There has never been a more exciting time to be a science fiction and fantasy writer, and a Black writer in particular. In recent years speculative fiction centering Black characters has been getting more and more of the spotlight, and I absolutely love to see it. I’ve always been a huge SF geek, and growing up I was known to read a book in a day, the majority of them fantasy. But while I loved books like “Harry Potter”, “The Chronicles of Narnia” and the “Shannara” Series, it was close to impossible to find fantasy narratives that centered Black people.
Sci-fi stories in particular were troubling for their absence of those melanated. But then enter Afrofuturism, a term first used in the 1990’s in an essay by a White writer named Mark Dery. In a 2019 talk on Afrofuturism at Wellesley College, sci-fi author Samuel R. Delany breaks down what the term meant at the time—essentially fiction set in the future with Black characters present. Delany also explains why this is potentially problematic: “[Afrofuturism was] not contingent on the race of the writer, but on the race of the characters portrayed.” Sci-fi and fantasy narratives have historically been mostly Eurocentric, and sci-fi and fantasy authors, largely White men, have not had the best track record for writing Black characters of any depth. They had no skin in the game, after all, no vested interest in doing so.
But as the term used to describe fiction about us has been claimed by us it has been refined and remade, and Afrofuturism now invokes the glowing towers of Wakanda, the plight of Janelle Monae’s android fugitive Cindy Mayweather. In response to the erasure of Black people in sci-fi and fantasy, the parameters of Afrofuturism have been solidified, and the expectation now is that Afrofuturist narratives not only contain black characters, but be specifically about them. And who better to lovingly craft fantastical worlds and cultures rooted in Black and African traditions than Black Authors?
When I first started writing as a teen, I thought it was all but impossible for a fantasy novel featuring main characters of color to inspire a universal, non-literary fandom. Today, I am relieved to say that is no longer true. My conviction comes not only from the veneration of authors such as (and in no way limited to) Nora Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor and Tomi Adeyemi, and the blockbuster success of the Black Panther movie, but from the success of my own work.
This year I published my debut novel, “Given”, a fantasy-romance with West African and Caribbean influences. However my road to publication was a little different than most. After querying a different novel and having moderate results, I decided to post “Given” online to Wattpad to gain readership and feedback. I wasn’t sure how the story would do as the romantic heroine is explicitly described as dark-skinned and this was, and still is comparatively rare in fantasy and romance writing. To my delight the story went on to gain 1 million reads and win a “Worldbuilders” Watty award as selected from over 300,000 entries. But most gratifying to me are the numerous comments from readers, especially young black girls, excited to see a fantasy story with someone who looked like them as the protagonist. It’s been incredibly heartening to receive comments about how happy readers are to see themselves represented.
2019 saw fantastic new sci-fi and fantasy from Black authors, books like “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” by Marlon James, “David Mogo, Godhunter” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa, “Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky” by Kwame Mbalia and “A River of Royal Blood” by Amanda Joy. And 2020 looks even brighter. I’m incredibly excited by so many books from debut Black spec-fic authors to come. Books like “The Gilded Ones” by Namina Forna, “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin” by Roseanne A. Brown and “The Sound of Stars” by Alechia Dow.
In 2020, Black characters will no longer be the mentors, the side-kicks and best friends. Black characters will be the captains of their own destinies, at the helm of pirate ships and space convoys. Black characters, fully realized in all their nuanced splendor from the pens of Black authors, will take the lead in our stories.