The first thing that comes to mind when you see a lot of these science fiction movies and shows, especially the ones set sometime far far away in the distant distant future, is that black folks aren’t expected to be around in that future. Science fiction is huge, but black science fiction is barely a blip on the screen.
I can’t remember right now who it was I heard say it, but I remember it was funny at the time. Pretty sure it was a black comedian, and I’m pretty sure the movie he was talking about was “Star Wars”, or at least the Star Wars episodes before Billy Dee Williams made his appearance in episodes V and VI as space hustler supreme Lando Calrissian. Far as I can remember, I think that may have been the first time I ever saw a black person in a science fiction movie, or being associated with science fiction in any way, shape or form. I also remember there being some understandable controversy in the black community that while it was cool that Billy D had landed a memorable lead role in one of the most popular and biggest grossing movies of all time, we wondered why he had to be the hustler. Personally I didn’t really care, but I understood the frustration. Interesting black roles were even more barely there then as compared to now, so it’s easy to understand the sensitivity surrounding the nature of those roles.
But like I said, it didn’t bother me much. To me, the edgy characters were always the most interesting and complex. They still are. And Lando jumped off the screen as someone who immediately caught your attention. But after land faded away, and Star Wars faded into the rear view mirror, there hasn’t been much else. And when I look at many of the more popular sci fi novels and authors, I can’t name many (actually not any, but I’m hoping I’m forgetting someone) with a black person as a lead character. It’s like we don’t fit in the narrative somehow. And this isn’t just with white authors, but black authors as well.
Until I came across Octavia Butler more than two decades ago, I had never read or heard of a science fiction or fantasy novel written by an African American. There was no such thing as black science fiction. As if we ourselves couldn’t quite envision how we might fit in such bizarre terrain either. Strangers in a strange land indeed. Better to stick with the here and the now and the real. Flights of fanciful imagination was perhaps a luxury that black writers couldn’t afford to pay because there were so many more urgent topics that we were expected to address. Creating black science fiction was not one of those topics.
But then came Octavia Butler. To me she was like the literary version of Jimi Hendrix, her name writ large in flaming letters on alien shores, announcing not only her own arrival but the impending arrival of others to follow.