Spears, Sorcery and Double-Consciousness- Part I

16 thoughts on “Spears, Sorcery and Double-Consciousness- Part I”

  1. This is such an excellent post!

    You raise very valid points. I grew up with an interest in speculative fiction, although I wouldn’t say I was surrounded by it. Movies were more readily accessible than books as a child growing up in Nigeria. When I did gain access to books upon moving to the UK in my late teens, I too noticed that most of them featured white characters and drew from European history and myth. Dark-skinned characters were usually portrayed in racist, stereotypical ways. This proved too problematic for me, and I would have abandoned fantasy, sci-fi and speculative fiction altogether if I had not come across the works of Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson.

    Since then I’ve made an effort to surround myself with works that are created by POC. As such I am familiar with works from most of the authors in the World SF panel and the authors mentioned above. I am glad to see more authors of colour writing in this genre, and I truly wish there was more exposure and less difficulty.

    What about the “other” that exists within the non-Western world?

    This is a very relevant question. I admit that sometimes, reading the speculative works of Diasporic Africans set in Africa is a bit difficult because the Africa presented still seems exotic and/or strange to me. For example characters with Yoruba names wearing kente and in my mind I would think “in a Yoruba traditional setting it should be aso-oke or adire”…I do try to avoid nitpicking.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I think many of us might have abandoned speculative fiction, especially as we grew older and began examining issues of race and identity, if it weren’t for *finally* stumbling upon the likes of Octavia Butler, Charles Saunders, etc. The larger fantasy/speculative fiction community talks a great deal about this lack of diversity, or stereotyping within the various genres; but little is really done by numerous authors to actually *do* anything about it. The fact that everyone continually draws up small lists of speculative fiction featuring POC, and less problematic ones at that, says something. Unfortunately the sheer difficulty of getting published in the mainstream, or gaining fair exposure if you decide to go indie, restricts many POC writers and then makes their work either inaccessible or obscure. It’s a sad state of affairs.

      I admit that sometimes, reading the speculative works of Diasporic Africans set in Africa is a bit difficult because the Africa presented still seems exotic and/or strange to me. For example characters with Yoruba names wearing kente and in my mind I would think “in a Yoruba traditional setting it should be aso-oke or adire”…I do try to avoid nitpicking.

      LOL I think you should nitpick. Admittedly, fantasy gives a writer a lot of leeway–to create a whole new past pulling from premodern culture. But to me, the closer you decide to name your cultures *exactly* after existing real life ethnic groups or past polities, cultures–the more closer to the actual people/states you have to be. In fantasy, more imagination has its benefits. If you see something that glaring…without some reasonable explanation (in this fantasy world an Akan-like kingdom conducts extensive textile trade with a magical Oyo Empire?? lol), I say point it out…if only to tell the writer that an insider will immediately notice something that fails to make sense.

  2. The questions you pose at the end and the overall discussion throughout the blog brings to mind a very serious question that many Blacks in the Diaspora must ask themselves, What is Africa to me? To be more exact, for many of us from West Africa we must seriously ask What is West Africa to me…Maybe even after we figure out what does being a descendent of slaves mean to my life, identity, etc. Although you are talking about fiction those that write about Africa, either romanticized into a land of queens/kings and great kingdoms or a land of savage black men and women that only submit to erotic pleasure…the question for me remains..What is Africa to me? I believe Black people of the Diaspora are dealing with as DuBois says a Double Consciousness or some have argued a multiplicity of consciusness in which they are very much so Western but has a desire to fully understand, accept or deny their Africaness. However, one major flaw if a person dares to research and study is that they venture first to Northeast Africa because essentially the European world told us that they are the only ones on the continent (if they even admit that its in Africa) that has contributed anything to the world, technology, religion, or dare I say civilization. So the simple fact that many of West African decent writers fantasize mainly about Northeast mythology already shows thier Europeanized ideals. However, one question that seems to be a major point in your story is asking how do the others write about the others…well I think they write according to their own identity…Many blacks may romanticized Africa simply to debunk the centuries of misconceptions that is a staple aspect of the myths and has been written into the history of the continent…however by not adding the complexity of the fictional world of the other (meaning the good and bad) then you are forcing people to only view those black-skinned written characters in that world ….then they are not Africans but instead some fictional Africans that people do not parallel to the actual stories, kings, queens and kingdoms that did exist…lets face it those that write about the others have a huge responsibility…regardless I love to read the stories and look forward to reading more…

    1. whew! great comment! i think the romanticizing of africa in black imagination is in part due to that whole search for identity and du boisian double-consciousness–for many of the reasons you suggest. i also agree romanticizing was a means to “debunk” historical negativity in popular culture (from academia to media) regarding africa. many blacks in the diaspora were unwilling, and often *unable,* to separate themselves from africa. as long as the continent remained denigrated, so too would its distant descendants. to that end, a re-imagined and redeemed africa had to be invented as part of establishing one’s own identity (in all its complications, which you point out). i think this in part explains the “flaw” you allude to–the african diaspora fascination with egypt and ethiopia (both nubia and abyssinia). this goes back early in the diaspora, with such figures as prince hall in the 18th century and numerous black abolitionists of the 19th century mentioning egypt and ethiopia as a way to validate “the race.” the reasons for this are complicated. i agree much of it was an attempt to fight white supremacy on its own terms; to find african cultures/kingdoms that fit european ideals of “civilization.” if greece and rome had columns and stone cities, egypt, nubia and axum could claim the same; it didn’t hurt that the first two pre-dated the greco-roman world. claiming both, reversed all the claims of white supermacy overnight. west african and central african kingdoms on the other hand were medieval, and couldn’t be used to compete with greco-roman antiquity. also, not much was known about west and central african states at the time in the west–or at least no where as popular and accessible as egypt and ethiopia, which were in greco-roman literaure, the bible, etc. what’s more, all three ancient northeastern cultures were at some point or the other claimed *as white* (people forget that not just pharaonic egyptians, but nubians and ethiopians have been at times deemed “dark whites” by the west). another, more controversial reason, was that in the early 19th century it was much easier for the descendants of slaves to claim kinship with the more ancient northeastern kingdoms, than say dahomey who was still participating in the slave trade; frederick douglas i recall especially wanting nothing to do with certain west african polities due to this. interesting is that equiano, being from west africa, could claim it with fervor–even while criticizing the slave trade. but in a true twist of identity, equiano also validated west africa through western ideals, by claiming the igbo were descended from one of the lost tribes of israel. i think these dynamics still play out today, to varying degrees. my own first foray into writing african fantasy involved ne africa. but there’s a great deal more information today on other parts of the continent, and many black fantasy writers now give special attention to west, central and southern africa as their main settings.

  3. Great Read. Thanks for challenging me to think about my own motivations and views on Africa. I can remember, when I started writing, I made a conscious decision to accept the fact that my outlook on things… my perceptions are from a western lens. The way I form my narratives and prose are western. I can’t escape it. So I must own it. And in so understanding that I try to write my characters as individuals and not stereotypes or caricatures of my western upbringing.
    “Appropriation”. We already do it. We are part of a society that was built on it. I know it has its inherent dilemma, but some of the great stories I’ve read have appropriated from a some culture or people that are no longer around. I figure the best way to do it and not be a horrid “arm-chair” tourist is to make them a full three-dimensional human.

    BIG-UPS TRINI-MAN. DAT’S REAL TALK YOU PUTTIN’ DOWN. (Don’t cringe, I’m getting’ in touch with my appropriation)

    1. agreed. i think awareness is the best thing. that way we’re conscious as we write or as we review. on the other hand, no one wants to become so analytical it hinders the ability to tell a good story. i don’t think it’s so hard to strike a reasonable balance.

      AW RIGHT BRUDDA! WHEN AH BACK IN BROOKLYN WE GO LIME!

  4. Hey Phenderson, long time since you got lost on the way to my house. I truly appreciate this post, (Thanks Kirk!). My experience as a lover of spec-fic and fantasy took a slightly different path. When I turned 8 I picked up Dragonlance Chronicles and read the 1,072 pages three times before the end of the year. There were very few black characters, (only one of lasting importance, and though pivotal and respected, followed a trend an odd trend I don’t quite understand of mauling or maiming black heroes, making them part machine, etc.), although I didn’t really start paying attention to issues of race until much, much later as I started writing.

    I’ve always thought that one of the things that makes connecting directly to this past nearly impossible is that where no white person, or Hispanic person, will describe themselves by the continent they come from, black Americans often must. In the same way that a British writer would have to think twice before trying to right from the German experience just because they’re both European, except our challenge is exponentially more difficult. It’s inevitable to write as this “other” that some of the exotic would come out, because that’s what it is too us: removed from our experience, removed from our history, but alive and well in our imaginations, therefore immortal and always changing depending upon the state of our spirit when we look to find it.

    Personally, I’ve not tried more than once to write from the African perspective, and I since I grew up as an American, I see no problem with claiming the myths that came from Europe as my own for fodder, in the same way that the religion, and the language was claimed. I’m American, we’re just greedy that way (Mutts, as the non breed, are the healthiest of all canines). The trick then, as I see it, is not so much to write authentically as an African American, but more authentically me, with characters of color that I would have liked to see, without the additional stress of trying to add “blackness”, sprinkled like a garnish into my stories. Do the research, explore and be explored.

    Again, thanks for writing this and now I’m on the hunt through your links to find more.

    “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” -Kurt Vonnegut

    1. Cam!
      Man sorry for the latest of replies. How’s the BK group going? Sad I had to leave, but relocated to DC. You guys are sorely missed! Our experiences and paths don’t really sound so different! I started out earlier with The Hobbit, but Dragonlance was a *HUGE* influence! And though someone like say, Drizzt Do’Uden’s black skin made me a bit uncomfortable, it wasn’t until later on, sometime in college, that I really began thinking of it critically through a lens of race and difference. I knew there was something missing or inappropriate about the genre, but took a while before I knew how to put it into words…still struggling to do so!

      And yes, i think you’re right about the unique approach of those of us in the Diaspora (born of the slave experience) in relating to an ancestral past. Because it is nigh impossible to know *where* precisely we hail from (and because it’s likely those lines are diverse throughout West and Central Africa), we just claim the WHOLE continent! lol There’s a strength to this I think, in that we at times aren’t constricted by nation-state (newly created) or even ethnic constructs; we truly have a “Pan-African” experience and approach when it comes to the continent and its many cultures. So we don’t say, “ah I’m from Cameroon, I can’t write about the Zulu….” ….nope, we just go ahead and say, “I’m writing about the Zulu!” lol Of course, that can lead to its own set of problems.

      That being said, I also agree that the world is my oyster. I don’t think any black writer should feel they can’t pull from Teutonic myths if they wish, or wherever! And of course, as I’ve posted in other blogs here, the idea of a black character in medieval Europe is not very far-fetched at all. The point of this blog however, was to talk about the attempts to bring African culture/history into the speculative fantasy realm, in great part due to its marginalized status… Euro-fantasy so dominates the genre, there has been a call (and quite needed) for fantasy that shows off the various diverse cultures of the world–be they African, Asian, Native The other two related blogs to this one go into the pitfalls and problems however that writers, even writers of color, might face when attempting to do so.

      Great to hear from you again!

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