Every month I will highlight a Black artist, form of entertainment, business, or social media personality to help to spread awareness of Black Excellence. Be sure to check here on the 2nd of every month!
October is known as Black Speculative Fiction Month. What this basically means is that this month we take the time out to pay homage to the Black authors who write sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and in some cases historical fiction that steps outside of our normal realm of understanding (i.e., we have to speculate what will happen in the text). Despite the dominant narrative telling us that Black people only write self-help books, romance/erotica, urban fiction and non-fiction, there are quite a few mainstream and indie writers who take pride in their love of all things speculative. Being one of them, I get a lot of enjoyment out of other authors like me; so much so that this month I want to take the time to introduce you to some of my favorite speculative texts. So take a look below and happy reading!
No list of Black speculative fiction writers would be complete without a nod to the mother of the genre. Octavia Butler was and continues to be a trailblazer for Black people, women, and especially Black women in the genre, being the first science fiction writer to win the Genius Grant. While several of her books are well worth the read (Kindred seems to be the go to work), I've decided to highlight the first of her many works: the ones in the Patternist series. Like any good sci-fi story it has plenty of twists and side characters, but at the heart of this series is an engaging story about time travel, the African diaspora, and control (in many different forms). Lucky for us, the good publishing companies have decided to include the entire Patternist series into a single long work. This way if you are missing some good traditional sci-fi in your life you can just pick up Seed to Harvest and get four books for the price of one. You won't be disappointed.
Sticking with the idea of classic Black speculative fiction, I would be remiss to not bring up The Conjure Woman and other Conjure Tales by Charles Chesnutt. This collection of short stories features a framing device that tells the story of rich white folk John and Annie and their interactions with former slave Julius. The real meat of this text, however, comes within the stories told to the couple by "Uncle" Julius. It's especially interesting to read this and realize how much we have bought into demonizing hoodoo, conjuring, and anything of the sort. Each of the stories in this work talk about the horrors of slavery, but most also discuss how conjuring becomes an equalizer for the systemic racism of the south. These stories are often great (I especially loved "Po' Sandy" and the classic "The Goophered Grapevine") and so long as you are willing to read dialect you'll enjoy it. Pick it up today and get to reading!
A Visitation of Spirits is one my favorite novels. Period. Now some may not agree that this novel is speculative, but when you open a novel with a boy trying to summon a demon and "succeeding"; bringing forth an otherworldly presence that takes him on a vision quest, it's certainly something fantasy. Randall Kenan invokes a lot of what we see in early speculative fiction (folks like Poe and Hawthorne) by using out of this world elements to talk about psychological issues. Visitation takes Horace Cross down a dark and destructive path, and by the time he reaches the end both the reader and (unfortunately) Horace have learned a lot about themselves. I greatly recommend it.
(Also, Kenan has another book: a collection of short stories that I thought about putting on this list called Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. That short story collection has a couple speculative stories like the titular "Let the Dead Bury Their Dead", and "Clarence and the Dead" that are both pretty good. If you want to check it out as well!)
Speculative fiction, especially by writers of color, stretches far beyond the reaches of the continental U.S. So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy give us a glimpse into this. Edited in part by the amazing Nalo Hopkinson, this anthology gives the many authors a chance to discuss the effects of colonialism across the globe through a sci-fi and/or fantasy lens. There are many examples of Afrofuturism here which alone are worth the price of admission, but with AMAZING stories like my personal favorite "Refugees", you can't afford to NOT have this book. It is amazing to see these authors critique their world through the fantasy ones they have constructed, and you will very likely learn just as much as you enjoy the stories here. Pick it up and hang on tight for a good time.
Sticking with anthologies for a second, we step away from sci-fi and fantasy and talk a little bit about the third pillar of speculative fiction: horror. Dark Dreams brings together a number of authors both in the genre and from outside of it to talk about what scares them. Not all of these stories are necessarily speculative (as with some sci-fi and of course history, some horror doesn't require you to "speculate" what will happen) but the majority of these stories instill a fear of the complete unknown and unexplained in its readers. Many of the stories feature not only Black characters but are rooted in Black culture, as we see with the casual name drops in the editor Brandon Massey's story: "Granddad's Garage". If you're in the mood to be scared and unnerved, take a look at this work; if nothing else you'll get to see how infamous author Zane does in a genre outside of erotica.
The last book in this month's spotlight is also the most recent one: a 2013 novel by author Rashid Darden. Darden has made a name for himself with the Lazarus trilogy: a group of novels about sexuality and Black Greek life, but he steps into the speculative fiction realm with Birth of a Dark Nation: a work that takes the still thriving vampire craze and makes it...well, dark. This work puts two Black vampires in a present day setting, but takes the time to explore how Black vampires have played a part in history centuries before, claiming that they have been around for it all. In this way Birth of a Dark Nation parallels Black Speculative Fiction as a whole: it is always there, following trends and creating in depth stories of critique and triumph, all the while encouraging us to look beyond the "mainstream" and find the stories that lie in the shadows, always waiting and always ready.