Land of the Golden Clouds'. That said, there are a few articles around agreeing with your general point – such as this one: http://www.boston.com/ae/books/articles/2007/07/3… . It makes the point that: 'In the last decade, sci-fi/fantasy fans of color have begun creating their own communities. These spaces are necessary in a world where they stand out as geeks among blacks, and as "the other" in the speculative-fiction world. There are conferences such as 2004's "Black to the Future: A Black Science Fiction Festival" in Seattle, and Web communities such as SciFiNoir . . . '

  2. That's really interesting that indigenous writers are working in SF. Plus Rjurik just told me on the phone that Samuel Delany was black, which shows how little I know about SF.
    Still, I think there's something in the general point. When I was in the States, I was struck by the amount of black urban fiction, mostly pulpy crime novels. Why crime and not SF?

  3. And yes, to contradict my self, there was some discussion about this issue on blog posts after the final ep of Battlestar Gallactica a few weeks ago. Despite the fact that, in the final ep of the show, cylon/humans were revealed to actually be our African forebears, not one of the black characters of that series survived to land on earth and forebear us (if you see what i mean). The argument was that BG was a mormon show (it originally was) thus had white 'roots' (you know, all the way back to the 70s, last time the season was on) which it was 'respecting'. This argument, clearly, is not good enough.

    • Which perhaps opens up another question: the relationship between Mormonism and SF. That Twilight woman is a Mormon, too, isn’t she?

  4. Yes she is. The r/s is in part, the obvious one: Mormons think aliens landed on earth and taught us stuff. This is, at root, a racist argument. Think of 'Chariot of the Gods' by Eric Von Daniken which says that much awesome stuff on earth was the result of aliens – ie. 'primitive' peoples couldn't have done awesome stuff (that's a, ahem, fairly condensed version of the argument.)

    • The same argument lies at the root of the 9/11 conspiracy theories. Arabs couldn’t have carried out an elaborate operation like that by themselves – there must by some white people behind it.

      • Reading the Maps (readingthemaps.blogspot.com) has been doing a great series of posts lately about the weird upsurge of crazy pseudo-archaeology in New Zealand and its far right associations.

        On the black sci fi and music point – see also the original Detroit techno people; The Wire recently did an interview with Jeff Mills who talks about his sci-fi obsession and its appeal to middle class black kids. (http://www.thewire.co.uk/articles/2035/)

        Also, Simon Reynolds has written an essay on this: "Roots and future", which is reprinted in his book Bring the Noise.

  5. Nice post Jeff. Have you ever seen the Sun Ra movie ‘Space Is The Place?’ It’s totally trippy.

    I tried to write SF once. It wasn’t working with a black main character so I changed her skin colour, then I felt weird about it and abandoned the story completely. In Octavia Butler’s ‘Dawn’ series, the main characters are a handful of humans (of different origins). To my mind, in this series, Butler abandons all issues of race in favour of the alien/human division, and race becomes largely just a descriptor. On the other hand, I think her ‘Earthseed’ trilogy (where the main character, a young, black woman is one of the ones with the ‘alien’ qualities, in a sense, a double-alien) works much better.

    Most black writers in the West are already writing as ‘aliens’…maybe it just all gets to hard, particularly if you are partly writing as a way of investigating issues of race and marginalisation…

    Check out http://www.blacksciencefictionsociety.com/

    • Ta for the link, Maxine. I still think the whole thing is very weird. I mean, you can’t really write about alien races without writing about races, as it were. So a whole bunch of SF deals more or less explicitly with racism – it’s just usually from a very white perspective. Think of Aliens 2 and the Vietnam War, for instance.

  6. In case that seems incomprehensible, she's gloatingly holding up the Meanjin-Overland trophy, which they stole from us last year.

  7. Wow. I don't remember it as THAT trippy…Sheez…almost spins me out as much as the Wiz (the black Wizard of Oz with Lena Horne as the good witch, Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the scarecrow)…almost.

  8. Watched ‘Space is the Place’ at the Syd Film Festival back in the 90s. Also have a related article (photocopied from a library book) somewhere lost in my garage. Will have to rewatch it. From memory what I took from it was that the sense of dislocation and alienation for the black person in the white world was so extreme it actually made sense to think of yourself as alien, with a religious sense of reunification and redemption involving extra terestial life. Kind of makes me think about 2001, with humanity seeking out it’s maker.

    PS. Have people sen John Sayles film ‘Brother from Another Planet’?

  9. Just relaised link above is to the Sun Ra track and not the doco I was thinking of. Now I’m not so sure of the title of the doco that I saw – but I think it was ‘Space is the Place’. It was about the sci-fi themes in Sun Ra, George Clinton and Lee Perry. Will see if I can find out more…

  10. Did some more googling on this. Apparently, there's a Richard Wright story about contact with aliens, in which the authorities learn to their horror that the rest of the universe is black.
    And here's an abstract from an article by Ken Macleod on similar themes, though the piece itself is behind a firewall.
    'Despite the rampant popularity of space, alien and futuristic imagery in popular culture, little scholarship has recognised the impact of such themes on popular music. This article explores the complex relationship between the numerous uses of space, alien and techno futuristic themes in popular music and the construction of various marginalised identities. Arranged roughly chronologically from early 1950s rock and roll to late 1990s techno, I discuss how many artists, such as Bill Haley, David Bowie and George Clinton, have used such imagery to promote various nonconformist ideologies and identities ranging from African-American empowerment to Gay and Lesbian agendas. This article also relates developments in scientific space research and popular science fiction culture to corresponding uses of space and alien imagery in various forms of popular music. In general, popular music's use of futuristic space and alien themes denotes a related neo-Gnostic withdrawal and alienation from traditionally dominant cultural structures in an attempt to unite us with a common ‘other’ that transcends divisions of race, gender, sexual preference, religion or nationality.'

  11. If you want a really excellent, nay, brilliant, take on race, space, music and science fiction, read Kodwo Eshun's 'More Brilliant Than The Sun', which was published in 1998. Problem is, it's long out of print and costs a fortune second-hand. Try a university library, if you can access one.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodwo_Eshun

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>