Sometime in the 1930s, a black journalist is kidnapped in Harlem by the charismatic Dr. Henry Belsidius, leader of the Black Internationale–a shadowy organization determined to build a Black Empire and overthrow the world of white racial hegemony with cunning and super science. Journalist George S. Schulyer’s fantastic tale was written in serials in the black Pittsburgh Courier between 1936 and 1938 under the pseudonym Samuel I. Brooks. It quickly found a loyal following among African-American readers, who saw in Dr. Belsidius and the Black Internationale a heroic, sci-fi tale of black nationalism, triumph and race pride. The newspaper was surprised at the serials’ growing popularity, and pushed for more–sixty-two in all. Yet no one was as surprised at the story’s success than George Schulyer who, disdaining what he saw as the excesses of black nationalism and race pride, had written Black Empire as satire.
Recently, the World SF Blog held a roundtable on the issues of non-Western narratives in speculative fiction. Touched upon in the talk, were problems of inclusion, the lacking (or often-ignored) presence of non-Western writers in the genre and the entire post-colonial project when it comes to writing and the non-Western world. It was an insightful discussion that can be read in its two-part entirety starting here. What received the most discussion by the panelists however, was the topic of how Western writers depict non-Western settings, including issues of exoticism and the sometimes futile search for “authenticity.” This left me with my own set of questions. What about the “other” that exists within the non-Western world? What about those people within the larger dominant society, who are marginalized from its center similar to the ways in which a colonized geographical space is distanced from the metropole?
The clamor for diversity in speculative fiction has long been heard–and answered. In fantasy, this has come about partly in the form of writers of African descent creating their own realms of spears and sorcery. Termed “Sword and Soul” by some, this sub-genre of fantasy uses an often fictionalized Africa as a backdrop, creating heroes, stories, lands and adventures outside of the Eurocentric norm. Yet a cursory glance shows that most of these writers (self included) are several generations removed from the Africa of our imaginings. So what happens when the Westernized-other seeks to depict the non-Western world–one which remains both prominent and elusive in his/her imagination?