In the wake of a controversy over who the culture of an entire continent belongs to within the context of its far-flung descendants (many quite involuntarily flung at that), I revisit a set of blog posts I wrote several years ago regarding speculative fiction, world building, “appropriation” and the Africa of our imaginations. Can one appropriate the self?
“Nor do I feel responsible for the generally low state of the Negro—as one Negro friend pointed out to me; the lucky Negroes were the ones who were enslaved. Having traveled quite a bit in Africa, I know what she means. One thing is clear: Whether one speaks of technology or social institutions, “civilization” was invented by us, not by the Negroes. As races, as cultures, we are five thousand years, about, ahead of them. Except for the culture, both institutions and technology, that they got from us, they would still be in the stone age, along with its slavery, cannibalism, tyranny, and utter lack of the concept we call “justice.”–Robert Heinlein
Well at least he didn’t use the n-word…
When the inspiration first came to me, to try my hand at writing fantasy outside of the usual medieval European framework, I knew exactly where I wanted to begin. I hadn’t read Charles Saunders. I thought for certain I was doing something new–a speculative fiction Jackie Robinson. I’d read enough fantasy to know the basics. I had to create a world, a setting distinct from the Eurocentric fantasy I’d grown up with. I chose Africa with hardly a second thought. Most fantasy works by white authors were set in some version of medieval Europe. Black people were from Africa–that’s what I was going with. Besides, I was no slouch on Africa. My parents had filled our house with books on African culture, art and history. I was taken to see African theater. I’d visited Africa at least once. Being a political junkie, I even felt it my responsibility to read African newspapers to keep up with what was going on. Heck, I listened to Fela! Sure, as the child of Caribbean immigrants, I was more than a few generations removed; but in my mind Africa was something always near–in my music, in celebrations like Carnival, in my fashion, my thoughts. So when I began creating worlds out of varied kingdoms, and scoured through the folklore and myths of diverse African cultures for magic systems, gods and monsters, I never thought of it as “appropriation.” Africa was mine. Wasn’t it?