In which we peek behind the curtain to dive into some of the historical and cultural influences in my novella The Black God’s Drums. I’ll try to make it brief.
Also, it’s not at all brief.
Hey, I said I tried.
As I’ve made plain to everybody who needs knowing, I wrote a book!
Look at it here at the Brooklyn Book Festival just hanging out with all the cool books. Trying to play it off. You ain’t slick!
Well, it’s a novella to be exact. For all the folk that wanted “more,” just know that it started out as a short. The novella came out from Tor.com Publishing just a few weeks back. The reviews and reactions by readers have been more than I could have hoped for. People seem especially drawn to the worldbuilding, as the story takes place in an alternate steampunk New Orleans during an ongoing American Civil War. Worldbuilding always involves the creating of histories. With counterfactuals, tweaking our real-world history is fundamental to providing readers with a setting that’s distinctively different yet with enough landmarks & signposts to be familiar. So, below are some inspirations for the social and political landscape of the world in which The Black God’s Drums takes place, much of it drawn from our own past(s).
Map, New Orleans, 1860 (Published) Philadelphia.
New Orleans: As I stated recently in an interview at Lightspeed,The Black God’s Drums has its origins in my attempts to imagine a steampunk Black Atlantic, one that cuts across traditional boundaries of nation-states and uses the skies as an alternate conduit of exchange comparable to the Atlantic waterway. In this story, New Orleans is imagined as a transnational space, a port city tethered (as it was historically) both to the North American mainland and the larger Caribbean. New Orleans is also this space where the Black Diaspora converges: America, the Caribbean, and Africa. It’s the perfect mashup of cultural loss, exchange, adaptation, synthesis, and creation. My story is also one about slavery and freedom, and the institution of human bondage lies at the very heart of New Orlean’s history and culture–both its past and present. I consulted older maps like the one above to give some geographical sense to my worldbuilding. Some historical books that served as further inspiration as I was imagining: Rashauna Johnson’s Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans During the Age of Revolutions (2016) and Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (1996)
Dessalines Ripping the White From the Flag, Madsen Mompremier, oil on canvas, 2011:
The Haitian Revolution: The point of divergence in this counterfactual world from our own is located in perhaps the most seminal event in the Black Atlantic: the Haitian Revolution. In my imagined retelling, the impact of the revolution is even more profound–leading to liberation and the end of slavery throughout the Caribbean. The story pulls on a lot of historical and interdisciplinary scholarship on Haiti’s role during the Age of Revolutions, including C. L. R. James’s classic work The Black Jacobins (1938) and Laurent Dubois’s Avengers of the New World (2004). The dedication at the beginning of my book quotes Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of the revolution’s leaders, declaration “I have avenged America.” It was pulled from his post-emancipation proclamation in 1804, linking the revolution of enslaved blacks to the decimation of the indigenous people as a shared and centuries-long battle against European conquest, colonialism and subjugation. The recently formed republic would take its new name not from Africa, or Europe, but (at least in their belief) from the old indigenous Taino word for what the Spanish had renamed Hispaniola: Haiti.
A larger sense of the quote is below, in which Dessalines condemns the French as “cannibals” deserving of their fate, which (captured in the painting above) has long sparked controversy. :
Yes, we have rendered to these true cannibals war for war, crime for crime, outrage for outrage; yes, I have saved my country; I have avenged America. The avowal I make of it in the face of earth and heaven, constitutes my pride and my glory. Of what consequence to me is the opinion which contemporary and future generations will pronounce upon my conduct? I have performed my duty; I enjoy my own approbation; for me that is sufficient.
Recruiting broadside for black troops in the North, 1863.
The American Civil War: The Black God’s Drums is set during an ongoing American Civil War. Seeing as how, we don’t seem to be able to get away from that 150 year old conflict today–from Charlottesville to Confederate Flags to our new era of white supremacist Redeemers–it seems forever relevant. In our world, the turning point in the war is brought about in many ways by the enslaved–who, in their continual streaming to Union lines, forced the hands of hesitant Northern civilian leaders (including the President) to turn their struggle in one to “make men free.” But that story was always complicated, by many white Northerners who had no desire to wage a war to end slavery. Others, held Southern sympathies (for varied reasons) and often sought to make a compromise–one that may have allowed for slavery’s continuance, and the Union’s demise. The irony is that while the American Civil War is often deemed a “tragedy,” it was already horribly tragic for those enslaved, and, in its absence, may have seen the institution continued and the nation irrevocably broken.
My story examines these inherent contradictions, in which an armistice brings about a tenuous peace–but at the cost of Black freedom for those still trapped in Confederate held states, and a weakened nation. There is however resistance, which was always part of slavery as well. I make a quick allusion to “Old General Tubman” carrying out a guerilla war on the Confederacy in the 1880s. This is, of course, an allusion to our world’s Harriet Tubman. She got the nickname “General Tubman” from her good friend, John Brown–the radical white abolitionist who, inspired in great part by the Haitian Revolution, sought to foment a slave rebellion. Haiti mourned Brown’s execution as a national event, and a boulevard was dedicated to his memory in Port-au-Prince.
Harriet Tubman was also a military scout, perhaps most famously remembered (in this role) for the Combahee River Raids in June 1863, where she helped lead Union forces in a series of attacks on the South Carolina Lowcountry, freeing slaves and burning down plantations along the way.
Ochun (Oshun), the Bright Lady, Mistress of Rivers and Fertility
West African Religions: At the heart of this story is African spirituality. Or, more precisely, the religious spiritual expressions borne out of the slave-trade created diaspora. Enslaved people from West and Central Africa brought with them varied systems of belief and cosmologies to the Americas. In this “New World,” they blended together, merged with indigenous or Christian ideologies, and created practices as far ranging as Vodun, Santeria, Candomble and more. These beliefs would play powerful roles in both surviving and resisting slavery and its legacies. Some studies on this process of transference and invention across the Black Atlantic: Michael Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (1998); Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santeria to Obeah and Espiritismo (2011).
Above, a statue of Ochun (Oshun) from the Museo De Los Orishas in Cuba.
Black Sorcerer by Jean-Baptiste Debret (c. 1830). | The National Library of Brazil.
Tempests: The idea of storms plays a central role in The Black God’s Drums–as it has long played in the Atlantic, from the Caribbean to coastal cities like New Orleans. In my story, there’s mention of orisha and lwa related to storms. But there’s also an interesting history of Africans being accused of engaging in witchcraft to create storms. The blog of fabulism The Thinker’s Garden, did a good write-up on this history in 2017 titled Weather-Magic in the West Indies. Quoting them here:
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a number of prodigies concerning African sorcery were reported in the West Indies. A vast majority of the accounts were coloured with racialist suppositions about the prevalence of “diabolism” and “fanaticism” in Afro-Caribbean culture. Fuelled by superstition and classism, these stereotypes, according to various scholars like Lara Putnam, were comparable to the hysteric stories of blood libel that were used to marginalise and persecute Jews for centuries.
The Black God’s Drums were written before this blog, and I can’t call it inspiration per se. But it ties in very well with the ways in which histories of slavery, race, and African spiritual practices lie at the heart of my story. Above is an image from their site (and the aforementioned write-up) of an alleged “Black sorcerer” in Brazil, by the French painter Jean-Baptiste Debret.
Runaway advertisement for “Negro girl FANNY.”
Drapeto Gas: One of the darker aspects of The Black God’s Drums is the compound known as Drapeto Gas. As described in the story, drapeto gas is a vaporous chemical –administered through black gas masks that are fitted vice-like onto the faces of those held in bondage. The gas has a debilitating effect, rendering a person controllable through suggestion and dulling their ability to resist. My purpose for creating this substance was multifaceted. One, this is a steampunk story. And strange gasses are part of the dystopia & weird that lots of steampunk dabbles in. Two, related to that dystopia, I wanted to convey slavery as something with the hallmarks of the modern world–imagining black bodies with their faces covered in masks, being forced into conformity. Three, the use of drapeto here was in many ways my metaphor for everyday ritualistic violence on which slavery was based. Far too often, there is a popular meme passed along that slavery continued because enslaved people “allowed” it to happen. The accusation is as vicious and racist as is it false. Slavery was maintained through brutalizing regimes, codified by law, and backed up by the full power of states and empires. The sheer feat of surviving slavery, was itself resistance. At any rate, I wanted to account for how the Confederacy could possibly maintain this dehumanizing system by another means, how they might attempt to perfect it through banal acts of evil wrought by industrialization and modernity. Drapeto gas was the outcome.
The origins of the name comes from our own history. In 1851, in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the American physician Samuel Cartwright coined the term “drapetomania” in a pseudoscientific treatise titled Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race. Drapetomania was an alleged mental affliction that, according to Cartwright, afflicted slaves, causing them to run away.
Running away was one of the most profound acts of resistance–denying the slave regime the very labor that it purchased and enslaved. As the escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass informed audiences, “I appear this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body, from my master and ran off with them.” As the slave record shows us simply through advertisements like those above, enslaved people often voiced their refusal to slavery with their feet.
Drapetomania was, in reality, a way for slave owners to deny what was before their very eyes: that the property they held in bondage were actual human beings, who desired freedom, and would snatch it given the chance. Drapetomania was used to prop up the lie of the docile and content slave: an answer to abolitionists like Douglass who said otherwise.
My creation of drapeto gas, a drug to thwart Cartwright’s claimed affliction, comes also from the history of medical experimentation on black bodies–that date as well back to slavery, and continued for long after. Some good works on this sordid history: Harriet A. Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (2008) and Deirdre Cooper Owens, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology (2017).
Sisters of the Holy Family, New Orleans, 1899 | W.E.B Du Bois, American Negro Exhibit
The Nuns: Two memorable characters in The Black God’s Drums are a pair of rather peculiar nuns, who are part of an order called The Sisters of the Holy Family. They turn out to be the eyes and ears in this imagined New Orleans, who watch over the city. The real life Sisters of the Holy Family was founded in 1837, by an Afro-Creole woman Henriette DeLille. Composed primarily of free women of color, who played significant roles in New Orleans history, it provided mutual aid relief, charity, and more to disenfranchised women of African descent. The order still exists today, in New Orleans and beyond. For more on the life (and complications) of free people of color in New Orleans, see Kimberly S. Hanger, Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769-1803 (1997) and Emily Clark, Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society (2007).
The original Sisters of the Holy Family were so well-known, that W.E.B. Du Bois included them in his American Negro Exhibit in the Paris Exposition of 1900, to counter common racist depictions of Black life.
Midnight Robber, Trinidad Carnival | “Just Limin’ in the Caribbean”
Midnight Robber: The Midnight Robber is the name of Captain Ann-Marie’s airship. Like the captain, it’s a symbol of mobility and travel across the Atlantic. In our own past that was the waterway. In this world, it’s the skies. The name also has its own history.
In Trinidad, the Midnight Robber is a figure out of Carnival Folklore–known for his broad hat, skull symbols, cape and boastful taunts. To quote the Traditional Mas project:
Marked not only by his costuming, that includes a wide-brimmed hat and cape, the robber is also noted for use of “Robber Talk”: a boastful, articulate, and rhyming catalog of the robber’s deeds, conquests, history, and various abilities that often approach the supernatural. … A robber often relates his great ancestry as well, which, accompanied by rhythmic use of language and a detailed chronology has lead many say that ”Robber Talk” is derived from the tradition of the West African Griot (storyteller).]
What better name for an airship run by a no-nonsense, headstrong and brash Trinidadian smuggler from the Free Isles? The name has also been put to good use in science fiction, most notably Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000).
As an interesting bit of trivia, when this world first conceived, the stories in it were going to be called The Adventures of the Midnight Robber. Still a thought.
Mardi Gras Indians. | Photo image courtesy of Lazerhorse
Mardi Gras: Can I talk New Orleans without mentioning Mardi Gras? I mean, of course I could. I know enough folks from New Orleans who would rather the city not only be associated with consumerist images of “hedonism” popularized in movies, commercials, etc. But Mardi Gras, like its related carnivalesque celebrations throughout the Atlantic, is also so much more. And, as a form of masking, resistance, and cultural retention, it has always had distinct ties to people of African descent–who transformed and adapted it so many different ways. It only made sense that in a story with magic and the otherworldly, Mardi Gras play a role. But this is an alternate world, where New Orleans is run by a multiracial coalition, and former slaves insist their histories be front and center. So this Mardi Gras does much the same.
Our own world’s Mardi Gras has its origins in the Lenten celebrations that dot the Atlantic world–from New Orleans to Trinidad to Brazil. Like all of those other celebrations, Mardi Gras was strongly influenced by music, forms of masking, and more brought in by African and Afro-Creole populations. No where was this more pronounced than in the famous Congo Square (also called, Place de Negres, Place Publique, Place Congo), where enslaved and free people gathered in a synthesis of instruments, dress, and dance. Congo Square was a cultural meeting place, a market of exchange, and a space of freedom.
Note: I created an entire scene in The Black God’s Drums featuring Congo Square–but it was cut from the final version, as it added another 6000 words to the novella and broke up the pacing. But I still might just do something with it in the future…
Mardi Gras arrived in New Orleans sometime in the late 17th century, the first recorded public celebration taking place in 1699 in the French colony. These early events featured lavish balls for the upper class, well into the mid-18th century. But they soon also became forms of street culture, where the common people took part in their own fashion. As with other carnivals, Mardi Gras was also a moment for the reversals of power. Poor whites used the celebrations to confront the “grande blancs.” Free people of color created their own traditions that tied in with their creolized identities. Enslaved people were allowed limited participation, but found ways to use these moments of masking and power reversals to their own needs.
Mardi Gras was always contentious: a symbolic struggle in many ways between class, race, and gender. Celebrations could grow unruly and out of hand, exhibiting the lurking danger that is ever-present in any Saturnalian event. City authorities, with little success, attempted to ban masking or spoke out against the sexual and moral decadence of the festivities. By 1850, there were moves to ban the celebration altogether. Spoiler alert–didn’t work. As the saying goes, if you can’t beat them… By 1875, after the Civil War, Mardi Gras became an official state sanctioned commemoration.
The famous colors and krewes of modern Mardi Gras date back to Anglo-derived elements that were added to the festivities in the 1850s, most noticeably the Mistick Krewe of Comus. In the 1870s, a group of young white men founded the Rex Organization–reportedly, as the history is told, to honor the visiting Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff of Russia. Other Krewes followed soon after, but Comus and Rex remained the most popular. The two created a Meeting of the Courts in 1892, where Rex and his Queen pay visit to the throne of Comus–eventually signaling the beginning and end of the Mardi Gras season.
In the post-Reconstruction New Orleans, these Krewes were strictly segregated in a city run by ex-Confederates in the midst of Jim Crow. Black traditions followed their own parallel course, and their influence (particularly in brass bands and later jazz) inevitably flowed into the main celebration.
My bit of world building turns these events on their head. There’s no King Rex and King Comus. Instead, the former slaves celebrate a Meeting of the Courts between King Deslondes and King Kwamena–two key figures in the German Coast uprising in 1811, one of the largest slave revolts in North America. Because in my alternate reality, that’s how things go down.
The one element of Mardi Gras I didn’t get to work into my worldbuilding (though I certainly tried very hard to do so) is the Black Mardi Gras Indians tradition of pretty Big Chiefs, scout boys, and challenges–whose origins lay shrouded in Afro-Caribbean traditions, secrecy, folklore, and self-created histories. Pictured above, a “Big Chief” in full regalia .
And that’s about all I got. Worldbuilding when it comes to alternate history is always about the creator’s discretion. Here’s a secret–there are no counterfactuals that are “more correct” than others. They’re all, in the end, made up. Actual history is too complex to create otherwise. What counterfactuals may do, is highlight those things in our own history the worldbuilder wishes to elucidate. Make of that, what you will.