October is Black Speculative Fiction Month. And since I fit the American definition of “Black,” I naturally see as many promotions of BSFM in my social channels as I see encouragements to participate by getting my writing out this month. “Our stories must be told! Our voices must be heard! Our unique experiences will educate and illuminate the world!”
Unfortunately, this is not the month for my writing to shine, because what I write isn’t what is considered “Black speculative fiction.” It never has been.
This has a lot to do with when and where I was born and the way I was raised. Starting with the when and where, the year of my birth was 1960, and it happened in the outskirts of Washington, DC. Certain times and places have significance in the kind of people they turn out, and in my case, my birth coincided with a period of time when Blacks in the US were getting their first opportunities at real jobs (to be more clear, the kind of jobs that non-whites had been, until recently, quietly and not-so-quietly walled off from). Most of these were federal government jobs, so the first Black middle class in the Washington area were predominantly part of that Great Democratic Republic Machine dedicated to freedom and equality for all. Not that the system was perfect at that time; far from it, the system had serious issues. But the people were aware of those issues, and Black America stood beside those who sought to change things for the better.
This was the world I was born into, surrounded by casually optimistic adults pursuing the light at the end of the tunnel (and a few who took turns reminding me of the possibility that that light might be an oncoming train).
My parents moved out to the suburbs with the great Black middle class exodus, before I really had an idea that there were different races in the world. The suburb I entered was predominantly white, but not exclusively so, and I found myself surrounded by children my age and of every color and kind imaginable (to me). We all played together, and quickly learned that at that age, race truly meant nothing. We were the American Melting Pot (cue Booker T & the MGs, “Melting Pot” has always been my official theme song).
At that same time, a new television show was starting to be noticed among the American public, and the world. Star Trek showed people of every race and creed, plus aliens, who all worked together like a color-blind team, and their message was starting to spread. As I got older, and caught more Star Trek in syndication, as well as most of the science fiction TV shows that followed it, the message was burned into me: In the future, just like in my neighborhood today, race will mean nothing (though I was still a bit too young to really understand what that “something” was supposed to be). The Melting Pot would survive into the future.
I was among the first generation to be indoctrinated into the idea of a One Race World. To be sure, that world wasn’t entirely balanced… it took me years to catch on to the fact that, no matter how mixed a cast might be, the main character or leader was always a white man. And it took me longer than that to realize that the worlds of the future were invariably extensions of the “Old World,” as Europe in general was usually referred, or the “New World,” as America was usually referred, and which had been built upon the concepts of the Old World itself.
When I first started to create (I was an illustrator before I was a writer), I was aping the primarily white concepts and characters I was born into. As I matured, I started to understand many of the differences inherent in the worldview of different cultures and regions, and realized that my stories had a clear Old/New World bias. But even as I knew this, when I developed new stories, I still saw the Old/New World model as being the most likely cultural leader of the future… mostly due to my limited exposure to other cultures and my confidence in the future success of the multicultural overlay on that European culture, my biases continued. So I wrote what I knew and believed in, right or wrong: A future where all races and creeds were integrated into one culture and essentially following the precepts of the Old/New World.
To this day, though I know a lot more about other cultures, I still don’t know enough to be able to write convincing stories based around people whose lives developed in the African Diaspora… or the jungles of Peru, or the islands of the Philippines, for that matter. My characters tend to have been raised in a world and a history that started with the Greeks and radiated outward from there.
When most people, especially most Blacks, think about Black Speculative Fiction, this is not what they’re thinking of. They imagine cultures born of the tribal and “Ancient World” backgrounds of most of the countries of Africa; people who were lucky enough to have survived the invading Europeans who, often with duplicitous members of their own people, kidnapped many of their brothers and sisters to another world to live the lives of slaves; but who were also denied the developments of the old and new worlds, the miraculous technologies, the creature comforts; they had no Jim Crow, but then they had very little of the things Jim Crow was supposed to keep them from; they built their lives around appropriating what they could, often the things that other cultures discarded, developing the rest independently, and pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps; they see the universe, not as the Great Machine the Europeans imagine, but as the Great Nature of their homes and pasts. And they see their future much differently because of it. Other writers, whose roots are much closer to that world than mine, are hopefully much more capable of writing in that framework than I.
As I said, I’m aware of these things, but not well enough to write convincingly of characters from that world. So, until I can learn to do so (if ever), you won’t see anything from me that anyone should consider Black speculative fiction. I have nothing against BSF; it’s just not me. I am not that voice. My characters come from many races, but they are all ultimately products of the Melting Pot of the New World, the culture and aspiration of my birth.