You ever just go to an event that made you feel empowered afterwards? I did. This past Monday Clark Atlanta University held a symposium called “Ancient and New Ste(a)m: Roots and Futures of Black Speculative Arts and Science Fictions”. It was a fantastic (ha) event that brought together the large community of Black people interested in the speculative arts and allowed us to sit around and talk about the fantasy, horror, science fiction and (alternate) historical fiction we love and want to see more of ourselves reflected in. At the event I got to meet big names in the genre(s) and some up and coming readers and writers and just overall realize just how important the Black Speculative Arts are, and for that I am so grateful.
By now most of you know that I am an author of a fantasy novel, so for me this event was can't miss. Not just because I could network, but because so many of the people there believed in the power of the Black Speculative Arts. You're probably asking "Marcus what the hell does that mean? What are Black Speculative Arts? Well let me break it down to you, staring with the Speculative Arts part. Art meaning any work of art: pictures, video games, movies, TV, comics, music, and my personal favorite, fiction. If you’ve taken a higher level lit class you may have read stories or poems by Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the like you have some exposure to speculative fiction. The speculative is work of art that forces you to step outside of your understanding of the world. Take for example if you’re reading a story or watching a movie where a person with an open wound is thrown off a boat into an ocean full of sharks, you pretty much know what’s going to happen. This is because we know that sharks sense blood, and sharks eat people, so this person is probably gonna be eaten. But what if said shark is mechanical? Do mechanical sharks still sense blood? What if the person can communicate with animals? Do ravenous sharks count? Because we don’t know how mechanical sharks would really work nor do we know how communicating with animals works, we have to speculate on what will happen. The genre forces the consumer to step outside of their world view to imagine what will happen next. When you add “Black” to this genre you put a focus on the people of the African Diaspora and let them be the center of the story. So put all that together and you have the Black Speculative Arts, or more specifically Black Speculative Fiction: a bunch of works of art that extend imagination and vision to Black people in the past present and future in a number of genres and subgenres.
Check out the above chart. Now even though the actual chart is mine, I take no credit for these terms and subgenres. The chart itself was even inspired by another one I found online. What I do take credit for, is my belief that Black Speculative Fiction has the power to reshape people’s (especially kids) mindsets. Black Speculative Fiction, by definition, forces you to see Black people differently from how they are seen by the world at large (it should be noted that when I say black people here I mean anyone from the Diaspora, not just African Americans). You can see Black heroes going on epic quests in Fantasy, Black people surviving, adapting, and growing as characters in Horror, Black people using science to help others and make discoveries in Science Fiction, and Black people all over history in Historical Fiction. These major genres work to provide images of Black characters and show cultures that are usually sidelined or not shown at all in “mainstream” speculative fiction. If the major genres, which are used to classify books, TV, movies, music, art, and sometimes comics and video games, can help to promote Black people differently in a broad sense then the subgenres under them can promote them more specifically.
In everything from Sword and Soul (popularized by Charles Saunders) to Afrofuturism (coined by Mark Dery) has its pupose in restructuring how we view people of the Diaspora. The vast majority of these subgenres take place at different times throughout history and are more than just Black-ified versions of popular speculative fiction subgenres. Sword and Soul, for example, is more than just a Black version of Sword and Sorcery; it takes a look at heroes of the African Diaspora pre-colonialism (or at least colonialism as we know it) going on epic adventures in their home country/continent. Rococoa moves into the beginnings of colonialism and slavery (the 18th and early 19th centuries) with stories about piracy, the Haitian Revolution, other rebellions. Steamfunk and Dieselfunk look at the Victorian Era and the early 1900s respectively by focusing on the technology from those eras (steam powered technology and technology powered by diesel and the internal combustion engine). Even Blaxploitation (which is its own thing) and Afrofuturism (which places Black people in the future) shows that Black people have been present all throughout history and that we will continue to be around in the future. Authors use these subgenres to deconstruct the lies we have been told about how everything worthwhile comes from some European country, and with schools and textbooks constantly rewriting history these Black Speculative Fiction texts are VITAL.
Even the terms that I kind of made up have special significance. Black Horror gives Black people the agency needed to survive and move the plot forward in a Horror story/film/TV show. Black Horror also plays on the ambiguous nature of so much of Diasporic culture; what seems to be supernatural, spiritual, or mystical to us may be ignored by people who don’t believe like we do, so we (the people of the Diaspora) have to take charge and move things forward. Black Fantastic is kind of like that too: Black people as heroes in Fantasy stories post-colonialism. Whether they’re on other planets or in an urban area (sound familiar?); Black people arising above and uniting others to go on a grand heroic adventure is just empowering. In the past, present, future, or even imaginary worlds, being able to envision people of the Diaspora with the importance that we deserve does take some imagination, and it is that imagination I am most interested in studying.
So of course I was interested in going to the conference on Monday, how else would I have met so many like-minded people? You don't get to meet people like Ytasha Womack, a CAU alum who literally wrote the book on Afrofuturism, John Jennings who creates some of the most amazing Black Speculative art you'll ever see, Joseph Wheeler who created Onyxcon: THE Black Speculative Arts festival in Atlanta, and Jarvis Sheffield whose amazing website continues to unite creative Black minds everyday. The symposium reaffirmed what I am doing in graduate school, and reminded me how important the Black Speculative Arts are for resistance, affirmation, and just self-worth. Seeing so many people invested in the Black Speculative Arts, especially Fiction, assured me that my interest in showing how Black Speculative Fiction can be used to give Black people (especially children) a sense of identity, self-worth and self-value that the world doesn’t want them to have is important. I’m living proof of the power of Black Speculative Fiction and I would be perfectly happy spending the rest of my days showing that power to others. With all the different ways to reshape how the world sees Blackness and Black culture, I think that Black Speculative Fiction could just be the tool we need to start early and start strong with teaching Black people to love themselves.
For further information about how I define Black Speculative Fiction and its genres/subgenres check here and be sure to check out the many works cited on the page! And as always be sure to leave your comments, questions and concerns below and don't forget to like, share , and subscribe!