Sheree R. Thomas’ 2000 anthology Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora delivers what it promises. One clarification, however: it is not a Resnickian collection of works about members of the African Diaspora but works by members of the African Diaspora.
Introduction: Looking for the Invisible • (2000) • essay Sheree R. Thomas
Thomas sets out to introduce readers to works of speculative fiction by black authors, in the process revealing that they have been part of the field for a very long time.
“Sister Lilith” • (2000) • Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Lilith, first woman, gives her perspective on her replacement by trophy wife Eve and the men who enabled Adam’s contemptible behaviour.
“The Comet” • (1920) • W. E. B. Du Bois
New York has been slain a comet, leaving only a black man and a white women. Can calamity inspire them to bridge the vast social chasm between them?
For some reason this collection is very short on endings where white people don’t turn on black people as soon as is practical. I wonder why that is?
“Chicago 1927” • (2000) • Jewelle Gomez
The vampire lives unseen among her fellow African Americans, her hunger a reasonable cost for the security her abilities grant her. Extending her gifts to her friends could save a life but at the cost of revealing what she truly is.
Black No More (excerpt) • (1931) • George S. Schuyler
Doctor Junius Crookman’s marvellous device can transform the most African-featured person into a Caucasian. Access to white society is a matter of sufficient money and a willingness to turn one’s back on one’s fellow blacks as soon as one is transformed.
Dubois appeared skeptical of the essential good nature of white people but Schuyler, a noted Black conservative, seems pretty dubious about people in general. I don’t know if Schuyler would have been aware of it but Argentina managed a similar process of erasing their African population to white without the need for artificial vitiligo. All it took was prejudice and wilful blindness.
If I recall correctly, Fred Pohl once mentioned reading a novel where the villains planned to use a device much like Crookman’s to allow black people to pass as white. I wonder if he was misremembering Schuyler’s book or if someone else read Black No More and decided to make a dumber, more bigoted version.
Separation Anxiety • (2000) • Evie Shockley
For a century, African Americans have lived in their isolated communities, sequestered from the white population outside. Now fashion is changing: should fame tempt a woman into venturing outside her familiar world?
“Tasting Songs” • (2000) • Leone Ross
Obsession leads to an affair, with tragic consequences. Years have passed but the story has not quite come to its end.
I can’t help but notice it’s not the cheating husband who paid the price for giving in to temptation.
“Can You Wear My Eyes” • (2000) • Kalamu ya Salaam
A simple transplant allows one man to see through the eyes of a woman, something he’s not cognitively suited to appreciate.
I wonder if there’s some sort of subtext to “man forced to see world as women see it is broken by the experience?” Probably not.
“Like Daughter” • (2000) • Tananarive Due
Technology gave Denise the chance to recreate herself. Denise should have turned down the opportunity.
Access to cloning will make certain parenting failure modes much worse. In this case, it is a combination of “I will make you into the you I should have been,” and the emotional trauma inflicted on a clone as their template demonstrates crippling weaknesses they may have passed on with their genes. Or with their nurture. There are no winning options here except for the clone’s future therapist.
“Greedy Choke Puppy” • (2000) • Nalo Hopkinson
Modern people may have forgotten monsters exist but Granny remembers.…
Rhythm Travel • (1996) • Amiri Baraka
Music serves as a literal bridge between eras…
This is a very short piece so we’re denied the hilarity of what ensues once this marvellous device is mass produced.
“Buddy Bolden” • (1996) • Kalamu ya Salaam
Why sing? The protagonist may not be sure what they truly are but they know the answer to that question.
This story has a remarkable essay by a white reporter concerning the performer.
This reporter is a registered theorist on why White people are fascinated by listening to the sounds of their victims’ pathetic crying.
is the least of it.
Aye, and Gomorrah… • (1967) • Samuel R. Delany
Space travel demands a high price. The people who pay it are transformed into the focus of sexual obsession.
Nothing makes working conditions more tolerable than being the focus of some stranger’s fetish.
“Ganger (Ball Lightning)” • (2000) • Nalo Hopkinson
Beware the sex toys run amok!
How the heck did these devices pass even the most rudimentary consumer safety tests?
“The Becoming” • (2000) • Akua Lezli Hope
Become the music!
Another example from SF of metaphor imagined as physical reality.
“The Goophered Grapevine” • (1887) • Charles W. Chesnutt
Beware the cursed vineyard!
This could very easily be adapted for Scooby Do. Is there a curse or is it just a profit-driven scam?
The Evening and the Morning and the Night • (1987) • Octavia E. Butler
Duryea-Gode Disease cannot be cured, only managed, its final stages deferred but not prevented. But even persons carrying the genes for the condition may be misinformed about its full ramifications.
This has a short afterword from Butler about the roots of the story. It’s tempting to see every Reagan-era story about incurable medical conditions as being about HIV but that was not Butler’s model at all. She had in mind conditions like PKU, Huntington’s and Lesh-Nyan, as well as the ways society has reacted to carriers (for example, by referring to them as carriers).
“Twice, at Once, Separated” • (2000) • Linda D. Addison
Enlightenment demands its price, in this case a quest and the burden of knowledge previously hidden.
“Gimmile’s Songs” • (1984) • Charles R. Saunders
Dossouyye’s host spins a marvellous, tragic tale but as is the custom in stories such as this one, leaves out important details.
This is an example of what Milton Davis calls “Sword and Soul”, a story of a wandering adventurer in a world inspired by Africa. If you’ve ever wondered “what would Conan have been like stripped of its unthinking bigotry?”, this would be a place to start.
“At the Huts of Ajala” • (2000) • Nisi Shawl
Bargain wisely when you bargain with gods.
A lot of stories like this have the human punished for overreaching, for wanting something more than their assigned lot. Not this one.
“The Woman in the Wall” • (2000) • novelette Steven Barnes
Tossed into a concentration camp, her husband murdered in front of her, an American woman learns how far she will go to keep her step-child alive.
“Ark of Bones” • (1974) • Henry Dumas
A fishing trip takes a detour into fable when a young man’s claim of magical prowess proves true.
“Butta’s Backyard Barbecue” • (2000) • Tony Medina
A dancer’s ambitious moves succeed beyond reason.
Future Christmas (excerpt from The Terrible Twos) • Ishmael Reed
The new, improved, fully commercialized Christmas provides an unexpected niche for an ambitious Black Peter.
I wonder what this is like in the context of the work from which it was taken?
At Life’s Limits • (2000) • novelette Kin Ibura Salaam
Earth is a tempting flower but for some extraterrestrials, one from which would-be pollinators never return.
There are some interesting parallels between this and “Buddy Bolden”. Both play with the idea of otherworldly beings posing as humans, a role that’s a lot more difficult to escape than embrace. It’s not a matter of one being influenced by the other. If publication date is anything to go by, they were created at the same time.
The African Origins of UFOs (excerpt) • (2000) • Anthony Joseph
I will defer commentary until I track down the work from which this was excerpted.
“The Astral Visitor Delta Blues” • (2000) • Robert Fleming
Frank Boles sets out to forget his troubles with the help of alcohol. Instead, he experiences a wholly unfamiliar, possibly extraterrestrial, set of troubles.
The Space Traders • (1992) • novelette Derrick Bell
The aliens can give America the funds and the technology it needs to be great again. The only price they ask is every black person in the country.
I remember this story greatly affronted some regulars on rec.arts.sf.written when it was first published, who felt it took an unrealistically dim view of race relations in the US. Of course, we now know at least half of white women and six in ten of white men would happily sell minorities and women down the river given even the most implausible promise of prosperity in return.
“The Pretended” • (2000) • Darryl A. Smith
Built in the image of the vanished African-Americans, the robots proved too disquieting a reminder for white people to tolerate.
When I say “vanished”, I mean “exterminated”. It’s important to choose one’s words careful to avoid offending white people with excessively frank terminology.
“Hussy Strutt” • (2000) • Ama Patterson
A story of abuse and apocalypse.
Racism and Science Fiction • (1998) • essay Samuel R. Delany
A Delany’s eye view of racism in SF, he correctly predicts that African-American writers will be tolerated by the white majority as long as they are rare enough to be exceptional. As soon as a sufficient fraction of black (and other non-white) writers join the field, expect a backlash.
This too angried up the blood of certain people on rec.arts.sf.written.
Why Blacks Should Read (and Write) Science Fiction • (2000) • essay by Charles R. Saunders
Exactly what it says on the tin. The most telling argument is that if blacks do not tell their stories, Mike Resnick will do it for them.
Black to the Future • (1999) • essay by Walter Mosley
Although he feels there are only two major black SF writers at the time he wrote the essay, noted mystery (and sf!) writer Mosley predicts that will change and soon.
And it did.
Yet Do I Wonder • (1994) • essay by Paul D. Miller
Miller’s chosen medium is music but he too embraces SF.
The Monophobic Response • (1995) • essay by Octavia E. Butler
Butler explores the utility of science fiction.
I am still annoyed that she died so young.
This is only 17 years old and yet in many ways it feels like it comes from an entirely different era. It’s not just that some of the material is vintage: the context I am reading this is completely different from the one I read it in back in the 2000s. There’s a mixture of optimism and pessimism in the collection; the hope that more black voices would be published was reward but so too was the pessimism about race relations in all their manifestations in America.
Please direct corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com