This March, African-American indie author Milton Davis released his long-awaited Steamfunk adventure From Here to Timbuktu. Filled with heroes, heroines and (of course) all things steam, the story is set an alternate 19th century world where the United States shares North America with a nation of liberated slaves called Freedonia, Mali is still a powerful kingdom in West Africa and an ambitious Prussian officer has nefarious motives. It’s a fascinating, imaginative bit of world building that should be welcomed by everyone in the genre. Not so however for racist trolls, who live to crush black dreams.
The year is 1870. As the young country of Freedonia prepares to celebrate fifty years of existence, a young bounty hunter by the name of Zeke Culpepper is hired by a wealthy businessman to find a valuable book. In the kingdom of Mali on the continent of Africa, veteran warrior Famara Keita has been assigned to find that same book and bring it back to its rightful owner. And in the newly formed nation of Germany, an ambitious Prussian officer seeks the book as well for its secrets that could make Germany the most powerful nation in the world. The result is an action adventure like no other!
That’s how author Milton Davis introduces us to his new novel From Here to Timbuktu. The book is a culmination of world building and serials he’s been publishing on his group page Wagadu for several years. Describing himself as “a history nut from way back,” Milton was inspired to create this particular world in part by Steven Barnes’s Lion’s Blood–an alternate history telling of slavery and “discovery” in America. One of the ways speculative fiction can work against racism and decolonization is to re-imagine our past, altering the power dynamics that we are accustomed to in order to illuminate hidden histories and silenced voices.
The Steampunk genre, with its retro-futuristic focus, seems especially suited for this. Set in an era of gender inequity, colonialism, slavery and other defining elements of the Victorian Age, one would expect Steampunk to be a fertile ground for such explorations. Only for a long time, it hasn’t been. Mainstream Steampunk seemed content in dressing up in bustles and colonial pith hats and even Confederate gear, without nary a thought about the larger issues of the time. What did it mean to be Native American in a 19th century Steampunk America? What was it like to be woman of color, or poor, or LGBTQ, or ALL of those at once, in the Old Weird West? What was it like to live in a China beset by steam-powered English and French opium dealers? How would a Sepoy Mutiny shake up the oppressive Raj in a Steampunk British Empire?
Writer Balogun Ojetade over at the blog Chronicles of Harriet put it succinctly:
Steampunk has the power to rip open the 19th Century’s belly and examine its clockwork guts – and to rearrange those guts in new ways – but most Steampunk authors – and indeed most Steampunks – choose to avoid the issues of racism, sexism, classism, colonialism and imperialism.
To meet this challenge, members of marginalized groups began to create their own Steampunk visions to explore voices and perspectives Beyond Victoriana. Out of this was born the term Steamfunk. It’s purpose? To do exactly that. Steamfunk seeks often to tell stories set in a Steampunk world but from a black perspective. Why? Because everyday mainstream Steampunk wasn’t. It’s really that simple. It is a parallel genre created to address and explore what’s missing in the mainstream genre. It’s purpose is to make Steampunk more inclusive, wholistic and diverse.
More diversity? New perspectives? Why that shouldn’t bother anyone right? I mean at the end of the day, if you like all things steam, gadgets and corsets–this just means MORE steam, MORE gadgets, MORE corsets! Just from voices and cultural backgrounds you haven’t heard from before. So that shouldn’t bother anyone right? Yeah, wrong.
From its inception Steamfunk has had its detractors. The critiques often go like this: “Isn’t this reverse racism? Isn’t this just segregation? Why can’t you just call it Steampunk?”
Each question comes with its own mix of ignorance and arrogance. Reverse racism after all is about as real unicorns, and has become the refuge of those wanting to derail and deflect any discussion of racism. Let these whiners tell it, and simply saying the words “Slavery was bad” is reverse racism. Because, derp. As for segregation, words mean things folks. Segregation was Jim Crow. Segregation was Plessy v. Ferguson. Segregation was jailing black bodies into forced servitude. Segregation was a racial set of formal and informal codes, laws and mores that subjugated black people for a century of American apartheid, stifling economic, educational, political and social growth. Segregation was brutal, gruesome, violent death. Ask Mary Turner. Ask Emmett Till. Ask Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins in that Birmingham church. And then before you hurl that word so casually again, think about just Shutting the Entire F–k Up. As for why not just call it Steampunk, because you don’t control how other people, especially marginalized people, choose to define themselves. Period. End of story.
Enter a one Alabaster Punk. Deciding that Steamfunk somehow offended his sensibilities, this individual has created a false Facebook page pilfering the book cover of Milton Davis’s From Here to Timbuktu. His purpose? As he states on his page: “If THEY can be proud of their separatist “Steamfunk”, WE can be proud of our white’s only ALABASTERpunk.” He goes on to call Steamfunk “fighting racism with racism” and deems his page “only fair.” And true to troll-form, he’s decided to follow Milton Davis around in social media to deride and slander him as a “militant” out to start a “race war.”
Seriously. He said “race war.” Over dressing up with a monocle and writing about airships. “Race war.”
Ponder the sheer amount of hyperventilating hyperbole here for a moment. A thinking, breathing human being has taken the time to set up a false social media account and spends MORE time harassing and slandering a black creator online. And why? All because of a thing called Steamfunk. All because black people dare to dream.
Alabaster Punk claims his mission is peace, describing himself as “a Black who seeks love between races.” Yeah. Imma gon head and call this one real quick. Alabaster Punk is an aggrieved WHITE GUY. For one, he claims whiteness in one post as the WE of his “white’s only ALABASTERpunk.” Second, ain’t met a Negro yet who refers to himself as “a Black.” Despite his virtual blackface minstrelsy, he’s just one more of the disgruntled masses of angry white geekdom–a cousin to the Sad Puppies of the Hugo Awards and the sexist tools behind Gamer Gate.
*Because the internet is anonymous, it could of course be this is actually some black person suffering from acute internalized racism of epic New Black proportions. But I’m willing to bet all the continents in Africa that it’s just a white dude. Either way the inherent racism in his rhetoric remains the same–no matter WHO it is.
The irony here of course is that while Alabaster Punk has created a faux “white’s only” group in retribution, Steamfunk is actually anything but. Steamfunk and its writers have been interviewed within mainstream speculative fiction. The 2013 debut Steamfunk Anthology has been reviewed in mainstream Steampunk. And, hold onto your top hats, that same anthology has *white* contributors. White writers, write Steamfunk. Oh noes! How did that happen?! A Steamfunk film in the works has real live *white* people in its cast and a diverse crew. Milton Davis is thus officially the *worst segregationist ever.*
The greater irony here is what it says about diversity in speculative fiction. Milton Davis does not exist within the current fiasco of The Hugos or even the endless dust-ups over identity and marginalization in SFWA. Milton’s approach to diversity in genre fiction has steadily been premised on an idea that marginalized groups should be at the forefront in its creation. He has pushed, supported and practiced this philosophy, founding a publishing company MVmedia. Under this independent imprint, he has published his own books of SFF and put together anthologies that have showcased various diverse authors–including myself.
Hey fanbros who grumble about political correctness in geekdom or who lose your sh*t over a black Human Torch. You know how you (and Michelle Rodriquez) are always griping, “Why don’t they just create their own?” Well, Milton is doing EXACTLY THAT. He’s not personally coming for your superheroes or your lily-white Eurocentric fantasy worlds of horse lords, knights and bad hygiene. He’s creating his own, and providing a way for others to join in that space.
And yet you’re STILL out here complaining? Why? Because at the heart of it all, at the cold bitter center, it’s not “fairness” you’re concerned about–it’s the very existence of difference. Diversity isn’t frightening to you just because you think it’s going to take away your favorite guys in tights; it’s frightening simply because it dares to exist. Milton Davis is essentially the Rosewood or Black Wall Street of speculative fiction. He’s giving you what you claim to want. But even that isn’t enough, just like it wasn’t for enough to save Rosewood or Black Wall Street in Tulsa. Because hate has to seek out and destroy. It has to find a way to crush dreams.
But you won’t. Because we’re going to keep on dreaming. We’re going to keep on creating. Oh make no mistake, we’re going to come for your Thors and your Human Torches and your Captain Americas and your James Bonds. We. Will. Drink. Your. Milkshake! AND we’re going to create our own. AT THE SAME DAMN TIME. So ya’ll best get ready to put your full troll on and meet us in Temecula on every front. Cuz WE RIGHT HERE. And this ain’t nothing but the Prologue.
For those of you out there who want to see more diversity, who enjoy slaying trolls like Legolas, here’s the best way–buy From Here to Timbuktu. SUPPORT! Purchase a copy. Heck, buy a second one for a friend. Spread the word, pub the book and make Milton Davis’s new Steamfunk novel a success. Because that’s the best and only way to banish trolls and their dream crushing attempts, back to their little trollish caves.