Black People on Mars: Race and Ray Bradbury

Prolific science fiction writer Ray Bradbury died this week, at the age of 91. I read my first Bradbury book in middle school–The Illustrated Man— and it *blew my mind.* It wasn’t my first speculative fiction book by any means. I’d long torn through Middle Earth, traveled Narnia, tesseracted across space and time with Meg and Charles Wallace and tried my hand at inventing with Danny Dunn. (Yeah, let those memories sink in). But the stories in The Illustrated Man were on another level–it was like everything I loved about the old Rod Serling hostedTwilight Zone episodes my mother got me into, but on paper…and with words! From the creepy virtual reality nursery story “The Veldt” to the hauntingly sad “The Exiles” (we made Santa cry!) to every-kid’s-revenge story “Zero Hour,” I knew I’d never look at sci-fi the same way again. Most startling of all was a story by Bradbury called “The Other Foot”–startling to my young PoC eyes, because the main characters were something I’d hardly seen before. They were black.

As I’ve recounted enough times on this blog, as a PoC in my early days of reading speculative fiction, I searched for any mention of characters who could be *remotely* black. All I needed was the word “swarthy” or “dark” or “dusky” or “ebon”–and they were black, at least in my head. Either I went to those extremes, or confront the reality that people who looked like me were all-but absent from the genre.

Here in Bradbury’s “The Other Foot” however, there was no need to ‘create blackness’–these characters were black. They were African-Americans, who had amazingly colonised Mars! Unlike our reality, this futuristic Black Wall Street wasn’t destroyed by marauding racist whites–because this colony had no white people. A sci-fi story with no white people?! I had to flip to the back of the book to make sure Bradbury wasn’t some lighter-skinned bruh passin’–a crafty “Spook Who Sat by the Door.”

As the story goes, turns out the black people in this Martian colony left Earth–America to be exact–to escape the racism and oppression that pervaded the Jim Crow South. Like a latter-day W.E.B. Du Bois and following in a long legacy of black emigration politics, they became fed up with living in subservience and fear and decided to “do for self” and hop on a Garveyite inspired Black Star Line that flew them all the way to Mars. The concept boggled my mind–so much so, I re-read this first part several times just to make sure I got it right.

The tension behind the story turns out to be the imminent arrival of a rocket ship–carrying some white people (see! I knew they had to be somewhere!). The black inhabitants of the Martian colony are agitated, as disputes arise on how the whites should be treated. One side believes they should be welcomed; another, remembering the horrors they’d left behind, suspect nothing but ill-tidings and form a lynch mob. It all comes to a climax when the ship lands and, to everyone’s surprise, a single old white man emerges. He explains that war broke out right after the black colonists left, laying waste to the Earth in an atomic holocaust. When the crowd asks about the many cities of the world, he informs them they’ve all been destroyed–burned away. When the black mob leader, rope in hand, asks about the town in Alabama where his father was lynched, the white man says it’s all gone. He has come to the blacks of Mars, hat helmet in hand, willing to repent for the past. On behalf of the whites left on the war-torn and dying home planet, he begs the blacks to send rocket ships to take them in as refugees. The whites are so desperate, they’d even be willing to take on all the menial tasks and jobs they once forced upon the blacks. Realizing that the Earth he knew–and all the pain it carried–is now gone, the stunned leader of the mob drops the rope and nods his acceptance, declaring it’s time for a new start. He later reflects that the white man is now just as lonely and downtrodden as blacks had been, and for the first time he sees them with clarity.

To my young eyes, this was the best sci-fi story I had ever read–period! Like the old Eddie Murphy joke about throwing a starving man a saltine cracker, I was so hungry for a story with black characters (and one with such stark social commentary that tackled race head on!) I was certain it was a ritz! The message of confronting the racial past and the black character moving towards understanding and racial reconciliation was moving. It was heart-warming. It was genius.

I held that thought, until about college–when everything from Public Enemy to critical race theory came floating my way. I read the story again in a modern English Lit class, and found my feelings towards it had changed dramatically. I remember the few other black students (all of us filled with race-conscious-collegiate-militancy) decrying the story as a farce. Why did the black folks have to forgive anyone? What was up with those hanker-chief-heads who wanted to welcome the white people with open arms? How come the one person who had a counter-opinion was an “angry black man” stereotype? How did a story about prejudice and racism in the future manage to make the black folks the reverse “racists” who are taught about humanity by the old white guy? And what made Mr. Bradbury think that black folks were just waiting to hold hands and sing kumbaya with their former oppressors? In our re-worked version, the story should either have ended with (1) the mob saying, “No. No. And HELL No! Get back on that ship and look for real estate on Venus, Mr. Christopher Columbus. We seen how it worked out for them Indians” or (2) the black colony locking its targeting missiles on the rocket ship and blowing it out of the sky before it even touched down–a justified preemptive strike.

Re-reading the first part to the story “Way in the Middle of the Air” in Bradbury’sThe Martian Chronicles didn’t help improve my perspective. This earlier tale is told mostly from the POV of whites, watching as the blacks in the American South all pack up and head to Mars. Sentences describing the black bodies leaving as “the slow, steady channel of darkness” grated on my more racially-aware nerves. So too did allusions to fingerprints no longer being found on watermelons (yeah, that’s right), or black children at play described as “pickaninnies rushing in clear water.” How the heck could I have missed all this when I was younger I wondered? My childhood love affair with Bradbury took a serious tarnishing. I didn’t stop reading his other works, or admiring his creative genius. But I saw his whiteness all too clearly–perhaps more than I’d ever wanted.

Okay. So let’s flash forward. If in college as a PoC you get that rush of racial-consciousness and awareness, it takes a few series of life lessons later on to figure out how to apply it critically. So when I picked up both of these stories years later, I tried to give them another chance. Sure enough, they didn’t hold the wide-eyed splendidness of my innocent adolescent mind. I don’t gloss things over and play amnesiac with troubling discoveries–I deal with them. But I found I wasn’t as jaded as that young college guy in that English class. If maturity had brought awareness, a bit more maturity had now introduced nuance.

Ray Bradbury was a man of his time. I usually hate that cliché excuse, because you know who else lived during those times–the people who were getting screwed over. And I’m sure they weren’t like, “oh don’t mind our oppression…we’re just products of our times.” So I don’t accept it as a reasoning for unrepentant white supremacists like H.P. Lovecraft—don’t try selling me on “looking past” On the Creation of Niggers; that conversation will not go well. But Bradbury was no Lovecraft. And the times he wrote in mattered. Bradbury published MC in 1950 and IM in 1951. Likely he wrote his stories of black people on Mars much earlier. Brown V. Board and Rosa Parks were still some years from making history, and the Civil Rights Movement was in its nascency. Groundbreaking films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or To Kill a Mockingbird (all with their own issues when we look back at them), were still a decade and a half away. Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic dreams of racial harmony that put Uhura and Sulu on the bridge of the USS Enterprise without any need to even mention their race, would take just as long to hit American television screens.

Yet Bradbury was not just a man of his time, he wrote ahead of his time–plunging head-first into stories that struck directly at racism, segregation and Jim Crow at a time when no one was certain those well-established walls would even begin to start coming down. It’s quite possible that “Way in the Middle of the Air” was his experimental dip into those troubled waters, where he wanted to convey the perspective of Southern whites if only to highlight the absurdity of their racism. I’m even willing to entertain, as some believe, that those “pickaninnies” and allusions to watermelons were written to be seen through that Southern white lens, though I also understand the reality is that in 1950 many whites (even well-meaning guys ike Bradbury) had not yet been schooled in the fine art of racial sensitivity. I mean Gwyneth Paltrow’s still botching it, and she’s had the benefit of 60+ years of cringe-worthy white racial faux pas to learn from.

Despite its faults, “Way in the Middle of the Air” remains a profound story in which Bradbury sheds some interesting light on the contradictions of American racism. In the story, the very whites who uphold segregation, at the same time are angered by the blacks leaving. How dare they go without giving notice, one white man declares. Others hope bitterly that the rocket ships will explode and kill tens of thousands of the black emigrants–a bitter prayer for mass murder that’s chilling in its lack of basic human empathy. Holding what Bradbury describes as “sour water” in their mouths, they rage and use tactics to keep the blacks from going–but they can’t, as the blacks in the town seem prepared to overcome whatever obstacles are placed in their way. The whites scratch their heads, trying to figure out why the blacks are leaving now, when the poll tax has just been abolished, states are passing anti-lynching laws and they’re getting all kinds of equal rights. “What more they want?” one white asks. “They make almost as good money as a white man, but there they go.” Their inability to understand, to empathize with a people they’ve oppressed, a people who might suddenly decide they’re tired of fighting to achieve “almost,” and just plain fed up, reveals their own blindness to a strain that has long pervaded the history of black social struggle–and Bradbury, while he unfortunately doesn’t give it black voice, taps into it. One of the black emigrants, a character the whites call Silly (described as “all arms and feet and long legs and round watermelon head”–sigh, yeah), listens to the mocking taunts they toss his way in silence. It’s only when he walks a ways off that he yells back a final farewell, asking what the whites plan on doing at night now once the blacks are gone. The allusion to lynching, the nighttime habit of the whites is unmistakable. But what’s also implied is the loss of identity the whites will soon suffer–for if there are no more black bodies to hate, to attack, to oppress, what will whites do then? Who will they be then? What is the worth of whiteness if it has no one against which to claim superiority? In the end the whites are left to grapple with this new existence, as they face the gaping emptiness–both physical and psychological–left in the wake of the black diaspora.

If Bradbury did not spend too much time on black voices in this first story, the sequel “The Other Foot” placed primacy on black agency. Here was an all black world, that had decided the best way to deal with racism was to leave it behind–and had managed to create a society all of their own. Sure, I would have liked to learn more about that journey and the lives they made. Also wonder what happened to all the *other* black people in the world–is there a West Indian, Afro-Latin or African quarter/neighborhood in the colony? And yes, I still think using the “angry black man” stereotype takes away from what could have been a more nuanced and fleshed out black radical perspective. Even if the blacks of the Mars colony had arrived at the same conclusion, it could have come from another source than one old white man expressing rationality to overcome their furious emotions. And if they’d decided to just send him home empty-handed, decided they could forgive but never forget, that would have been something quite daring–quite Bradbury in fact–forcing readers to think perhaps how those on the receiving end of hatred may harden themselves not out of equal hate, but a sense of self-preservation. The oppressed get to be angry too, and aren’t always just waiting to “transcend” and be the “bigger persons.” Deal with that reality.

But, again, this was 1950 and 1951. And in the time these stories were written, they were powerful. Heck, to cause this lengthy of a blog, they still are. So thanks for all the thought-provoking and entertaining tales Mr. Bradbury. You’ll be sorely missed. And just so you know, if you were that old white guy on that rocket ship–I’d let you stay too.

But enuff already with the watermelons.

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35 thoughts on “Black People on Mars: Race and Ray Bradbury

  1. I, as a young white man, read Bradbury in the ’60’s, when the South was still actively enforcing Jim Crow in most areas, and I must say that the story of his that I most strongly remembered was “Way in the Middle of the Air,” which I found stunning at the time. You give a fine account of its strengths, which I think are still substantial (although it is now omitted from the Martian Chronicles as “dated”). I have only one real quarrel with your account of its shortcomings, which is your suggestion that black “agency” is not at its center. Really, it is, and it is that which so shocks the whites (who get an entirely less sympathetic portrayal than the blacks). I even thought that his use of the phrase the “slow, steady channel of darkness” emphasized this agency — the power of their decision to depart.

    I did not recall (having last read it decades ago) the references to “pickaninnies” and watermelons, which probably have resulted in its deletion from recent editions of the Martian Chronicles. Those are surely “cringe-worthy” (unless perhaps excusable on the ground you suggest, as a reflection of the views of the whites, though those are made explicitly clear in other ways without the stereotypes). Too bad they mar it; I think its strengths still make it worth reading, though perhaps primarily as a historical reflection of a time that is passing from the memory of whites, and perhaps many blacks. At the time, I think it may well have been important in reaching an audience that was not giving much attention to the issue of race in the South.

    Anyway, you give a fine account of Bradbury’s stories on this subject. Thanks.

    • David, thanks for the read. You make a very good point regarding black agency in “Way in the Middle of the Air.” I agree, the story implies that black agency is duly being exercised–in the choice of leaving the Earth, removing their bodies, their presence, their important labor from the society that oppressed them. That’s a worthy perspective that I should have mentioned. However, I was speaking more about the lack of actual black voices within the way the story was written–that this tale is told from the vantage point solely of whites, rather than a sharing of perspectives. So there never really is a black voice to express their reasons for leaving–we are left to infer through the eyes and thoughts of whites what their motives, hopes, etc. may be. This absence becomes doubly-felt in the mention of the missing black bodies, laughter, homes, etc. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Once again another well-written and enlightening essay. I’ve never read any of his stories, only saw the movie and television adaptations. I’ll have to add this to my list.

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  5. Fantastic article. I just read “The Other Foot” this morning, and had the impression that it was groundbreaking for the time (and had been rejected by a bunch of magazines according to Bradbury), but that it was still problematic. I wasn’t able to point to what actually bothered me about it at first, so thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Loved this and appreciated the nuanced perspective. I’ve been reading Bradbury lately and have been grappling with his approach to race in some instances. This post makes some really good points and allows me to remain a critical fan.

  7. I was very pleased to discover this article and read your perspective on these stories when I was preparing to create a short Sci-fi fan film for a local galleries open call. It turned out not to be fan-film but rather a “Ken Burns-ish” style short that was my response to Way In The Middle of The Air and The Other Foot. I also discovered Richard Warp’s original piece Illustrations IV – The Other Foot, which is the opening of the soundtrack. I referenced your article in the description posted with the video. Thank you again for your inspiration and writing on the subject.

  8. This was a truly informative piece that gave me insight into these stories from another perspective. Science Fiction largely remains a ‘white man’s’ genre, but it need not be. The critique made here is valuable, but it would be great to read those stories yet unwritten that show things through other eyes and experiences or perhaps they are out there and part of the problem is finding them. I’d be interested in suggestions for reading.

  9. I’m curious: the college bit makes it sound like there can be no redemption for whites, that they couldn’t possibly be any better or change at all, not even if they were to suffer an absolutely gruesome calamity and have their whole society blown to dust (the whole “better to just blow ’em away!” thing at the end). How is such a view conducive to racial reconciliation, the ending of racism, and the unification of humankind as must need be achieved lest our fighting over our differences and maltreatment of each other for them lead to our extinction? When your views evolved and developed later, did your mind on this particular point change at all?

    • college me was a bit more radical than now me. just a bit. 😉 guess what i was saying is, the onus (burden) should not always be on the oppressed to bring about the loftier goals of reconciliation. the number one job of that colony–of people forced to flee their home to another world–was to preserve that colony. and as that ship appeared, wouldn’t things like Black Tulsa, or Rosewood or, heck, *Christopher Columbus*, have been going through those black minds? if they had blown that rocket out of the sky, not for spite, but to protect themselves–based on all that they had previously endured–they would have been well within their rights. that would have been a radical move by Mr. Bradbury, perhaps a warning that the empathy of the oppressed is not limitless. and that there may ultimately be a terrible price to pay for white supremacy.

      and that’s something as I said Bradbury often did. his stories didn’t always end well. sometimes they ended very badly, if only to warn us of our present folly.

      • I see your point, but wouldn’t you hope that the colonists would at least consider the possibility that the rocket contained a delegation of, say, low-cast Indians or any of the many other oppressed groups of Earth, asking if there was space for them on Mars? For that reason alone surely a “preemptive strike” would be a bit drastic?

      • Well yes, that’s a point. But it says at the start of the story that a rocket is coming with a white man in it. Bradbury never explains how they’re certain, but they seem pretty clear on that. He does make an appeal however not just for white Americans, but for the British, Russians, Chinese and Indians–the half-a-million left on the planet. So there’s that… Guess Africans didn’t make it…

      • That stuff most likely would’ve been going through their minds. But perceptual shifts are the heart and soul of SF and this particular story is provincial because it went about as far as its readership could perceptually travel at the time, or maybe only as far as Bradbury wanted to take it. Perhaps another SF writer would’ve expanded on the theme. Bradbury is being symbolic, not pragmatic or practical. For example, why not just move to Africa? He wants an utter separation.

        Today one might imagine the same story written by a Christian Copt in Egypt where all the Christians move to a new continent just risen in the ocean, or a new planet, to escape Muslims. Or Greeks in Ottoman Turkey who meet aliens who sympathetically listen to their oppression and offer to transport those Greeks to their own world, maybe a new Constantinople. In both cases they could just move to a different country but then where is the perceptual shift and the SF?

        So yes, maybe that stuff would’ve been going through their minds because Bradbury limited his story to what was local. The irony is that he was one of the few SF writers who did that because of his peculiar down-home style mixed with futurity. Had he been a more genre oriented SF writer, perhaps he would’ve explored the topic in a more nuanced fashion that spread human failure around instead of freezing it in Jim Crow, circa 1950 in America.

        The other bit of irony is last year’s Nebula Awards where one of those attendees triumphantly Tweeted no white man won an awards. Since sins don’t travel with DNA, now you have the opposite prospect of whites leaving the SFWA and letting a new brand of racist stare at each other. So what indeed is “the worth of [enter here] if it has no one against which to claim superiority?”

        Larger perceptual shifts that go classic, historic and global reveal a different kind of failing, one that is human.

    • I do not love that quote. It breaks my heart actually. I love Ray Bradbury. But the only people who ever complain about “political correctness” are the people who aren’t on the receiving end of the “incorrectness”. And let’s be clear, who’s still in control of the politics? We have one president who’s not a white male and people flip out. And you still can’t become president without being a Christian. Or married. Man, you show a commercial for Cheerios that has a young girl who is the product of a mixed-marriage and the company is forced to withdraw the commercial because of the outrage. So when anybody, even Ray Bradbury, throws that phrase around I’m immediately suspicious of their motive and their critical thinking on the subject. I would like there to be more art where people like me, shoot and people who aren’t like me, are portrayed as fully realized human beings. That’s it.

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  11. It’s old obviously, but I’m just finding it now. Thank you SO MUCH for this blog. It’s stupid, but I’m just excited to know there are other brothers out there like me.

  12. This is a great article! i first read The Martian Chronicles in middle school and i fell completely in love with it. The aliens, the drama, the references to Fahrenheit 451, but what really caught my eye were Bradbury’s mentions of colonialism and racism. Never could I have expected something like that in a book that old, and written by a white man no less. I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of the racist aspects of Bradbury’s then-“progressive” novel. One of the aspects that still surprises me is the criticism towards colonialism in the fourth (?) mission chapter, from mentions of disease to renaming the land, it was very hard-hitting for me. Anyhow though, fantastic writing, and thanks for a great article.

  13. Apologies if this is a duplicate. I’m just not sure if the first one posted.

    I’m four years late to the party, but you might like “With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama” by Lupoff (published in “Again, Dangerous Visions”). It’s basically the story of the war between the planets of Alabama and Haiti. It’s got zombies and indecipherable Southern drawl and everything. There are also dick shaped rocket ships manned by closeted homosexuals. It’s really a good read.

  14. I’m a white librarian at a middle school. I remember being struck by this story as a teenager, but had forgotten how it begins. I wonder whether to keep Martian Chronicles in the library because its use of the “n-word” in this story will repel many of my students. Your comments point out other aspects of racism in this work as well.

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