- A Sense of Wonder: Samuel R. Delany, Race, Identity, and Difference
The enterprising literary scholar who would assume the challenge of going where few have gone before and voyaging into a serious engagement with speculative fiction, African American belles-lettres, and critical theory might still be labeled—and dismissed as—a Trekkie. For many scholars, including the intrepid, such an undertaking presents a black hole of no return, the road signs thereto consisting of implicit and increasingly daunting questions ranging from the [End Page 214] intergeneric to the intergalactic: With the stigma of "sociological" literature still an echo against African American literature, why not assume the mantle of the classics to prove blacks' literary mettle against the "white" cannon? (Signification: If European forms are the Platonic norms to which the Other "texts" aspire, even at their best, where else but a "black" hole could Afro-futurism be?) Okay, so even if the 1997 Norton means canonization and respectability for African American literature, why venture into science fiction when the project of social uplift necessitates dialogue with 1) texts—artistically innovative, if not rigorously so, of course—that grapple with the Du Boisian problem or 2) texts so potently and patently avant-garde, or haute-couture at least, that they are far ahead of the bell curve and any racial/biological determinism? (Signification: African American arts and letters simply cannot afford the luxury and leisure of escapism.) Given the essential possibility—reiterated, and rightfully so, by several black writers of science fiction—of writing into being a better reality through the antidotes and anecdotes of futurescapes, don't you run the risk of advancing into the all-too-white interiority of a star by instantiating homosexuality into the project? (Signification: Is there room for both engagement with the problem of race, a world of its own, and concerns of a small subset of people of African descent? For example, Samuel R. Delany, Jr.'s latest writings, and present reputation, highlight the risks of marginalization.)
The natural response, perhaps a delightfully unnatural one for African American critics who subscribe to science fiction possibility, and particularly the science fiction of Delany, is postmodern. Hence, Robert Elliot Fox's Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany, a bold articulation of the form and thematics of the postmodern that sutures the writers at the margins to this very canonical conceit. The postmodern, more than its modernist forerunner (or against its predecessor, some would argue), disrupts the narratives situated in a Western episteme by offering up alter-narratives. Under this formulation, the foregoing "black" hole sheds the negative significations and becomes densely rich and wonderful.
Literary scholar Jeffrey Allen Tucker would agree. In his A Sense of Wonder: Samuel R. Delany, Race, Identity, and Difference, Tucker uses Fox's critical, postmodern insight as his launch pad to explore the sci-fi world of Delany. The postmodern is Tucker's antidote to the racial paradox he endeavors to split with Delany's post-Nova oeuvre as his subject: the tendency of critical racial formulation to concretize in the corridors of the new, liberal universalism in which identity no longer matters, a position he ascribes to literary scholar Ross Posnock, and the old(er), reactionary construction of race by black nationalists [End Page 215] and essentialists. By locating himself within the critical space of the postmodern, with its alter-narrative equivalences reconstituted along relatively equally situated racial and ethnic groups, Delany, Tucker argues, provides a prism for including racial identity as one of several within a "multiplexity" of non-hierarchical possibilities. His almost trenchant defense of race, contra Anthony K. Appiah and Paul Gilroy, most notably, depends neither on biological determinisms, or solely on discursive formulations. Instead, he argues in responding to the charge that Delany dismisses "identity politics," identity simply is, or is not, and resists dismissal and circumscription: "if this is so, perhaps it is because Delany is a skeptic of efforts to specify an agenda for any identity...