Prolific science fiction writer Ray Bradbury died this week, at the age of 91. I read my first Bradbury book in middle school–The Illustrated Man— and it *blew my mind.* It wasn’t my first speculative fiction book by any means. I’d long torn through Middle Earth, traveled Narnia, tesseracted across space and time with Meg and Charles Wallace and tried my hand at inventing with Danny Dunn. (Yeah, let those memories sink in). But the stories in The Illustrated Man were on another level–it was like everything I loved about the old Rod Serling hostedTwilight Zone episodes my mother got me into, but on paper…and with words! From the creepy virtual reality nursery story “The Veldt” to the hauntingly sad “The Exiles” (we made Santa cry!) to every-kid’s-revenge story “Zero Hour,” I knew I’d never look at sci-fi the same way again. Most startling of all was a story by Bradbury called “The Other Foot”–startling to my young PoC eyes, because the main characters were something I’d hardly seen before. They were black.
As I’ve recounted enough times on this blog, as a PoC in my early days of reading speculative fiction, I searched for any mention of characters who could be *remotely* black. All I needed was the word “swarthy” or “dark” or “dusky” or “ebon”–and they were black, at least in my head. Either I went to those extremes, or confront the reality that people who looked like me were all-but absent from the genre.
Here in Bradbury’s “The Other Foot” however, there was no need to ‘create blackness’–these characters were black. They were African-Americans, who had amazingly colonised Mars! Unlike our reality, this futuristic Black Wall Street wasn’t destroyed by marauding racist whites–because this colony had no white people. A sci-fi story with no white people?! I had to flip to the back of the book to make sure Bradbury wasn’t some lighter-skinned bruh passin’–a crafty “Spook Who Sat by the Door.”
As the story goes, turns out the black people in this Martian colony left Earth–America to be exact–to escape the racism and oppression that pervaded the Jim Crow South. Like a latter-day W.E.B. Du Bois and following in a long legacy of black emigration politics, they became fed up with living in subservience and fear and decided to “do for self” and hop on a Garveyite inspired Black Star Line that flew them all the way to Mars. The concept boggled my mind–so much so, I re-read this first part several times just to make sure I got it right.
The tension behind the story turns out to be the imminent arrival of a rocket ship–carrying some white people (see! I knew they had to be somewhere!). The black inhabitants of the Martian colony are agitated, as disputes arise on how the whites should be treated. One side believes they should be welcomed; another, remembering the horrors they’d left behind, suspect nothing but ill-tidings and form a lynch mob. It all comes to a climax when the ship lands and, to everyone’s surprise, a single old white man emerges. He explains that war broke out right after the black colonists left, laying waste to the Earth in an atomic holocaust. When the crowd asks about the many cities of the world, he informs them they’ve all been destroyed–burned away. When the black mob leader, rope in hand, asks about the town in Alabama where his father was lynched, the white man says it’s all gone. He has come to the blacks of Mars,
hat helmet in hand, willing to repent for the past. On behalf of the whites left on the war-torn and dying home planet, he begs the blacks to send rocket ships to take them in as refugees. The whites are so desperate, they’d even be willing to take on all the menial tasks and jobs they once forced upon the blacks. Realizing that the Earth he knew–and all the pain it carried–is now gone, the stunned leader of the mob drops the rope and nods his acceptance, declaring it’s time for a new start. He later reflects that the white man is now just as lonely and downtrodden as blacks had been, and for the first time he sees them with clarity.
To my young eyes, this was the best sci-fi story I had ever read–period! Like the old Eddie Murphy joke about throwing a starving man a saltine cracker, I was so hungry for a story with black characters (and one with such stark social commentary that tackled race head on!) I was certain it was a ritz! The message of confronting the racial past and the black character moving towards understanding and racial reconciliation was moving. It was heart-warming. It was genius.
I held that thought, until about college–when everything from Public Enemy to critical race theory came floating my way. I read the story again in a modern English Lit class, and found my feelings towards it had changed dramatically. I remember the few other black students (all of us filled with race-conscious-collegiate-militancy) decrying the story as a farce. Why did the black folks have to forgive anyone? What was up with those hanker-chief-heads who wanted to welcome the white people with open arms? How come the one person who had a counter-opinion was an “angry black man” stereotype? How did a story about prejudice and racism in the future manage to make the black folks the reverse “racists” who are taught about humanity by the old white guy? And what made Mr. Bradbury think that black folks were just waiting to hold hands and sing kumbaya with their former oppressors? In our re-worked version, the story should either have ended with (1) the mob saying, “No. No. And HELL No! Get back on that ship and look for real estate on Venus, Mr. Christopher Columbus. We seen how it worked out for them Indians” or (2) the black colony locking its targeting missiles on the rocket ship and blowing it out of the sky before it even touched down–a justified preemptive strike.
Re-reading the first part to the story “Way in the Middle of the Air” in Bradbury’sThe Martian Chronicles didn’t help improve my perspective. This earlier tale is told mostly from the POV of whites, watching as the blacks in the American South all pack up and head to Mars. Sentences describing the black bodies leaving as “the slow, steady channel of darkness” grated on my more racially-aware nerves. So too did allusions to fingerprints no longer being found on watermelons (yeah, that’s right), or black children at play described as “pickaninnies rushing in clear water.” How the heck could I have missed all this when I was younger I wondered? My childhood love affair with Bradbury took a serious tarnishing. I didn’t stop reading his other works, or admiring his creative genius. But I saw his whiteness all too clearly–perhaps more than I’d ever wanted.
Okay. So let’s flash forward. If in college as a PoC you get that rush of racial-consciousness and awareness, it takes a few series of life lessons later on to figure out how to apply it critically. So when I picked up both of these stories years later, I tried to give them another chance. Sure enough, they didn’t hold the wide-eyed splendidness of my innocent adolescent mind. I don’t gloss things over and play amnesiac with troubling discoveries–I deal with them. But I found I wasn’t as jaded as that young college guy in that English class. If maturity had brought awareness, a bit more maturity had now introduced nuance.
Ray Bradbury was a man of his time. I usually hate that cliché excuse, because you know who else lived during those times–the people who were getting screwed over. And I’m sure they weren’t like, “oh don’t mind our oppression…we’re just products of our times.” So I don’t accept it as a reasoning for unrepentant white supremacists like H.P. Lovecraft—don’t try selling me on “looking past” On the Creation of Niggers; that conversation will not go well. But Bradbury was no Lovecraft. And the times he wrote in mattered. Bradbury published MC in 1950 and IM in 1951. Likely he wrote his stories of black people on Mars much earlier. Brown V. Board and Rosa Parks were still some years from making history, and the Civil Rights Movement was in its nascency. Groundbreaking films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or To Kill a Mockingbird (all with their own issues when we look back at them), were still a decade and a half away. Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic dreams of racial harmony that put Uhura and Sulu on the bridge of the USS Enterprise without any need to even mention their race, would take just as long to hit American television screens.
Yet Bradbury was not just a man of his time, he wrote ahead of his time–plunging head-first into stories that struck directly at racism, segregation and Jim Crow at a time when no one was certain those well-established walls would even begin to start coming down. It’s quite possible that “Way in the Middle of the Air” was his experimental dip into those troubled waters, where he wanted to convey the perspective of Southern whites if only to highlight the absurdity of their racism. I’m even willing to entertain, as some believe, that those “pickaninnies” and allusions to watermelons were written to be seen through that Southern white lens, though I also understand the reality is that in 1950 many whites (even well-meaning guys ike Bradbury) had not yet been schooled in the fine art of racial sensitivity. I mean Gwyneth Paltrow’s still botching it, and she’s had the benefit of 60+ years of cringe-worthy white racial faux pas to learn from.
Despite its faults, “Way in the Middle of the Air” remains a profound story in which Bradbury sheds some interesting light on the contradictions of American racism. In the story, the very whites who uphold segregation, at the same time are angered by the blacks leaving. How dare they go without giving notice, one white man declares. Others hope bitterly that the rocket ships will explode and kill tens of thousands of the black emigrants–a bitter prayer for mass murder that’s chilling in its lack of basic human empathy. Holding what Bradbury describes as “sour water” in their mouths, they rage and use tactics to keep the blacks from going–but they can’t, as the blacks in the town seem prepared to overcome whatever obstacles are placed in their way. The whites scratch their heads, trying to figure out why the blacks are leaving now, when the poll tax has just been abolished, states are passing anti-lynching laws and they’re getting all kinds of equal rights. “What more they want?” one white asks. “They make almost as good money as a white man, but there they go.” Their inability to understand, to empathize with a people they’ve oppressed, a people who might suddenly decide they’re tired of fighting to achieve “almost,” and just plain fed up, reveals their own blindness to a strain that has long pervaded the history of black social struggle–and Bradbury, while he unfortunately doesn’t give it black voice, taps into it. One of the black emigrants, a character the whites call Silly (described as “all arms and feet and long legs and round watermelon head”–sigh, yeah), listens to the mocking taunts they toss his way in silence. It’s only when he walks a ways off that he yells back a final farewell, asking what the whites plan on doing at night now once the blacks are gone. The allusion to lynching, the nighttime habit of the whites is unmistakable. But what’s also implied is the loss of identity the whites will soon suffer–for if there are no more black bodies to hate, to attack, to oppress, what will whites do then? Who will they be then? What is the worth of whiteness if it has no one against which to claim superiority? In the end the whites are left to grapple with this new existence, as they face the gaping emptiness–both physical and psychological–left in the wake of the black diaspora.
If Bradbury did not spend too much time on black voices in this first story, the sequel “The Other Foot” placed primacy on black agency. Here was an all black world, that had decided the best way to deal with racism was to leave it behind–and had managed to create a society all of their own. Sure, I would have liked to learn more about that journey and the lives they made. Also wonder what happened to all the *other* black people in the world–is there a West Indian, Afro-Latin or African quarter/neighborhood in the colony? And yes, I still think using the “angry black man” stereotype takes away from what could have been a more nuanced and fleshed out black radical perspective. Even if the blacks of the Mars colony had arrived at the same conclusion, it could have come from another source than one old white man expressing rationality to overcome their furious emotions. And if they’d decided to just send him home empty-handed, decided they could forgive but never forget, that would have been something quite daring–quite Bradbury in fact–forcing readers to think perhaps how those on the receiving end of hatred may harden themselves not out of equal hate, but a sense of self-preservation. The oppressed get to be angry too, and aren’t always just waiting to “transcend” and be the “bigger persons.” Deal with that reality.
But, again, this was 1950 and 1951. And in the time these stories were written, they were powerful. Heck, to cause this lengthy of a blog, they still are. So thanks for all the thought-provoking and entertaining tales Mr. Bradbury. You’ll be sorely missed. And just so you know, if you were that old white guy on that rocket ship–I’d let you stay too.
But enuff already with the watermelons.