In recent years there has been an uptick, if not an actual surge, of the works by fantasy writers of color finally, deservedly, entering the mainstream. These stories are as broad and wide sweeping as the culture itself. From The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton and Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, to N.K. Jemison’s The Fifth Season. Beautiful novels with intricate, fully imagined, complicated characters and worlds.
But, our voices have always been here, in the background, creating stories. Martin Delany, the first African American to attend Harvard Medical school, is credited with writing what is considered the first book of fantasy by a person of color: Blake or the Huts of America in 1857, the story of an escaped slave who travels throughout the Americas, and Cuba in a quest to unite all Blacks against slavery. Imperium in Imperio in 1899 by Sutton Griggs tells the story of two men involved in a secret organization dedicated to eliminating injustice and creating an independent black state inside of Texas. Even the famed civil rights activist, author, and historian W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a piece of science fiction called The Comet, about a post-apocalyptic New York, where the only survivors, and hope for the human race, are a working class black man and a wealthy white woman.
Well into the twentieth century, the stories of Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, and Nalo Hopkinson stretched our imaginations, creating new worlds, new futures; re-imagining the past. But, in some large way, these stories remained confined to a small corner of public consciousness, a niche market with occasional exceptions.
I found my reader’s home in a niche within that niche. I was, and still am, drawn to magical/fantastical stories, but stories, as J. California Cooper stated, that were about ‘just everyday people trying to live every day’.
In the stories of Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor and Tina McElroy Ansa, I recognized life as I knew it growing up: the smell of Royal Crown hair grease and a hot comb smoking on the stove on Saturday nights, vaseline slathered on ashy knees, black eyed peas for good luck on New Year’s Day.
They wrote about life as I lived it every day.
…there was magic.
In Gloria Naylor’s Bailey’s Cafe, the magic is in the place: Bailey’s Cafe, filled with damaged people who’ve been badly used by a harsh, inhospitable world. There’s a pawnshop that never opens and a boarding house where one can stay by invitation only. The mystery, the magic, is how all these broken people find their way to each other and to something like wholeness.
Lena is the main character in Tina McElroy Ansa’s Baby of the Family. Born with a caul on her face, she is linked both to the ancestors of the spirit world and to the future. Black, upper middleclass and socially awkward, she’s just trying to live her everyday life, even as she speaks to the ancestors and foresees the future.
In Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison gives us the story of Milkman Dead, the richest black man in town, who’s family is haunted by murder and greed, and whose life is touched by the Seven Days, a secret society sworn to avenge the unpunished murder of black people.
These stories resonated deeply with me and I returned to them again and again, even as I realized on some level that they were unknown to a large part of the reading world.
I don’t know the reason that our stories are finally being heard, moving from their half lit corners into the brighter light. The success of Blank Panther? Some mysterious critical mass having finally been achieved? The growth of social media? I don’t have the answer to that question.
What I do know is that the world can only seem bigger and more magical when the history and perspective of diverse writers is included. And I know that my TBR pile grows bigger by the day, richly seasoned by a broader culture and historical perspective.
Originally published in January 2020.
Rita Woods is a family doctor and the director of a wellness center. When she’s not busy working or writing Dr. Woods spends time with her family or at the Homer Glen library where she served on the board for ten years. Remembrance is her first novel.