Before Delany, before Butler
May 26, 2014 11:23 AM   Subscribe

The Black Fantastic: Highlights of Pre-World War II African and African-American Speculative Fiction: pulp historian Jess Nevins attempts to shine a light on a long neglected part of science fiction and fantasy.

Not all the books mentioned in the article are in the public domain, but below is a list of the ones that are available online:
  • Blake, or the Huts of Africa (1859) - Martin Delany: alternate history story of a successfull slave rebellion in the American south and Cuba
  • The Conjure Woman (1899) Charles W. Chesnutt: the first speculative fiction collection by a writer of colour
  • Iola Leroy; Or, Shadows Uplifted (1892) - Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: the first African-American utopia
  • Imperium in Imperio (1899) - Sutton Griggs: a response to Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward
  • Light Ahead for the Negro (1904) - Edward A. Johnson: a time travel story to the post-racism utopia of 2006 America
  • The Comet (1920) - W.E.B. Dubois: New York City is destroyed by the toxic gasses of a passing comet
Pauline Hopkins's Of One Blood, the first African American novel featuring both an African setting and African characters, is not available online, (though is still in print) so instead here's Martin Japtok's 2002 critical essay on it: Pauline Hopkins's Of One Blood, Africa, and the "Darwinist trap".

For those more interested in contemporary African/African-American science fiction, the current issue of Paradoxa is devoted to it.
posted by MartinWisse (16 comments total) 94 users marked this as a favorite
Excellent post, thank you.
posted by dng at 11:25 AM on May 26, 2014

I wonder what kind of results you'd get if you took some sci-fi fans, split them into two groups, and gave them a collection of these stories (probably should leave out Dubois; he's too well-known). The collection one group gets presents them as a group of forgotten "Golden Age" pulp authors with no mention of their race, while the other presents them as a collection of early African-American SF authors. The groups are asked to review the collections.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:36 AM on May 26, 2014 [8 favorites]

Where do Mike Resnick's Kirinyaga series fit into this?
posted by infini at 11:37 AM on May 26, 2014

This looks pretty great.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:39 AM on May 26, 2014

infini: Kirinyaga way, way post-dates this stuff, and is straight-up African rather than African-American. (I thought they were good but uncompromisingly difficult stories. The only Kenyan I've known, a technologist of Kikuyu ancestry, praised them highly, which led me to seek them out.)
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:05 PM on May 26, 2014

The link in FPP says African and African American, but I didn't really think about the pre WW2 aspect, thanks for pointing that bit out.
posted by infini at 12:08 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sangermaine: given that all but the Dubois are on specifically African or African-American topics, I suspect modern readers would either correctly conclude their authors were Black, or, if they assumed the authors were turn-of-the-century white Americans, be wary for Jim-Crow-ism. It's funny how the dialog in something like The Conjure Woman can seem horribly racist or a brave voice from the wilderness depending only on one's knowledge of its source.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:27 PM on May 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

("Before Delaney" is kind of a funny title for a subject which begins with ... Delaney. One thing I found when reading in historical A-A literature is the recurrent and important presence of that surname; Chip Delaney's coming out of a well-established family tradition.)

OK, I will shut up now. I get over-excited about certain subjects sometimes.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:34 PM on May 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

The Conjure Woman is in direct dialogue with people like Thomas Nelson Page, Joel Chandler Harris, and the other "Happy ex-slaves talk about how wonderful it is befoah the woah" genre of plantation fiction. Chesnutt's doing some very clever things with the romance of reunion (his framing narrative is a clueless Northern carpetbagger, who his Uncle Julius schools regularly, in collusion with the carpetbagger's wife). The stories fly nicely under the white radar, and unlike Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose race was a major selling point, I think it was not immediately clear to most contemporary readers of the Uncle Julius stories that Chesnutt was black.
posted by LucretiusJones at 12:38 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is technically a double for the above-the-line link, but I think this post has more than enough additional content to stay.
posted by zamboni at 1:19 PM on May 26, 2014

Jess Nevins rocks.
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:44 PM on May 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks so much for this post!
posted by lord_wolf at 3:16 PM on May 26, 2014

I'm not trolling here, honest, but I'd love to know if the science-fictional aspects of the theology of the Nation of Islam intersect with the pulps.
posted by Glomar response at 3:21 PM on May 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Delany talks about some of these books in a really good piece from 1998 on racism and science fiction – I suspect this was a source for the io9 piece?
posted by with hidden noise at 4:58 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I suspect this was a source for the io9 piece?

Nevins quotes it directly.
As Samuel Delaney points out, Blake "is about as close to an SF-style alternate history novel as you can get."
posted by zamboni at 8:57 PM on May 26, 2014

But Nevins is very much an expert on what you might call the pulp fantastic, not just black science fiction, but everything from Victorian penny dreadfuls to pre-Golden Age comics.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:23 PM on May 26, 2014

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