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Imaginative Spaces and Connecting Lines: SFF and the CSK

According to Nichelle Nichols, the first Black woman cast as a main character on a major television show, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Trekkie. In fact, she stated that it was his support that prompted her to continue her role as Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek even though she was planning to leave the show after the first season. In an NPR interview, Nichols recalled the words Dr. King said that made her reconsider: “For the first time, we [Black people] are being seen the world over as we should be seen…do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch?” Dr. King saw Nichols’s character as a representation of Black identity as it should be viewed in society, and he saw this vision of Black excellence represented in a science fiction/fantasy (SFF) television show.

It is important to note, additionally, that Coretta Scott King also watched the show. And in fact, Coretta Scott King had a SFF history all her own. While the two were courting in the early 1950s, Coretta sent Martin a copy of Edward Bellamy’s novel, Looking Backward: 2000–1887, a SFF story in which the main character falls asleep in the nineteenth century and wakes up in a turn-of-the-twenty-first-century socialist utopia. Inside the book, she inscribed the following personal message: “I shall be interested to know your reactions to Bellamy’s predictions about our future.” Her inscription was a critical message to Martin because the story centers a society in which all people are free and equal, individualism has given way to collective humanism, and hierarchy and oppression are eliminated because people work toward mutual benefit. Essentially, Scott King used a SFF novel to initiate conversations about the future of the world and how she and Martin could promote social justice for all minoritized people. SFF was a catalyst for thoughts about social change.

Even though the Scott King family had a history of watching and reading SFF, however, the award bearing Coretta’s name has not given much attention to SFF stories. This was explored in Philip Nel’s book Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, a critical analysis of implicit and explicit racism present in children’s literature and publishing. Nel discovered that out of ninety-eight Coretta Scott King (CSK) Book Award winners from 1970 to 2014, the majority had a realistic or historical focus (shown in the chart below). No winners were centered in the SFF subgenres (i.e., fantasy and science fiction) where stories like Looking Backward and characters like Lieutenant Uhura would fit.

Additionally, TeachingBooks.net, a website that includes curriculum resources for CSK Book Award winners and honorees, shows that there are 317 CSK winners and honorees from 1970 to 2019. However, selecting “science fiction/fantasy” under the sidebar link for genre shows that only six books are categorized as SFF: Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith (2016); H.O.R.S.E.: A Game of Basketball and Imagination by Christopher Myers (2013); The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural by Patricia C. McKissack (1993); The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl by Virginia Hamilton (1984); Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush by Virginia Hamilton (1983); and Justice and Her Brothers by Virginia Hamilton (1979). That is, according to TeachingBooks.net, SFF works have received less than two percent of CSK awards or honors over the course of fifty years. Four of the six were published before 2000, and three of the six were written by Virginia Hamilton.

Of course, traditional publishers often relegate Black SFF authors to the margins, making it difficult to publish speculative stories starring Black characters. In 2014, Walter Dean Myers famously wrote a New York Times op-ed arguing that publishers often depicted Black people as struggling to overcome slavery or racism and that our history was relegated to “folklore about slavery” or stories of the civil rights movement. Any other aspect of Black history was erased. In the same NYT issue, his son, Christopher Myers, argued that there was an “apartheid of children’s literature,” in which “characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth.” In traditional publishing, characters of color were not allowed to enter imaginative spaces, and Black authors were not often granted the opportunity to share their fantastical dreams.

Black SFF writers such as Zetta Elliott and Justina Ireland have stated that traditional publishers historically seemed to perceive Black SFF stories as lacking “mainstream appeal” and “quality.” As Ireland argued in 2016: “SFF publishing as a whole is and continues to be antiblack.” Mikki Kendall wrote, also in 2016, that “the real problem isn’t one of a lack of stories or a lack of talented writers, the problem is a lack of outlets willing to publish stories that don’t center white characters.” Even N. K. Jemisin, winner of a 2019 ALA Alex Award for How Long ’Til Black Future Month? and winner of the Hugo Award for best SFF novel three years in a row (2016 for The Fifth Season, 2017 for The Obelisk Gate, 2018 for The Stone Sky), stated that she had a hard time publishing her first two books “because they were full of black people.”

Recently, though, there has been a marginal shift in Black speculative publishing, especially in the young adult and middle grade categories. Books such as Children of Blood and Bone (Tomi Adeyemi), The Jumbies (Tracey Baptiste), The Belles (Dhonielle Clayton), Dragons in a Bag (Zetta Elliott), Dread Nation (Justina Ireland), Akata Witch (Nnedi Okorafor), Miles Morales: Spider-Man (Jason Reynolds), and Opposite of Always (Justin A. Reynolds) are not only being published, but they are being considered for awards and winning them, gaining media attention, and/or receiving starred reviews. Most are also successful enough to have sequels. Still, even though the last few years have shown an uptick in Black SFF stories written by and about Black people, these stories are largely missing from the CSK Book Awards lists. Why is this the case?

Many of the stories mentioned above meet the basic CSK Book Awards criteria. They are original works that feature Black characters and are written by Black authors. They are written for a youth audience, and they are published in the United States. Per Horn Book, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and/or School Library Journal reviews, the stories have clear plots, well-drawn characters who grow during the course of their arcs, and nuanced portrayals of Black childhood and adolescence. The CSK requirements that are less clearly addressed, however, are those that center portrayal of “some aspect of the Black experience” and whether or not the book seeks “to motivate readers to develop their own attitudes and behaviors as well as comprehend their personal duty and responsibility as citizens in a pluralistic society.”

Although there is no way to uniformly represent “The Black Experience,” in Free Within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children’s Literature, Rudine Sims Bishop illuminated the connecting lines that link Black children’s literature across genres. Specifically, she wrote that the Black literary tradition (1) celebrates Black families, (2) recognizes Black people’s commitment to equity and social pride, (3) reflects the beauty and skill of Black children, (4) relies upon Black history and culture, and (5) honors stories as a method of teaching and knowing. Her findings show the common ways that Black authors portray various Black experiences, and these connecting lines are found not just in realism but also throughout Black SFF.

For example, A Blade So Black by L. L. McKinney is an urban fantasy story featuring a seventeen-year-old cosplaying Black girl named Alice who lives in Atlanta. At the beginning of the story, Alice is attacked by a Nightmare, an otherworldly monster that is the physical manifestation of humanity’s fears, but she is saved by Addison Hatta, the guardian of the gateway between the modern world and Wonderland. When Hatta finds out that Alice can see the Nightmares, he recruits her to fight alongside him as a Dreamwalker, one who travels to Wonderland to defeat the Nightmares before they reach the real world.

Even with these fantastic plot elements and characters, Black experiences are also depicted. Throughout the story, Alice’s mother is a constant presence that provides her with safety and love. Representations of protests after the shooting of a young Black girl by a police officer in the story echo real-world protests and activist movements that have occurred after similar police shootings in the United States. Black cultural events like the viewing of the Black Panther film are acknowledged, and the cover art shows an afro-wearing, knife-wielding Black girl who is ready to take on the world. Lastly, McKinney uses Alice’s journey as a hero to depict the varied facets of Black existence, as Alice is a heroine who fights humanity’s fears, while also attending high school, learning to be a good daughter and friend, and figuring out how to talk to her crush. In this way, McKinney shows that Black life is not always centered around fear and struggle and that Black girls have the capacity to be community leaders and agents of change.

In Cin’s Mark by Zetta Elliott, thirteen-year-old Taj meets Cin in a cemetery. A former slave and current ghost, Cin promises Taj that if he can find and return something that was taken from her, she will help him to escape the contemporary world. Leaving modern society is essential for Taj, for escaping this world might be the only way for him and his mother to be happy again. Specifically, when his uncle, Kev, took his own life after he was wrongfully imprisoned for four years and released without any form of assistance, Taj’s mother began to experience depression. So, Taj must care for himself, taking odd jobs, avoiding the case worker, and trying to survive middle school.

Throughout the story, Taj’s relationship with his mother is centralized. She is the motivational catalyst that sets the story in motion, and Taj’s desire to help his mother forms the foundation for his connection to Cin. Further, through conversations between numerous Black youth characters concerning wrongful experimentation, gender and sexual identities, uses of proper pronouns, and bullying, Elliott acknowledges the types of vital dialogues that real-life Black youth are having today. She also embeds conversations about Octavius Catto, Marian Anderson, and Beyoncé, connecting intergenerational Black icons within one text. Through the plot, characters, and setting, Elliott subtly uses storytelling techniques to engage in anti-oppressionist work by interrogating the history of museums, challenging our biases about others, and centralizing our self-care in a violent world. She does all this within the context of a ghost story.

In both of these stories, the authors rely on connecting threads that have been used by Black authors of children’s literature for over a century, suggesting that they are portraying Black experiences in their stories. These same connecting lines are represented in numerous other speculative stories, such as Amber and the Hidden City (Milton J. Davis), Hoodoo (Ronald L. Smith), The Chaos (Nalo Hopkinson), and Noughts and Crosses (Malorie Blackman). Also, by positioning Black youth as heroes, change agents, activists, and community members, the authors are attempting to use their SFF stories to show readers that Black children can and do exist beyond “the townships of occasional historical books” and the historical periods of slavery and civil rights movements.

Ultimately, these stories and numerous other SFF stories written by Black authors portray Black youth as multifaceted human beings who are not limited by the boundaries of trauma, struggle, or reality. They create a pass card for Black youth “to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth.” They challenge readers not only to examine their own responsibilities as citizens who are actively engaged in diversity and equity, but to confront the positions and biases that have caused the imagination gap to exist in the first place. Filling in that gap is a major part of dismantling the traditional publishing arena that excludes Black SFF writers and their stories centering Black youth. Filling in the gap is another way to journey toward a more pluralistic society. Eliminating the gap is essential, as it centralizes the fact that Black people, generally, and Black children, specifically, dream.

In “AfroFuturism: Past-Future Visions,” Alondra Nelson noted that Black creative life has too often centralized realism. She argued that Black people fear the speculative because abstraction and experimentation could cause us to “lose the ability to recognize and protest the very real inequities in the social world.” But by avoiding the imaginative, the speculative, and the unreal, we now have assisted in creating a world that is unreceptive to our dreams. This relegates classic Black speculative fiction — such as “The Goophered Grapevine” by Charles W. Chestnutt (1887), Imperium in Imperio by Sutton E. Griggs (1899), “The Comet” by W. E. B. Du Bois (1920), and Black No More by George S. Schuyler (1931) — to the margins. It places the speculative fiction legacies of Coretta Scott King and Dr. Martin Luther King in the shadows. However, it is essential to focalize the SFF stories and reading histories of Black people because, as Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas states in her book, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, “resolving the crisis of race in our storied imagination has the potential to make our world anew.”

The CSK Book Award was designed to commemorate the lives and works of Coretta Scott King and Dr. Martin Luther King — therefore SFF must not be erased because imagination and speculative fiction existed alongside their activism. In the letter to Coretta that included his response to her inquiry about Bellamy’s novel, Dr. King wrote:

Let us continue to hope, work, and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color. This is the gospel that I will preach to the world. At this point I must thank you a million times for introducing me to such a stimulating book…

Ultimately, using a SFF novel, Coretta Scott King and her future husband engaged in a dialogue about the future of humanity and the Black experience in the United States. They relied upon speculation to explore possible futures and the trajectories of the world. They saw Nichelle Nichols as an artistic expression of Afrofuturistic Blackness in media. Thus, I can only imagine the futuristic, visionary, and speculative thinking that could happen if the CSK Book Awards expanded their winner lists to better include these genres of literature. All Black children need more access to the kinds of stories that informed the Scott King family’s social justice philosophies. SFF is a part of the Black experience. We just need to acknowledge it.

S. R. Toliver About S. R. Toliver

S. R. Toliver is a PhD candidate in language and literacy education at the University of Georgia and a 2019 NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellow. She studies YA speculative fiction, Afrofuturism, and Black girl literacies. Her academic work can be found on her website DiverseFutures.net. Follow her on Twitter @SR_Toliver

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