Below are more detailed definitions of Black Speculative Fiction terms, genres, and sub-genres along with a useful graphic to show a visual of them together. Scroll below and learn you something!
"One of the ways speculative fiction can work against racism and [colonization] is to re-imagine our past, altering the power dynamics that we are accustomed to in order to illuminate hidden histories and silenced voices." -P. Djeli Clark ("How to Spite a Racist Troll: Support Black Dreams")
"Speculative thought is important, and unless you are doing speculative thought you are not doing any thought at all." -C.L.R. James ("How I Wrote the Black Jacobins")
Speculative Fiction: Speculative fiction was coined by Robert Heinlein in 1947. Originally, he used the term to make clear that the more "serious" science fiction was different from the popular sci-fi clouding the genre in his era. Now, the term has become an umbrella term for literary genres like Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror and their sub-genres. However, this definition is quite oversimplified. Firstly, that definition excludes history, which is heavy on speculation for a number of reasons. It also limits speculative fiction to literary genres AND doesn’t acknowledge the fact that not all Horror and Science Fiction is speculative. To paraphrase Annie Neugebauer, whose chart also served as inspiration for my own, a better definition is a text that forces its consumer to imagine (or speculate) on possibilities that do not fit in with their understanding of the world. Using the wide definition of "text" as any work of art that allows interpretation opens speculative fiction up to include film, television, music, even paintings and sculptures (some would rather call this Speculative Arts to make it easier to see that they are more than just literature). It also emphasizes what it means to speculate on a work: by definition any work of fiction requires speculation, but if that speculation also requires imagining outside of your frame of reference then you have a work of speculative fiction. For example, what would happen if someone with an open wound is thrown off of a boat into a sea full of sharks? You may be able to guess that that person will die, or that they will be saved if maybe the sharks don’t get to them in time. Both of these scenarios fit neatly into how we understand humans, sharks, and the sea, so even though we’re guessing (or speculating) what will happen, it doesn’t require too much imagination. But what if the person thrown overboard doesn’t bleed normal human blood? Are sharks still attracted to this blood? What if the person can talk to sharks? Will they listen to him? What if this was a time before sharks evolved to sense blood in the water? Now you have to truly speculate on what will happen because the situation is outside of how you understand the world. Speculative fiction requires you to (re)imagine the rules of the world in a completely different way from what you know. This definition has allowed us to accept superheroes, inhuman monsters, alien invasions and fantasy driven retellings of historical events.
Black Speculative Fiction: Black Speculative Fiction is an umbrella term for speculative texts with an emphasis on the people and culture of the African Diaspora. It is referred to as "Black” and not African, African-American, Haitian, etc. to show that the label includes ALL people of the Diaspora and places their culture, experiences and THEM at the forefront of these imaginative works. For a people who have been told constantly that they have no history or future, that they can never be super or a hero, and that their very existence is a nightmare, Black Speculative Fiction allows them to imagine themselves outside of what the world has told them they must be. Black Speculative Fiction challenges global anti-Blackness and forces readers, Black or otherwise, to accept the polylithic nature of Blackness.
African Diaspora: Simply put, the African Diaspora refers to people whose ancestors moved or were taken from the continent of Africa, as well as those still there. This will include people of African descent in the West Indies, North and South America, Latin America, Europe, Asian countries, and of course African countries. They are united by a shared heritage and (some) similar experiences, but often their various cultures are different enough for each to have unique stories.
Black Speculative Arts: While Black Speculative Fiction can refer to any story based media form that uses the Diaspora as a basis for its speculation, to say Black Speculative Arts is more obviously inclusive of any work of art that uses a Black Speculative lens from fiction, to film, to television, to music, to clothing, and beyond. It is vital to recognize all forms of Black art as part of the Black Speculative for two reasons: One, our art has always been intrinsically political and affirmative of our existence, and two, there is a movement not unlike the Black Arts Movement designed to respond to the political and radical movements of the time. Many use the Black Speculative to imagine a world without oppression and/or empower and inform those who do (or will) battle oppression. It is called the Black Speculative Arts Movement.
Fantasy = Fantasy works feature worlds whose speculative happenings are commonly tied to magical, spiritual or other (sometimes unexplained) means that have no concrete bearing in our world. Traditionally, Fantasy primarily deals with three major traits: adventure (traveling an epic world meeting new people and visiting new places along the way; learning more about the world), heroism (having the agency to affect positive change on the world aka being able to save the day), and self-discovery (having the ability to make mistakes and learn from them to better oneself; since most protagonists in Fantasy are children, coming of age is a big part of this). Fantasy is traditionally divided into High/Epic Fantasy (works that take place in a larger than life world with races such as elves or fairies and a diverse cast of characters. Think Lord of the Rings), Sword and Sorcery (often brutal stories of love, sex, and magic where the evils may be more small-scale than world threatening. Think Beowulf or Conan the Barbarian), or urban fantasy (More modern stories in which the speculative happenings take place in a city. Think most superheroes). However, in Black Speculative Fiction Fantasy takes a new turn as the heroes become people of the African Diaspora and it is their culture that influences the adventure. In the case of young heroes/heroines Fantasy is particularly important. Through it we are able to watch Black youth grow, maintain innocence and humanity, which can often be a speculative idea in and of itself. With the rich culture of the diaspora as a backdrop and Black heroes (and villains) at the center, this Fantasy can step away from the traditionally European and Eurocentric Fantasy and create worlds never even thought of.
Science Fiction = Science Fiction as a genre generally refers to a world shaped by technological enhancements and scientific advancements, in contrast to Fantasy being shaped by magical, divine, or unexplained means. Sometimes Science Fiction is considered separate from these other speculative genres when people (incorrectly) assume anything speculative is science fiction. However, science fiction is a very specific field because quite simply, not everything is scientific in nature. The works that do fall under this genre allow readers to imagine distant futures, technology that they cannot conceive of, and of course the occasional alien invasion or abduction. Science Fiction can be either speculative (technology and science that has no bearing in the real world or advancements far beyond what we have currently) or not (technology that is based off current real world inventions) and what was once speculative (Think “The Birthmark”) can become realistic (we now know of plastic surgery, which is essentially the procedure in “The Birthmark”). As a piece of Black Speculative Fiction this genre allows people of the African Diaspora to be at the helm of advancing the world: learning the good and bad that comes with scientific discovery. As science has often been used against us (Think Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee Experiment, for starters) and we have often been excluded from the future of the world, positioning ourselves in Science Fiction is imperative.
Horror = Horror is a genre based around a very basic emotion: fear. Though what classifies as horror varies, I personally classify Horror as a combination of the elements that invoke a possibly life-threatening discomfort. Horror brings out the best and worst in people by reverting them back to basic survival instincts. Though Horror and Thriller are regarded as separate genres, since the lines of separation between the two are often blurred both will fall under the Horror umbrella for simplicity's sake. Many horror stories force their protagonist(s) to learn how to adapt and to grow from their experiences in order to survive the horrific ordeal they are put through, and it is that growth for the protagonist and the audience that makes horror so poignant. In many ways, Horror does for older protagonists what Fantasy does for younger ones as far as growth and agency is concerned. Like Science Fiction, Horror can be speculative (scary stories based on supernatural monsters and events) or not (scary stories based on natural monsters and events) and what is considered Horror by some may not even count as uncomfortable (let alone horrifying) to others. This of course leads to the importance of Horror in Black Speculative Fiction. Horror in the Black Speculative Fiction sense focuses on Horror tales unique to the people of the African Diaspora, or at least ones that center them in the narrative. Considering the growth of character required to have agency in a Horror text, people of the African Diaspora are often excluded; thus the need for them in Black Speculative Fiction is intensified even further.
(Alternate) History = The fourth genre in speculative fiction is (Alternate) History. While Historical Fiction emphasizes accuracy and lacks any speculative elements (think a story about an actual historical event that only fictionalizes it a little like “Where Is the Voice Coming From?”), (Alternate) History usually comes in two flavors that embrace the speculative: answering "what if?" scenarios ("What if Harriet Tubman fought demons?" "What if the Haitian Revolution had spread to the US?") or showing a history commonly conceived of as not "historically accurate" by the powers that be. Basically, it is the history that centers Blackness and all of its intersections by centering marginalized experiences like in The Coming, positioning them where history erases them like in "SOAR: Wild Blue Yonder", or by reshaping the world to put them in control like From Here to Timbuktu. The thing that separates (Alternate) History from any other branch of speculative fiction using historical elements is the focus on history and the placing of it at the forefront. A prerequisite for this genre is that it is in a specific time period and will use real events, real people, and real places to tell the story. A story that takes place vaguely during enslavement that adds time travel may be Science Fiction, or a story that uses elements of conjuring may be Fantasy, but a story that asks “What would happen if Nat Turner had a time machine?” One that tells the story of Marie Laveau as a pillar of her community? Those are very specific and must use actual history at least as the setup for the story, making them (Alternate) History. Black Speculative Fiction often focuses on the untold stories of the people of the African Diaspora; taking the time to reinstate African Diasporic people in historical periods or restructure history itself so that it is more favorable to them.
Sword and Soul is a sub-genre of Fantasy and (Alternate) History. In Sword and Soul ancient Africa (pre-colonization) serves as a backdrop for adventure. Sword and Soul often tells the story of a single African hero who uses intellect, physical prowess, and an understanding and reverence for his or her land and culture to achieve goals. Charles R. Saunders founded the genre and coined the term with his short story collection Imaro. In addition to exploring the mystical elements that make up Fantasy (specifically Sword and Sorcery, the "mainstream" version), the (Alternate) History comes into play when we realize that this genre is set specifically in pre-colonial times. Sword and Soul primarily uses an Africa before it was ravaged, but sometimes uses other locations commonly associated with the African Diaspora. Even if the story takes place in another world or reality the African tradition is in full effect to show African people and their cultures. Further Reading: The Constant Tower by Carole McDonnell, Meji by Milton Davis, Princess Nefertiti: Protectress of the Nile by Mr. Gregory Walker, and Sorghum & Spear comics by Greene County Creative.
Rococoa is a sub-genre of (Alternate) History. As a sub-genre of (Alternate) History, it is influenced by a specific time period: the early 18th century (1700s) up until the start of the Victorian Era (1837). The experiences of pirates in the Caribbean (often telling of the Diasporic people on these voyages), slaves rebelling against their imprisonment (Nat Turner and the Haitian Revolution), and of course the delicate and elaborate aesthetics of rococo are common bases for Rococoa stories. The term itself was coined by Briaan L. Barron and is used to distinguish this sub-genre from more Eurocentric expressions. Unlike Steamfunk and Dieselfunk (both of which come later) Rococoa usually doesn’t rely on a specific technology (separating it from Science Fiction) and unlike Fantasy stories with a slavery or piracy backdrop Rococoa will RELY on historical events and aesthetics rather than just reference them. Further Reading: “Seven Thieves” by Emmalia Harrington, “Bloodline” by D.K. Gaston, and “Fool’s Errand” by Gerald L. Coleman.
Steamfunk is a sub-genre of Science Fiction, (Alternate) History, and/or Fantasy. The sub-genre is based of technology of the mid-19th century (1830s to the early 1900s) and gets its name from Maurice Broaddus wanting to describe an industrial revolution in which steam power was considered the most viable source of fuel. Since it is based largely off the Victorian Era and/or the “Wild West” many of the aesthetic choices reflect that. Expect to see wide puffed sleeves, bonnets, “cowboy” hats and frock coats combined with steam powered guns and spring loaded machines in this sub-genre. The sub-genre’s connection to Science Fiction is obvious due to one of its defining factors being the technology, and the Fantasy comes into play when the text at hand is not inspired by a specific historical figure/location, when it takes place off of this planet, or when it is set outside of the specified time frame. When the text IS confined to an established historical period it overlaps into (Alternate) History as well (or instead). Further Reading: Wild Wild West (film), Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman by Balogun Ojetade, The Switch II: Clockwork by Valjeanne Jeffers, and “Buffalo Solider” by Maurice Broaddus
Dieselfunk is a sub-genre of Science Fiction, (Alternate) History and/or Fantasy. Based off the early 20th century (early 1900s until 1950) this genre explores the roaring 20s, the Harlem Renaissance, the World Wars (especially WW2), the Jazz Age and the general industrial revolution that prioritized the internal combustion engine. This term, coined by Balogun Ojetade, refers to the influence and experiences of African Diasporic people during this period and how they played a part in these formative years of the modern world. Dieselfunk also tends to fluctuate in Black Speculative Fiction because while it does often use real events and characters (making it (Alternate) History), it is not BOUND to that history and can take place outside of its time period or even outside of Earth (making it Fantasy). Of course since Tommy Guns and airplanes are the norm here Science Fiction is an inevitable part of this sub-genre as well. Dieselfunk allows for Black mobsters, a retelling of race riots and lynchings, African-centered medicine men/women and Black noir, bringing the early years of the 20th century to life in a whole new way. Further Reading: Damballa by Charles Saunders, The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks, the music of the Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance, and Red Tails (film).
Blaxploitation is a sub/genre of Black Speculative Fiction. Blaxploitation is a term coined by Junius Griffin to describe a movement in cinema (but also to a lesser extent in literature and music) that centralized the Black experience. This movement is commonly relegated to the 1970s and 1980s (though it could be argued that its roots are in the late 1960s) as an explosion of Black films. Black audiences wanted films that showed them with agency badly, and movie studios, seeing the possible profit, gave the audiences what they wanted in abundance. The audiences ignored the fact that they were getting cheaply made movies by the truckload from the studios (hence the name: Blaxploitation = Black exploitation) and the studios kept churning the films out. Though sometimes Blaxploitation was problematic in what it presented (there were a lot of hyper masculine and jezebel stereotypes) the legacy of the sub/genre should not and cannot be ignored. The idea of Black superheroes (making it a sub-genre of Fantasy), brilliant Black doctors and inventors (making it a sub-genre of Science Fiction), reimagined Horror icons (making it a sub-genre of Horror), retelling cultural events (making it a sub-genre of (Alternate) History), and just overall Black exploits (making it a genre in and of itself) made this movement a powerful one. In more ways than one, Blaxploitation was necessary for the focus on Blackness we see in Black Speculative Fiction to exist today. Further Reading: Shaft (film), Foxy Brown (film), Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde (film), Blacula (film), Boss Nigger (film), and Luke Cage comics by various artists.
Afrofuturism is a sub-genre of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Afrofuturism, like Science Fiction itself, is sometimes regarded as a separate genre. The term coined by Mark Dery has been used to place people of the African Diaspora in the future that is often denied to them. Afrofuturism reverses the trend of traditional Science Fiction excluding or exterminating the African Diaspora by placing its people and cultures at the forefront, giving them agency in the future and hope that they too will be around to shape the advancing world. Afrofuturism tends to mix the mystic and limitless nature of African Diasporic culture with technological advancements, which also makes it a sub-genre of Fantasy. It is this mix of magic and science that allows Afrofuturism to show people of the African Diaspora who have both reached back to their roots and embraced the technology and culture of the future. Afrofuturism commonly shows African Diasporic people using their race and heritage as a form of technology to make their survival in the future certain. This gives Afrofuturism the ability to show that the people of the African Diaspora will be around for a long, long time. Further Reading: The Patternist series by Octavia Butler, Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson, Nova by Samuel R. Delany, music by Parliament-Funkadelic, Earth, Wind, & Fire, and Janelle Monae.
Blacktastic is a sub-genre of Fantasy. Unlike many other sub-genres, Blacktastic is not confined to any specific time period. This frees it to borrow elements from any era with little or no explanation. Blacktastic can also take elements from its more Eurocentric counterparts: it may be a high fantasy (a completely different world with an expansive journey and large cast of characters) or an Urban fantasy (fantastical elements in a city setting), for example. Superhero based fiction could also fit into the Blacktastic sub-genre, but it more often than not would overlap with Science Fiction (usually determined by how the superhero(es) in question recieved theri powers. Blacktastic centers the people in the Diaspora in a fantasy adventure where their heroics are rewarded and they are allowed to grow and journey throughout life. Young heroes and heroines in Blacktastic also tend to come of age a little differently, as they often have to contend with their adventure, their growth AND their race, ethnicity, gender, and/or sexuality based differences all at once. Thanks to Blacktastic readers are able to see African Diasporic characters in ways they would never see them in the world we know; it truly makes for a world disconnected from our own. Further Reading: Route 3 comics by Robert Jeffrey III, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, the Elemental series by M. Haynes, Shadowshaper by Daniel Holder, My Prince, My Boy by John Darr, and Interlopers by L.M. Davis.
Black-tech is a sub-genre of Science Fiction. While Afrofuturism is often focused on the distant future or the connections between it and the distant past, Black-tech is settled in the "present day" or an otherwise undetermined time period. Black-tech allows for explorations of Blackness outside of the dystopic or utopian environments of many Afrofuturistic stories, instead allowing for African Diasporic people to wrestle with science and the ways that it affects them in the present day (or outside of time in the case of comparisons to alien invasions). Texts that explore experimentation on African Diasporic people, using them as a form of human technology, or their contributions to science are right at home in this sub-genre. However, Black-tech also can have positive uses. Due to the distrust many African Diasporic people have of science, Black-tech can be used to show that with training and focus they can be in control of the very entity that oppresses them. Works that show African Diasporic people creating and utilizing technologies of today, or simply interacting with science positively are the types of empowering works that make up Black-tech. Further Reading: "The Space Traders" by Derrick Bell, The Golden Hour by Maiya Williams, Explorer X- Alpha by LM Preston, and Sleight (film).
Black Horror is a sub-genre of Horror. Black Horror distinguishes itself in that it deals specifically with the things that scare the people of the Diaspora. Most times Black Horror has speculative elements that are somewhat ambiguous rather than undeniably supernatural (meaning it may be closer to the Thriller side of Horror), because what scares the people of the African Diaspora most may not be an immortal slasher, but a police car in the Deep South. To understand the ambiguity, think how hoodoo (conjuring) is a folk magic that lacks any of the big “flashy” effects that Hollywood has attributed to it. Hoodoo still has magical properties such as protection or bestowing luck., but these are nowhere near as overt as what we see in something like American Horror Story: Coven. Black Horror, then, is the actual hoodoo to Hollywood’s voodoo. Texts classified as Black Horror are often based in the daily horrors of oppressed life, making for a very real fear only shared by a certain group. Since both the speculative elements and the horror ones here are not as mainstream they may not be believed or understood by some, but of course that doesn't make the horror any less real. While Black Horror CAN have big flashy supernatural elements, the key thing here is the focus on a person of the African Diaspora surviving their ordeal and being allowed to learn from the fear they experience throughout the text. Further Reading: “Granddad’s Garage” by Brandon Massey, "Harlem” by Eric Jerome Dickey, "Wet Pain" by Terence Taylor, Get Out (film), and Tales from the Hood (film).
Magical Realism is a sub-genre of Fantasy. Magical Realism refers to works where fantastical elements are present, but treated as everyday occurrences. It is commonly said to be “the magical/mystical made mundane”. When trying to classify Magical Realism one should remember that it takes place only in our world (which disconnects it from High Fantasy), does not have to take place in cities or other urban locations (which separates it from Urban Fantasy), is not refined to a time period (unlike Sword and Sorcery or Epic Fantasy), and traditionally is not dedicated to the experiences of people of the African Diaspora (which is very much unlike Blacktastic and Sword and Soul). However, Magical Realism can be of some use in Black Speculative Fiction in that the words "magic" and "mysticism" are often used to describe cultural beliefs held by people in the African Diaspora. Through a Western gaze communing with the not-living, the idea of summoning Death, invoking Ancestral energies, and the story of the flying Africans are purely imaginary. However, for many this was a normal way of life: nothing magical or unusual about it. Magical Realism can then be used to explore how the cultural practices of African Diasporic people clash with Eurocentric ideas, often showing African Diasporic people as the magic in a mundane Eurocentric world.
Supernatural Horror is a sub-genre of Fantasy and Horror. Supernatural Horror is most easily defined as the horror featuring what is commonly regarded as scary, from superhuman killers like the “Big Three” of Horror (Michael Myers of the Halloween films, Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th films, and Freddy Krueger of the Nightmare on Elm Street films) to classics like zombies, vampires, and monsters. Traditionally these film are very unkind to their actors and actresses of color, often choosing to have them die first, die brutally, or be non-existent. Increasingly, Supernatural Horror works are allowing their characters of color to live longer through (or even survive) the ordeals they are put through. This gives them the all-important opportunity to learn and grow as characters. There is also an increasing amount of Supernatural Horror that features African Diasporic characters at the center of the narrative (the Candyman films, Bones, and The People Under the Stairs). Much like the inclusion of African Diasporic people in both Fantasy and Horror at large, giving agency to these characters in Supernatural Horror texts allows for audiences to see/read them as capable of growth, development, and a range of human emotions (including villainy and heroism).
Dystopia is a sub/genre of speculative fiction. Dystopian fiction is most commonly seen as a text that features a society (or lack thereof) remade by some sort of world-changing event. Dystopias can be brought about by what the content creator feels is the natural evolution of our world (in which case it becomes a genre all its own; separate from Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror or (Alternate) History. Think The Hunger Games), by some event of divine or magical origin (in which it would be a sub-genre of Fantasy; think any post-Rapture story), by a technological or scientific event (in which it would be a sub-genre of Science Fiction; think The Walking Dead), by a disastrous and/or terrifying event or creature; think what would happen if Dracula or some remorseless mass murderer were allowed to roam free), or a retelling of a desolate period in history (in which it would be a sub-genre of (Alternate) History; think if someone wrote a tale through the eyes of someone who tried to live through the Ice Age, Hiroshima, or some other single catastrophic historical event). Reinforcing the African Diaspora in Dystopian works shows the resiliency of Diasporic people and their willingness to survive. It is likely for that reason that some activists use Dystopian fiction to present non-Diasporic audiences with the realities of life for their people. As Annalee Flower Horne explains, "Dystopian fiction is when you take what happens to marginalized people and apply it to everyone". In communities like Flint, MI and Ferguson, MO Dystopian fiction is vital to get others to understand what is happening as well as give the citizens a type of template for how to survive without basic amenities. In this way, the very inclusion of people of the Diaspora in this sub/genre is a revolutionary act.