- Notes toward a Black Fantastic: Black Atlantic Flights beyond Afrofuturism in Young Adult Literature
Introduction: The Cartographies of Black Speculative Imagination
We are in a cultural moment where speculative storytelling reigns supreme. As we commemorate the centenary of The Brownies’ Book, edited by W. E. B. DuBois and Jessie Fauset, one recalls Fern Kory’s observation that “The fact that the first stories offered to children by the editors of [the NAACP’s influential magazine] Crisis were folktales and fairy stories suggests that these genres were central to their conception of an African American children’s literature” (91). While the pages of The Brownies’ Book’s first issue include the reality of segregation and the necessity of protest, there are many evocative glimpses of whimsy and wonder as well. Delightful tall tales such as Peggy Poe’s “Pumpkin Land,” thrilling horror like Edna May Harrold’s “The Ouija Board,” and even problematic fairy tales like A. T. Kilpatrick’s “Gyp: A Fairy Story” were selected for the magazine’s debut. As Kate Capshaw notes, “One distinguishing feature of The Brownies’ Book material is its investment in fantasy . . . the magazine’s larger interest in the fantastic and mystical has been overlooked” (219). These opening notes toward a Black fantastic remain resonant, and demand retheorization of Black speculation’s origins beyond Afrofuturism.
In The Dark Fantastic, I explored the way that race operates in the popular fantastic traditions of the West, primarily within mainstream speculative transmedia that is produced in the United States and England, and marketed to youth and young adults all over the world. Proposing that Black characters in such stories were trapped in a cycle that I named the dark fantastic, my analysis of popular young adult media revealed pernicious [End Page 282] movement through four stages: spectacle, hesitation, violence, and haunting (Thomas 26). Specifically, I argued that Black girl characters were interpellated in imagined storyworlds as monstrous, invisible, and always dying. Their frightening fates mirror the realities of imperiled Black girlhoods in the real world (150–51). Only through emancipation—either through Black feminist storytelling or agentive youth restorying—could such characters escape the cycle.
Breaking this cycle requires rethinking our assumptions about magical child and teen characters. It requires reimagining who deserves magic in stories, and rethinking the treasure maps we’ve had for the past few centuries. In a passage from Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie whimsically invites the audience to think about the cartographies of the dream-world created through fantasy:
I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island, for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there. . . On the whole the Neverlands have a family resemblance. . . On these magic shores children at play are forever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.(Barrie)
Although as adults, we lose access to Neverland, it is a place that we know all too well. We cannot land, but we hear the sound of the surf because we have been there, and our journeys have shaped our lifeworlds. But our Neverlands can echo and reinforce structural inequality when not all children, youth, and young adults can land on its shores. Therefore, rethinking the cartographies of our imaginations requires more than a paint-by-numbers approach to endarkening speculative fiction for youth and young adults. Such rethinking requires that we comprehensively redraw the maps of our minds, investigating the shape of our thoughts that have been formed and reformed through reading children’s literature, young adult fiction, and speculative storytelling.
Our minds and imaginations have been shaped by and through what Claudia Rankine has termed the racial imaginary. In...