Nisi Shawl, the founder of the Carl Brandon Society, author of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award-winning Filter House and the upcoming Everfair has done us all a great service! She shared “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction” that provides a decade-by-decade outline of Black science fiction and fantasy novels that could be the basis of the best literature class you’ll ever take… or an essential guide for your TBR stack.
Shawl organized the list by author rather than title (so a few names appear more than once) beginning with Martin R. Delany, who authored Blake: Or; the Huts of America in 1859, and bringing us to 2015 with Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown, the editors of Octavia’s Brood. After outlining her methodology, she gives short blurbs for each author, and discusses why particular titles were chosen. While big names like Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler are well represented, Shawl also digs further into the past to share the work of SFF pioneers like Martin Delany, Charles Chesnutt, and Pauline Hopkins. She highlights the speculative work of W.E.B. DuBois and Lorraine Hansberry, and points toward a future where authors like Balogun Ojetade spins steampunk fantasies from stories of Harriet Tubman, and Kai Ashante Wilson creates modern horror as he delves into the massacres of Rosewood, Tulsa, and Wilmington.
Shawl talks about her initial inspiration for the list:
In 1909 Harvard’s president, Charles W. Eliot, issued a 51-volume anthology he claimed could provide its owners with a complete liberal arts education. In the same vein, I’ve pulled together an annotated list of 42 black science fiction works that are important to your understanding of its history. You’ve got the rest of 2016 to read them. That’s doable, isn’t it?
She also speaks to the way genre itself becomes fraught when your dealing with a history of oppression:
…some of these works could be construed as fantasy rather than science fiction. The distinction between these two imaginative genres is often blurred, and it’s especially hard to make out their boundaries when exploring the writing of African-descended authors. Why? Because access to the scientific knowledge from which SF often derives has been denied to people of the African diaspora for much of history. And the classification of what is and is not scientific knowledge hasn’t been under our control — it’s frequently a matter of dispute. Also, it’s sometimes difficult to understand the history of black science fiction without reference to the history of black fantasy.
One of the most exciting aspects of the list is seeing the way Black SFF begins incorporating African and Caribbean mythic traditions, tapping into a rich vein of lore that offers readers a different perspective than the Eurocentric, vaguely Celtic fantasy that has been the genre’s standard. Head on over to Fantastic Stories of the Imagination for the full reading list! You will thank us.