Black History Month: Speculative Fiction by African and African Diaspora Writers Posted on February 20th, 2023 by

Sidebar: Want more information about speculative fiction of all kinds in the Gustavus Library collection? Check out our Guide to Speculative Fiction at Gustavus Library.

Black History Month is a great time to highlight the long history of authors of Africa and the African Diaspora who used science fiction, fantasy, and myth to imagine alternative worlds in response to racism, discrimination, and colonialism, as well as the many contemporary black speculative fiction authors writing challenging and award-winning works in the field today. Until the end of Black History Month, stop by the Hasselquist Room on the main floor of Gustavus Library to see a selection of books from our growing “African and Diasporic Speculative Fiction” collection.

Terms of the Art

Although speculative fiction (a catch-all term for science fiction, fantasy, horror and other genres that call upon readers to use their imaginations and ask, “What if?”) is produced all around the world, in recent years there has been an explosion in the number of science fiction and fantasy books being produced by African authors and authors of the “African Diaspora” — a term used to refer to people of African heritage living in countries around the globe.

Several terms have emerged to describe this overall body of art and literature, and the nomenclature can get a little confusing at times. The term “Afrofuturism” was coined by a white literary critic, Mark Dery, in the 1994 essay, “Black to the Future : Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.”

Dery defined Afrofuturism as,

Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth- century technoculture — and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future — might, for want of a better term, be called Afro futurism.

Afrofuturism has come to describe not just books, but an entire artistic movement known as Black Speculative Arts Movement, including dance, film, the visual arts, and musicians like Sun Ra, Tribe Called Quest, and Janelle Monae.

Even as the Afrofuturism label has been embraced by some, for many black authors and artists it hasn’t always felt quite right. For a rapidly growing group of speculative fiction authors born on African continent — many of whom profiled by Geoff Ryman for his seminal series for Strange Horizons magazine, 100 African Authors of Speculative Fiction — a different term is needed to describe their specifically African brand of speculative fiction, which often emphasizes technologically advanced African cities and civilizations, along with fantasy that blends magic and myth drawing on distinctly African folklore and religions — in contrast to the Celtic and Gothic mythologies of the Tolkien-inspired fantasy that dominated Western fantasy markets since the 1960s.

Enter Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor, the New York Times bestselling author of such books as Who Fears Death?, Lagoon, and the Binti and Akata Witch trilogies. In describing her own genre-bending works in a blog post that was later republished as the introduction to Africanfuturism : an anthology, Okorafor coined two terms, Africanfuturism, and Africanjujuism.

I am an Africanfuturist and an Africanjujuist. Africanfuturism is a sub-category of science fiction. Africanjujuism is a subcategory of fantasy that respectfully acknowledges the seamless blend of true existing African spiritualities and cosmologies with the imaginative. […] Africanfuturism is similar to ‘Afrofuturism’ in the way that blacks on the continent and in the Black Diaspora are all connected by blood, spirit, history and future. The difference is that Africanfuturism is specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of- view as it then branches into the Black Diaspora, and it does not privilege or center the West.

Perhaps the most geography-neutral term has been suggested by Marcus T. Haynes, a fantasy author and speculative fiction scholar at Georgia Gwinnett College, who uses the term “Black Speculative Fiction.”

Black Speculative Fiction is an umbrella term for speculative texts with an emphasis on the people and culture of the African Diaspora. It is referred to as “Black” and not African, African-American, Haitian, etc. to show that the label includes ALL people of the Diaspora and places their culture, experiences and THEM at the forefront of these imaginative works. For a people who have been told constantly that they have no history or future, that they can never be super or a hero, and that their very existence is a nightmare, Black Speculative Fiction allows them to imagine themselves outside of what the world has told them they must be. Black Speculative Fiction challenges global anti-Blackness and forces readers, Black or otherwise, to accept the polylithic nature of Blackness.

Haynes’s definition emphasizes how fiction of this kind represents the future of black people in an optimistic way and in ways that shows the richness and diversity of African and diaspora cultures. Haynes’s website also provides definitions for a number of subgenres in this overall category, including sword-and-soul, Rococoa, steamfunk, dieselfunk, cyberfunk, Afrofuturism, Black-tech, and black horror.

Classics of Black Speculative Fiction

In addition to building up the collection with new speculative fiction works, we’ve also found a number of older sf works by black authors in the collection, which can be thought of as forming a black history of the future. Here are some to check out:

Blake, or the Huts of America (1859; 1862-63) by Martin R. Delany

Cover of Blake or the Huts of America

Blake, or the Huts of America by Martin R. Delany, edited by Jerome McGann
Call Number: PS1534.D134 B57 2017
Publication Date: 2017-02-13

SFWA Grandmaster Samuel R. Delany (no relation) describes this book by physician, soldier, and abolitionist Martin R. Delany as the first work of speculative fiction by a black authors.From the publisher describe of the 2017 edition edited by Jerome McGann:

Martin R. Delany’s Blake (1859, 1861–1862) is one of the most important African American―and indeed American―works of fiction of the nineteenth century. It tells the story of Henry Blake’s escape from a southern plantation and his subsequent travels across the United States, into Canada, and to Africa and Cuba. His mission is to unite the black populations of the American Atlantic regions, both free and slave, in the struggle for freedom, whether through insurrection or through emigration and the creation of an independent black state. Blake is a rhetorical masterpiece, all the more strange and mysterious for remaining incomplete, breaking off before its final scene. This edition of Blake, prepared by textual scholar Jerome McGann, offers the first correct printing of the work in book form. It establishes an accurate text, supplies contextual notes and commentaries, and presents an authoritative account of the work’s composition and publication history. In a lively introduction, McGann argues that Delany employs the resources of fiction to develop a critical account of the interconnected structure of racist power as it operated throughout the American Atlantic. He likens Blake to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, in its willful determination to transform a living and terrible present.

Imperium in imperio : a study of the Negro race problem : a novel (1899) by Sutton E. Griggs

Cover of Imperium in imperio

Imperium in imperio : a study of the Negro race problem : a novel by Sutton E Griggs
Call Number: PS1534.D134 B57 2017
Publication Date: 2017-02-13

From the publisher:

Sutton Elbert Griggs (June 19, 1872 – January 2, 1933) is best known for his novel Imperium in Imperio, a utopian work that imagines that within the United States there is a separate African American state. This work centers on the disclosure of an African American ’empire within an empire,’ a shadow government complete with a Congress based in Waco, Texas. The two main characters are childhood friends separated by wealth, education, skin tone, and political outlook; one is a militant and one an integrationist. The light-skinned and more militant Bernard Belgrave has been hand-picked to serve as president and advocates a takeover of the Texas state government, while the dark-skinned, college-educated Belton Piedmont argues for assimilation and cooperation. Bernard has Belton executed as a traitor, leaving the potentially violent and unstable Bernard in control of the Imperium as the novel ends.

Of One Blood : Or, the Hidden Self (1902-1903) by Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins

Cover of Of One Blood : Or, the Hidden Self

Of One Blood : Or, the Hidden Self by Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins
Call Number: PS1999.H4226 O36 2004
Publication Date: 2004-02-03

From the publisher:

Pauline Hopkins is considered by some to be the most prolific African-American woman writer and the most influential literary editor of the first decade of the twentieth century, and Of One Blood is the last of four novels she wrote. Mixed-race medical student Reuel Briggs doesn’t give a damn about being Black and cares less for African history. When he arrives in Ethiopia on an archeological trip, his only interest is to raid as much of the country’s lost treasures as possible so that he can make big bucks on his return to the States. The last thing he expects is to be held captive in the six-thousand-year-old buried city of Telassar, ruled by the beautiful Queen Candace. In Queen Candace’s glittering palace, surrounded by diamonds, rubies, sapphires—wealth beyond his wildest dreams—Reuel discovers his true Blackness and the painful truth about blood, race and the ‘other half’ of his history which has never been told. Relevant, thought-provoking, and entertaining, Hopkins’s novel is intended, in her own words, to ‘raise the stigma of degradation from [the Black] race’ and its title, Of One Blood, refers to the biological kinship of all human beings.

Black No More : being an account of the strange and wonderful workings of science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940 (1931) by George Schuyler

Cover of Black No More

Black No More by George Schuyler
Call Number: PS3537.C76 B56 1989
Publication Date: 1989-11-07

From the publisher:

The landmark comic satire that asks, ‘What would happen if all black people in America turned white?’ It’s New Year’s Day 1933 in New York City, and Max Disher, a young black man, has just found out that a certain Dr. Junius Crookman has discovered a mysterious process that allows people to bleach their skin white–a new way to ‘solve the American race problem.’ Max leaps at the opportunity, and after a brief stay at the Crookman Sanitarium, he becomes Matthew Fisher, a white man who’s able to attain everything he’s ever wanted: money, power, good liquor, and the white woman who rejected him when he was black. Lampooning myths of white supremacy and racial purity and caricaturing prominent African American leaders like W. E. B. Du Bois, Madam C. J. Walker, and Marcus Garvey, Black No More is a masterwork of speculative fiction and a hilarious satire of America’s obsession with race.

The palm-wine drinkard and his dead palm-wine tapster in the Dead’s Town (1943) by Amos Tutuola

Cover of The palm-wine drinkard

The palm-wine drinkard by Amos Tutuola
Call Number: PR9387.9.T8 P35 1953
Publication Date: 1943

From the publisher:

This classic novel tells the phantasmagorical story of an alcoholic man and his search for his dead palm-wine tapster. As he travels through the land of the dead, he encounters a host of supernatural and often terrifying beings – among them the complete gentleman who returns his body parts to their owners and the insatiable hungry-creature. Mixing Yoruba folktales with what T. S. Eliot described as a ‘creepy crawly imagination’, “The Palm-Wine Drinkard” is regarded as the seminal work of African literature.

The spook who sat by the door (1970) by Samuel Greenlee

Cover of The Spook Who Sat By The Door

The spook who sat by the door
by Sam Greenlee

Call Number: PS3557.R396 S66 1970
Publication Date: 1970

From the publisher:

Angered by the complacency of middle-class blacks and the two-faced liberalism of whites, Dan Freeman, posing as an Uncle Tom, gains the training–as a token black CIA agent–and the status–as the director of a social work program–to establish groups of militant young blacks who will fight for freedom for their people. Continuously available in print since 1968, this novel has become embedded in progressive anti-racist culture with wide circulation of the book and hotly debated film. A literary classic, The Spook Who Sat by the Door is a strong comment on entrenched racial inequities in the United States in the late 1960s. With its focus on the “militancy” that characterized the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, this is the story of one man’s reaction to ruling-class hypocrisy in ways that make the novel autobiographical and personal. As a tale of a reaction to the forces of oppression, this book is universal.

Dhalgren (1975) by Samuel R. Delany

Cover of Dhalgren

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
Call Number: PS3554.E437 D34 1975
Publication Date: 1975

From the publisher:

In one of the most profound and bestselling science fiction novels of all time, Samuel R. Delany has produced a novel ‘to stand with the best American fiction of the 1970s’ (Jonathan Lethem, bestselling author of Fortress of Solitude). Bellona is a city at the dead center of the United States. Something has happened there…. The population has fled. Madmen and criminals wander the streets. Strange portents appear in the cloud-covered sky. Into this disaster zone comes a young man—poet, lover, and adventurer—known only as the Kid. Tackling questions of race, gender, and sexuality, Dhalgren is a literary marvel and groundbreaking work of American magical realism.

Wild Seed (1981) by Octavia E. Butler

Cover of Wild Seed

Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler
Call Number: PS3552.U827 W54 1981
Publication Date: 1981

From the publisher:

As the acclaimed Patternist science-fiction series begins, two immortals meet in the long-ago past – and mankind’s destiny is changed forever. For a thousand years, Doro has cultivated a small African village, carefully breeding its people in search of seemingly unattainable perfection. He survives through the centuries by stealing the bodies of others, a technique he has so thoroughly mastered that nothing on Earth can kill him. But when a gang of New World slavers destroys his village, ruining his grand experiment, Doro is forced to go west and begin anew. He meets Anyanwu, a centuries-old woman whose means of immortality are as kind as his are cruel. She is a shape-shifter, capable of healing with a kiss, and she recognizes Doro as a tyrant. Though many humans have tried to kill them, these two demi-gods have never before met a rival. Now they begin a struggle that will last centuries and permanently alter the nature of humanity.

Imaro (1981) by Charles R. Saunders

Cover of Imaro

Imaro by Charles R. Saunders
Call Number: PS3569.A8234 I43 2006
Publication Date: 2006

From the publisher:

Imaro is a rousing adventure… a tale of a young man’s continuing struggle to gain acceptance amongst his people, and to break the cycle of alienation and violence that plagues his life. Imaro is heroic fantasy like it’s never been done before. Based on Africa, and African traditions and legends, Charles Saunders has created Nyumbani (which means “home” in Swahili), an amalgam of the real, the semi-real, and the unreal. Imaro is the name of the larger-than-life warrior, an outcast, who travels across Nyumbani, searching for a home. Like his contemporaries, Karl Edward Wagner (Kane) and Michael Moorcock (Elric), Charles Saunders brings something new to the traditional heroic fantasy tale. A broad knowledge of, and passion for, the history and myths of Africa led to the creation of a heroic fantasy character the likes of which the world has never seen. Imaro is no Tarzan… no Conan… Imaro is a warrior out of African legend. Saunders’ novel fuses the narrative style of fantasy fiction with a pre-colonial, alternate Africa. Inspired by and directly addresses the alienation of growing up an African American fan of Science Fiction and Fantasy, which to this day remains a very ethnically homogonous genre. It addresses this both structurally (via its unique setting) and thematically (via its alienated, tribeless hero-protagonist). The tribal tensions and histories presented in this fantasy novel reflect actual African tribal histories and tensions, and provide a unique perspective to current and recent conflicts in Africa, particularly the Rwandan genocide and the ongoing conflict in The Sudan.

Dark Matter : a century of speculative fiction from the African diaspora (2000)
and Dark Matter : Reading the Bones (2004) edited by Sheree Renée Thomas

Cover of Dark Matter

Dark Matter edited by Sheree Renée Thomas
Call Number: PS648.S3 D37 2000
Publication Date: 2000

Cover of Dark Matter : Reading the Bones

Dark Matter : Reading the Bones edited by Sheree Renée Thomas
Call Number: PS648.S3 D376 2004
Publication Date: 2004

At the turn of the 20th century, Sheree Renée Thomas edited two landmark anthologies of black speculative fiction taking stock of the history of the field.

From the publisher description for Dark Matter:

Like dark matter, the contributions of black writers to the sf genre have not been directly observed or fully explored. For the most part, literary scholars and critics have limited their research largely to examinations of work by authors Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler, the two leading black writers in the genre. Currently there is a considerable body of scholarship dedicated to the work of these formidable authors, and there is room for yet more. However, both sf and mainstream scholarship have overlooked or ignored the contributions of less well known black writers. It is my sincere hope that Dark Matter will help shed light on the sf genre, that it will correct the misperception that black writers are recent to the field, and that it will encourage more talented writers to enter the genre.

From the publisher description for Dark Matter : Reading the Bones:

Dark Matter was an innovative, landmark anthology featuring some of the most profound and moving speculative fiction from the African diaspora. Now in a new volume combining classic tales from great authors with original stories, essays, and interviews from emerging black writers, editor Sheree R. Thomas divines greater insight into the stunning variety of the black literary tradition. From oral folktales to futuristic science fiction, from the comedy of the trickster to haunting meditations on survival, these authors explore love and lore, identity and community.

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