In 2016, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination published my survey “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction.” Since then Tor.com has published 20 in-depth essays I wrote about some of the 42 works mentioned, and another essay by LaShawn Wanak on my collection Filter House. This month I’ll examine this sub-genre’s great-great-granddaddy: Blake; or, The Huts of America, which as far as I know is the earliest work of science fiction by a black U.S. author.
UNFULFILLINGNESS’S FIRST FINALE
Blake was published serially in two different magazines beginning in January, 1859. Though the most complete edition available is 74 chapters long, the novel is unfinished. Six more chapters were intended—they may even have been written. But in April, 1862, “LXXIV American Tyranny—Oppression of the Negroes,” was the last to appear.
Soon after that the Civil War broke out, and Delany’s vision of a black-led slave rebellion whose result is lasting freedom became alternate history rather than a daring prediction. But we who read the collected chapters in the spirit in which Delany wrote them recognize his stubborn genius: He refused to let the status quo’s claim on reality stand unchallenged. Just like today’s progressive nerds.
THE REAL AND THE UNREAL
Delany footnotes several detailed encounters in the novel’s text which he based on his own experiences (in one harrowing fact-based passage, Blake depicts a child being tortured to death). It’s not that Delany was in denial concerning the horrors surrounding him; it’s simply that he thought they could be overcome.
Blake’s plot revolves around the insurrectionary plans of an enslaved freeman known variously as Henry Holland, Henry Blake, Henry Gilbert, and Henry Blacus. Traveling first through the Southern U.S. and then sailing on a slaver to his native Cuba, he spreads a supposedly simple revolutionary scheme, the outlines of which the author never reveals. The omission is a telling one; it’s not due to lack of reference materials, because Martin Delany was directly familiar with activism and resistance of all sorts. This included armed rebellions such as John Brown’s at Harper’s Ferry and La Escalera, the Cuban anti-slavery conspiracy headed by Placido, an historical figure who is also a prominent character in Blake’s second half.
The actual Placido was captured and executed by Cuban authorities years before the novel’s action takes place. Is Blake meant to be read as alternate history, then?
GODS BEFORE ME
Scholar Jerome McGann, editor of the most complete version of Blake, argues persuasively that the La Escalera episode was to be reprised in the novel, with the solution to enslaved African’s quandary provided by religion. It’s true that evocations of the divine permeate the book’s text to an extent that may strike modern readers as strangely significant. But its primary and wholehearted endorsement of Christianity is complicated by three elements: the hero’s early skepticism, his acceptance by a crew of hoodoo-wielding rootworkers, and his eventual and emphatic disassociation of God and whiteness.
When his wife is sold away from the plantation where the couple had worked, Holland (as he’s then known) rejects Jehovah’s mysterious wonder-performing movements as too slow: “If a thousand years with us is but a day with God, do you think I am required to wait all that time?” He counters with a quotation from Corinthians: “Now is the accepted time; today is the day of salvation.”
Though careful to ascribe no power to the High Conjurors of the Great Dismal Swamp—other than what they get from the credulity of superstitious blacks—Delany does spend most of a chapter on his hero’s encounter with them, and also describes how they bless him and his endeavors.
In the novel’s second half its spiritual fervor rises, with prayers, preachings, biblical allegories, and gospel tales frequently interwoven through an increasingly fraught narrative. But when asked by a Cuban co-conspirator whether the God whose help they seek is Catholic or Protestant, Henry declares, “Our ceremonies…are borrowed from no denomination, creed, or church…but originated by ourselves.” If Jesus is for justice, then the whites supporting chattel slavery worship him falsely. So proclaims the author via his heroic mouthpiece.
THAT EYE-DIALECT THOUGH
Despite Blake’s many nuances and varicolored interpretations—the way it locates the huts typically ascribed to Africa in America, the way it challenges the conservative underpinnings of Christian theology—two points count clearly against its glorious progressiveness. Delany uses questionable “eye-dialect”—selective phoneticization of nonstandard speech patterns—to depict the dialogue of “uneducated” blacks. I frankly struggled with silently pronouncing many of their lines in my head, and with translating such phrases as “yeh gone clean back to de wuhl ghin,” and “W’en da wah eatin suppeh seh.”
Delany’s anti-Semitism also rankles. As part of Henry’s refutation of scriptural exhortations to patience he asserts they were originally written for “the Jews, a people long since dead.”
WALKING SCIENCE FICTION
Still, the novel’s few shortcomings are outweighed by its precious authenticity. It’s an especially good exercise for those of us reading, writing, publishing, and promoting black Science Fiction to understand its origins so intimately as this. We are, as Walidah Imarisha has said, our ancestors’ thought experiments made real. Blake is an example of one of their fantasies. The book’s imperfections and its very incompletion make it subject to ongoing speculation. What would this story have become had the Confederacy never seceded? Or what would it be if the war with the Union was never fought? Or if it had been finished, widely published, and adopted as a model of a world soon to be born?
Nisi Shawl is a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a journalist. She is the author of Everfair (Tor Books) and co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s SF Magazine, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies.