Where are the Black Women in Science Fiction?

by Chardine Taylor-Stone

Nichelle Nichols as Uhura of Star Trek.

Nichelle Nichols as Uhura of Star Trek.

The visibility of Black women in Speculative fiction may be small but it is memorable. High profile Black female characters that have appeared before us on screen sometimes saving the world and putting the universe to rights include Uhura (Star Trek), Storm (X-men), Zoe Washburne (Firefly), Anastasia Dualla (Battlestar Galactica) and most recently Martha Jones (Doctor Who) and Michonne from The Walking Dead. In the literary realm there is Rue from The Hunger Games but beyond this I begin to struggle. The representation of Black women or any other non-white women in SF is so painfully small you begin to develop a wonderful knack for remembering that Black or Brown woman you saw or read about however brief it may be. Yet, even when feeling the relief and enjoyment of encountering a character who doesn’t fit the ‘standard’ racial profile, I cannot escape the fact that those burned into my psyche are the creations of White and overwhelmingly male writers. I cannot ignore that many black female SF characters are written from within a White male gaze, leaving me with images of Black women who exist on the sidelines, brought in as one dimensional plot devices to be either the ever-giving tragic Mammy or the warrior-queen with a pocket full of sassy quips whilst the White hero is left to rankle with the burden of saving the planet. In an environment where the dominant creative force of such a popular genre is dominated by a narrow racial profile the necessity for works by Black female speculative fiction writers such as Octavia Butler and more recently Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, Nnedi Okorafor among others cannot be stressed enough.

Inducted posthumously into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010, Octavia E. Butler was inspired to write science fiction when she saw a bad movie and thought to herself ‘I could write something better than that’. She began writing short stories at the age of 12. In an interview as part of a documentary about Black Sci-Fi she describes how as a Black writer Speculative fiction gave her a wonderful way to think about possibilities, it allows the writer the freedom of doing whatever they want. There are walls built around other genres but as she says

“there are no walls in Science Fiction. We can build them. But they’re not there naturally”

This capability to explore the impossible in SF is what makes it the perfect vehicle for those whose voices are forcibly silenced and neglected in the wider cultural sphere. Those unexplainable experiences of Otherness and the continuous attack of racist micro-aggressions towards female black existence can be magnified and explored in fantastical ways that not only act as critiques of society but also become an imaginative escape from that reality.

Butler has said that much of her early work stemmed from her own feelings of powerlessness and in her novels she imagines the choices made by those who have access to power and how those choices affect those without it. This theme is explored in Butler’s seminal works Kindred and from the Patternist series, Wild Seed. Both narratives describe a Black female protagonist who struggles both physically and mentally with forces against which she feels powerless, but through recognising her own strengths eventually overcomes. Anyanwu in Wild Seed is a mutant with the power to transform into any living being she wishes but she is kept in a slave-like submission by a frightful character named Doro who feeds on the life force of others by taking over their bodies. In Kindred Dana is pulled from her comfortable life in the 1970s to the Antebellum period in the American South where she finds herself continuously saving the life of a White slave owners son, who not only is her ancestor but appears to be able to summon her back into the past.

Future worlds envisioned by many popular White male SF writers are regularly absent of Black and Brown faces. Utopian worlds are overwhelmingly White whilst dystopias are sometimes shown having high Black populations; something that is evident in films as recent as Blomkamp’s Elysium. Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring set in a near-future Toronto gives a voice to the nameless woman we see walk past on screen as Matt Damon is busy being the ‘saviour of the people’. Written with inflections of Jamaican patois Ring tells the story of Ti-Jeanne, a single mother who lives in the city with her herbalist grandmother. After a series of riots and an economic crisis Toronto has been deserted by wealthy Whites who have built a wall around the inner-city to keep its poorer citizens out of the richer suburbs. Hopkinson’s heroine finds herself protecting her family and community from men who are paid by wealthy suburbanites to harvest organs from those who live within the ‘ring’ and she does so with the help of African ancestral spirits and Obeah (a form of West Indian folk magic).

The works of Nalo Hopkinson and Butler and other Black female SF writers bring to the light the Black female experience in a world where the impossible can happen. I found this inspiring but found it difficult to find a safe space where I could discuss these books and other SF works and not have my insights on racism and sexism in the story undermined as ‘not relevant or important’. Social media, Twitter in particular, has played an important role in bringing like-minded individuals together leading to a widening of the discourse on the lack of diversity in SF.

Black experiences with others in the real world as well as the virtual one and so I started the Mothership Connections Black Book Club. The response has been incredible and I have discovered new Black female writers, film makers, Cos players and bookworms who share my love of the SF spectrum from Steampunk to Urban Fantasy. A future needs to be imagined by those in the present in order for it to be created.

In recognising the contribution of Black female writers to our collective cultural imagination we are acknowledging and hearing the voices of Black women in the here and now, voices that for too long were believed to be silent. Listen to us, we are here. Here are five recommendations of amazing speculative fiction books written by Black women that everyone should read:

Octavia E. Butler:  Wild Seed

Nalo Hopkinson: Brown Girl in the Ring

Nnedi Okorafor: Who Fears Death

Andrea Hairston: Mindscape

Tananarive Due:  The Between

This article was first published by Hold Fast Magazine

Chardine Taylor-Stone is the founder of Black speculative fiction book club Mothership Connections. @MCBookClub She is also a DJ, playing records from the 1940s -1970s playing festivals and clubs at home and abroad. She plays drums in Black feminist punk band Big Joanie and is currently in her final year studying for a BA (Hons) Arts and Humanities at Birkbeck. Chardine is interested in art, technology and music with a particular focus on the history of subcultures and Black involvement in the esoteric, weird and downright bizarre!

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