The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

On blacks in SF

Barns said: My perspective is that they don't feel invited to the party.  Those who made it in (Octavia, me, Chip) were the ones who could write in a field that almost never featured us as human beings, where movies like "when World's Collide" would show the one ship featuring human beings worth the saving--and they are all white.  Where blacks in SF films often died horribly, often saving white people.  We didn't feel valued, and people don't go where they aren't wanted.  So there weren't many fans, and maybe one out of a thousand fans becomes a pro.  The numbers just weren't there."

Well, to keep playing the Honky Advocate, this seems like a weak argument.

As I recall southern racism, you pretty much weren't invited to *any* of the white cotillion balls, and yet, there are black lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and writers in other genres down in the bayous, and many of them home-grown.
(Steve Perry)

There is a problem here.  If you're a doctor, you can be supported by maybe a hundred clients, members of your community which you can serve.  The community NEEDS doctors and lawyers.  Science fiction isn't a necessity, not meat-and-potatoes.  Artists come after a foundation of plumbers, archetects, farmers, etc.  The community must be stable--there is tremendous support for people who want to go. 
Now, about writing.
I contend that SF is far more socially conservative than most fans want to believe. That it has promoted the concept of nature over nurture to a huge degree, that it featured white faces almost exclusively, and when dark ones were featured, they were degraded and vilified.  If I actually wrote an SF novel about a black character, a white face was placed on the cover. The average black kid would have VASTLY less motivation to read an SF novel than the average white kid.  That white kid is reading about who he might grow up to be.  It takes more imagination to bypass the racial difference, and the average person has only average imagination.  So right there, the numbers go down.  The degree that Celtic, Arthurian and Viking myths get re-cycled in SF is another dead giveaway.  Vast numbers of white writers were able to make a living and hone their chops just writing their ancestral stories.  Black writers cannot do that--although I'm sure they were welcome to write stories that make white folks look good.
John Campbell wasn't just repressing1 stories that might directly relate to black people.  He also strongly promoted an intellectually conservative agenda, socially.  To agree with his world view was to agree with a view that suggested blacks were in a poor position socially because that was their nature.  I believe in my heart that blacks were excluded from SF not because white writers didn't know black people, but because they thought they did, and what they thought they knew was not complementary. 
I lost count of the insults, subtle and direct, that I endured in my early days of reading SF--when we were mentioned at all.  So SF spoke not to our lives,. featured no one that looked like us, their magazines rejected heros of our color, and when they did publish us, wouldn't put us on the covers.  I submit that there are more black writers of SF and fantasy than there are black SF and fantasy characters on covers.  Most of my life, I could walk into an SF bookstore and see THOUSANDS of books, with white people on every damned cover.A far better question than "where are the black SF writers" would be "why in the hell did Steve and Octavia and Chip ever want to  write this stuff in the first place?"  I think it's very clear why, if black people are pretty much the samd as white people, so few have tried: fewere role models, less motivation, inability to write about people who looked like them or to celebrate their own culture, less chance to sell (unless they sold out) and even if they were willing to sell out, they hadn't been drilled with the core myth patterns of northwestern Europeanywhere near as much as their white counterparts.
Frankly, I think its astounding Octavia and I have managed to survive at all.  When I think of the isolation, the lack of ability to communicate the things I've just been saying, the smug assumptions by writers that I simply MUST acknowledge that I'm "different" from "them" (yeah, Bud...but I'm different from you, too) the work like "Farnham's Freehold," by one of my favorite authors, that was simply incredibly painful to finish for reasons that I've had to explain to every white Heinlein fan I've discussed it with, but every black fan understood completely and without explanation.
Anyway, those are big chunks of it. More simply, to return to my first point, SF is FAR more socially conservative than it thinks it is.  Measured by non-white fans, writers, editors, characters, book covers, themes, or anything else, it probably is on the short end of the curve with much of society, and many other branches of literature.  Why?  SF is the myth pattern of the 20th century, and all myth patterns place their creators at the center of the universe, closer to God.  It celebrates Northern European genetics, logic systems, culture, mythology, religion, and arts.  It takes a pretty strange kind of person to set out to praise the one pissing on them.  Yeah, that makes me pretty strange. 

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