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  • Darkies Never DreamRace, Racism, and the Black Imagination in Science Fiction
  • John G. Russell (bio)

Darkies never dream. They must laugh and sing all day Can't forget your troubles when you're thinking what they are

—Song lyric from the film Bubbling Over (1934)

In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.

—Thomas Jefferson (1853 [1785], 150)

White men have imagination, Negroes have little, animals have none.

—Edgar Rice Burroughs (quoted in Barnes 1998, 264)

Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?

—Mark Dery (1997, 180) [End Page 255]

Once the proverbial nildor1 in the room, race now looms large as an object of critical discussion and interrogation within both the genre at large and academe. Often presented as a subtext of and for the allegorical exploration of alterity/alienation, race and racialist thinking infuse science fiction in both its literary and cinematic manifestations. However, nowhere is this more evident than in the discourse of blacks and science fiction, not only with regard to their depiction in genre works but also to their positioning as consumers and producers of them.

This paper examines the latter, with particular focus on the discourse of black science fiction readership, or more precisely the purported lack thereof. Indeed, although the number of blacks active in science fiction as writers has continued to increase since the 1990s, their absence from the genre was often attributed to an overstated indifference if not aversion to science fiction. While it is true that the number of black readers and writers of SF remain proportionately small compared with the number of whites, I argue that black engagement with the genre has been marked less by absence than by invisibility, that is, by a failure framed by popular prejudices, stereotypes, and social expectations embraced by both those within the genre and outside it to perceive that presence. Moreover, I argue that this apparent absence of blacks from the genre has been employed to reify socially entrenched notions that portray blacks as lacking the mental agility to engage in visionary speculation or so encumbered by the oppressive realities of everyday racism that their imaginative abilities have been impaired, a view that has prevented those who subscribe to it from examining the actual intersections between blacks and the genre—however peripheral that presence in the genre may at first appear.

To this end, the relocation of blacks from the margins of science fiction entails more than an analysis of how blacks and blackness have been imagined within its borders. It must also interrogate perceptions of the black imagination itself, particularly how it has been portrayed in writings and public discourse from within and outside the genre about the relationship of blacks to SF as both producers and consumers, the alleged writing and reading habits of blacks serving as the focus of much armchair speculation. One of the earliest speculations on the issue occurred in 1974, when Theodore Sturgeon, writing in Galaxy magazine, wondered why there were so few science [End Page 256] fiction writers and surmised that "the average black, especially the ghetto black, is far too concerned with reality than to try to escape it," a view he would reiterate in a 1976 interview in Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction (Ashley 2007, 9). According to Kali Tal, Sturgeon raised the issue again in a graduate writing workshop she attended in 1977, during which Sturgeon asked his students to write a science fiction story explaining the phenomenon (Tal 2002, n.p.).2 Like Sturgeon, Tal, at the time a "precocious white sixteen-year old," and her white classmates "all wrote stories about how the day-to-day struggle for survival left black folks no time or energy to construct fantasies" (Tal 2002, n.p.), an explanation that Tal has conceded is incorrect (Tal 1996, n.p.).

On the other side of the color line, black SF author and aficionado Charles Saunders in his 1977 essay "Why Blacks Don't Read Science Fiction" offered his own answer to Sturgeon, arguing that it was...


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