In March of 2015, I presented at the conference called Speculative Humanities: Steampunk to Afrofuturism at Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey. The title of my audio-visual presentation was The White Fantastic Imagination and the Invisible Universe. In my 20 minute time slot, I talked primarily about the research I have been doing for my upcoming documentary, Invisible Universe, which explores the history of representations of Black people in speculative fiction books and movies. I focused on what I call the “White Fantastic Imagination” and “The Invisible Universe”. This talk is new for me, and I am still developing and extending it for future conferences, including SFRA 2015 and possibly Ferguson is the Future, but until then, below is an outline of it and the slide show I used for my presentation.
Here are the notes on the slides:
Slide 1: Title card.
Slide 2: I generally define speculative fiction, as a genre term for various types of literature/film/art/media that include elements of the futuristic, and/or the fantastic, and/or the extra-imaginative in its storytelling content.
Slide 3: My journey on this documentary began at a conference entitled, Blacks in Science Fiction: A New Frontier at Howard University in March 2003.
Slide 4: My research began with the anthology, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora edited by Sheree Renee Thomas, 2000, which contained a variety of short SF stories, excerpts from SF novels and essays by Black SF writers, including one called, Racism and Science Fiction, by Samuel R. Delany. This essay essay became the foundation of my own research.
Slide 5: It is a term I have come up with to try to describe much of the SF work I had been reading and watching, to try to understand why it omitted authentic representations of Black people. I began to call it the White Fantastic Imagination, which to me is the ideology of white supremacy in speculative fiction. It is white supremacy literally claiming time, space, matter and energy as its own, in futuristic, fantastic, and/or extra-imaginative narratives. We see the White Fantastic Imagination at play, for example, when we don’t see Black people proportionally represented in narratives about the future (Flash Gordon or Star Wars or Gattaca), or when we see Black people as the Other, or as monsters or aliens (literally in Alien or Enemy Mine or Predator), or when we see Black Death as a regular phenomenon in SF books and movies and other media (Night of the Living Dead or Damnation Alley or The Shining).
Slide 6: What I have learned and realized is that The White Fantastic Imagination and its framework are inherent to speculative fiction, because it originates in the prototypical forms of speculative fiction, in genres like Utopian Fiction, Fantastic Voyages, Scientific Romances and Lost Race/Lost World narratives. These prototypical forms of speculative fiction developed within a world being defined by European imperialism, especially on the continent of Africa. For example, English reports of expeditions to Africa and their encounters with African people and their cultures often paralleled and/or mirrored the English fantastic tales of travels to unknown worlds, like to the moon or Mars – in language, attitude and form. Or Africa and Africans became major literary elements within the prototypical speculative fiction texts where Africans played servants and/or hostile natives in some of these fantastical worlds.
Slide 7: My definition of the Invisible Universe is, “Creators of African descent who use the genre(s) of speculative fiction to create futuristic, fantastic, or extra-imaginative narratives, from their own perspectives, that directly or indirectly critique and/or resist the White Fantastic Imagination.” The Invisible Universe is informed by African/African American culture and history, and is about the pursuit of agency, liberation, independence and better futures for Black people.
Slide 8: Starting in 1859, then continuing through the nadir of race relations in an overtly, white supremacist, post-Reconstruction South, and up till 1916, several African American writers delved into prototypical speculative fiction writing, most especially Utopian Fiction. Their stories imagined better future societies for Blacks, but also spoke to the realities of African American life in 19th and early 20th century America.
Slide 9: Separate from Utopian Fiction, there were several African American writers who worked primarily outside of the SF genre, but used the futuristic, the fantastic and the extra-imaginative in their work since around the end of the 19th century, as well as throughout the 20th century.
Slide 10: The first generation of African American writers of SF developed over a 30 year period beginning in 1962. The first few were the result of a dynamic mix of African American migration out of the South, unique educational opportunities and compelling individual ambitions, but they also emerged at a moment in history that seemed to represent a backlash against the struggles of the Civil Rights and Black Power Eras, possibly akin to a second nadir in race relations in the United States.
Slide 11: African American filmmaking, with an emphasis on the strategy of creative control, either through writing, producing and/or directing films, has been the major way for Black filmmakers to shape their cinematic image, especially in response to the continuous racial stereotyping by Hollywood. In the genre of SF, creative control by African Americans has been rare in general, but a recognizable spurt of SF films by African American creators throughout the 1990’s has proven thus far to be the first generation of Black SF filmmaking.
Slide 12: The term, Afrofuturism was originally propelled by academics and cultural critics like Mark Dery, Alondra Nelson, Kali Tal, Greg Tate, Tricia Rose and Kodwo Eshun in the 1990s, and was concerned with the aesthetics and intersections of technology, Afrocentricity, science fiction, the African Diaspora, etc. In general, its existence and popularity in the consciousness of Black people, and to some extent the mainstream has grown in the 2000s and 2010s, partially assisted by technology and social media networks. However, it could also be that there is a critical mass of resistance developing again amongst Black creatives, academics, social justice activists and Black people in general, against increased white supremacist antagonism, staggering inequality and state terrorist violence. A third nadir? Black folks are not only imagining and creating better futures in their art, but in their daily lives, too.
Slide 13: Social media links card
SAMPLE SNEAK PEEK:
Bonus Material: There were a few short rough cut clips from my documentary included with the presentation, one of which I include here. This is an early sample of a rough cut of an opening sequence. It will be updated in the documentary. Consider it a sneak peek!