Recently, the World SF Blog held a roundtable on the issues of non-Western narratives in speculative fiction. Touched upon in the talk, were problems of inclusion, the lacking (or often-ignored) presence of non-Western writers in the genre and the entire post-colonial project when it comes to writing and the non-Western world. It was an insightful discussion that can be read in its two-part entirety starting here. What received the most discussion by the panelists however, was the topic of how Western writers depict non-Western settings, including issues of exoticism and the sometimes futile search for “authenticity.” This left me with my own set of questions. What about the “other” that exists within the non-Western world? What about those people within the larger dominant society, who are marginalized from its center similar to the ways in which a colonized geographical space is distanced from the metropole?
The clamor for diversity in speculative fiction has long been heard–and answered. In fantasy, this has come about partly in the form of writers of African descent creating their own realms of spears and sorcery. Termed “Sword and Soul” by some, this sub-genre of fantasy uses an often fictionalized Africa as a backdrop, creating heroes, stories, lands and adventures outside of the Eurocentric norm. Yet a cursory glance shows that most of these writers (self included) are several generations removed from the Africa of our imaginings. So what happens when the Westernized-other seeks to depict the non-Western world–one which remains both prominent and elusive in his/her imagination?
As with most things, there’s a history . . .
The Africa of Our Imaginations
What is Africa to me? Copper sun or scarlet sea / Jungle star or jungle track / Strong bronzed men, or regal black / Women from whose loins I sprang / When the birds of Eden sang? / One three centuries removed / From the scenes his fathers loved / Spicy grove, cinnamon tree / What is Africa to me?–Countee Cullen
African-American poet Countee Cullen penned his famous Heritage in 1925, in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, where a “New Negro”–cobbled together by an existent Afro-American and Afro-West Indian diaspora community, descendants of those survivors of the Middle Passage–sought to negotiate identity, race, alienation and belonging, in the western world their ancestors had helped shape. Within this cultural flowering of literature, painting, sculpture, performance, jazz, philosophy and politics, echoes of Africa were never far from mind. From visual artists like Aaron Douglas to the UNIA Garvey Movement to West Indian radicals to the historical symbols chosen for black collegiate organizations, Africa figured prominently.
The Africa of Countee Cullen’s Heritage was both romantic and exotic, at once lavished as a black “Eden” and stereotyped as filled with “savage . . . jungle boys and girls.” For Cullen, as many other black artists and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance, Africa was not readily accessible as a physical space, but instead visited primarily in books and writings. Most of these were written by white scholars and in the travel journals of self-styled explorers, which depicted Africa as a “dark continent,” an exotic, unknowable place filled with strange peoples and stranger customs, utterly devoid of the norms of Western “civilization”–or as in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), where civilization went to die. This was the influence that would shape the Africa of Cullen’s imagination: jungles and primitives, wild animals and naked flesh. Yet, despite these unflattering stereotypes, it is at the same time a place he yearns for, a lost piece of his being that he believes lurks just beneath the surface, waiting to be rediscovered “in an old remembered way.” Cullen clings to this imagined Africa, willing to give up all the trappings of his Western life to return to a dream-like past. As one writer notes, in Heritage the dark “paganism” of even the most fantastical imaginings of Africa “triumphs over Christianity,” and the oppressive alienation of blackness in American society—”and for Cullen that is finally a good thing.”
For many other Renaissance writers, Africa was not just an “exotic” allure, but a genealogical memory of which they had been robbed by the unfortunate circumstances of history. The Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay in his 1922 Outcast, spoke of this theft and sense of displacement plainly: “For I was born, far from my native clime,/ Under the white man’s menace, out of time.” Near always, this imagined Africa was one of the past rather than the present–of the premodern and precolonial, separate and distinct from the reality of white dominance that now engulfed much of the continent since the fateful Berlin Conference of 1884. Often this past invoked pharaonic Egypt and Ethiopia, both of which figured prominently in contemporary histories of Africa and were recognizable from the literature of antiquity; with their primacy, they also served to challenge Western (Greco-Roman) claims to hegemony of the ancient world. Gwendolyn Bennett in her 1920s poems dreamt of an Africa of “slim palm trees” and “lithe Negro girls,” where she could listen to “silent sands, / Singing to the moon” before the face of the Sphinx, and hear the “chanting / Around a heathen fire / Of a strange black race.” This was the glorious Africa she believed surged within the sad souls of an oppressed people, that lay “hidden” behind the dehumanizing “minstrel-smile.” This African past, stereotyped or romanticized, was thus a source of pride and power, a place to which the natally alienated could return, physically or imaginatively, that would negate the seemingly all-powerful grip of white supremacy (in its varying forms of historical exclusion, scientific racism, Jim Crow terrorism, colonialism, etc.) that permeated the Western world. An article on the African Image in the Harlem Renaissance at the National Humanities Center sums it up best:
Africa as the perceived dark continent and America as part of western civilization provides the generalized clash that shapes African-American representations of Africa during the Harlem Renaissance. Africa becomes the space of license, the imaginative arena in which a speaker in a poem or a character in a text can shed the clothing of civilization and live a simpler, more natural, more uninhibited life.
Social activist and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1897 expose, Strivings of the Negro People, would term this discordant sense of belonging and alienation “double-consciousness,” created through the “othering” of people of African descent in the United States that reduced them to a state of colonized persons:
One feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not with [wish] to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.
Du Bois in the “Negro” finds his link to Africa. It is the Negro’s dark skin, his very “blood” that marks him as different, the “other,” set apart from the dominant “whiteness” that typified American self-perception. To be born black in America was to carry this Africa, this markedly undeniable difference, in your everyday existence, by which you would be judged. Yet despite all its negative connotations, it was not something blacks were willing to surrender, to “bleach” away. And contrary to all the pronouncements of white Western superiority, there was something it could learn from the African experience.
For Du Bois, Africa was also a distant home, a place of “Negro beginnings,” distinguished by ancient kingdoms and rulers–whose deeds and imagery would appear in later books or headline the NAACP Crisis, which he managed. Yet Du Bois was not unfamiliar with the Africa of the present, becoming a fervent Pan-Africanist and helping to draft the London Resolutions of the Second Pan-African Congress of 1921, insisting that Africa be ruled by Africans. Neither was the poet Langston Hughes, who in the early 1920s traveled throughout much of West and Central Africa. Though the Africa he saw, fractured by class, caste and in the grip of European colonialism, was far from the romantic ideals set forth in his earlier poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers, it nevertheless remained a source of pride and continued to appear in his writings. It is this attachment to Africa, this loyalty and longing for a perceived ancestral home, that would unite so much of the black Western world against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, of which I’ve written about previously.
This connection to the African past in black Western art and writing has reemerged at various stages in American history, reaching likely its greatest post-Harlem Renaissance height during the Black Protest Movements of the 1960s, which saw it expressed especially in Black Pride, the Black Arts Movement, the creation of Black Studies departments in academia and social activist alliances between Afro-American activists, West Indian radicals and African independence struggles. It would surge again in the late 1980s/early 1990s, during Hip Hop’s “Golden Age,” as a young, black post-Civil Rights Generation, found identification through verses written to the Motherland, giant wooden beads, Africa Medallions, colorful clothing, hairstyles, Afrocentricity (both in academia and without) and Malcolm X. The jazz-funk-Hip Hop trio Digable Planets would succinctly capture the brief era in their 1993 song Where I’m From: “The kinks, the dance, the prints in all the shirts/ My grandmother told my mother it’s Africa at work.” As was the case previously, this Africa was both one of the imagined past and the reality-based present– the former taking the shape of Ankhs, the latter symbolized most graphically by Apartheid. Around this time “black” would also shift into the more ancestral “African-American,” an attempt to hyphen (if stopping short of merging) Du Bois’s “two warring ideals” into one symbolic appellation.
Rewriting Africa with Sword &
If you grew up black, fascinated with fantasy, you likely spent a great deal of time searching for yourself in mainstream, books. Any mention of the word “swarthy” or “dark” would do. There you were in Far Harad, riding your Mûmakil. Or you could be found waving your scimitars about in the Underdark. So what if Drizzt Do’Urden had features like the rest of his Euro-Elven brethren? He had ebon skin! Good enough! Too bad among the cursed black-skinned Drows, he was the only “good one.” The few times I did run across any Africans, they were brutish savages who lived alongside hordes of ape-men in the Hyborian Age. Loving fantasy, and attempting to negotiate a healthy black self-identity as a child, typified the “unreconciled strivings” of Du Bois’s double-consciousness.
At the time, due mostly to the inequitable state of affairs that is the nexus of race, the publishing world and political economic theory, I had little idea that some alternative visions did exist. In the 1970s, African-American (now Afro-Canadian) writer Charles Saunders began publishing short fantasy stories in small magazine presses. From the beginning, his stories pulled on African history, as opposed to, as he put it, “the usual Celtic, Arthurian and Scandinavian underpinnings” that dominated (and continue to dominate) the modern fantasy shelves of bookstores. “I saw a need,” Saunders claimed, “and believed I could fulfill it.” This would lead to the now famous and ground-breaking Imaro saga. Set in a precolonial African-based world of spears, monsters and magic called Nyumbani, Imaro tells the tale of an outcast warrior and his larger-than-life quest for his unknown origins (yes, I catch the irony of that theme too). Saunders, who had grown up reading the likes of Edward Rice Burroughs Tarzan novels and Robert E. Howard’s Conan, struck upon the idea of writing fantasy during the heady political days of the 1960s–in part due to the heightened race consciousness about identity and Africa, which he credits to a good number of African students at his predominantly black college: “I started reading more about the history and culture of Africa. And I began to realise that in the SF and fantasy genre, blacks were, with only few exceptions, either left out or depicted in racist and stereotypic ways. I had a choice: I could either stop reading SF and fantasy, or try to do something about my dissatisfaction with it by writing my own stories and trying to get them published. I chose the latter course.”
Saunders wasn’t the only one. In 2008, indie author Milton J. Davis introduced the aptly named world of Uhuru in his Meji saga. Like Saunders, Davis was inspired by a diversity of popular speculative fiction, including Frank Herbert’s Dune and Robert E. Howard (like myself, he had previously never read Imaro). After reading the Guadeloupean author Maryse Conde’s Segu, a work of historical fiction depicting 18th century West Africa, he was inspired to create a fantasy world drawing on African history and mythos. By 2011, having been introduced to each other through their respective works, Saunders and Davis collaborated to co-edit a volume of writings called Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology. *Saunders coined the term Sword and Soul sometime after 2005, to make the sub-genre distinct from the larger Euro-dominated Sword and Sorcery.
I was fortunate enough to contribute a short story called Skin Magic to the anthology. And I’ve published two other African-based fantasy stories online, one called Shattering the Spear at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly and another flash-piece called The Nganga’s Nkisi at Hogglepot. Like Saunders and Davis, I found my alternative vision to fantasy in Africa’s varied histories, languages, folklore and cultures. My worlds are not Africa per se (you wouldn’t recognize it on any map), but drawn from various composites and semblances to peoples, kingdoms and myth.
I do attempt to police and critique my writings–every now and then stopping to examine it for tones of sexism, racial/ethnic stereotypes, homophobia, othering and all those unsavory concepts introduced to me through my liberal collegiate education. Still, I’m consciously aware that I am indulging in the long-held diaspora tradition of “re-imagining” Africa. And I do so for my own distinct purposes, tied into those conflicting feelings of belonging and alienation that typify the Du Boisian double-consciousness. My perceptions of this vast, diverse continent and its equally complex history, is inherently that of the outsider, or worse still, the dreaded tourist. I see things with the western gaze, translate them through a western lens and even learn through western methods. At what point was my cultural borrowing a form of “appropriation?” When does culturally distinct cross the line into exoticism? With whose voice are my African-based characters speaking? How does a writer several generations removed from Africa build “authenticity”–and does such a thing even exist? Are these attempts to subvert the dominant Eurocentric narrative in fantasy postcolonial? Or is it merely Western-derived fantasy with an African face?
The discussion on the World SF blog provide some interesting insight to these questions, which I’ll try to explore (without the promise of any answers) in Part II.
*blog art- DAW cover art for Imaro II: The Quest for Cush. Yes, it’s kinda sexist. That’s a whole notha blog.
Pingback: Spears, Sorcery and Double-Consciousness- Part II | Phenderson Djèlí Clark
This is such an excellent post!
You raise very valid points. I grew up with an interest in speculative fiction, although I wouldn’t say I was surrounded by it. Movies were more readily accessible than books as a child growing up in Nigeria. When I did gain access to books upon moving to the UK in my late teens, I too noticed that most of them featured white characters and drew from European history and myth. Dark-skinned characters were usually portrayed in racist, stereotypical ways. This proved too problematic for me, and I would have abandoned fantasy, sci-fi and speculative fiction altogether if I had not come across the works of Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson.
Since then I’ve made an effort to surround myself with works that are created by POC. As such I am familiar with works from most of the authors in the World SF panel and the authors mentioned above. I am glad to see more authors of colour writing in this genre, and I truly wish there was more exposure and less difficulty.
What about the “other” that exists within the non-Western world?
This is a very relevant question. I admit that sometimes, reading the speculative works of Diasporic Africans set in Africa is a bit difficult because the Africa presented still seems exotic and/or strange to me. For example characters with Yoruba names wearing kente and in my mind I would think “in a Yoruba traditional setting it should be aso-oke or adire”…I do try to avoid nitpicking.
Thanks for the comment! I think many of us might have abandoned speculative fiction, especially as we grew older and began examining issues of race and identity, if it weren’t for *finally* stumbling upon the likes of Octavia Butler, Charles Saunders, etc. The larger fantasy/speculative fiction community talks a great deal about this lack of diversity, or stereotyping within the various genres; but little is really done by numerous authors to actually *do* anything about it. The fact that everyone continually draws up small lists of speculative fiction featuring POC, and less problematic ones at that, says something. Unfortunately the sheer difficulty of getting published in the mainstream, or gaining fair exposure if you decide to go indie, restricts many POC writers and then makes their work either inaccessible or obscure. It’s a sad state of affairs.
I admit that sometimes, reading the speculative works of Diasporic Africans set in Africa is a bit difficult because the Africa presented still seems exotic and/or strange to me. For example characters with Yoruba names wearing kente and in my mind I would think “in a Yoruba traditional setting it should be aso-oke or adire”…I do try to avoid nitpicking.
LOL I think you should nitpick. Admittedly, fantasy gives a writer a lot of leeway–to create a whole new past pulling from premodern culture. But to me, the closer you decide to name your cultures *exactly* after existing real life ethnic groups or past polities, cultures–the more closer to the actual people/states you have to be. In fantasy, more imagination has its benefits. If you see something that glaring…without some reasonable explanation (in this fantasy world an Akan-like kingdom conducts extensive textile trade with a magical Oyo Empire?? lol), I say point it out…if only to tell the writer that an insider will immediately notice something that fails to make sense.
The questions you pose at the end and the overall discussion throughout the blog brings to mind a very serious question that many Blacks in the Diaspora must ask themselves, What is Africa to me? To be more exact, for many of us from West Africa we must seriously ask What is West Africa to me…Maybe even after we figure out what does being a descendent of slaves mean to my life, identity, etc. Although you are talking about fiction those that write about Africa, either romanticized into a land of queens/kings and great kingdoms or a land of savage black men and women that only submit to erotic pleasure…the question for me remains..What is Africa to me? I believe Black people of the Diaspora are dealing with as DuBois says a Double Consciousness or some have argued a multiplicity of consciusness in which they are very much so Western but has a desire to fully understand, accept or deny their Africaness. However, one major flaw if a person dares to research and study is that they venture first to Northeast Africa because essentially the European world told us that they are the only ones on the continent (if they even admit that its in Africa) that has contributed anything to the world, technology, religion, or dare I say civilization. So the simple fact that many of West African decent writers fantasize mainly about Northeast mythology already shows thier Europeanized ideals. However, one question that seems to be a major point in your story is asking how do the others write about the others…well I think they write according to their own identity…Many blacks may romanticized Africa simply to debunk the centuries of misconceptions that is a staple aspect of the myths and has been written into the history of the continent…however by not adding the complexity of the fictional world of the other (meaning the good and bad) then you are forcing people to only view those black-skinned written characters in that world ….then they are not Africans but instead some fictional Africans that people do not parallel to the actual stories, kings, queens and kingdoms that did exist…lets face it those that write about the others have a huge responsibility…regardless I love to read the stories and look forward to reading more…
whew! great comment! i think the romanticizing of africa in black imagination is in part due to that whole search for identity and du boisian double-consciousness–for many of the reasons you suggest. i also agree romanticizing was a means to “debunk” historical negativity in popular culture (from academia to media) regarding africa. many blacks in the diaspora were unwilling, and often *unable,* to separate themselves from africa. as long as the continent remained denigrated, so too would its distant descendants. to that end, a re-imagined and redeemed africa had to be invented as part of establishing one’s own identity (in all its complications, which you point out). i think this in part explains the “flaw” you allude to–the african diaspora fascination with egypt and ethiopia (both nubia and abyssinia). this goes back early in the diaspora, with such figures as prince hall in the 18th century and numerous black abolitionists of the 19th century mentioning egypt and ethiopia as a way to validate “the race.” the reasons for this are complicated. i agree much of it was an attempt to fight white supremacy on its own terms; to find african cultures/kingdoms that fit european ideals of “civilization.” if greece and rome had columns and stone cities, egypt, nubia and axum could claim the same; it didn’t hurt that the first two pre-dated the greco-roman world. claiming both, reversed all the claims of white supermacy overnight. west african and central african kingdoms on the other hand were medieval, and couldn’t be used to compete with greco-roman antiquity. also, not much was known about west and central african states at the time in the west–or at least no where as popular and accessible as egypt and ethiopia, which were in greco-roman literaure, the bible, etc. what’s more, all three ancient northeastern cultures were at some point or the other claimed *as white* (people forget that not just pharaonic egyptians, but nubians and ethiopians have been at times deemed “dark whites” by the west). another, more controversial reason, was that in the early 19th century it was much easier for the descendants of slaves to claim kinship with the more ancient northeastern kingdoms, than say dahomey who was still participating in the slave trade; frederick douglas i recall especially wanting nothing to do with certain west african polities due to this. interesting is that equiano, being from west africa, could claim it with fervor–even while criticizing the slave trade. but in a true twist of identity, equiano also validated west africa through western ideals, by claiming the igbo were descended from one of the lost tribes of israel. i think these dynamics still play out today, to varying degrees. my own first foray into writing african fantasy involved ne africa. but there’s a great deal more information today on other parts of the continent, and many black fantasy writers now give special attention to west, central and southern africa as their main settings.
Great Read. Thanks for challenging me to think about my own motivations and views on Africa. I can remember, when I started writing, I made a conscious decision to accept the fact that my outlook on things… my perceptions are from a western lens. The way I form my narratives and prose are western. I can’t escape it. So I must own it. And in so understanding that I try to write my characters as individuals and not stereotypes or caricatures of my western upbringing.
“Appropriation”. We already do it. We are part of a society that was built on it. I know it has its inherent dilemma, but some of the great stories I’ve read have appropriated from a some culture or people that are no longer around. I figure the best way to do it and not be a horrid “arm-chair” tourist is to make them a full three-dimensional human.
BIG-UPS TRINI-MAN. DAT’S REAL TALK YOU PUTTIN’ DOWN. (Don’t cringe, I’m getting’ in touch with my appropriation)
agreed. i think awareness is the best thing. that way we’re conscious as we write or as we review. on the other hand, no one wants to become so analytical it hinders the ability to tell a good story. i don’t think it’s so hard to strike a reasonable balance.
AW RIGHT BRUDDA! WHEN AH BACK IN BROOKLYN WE GO LIME!
LOL!!!!! I’ll probably come down to DC in the beginning of July.
WE GO GALAVANTIN’!!!
Pingback: THE BEST AFRICAN FANTASY MOVIES (That I Know of) « To Lands Far Afield…
Hey Phenderson, long time since you got lost on the way to my house. I truly appreciate this post, (Thanks Kirk!). My experience as a lover of spec-fic and fantasy took a slightly different path. When I turned 8 I picked up Dragonlance Chronicles and read the 1,072 pages three times before the end of the year. There were very few black characters, (only one of lasting importance, and though pivotal and respected, followed a trend an odd trend I don’t quite understand of mauling or maiming black heroes, making them part machine, etc.), although I didn’t really start paying attention to issues of race until much, much later as I started writing.
I’ve always thought that one of the things that makes connecting directly to this past nearly impossible is that where no white person, or Hispanic person, will describe themselves by the continent they come from, black Americans often must. In the same way that a British writer would have to think twice before trying to right from the German experience just because they’re both European, except our challenge is exponentially more difficult. It’s inevitable to write as this “other” that some of the exotic would come out, because that’s what it is too us: removed from our experience, removed from our history, but alive and well in our imaginations, therefore immortal and always changing depending upon the state of our spirit when we look to find it.
Personally, I’ve not tried more than once to write from the African perspective, and I since I grew up as an American, I see no problem with claiming the myths that came from Europe as my own for fodder, in the same way that the religion, and the language was claimed. I’m American, we’re just greedy that way (Mutts, as the non breed, are the healthiest of all canines). The trick then, as I see it, is not so much to write authentically as an African American, but more authentically me, with characters of color that I would have liked to see, without the additional stress of trying to add “blackness”, sprinkled like a garnish into my stories. Do the research, explore and be explored.
Again, thanks for writing this and now I’m on the hunt through your links to find more.
“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” -Kurt Vonnegut
Man sorry for the latest of replies. How’s the BK group going? Sad I had to leave, but relocated to DC. You guys are sorely missed! Our experiences and paths don’t really sound so different! I started out earlier with The Hobbit, but Dragonlance was a *HUGE* influence! And though someone like say, Drizzt Do’Uden’s black skin made me a bit uncomfortable, it wasn’t until later on, sometime in college, that I really began thinking of it critically through a lens of race and difference. I knew there was something missing or inappropriate about the genre, but took a while before I knew how to put it into words…still struggling to do so!
And yes, i think you’re right about the unique approach of those of us in the Diaspora (born of the slave experience) in relating to an ancestral past. Because it is nigh impossible to know *where* precisely we hail from (and because it’s likely those lines are diverse throughout West and Central Africa), we just claim the WHOLE continent! lol There’s a strength to this I think, in that we at times aren’t constricted by nation-state (newly created) or even ethnic constructs; we truly have a “Pan-African” experience and approach when it comes to the continent and its many cultures. So we don’t say, “ah I’m from Cameroon, I can’t write about the Zulu….” ….nope, we just go ahead and say, “I’m writing about the Zulu!” lol Of course, that can lead to its own set of problems.
That being said, I also agree that the world is my oyster. I don’t think any black writer should feel they can’t pull from Teutonic myths if they wish, or wherever! And of course, as I’ve posted in other blogs here, the idea of a black character in medieval Europe is not very far-fetched at all. The point of this blog however, was to talk about the attempts to bring African culture/history into the speculative fantasy realm, in great part due to its marginalized status… Euro-fantasy so dominates the genre, there has been a call (and quite needed) for fantasy that shows off the various diverse cultures of the world–be they African, Asian, Native The other two related blogs to this one go into the pitfalls and problems however that writers, even writers of color, might face when attempting to do so.
Great to hear from you again!
Pingback: Spears, Sorcery and Double-Consciousness- Part II | Phenderson Djèlí Clark
Pingback: Appropriating The Self- Revisting The Africa of Our Imaginations | Phenderson Djèlí Clark
Pingback: Critical Conversations: Marvel’s Black Panther | Troy L. Wiggins