Early Black Writers, Speculative Fiction and Confronting Racial Terror

BlakeIn the bleakest of moments African-American writers have turned to literature to confront racial terror and the trauma it could induce–turning to poetry, personal narratives, plays and novels. Sometimes, they even dreamed of the fantastic.

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An Ode to the Anti-hero

staggerlee_mIn 1900 a black laborer named Robert Charles set off a massive manhunt after an altercation with New Orleans police. Before all was done, Charles would shoot well over 20 whites sent to apprehend him, killing several. Altogether, 28 people (the exact number is truly unknown) would die in riots, including Charles, who made a last stand in a burning building. The violence that surrounded him continued to swirl and claim others even after his death. The last turbulent days of Charles life would make him a monster to many and a folk hero to others. For black musicians, he became one of the legendary “bad men”–those near mythic black anti-heroes of superhuman capabilities, whose acts of defiance were both celebratory, captivating and frightening.

painting: Cruel Old Stagger Lee, by Van Orno

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Men in Black: A Lynching in Steampunk

Steampunk_Pocketwatch_by_purpleglovezMen in Black, my contribution to the recently published STEAMFUNK Anthology, explores the darker side of the Victorian and Progressive Era, a minor Steampunk tale (no airships, corsets or zombies) about a lynching, the arrival of a mysterious stranger, his fantastic machines and the fate of a small town called Blackwood.

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Carnival of Fury- The Ballad of Robert Charles

robert charlesIn 1900 a black laborer named Robert Charles set off a massive manhunt after an altercation with several New Orleans police officers. Before all was done, Charles would shoot well over 20 whites sent to apprehend him, killing several. Altogether, 28 people (the exact number is truly unknown) would die in riots, including Charles, who made a last stand in a burning building. The violence that surrounded him continued to swirl and claim others even after his death. Previously unknown, the last turbulent days of Charles life would make him a monster to many and a folk hero to others. For blues artists he became one of the legendary “bad men”–those near mythic black personas of superhuman capabilities whose defiance of white authority was both frightening, dangerous and captivating all at once. He even had a ballad written in his honor. The famed Jelly Roll Morton would relate his own experience of the event in an oral tale to musicologist and archivist Alan Lomax, tying Robert Charles to an influential moment in the creation and dispersal of American Jazz.

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Steampunk Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Anti-Lynching, Anti-Victorian Crusader

“One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap.” – Ida B. Wells-Barnett

At a recent history conference, I had the fortune of attending a plenary titled “Mightier than the Sword: Conversations on the Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells-Barnett.” The panel featured historians Mia Bay, Paula Giddings and Patricia Schechter (among others), all of whom have authored works on the famed anti-lynching crusader. Though I’d studied Ida B. Wells-Barnett previously, during the discussion I was once again struck by her intense radicalism, which ran counter to the sensibilities of gender, activism and racial justice that pervaded the times. As often happens, my historian’s mind wandered into the speculative–particularly steampunk, where the Victorian Age’s analogous twin across the Atlantic, what Mark Twain satirized as “The Gilded Age” and well into the later “Progressive Era,” carried a violent dark side that Ida B. Wells-Barnett dedicated her life to revealing.

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