Credit: UMP Press.
In the 21st century, society has grown to rely on the axiom that “race” is a lie. For some people, out of paranoia or a desire to avoid conflict, touting the knowledge that race is socially constructed is a way of declaring that ignorance about what it means is willful.
For the rest of us, knowing that the disparities causing us to live and die in painfully different ways stem from irrational pseudo-science is just an insult piled on top of injuries.
We all deal with the fictions on which white supremacy is founded and the fantasies that aim to rationalize the subordination of everyone else in different ways. Doctors and nurses convince themselves that Black people feel less pain or tolerate it more. White grade-school teachers commend the talents of Black girls and boys at lower rates than their white cohorts.
Borrowing language from the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the mass incarceration that consigns so many Black people to unfreedom in the post-Civil Rights era as The Gray Wastes.
And now things get queer: the critique of state-sanctioned racial violence meets the repertoire of fantasy and gaming. How can you write about life and death in the obscure rhetoric of a teenage diversion? How can a trivial hobby provide the words we need to shake the serious-minded know-it-alls wringing our hands about crime and the Black family out of our conventional wisdom?
The Gray Wastes is a compelling topos within Dungeons & Dragons, according to a review that Coates cites, because its terror “erodes the sense of purpose that is the hallmark of an alignment-based philosophy.” The place where strongly focused evil resides is so thoroughly suffused with the meanings ascribed to the category of the unjust that this intangible moral quality becomes a spatial and temporal reality, precipitating down from the realm of abstraction to soak everything in a cold, aching despair.
Coates finds this highly evocative metaphor powerful enough to describe what prison does to African American families. Our carceral society discolors your life even when you get back to living it. Legal discrimination against ex-offenders cuts off your access to a fulfilling livelihood and civic participation, and state-sanctioned exploitation strains every relationship you’d hope to maintain with lovers, family, and friends—none of whom will ever look at you the same way again.
It’s a fate not unlike like what Orlando Patterson termed Social Death—a state of “natal alienation” or displacement from the bonds of community, time, and space—which eerily intersects with the lack of a sense of futurity that animates (or paralyzes) some branches of queer theory.
Each of these conceits—the Gray Wastes, Social Death, antisocial politics—lends credence to a hypothesis that I call “the speculative fiction of Blackness”: the notion that Black people might populate discourses of impossibility, haunting, death-defying, and the otherworldly as a matter of course.
The notion that the supernatural should come naturally to descendants of enslaved Africans in the Americas is a corollary to operations of white supremacy in culture that positions Black people as freaks of nature, not quite up to full participation in the Age of Reason.
Alain Locke called it: “For generations in the mind of America, the Negro has been more of a formula than a human being.” Richard Wright called it: “The Negro is America’s metaphor.” Toni Morrison called it: in American literature, race has become “metaphorical—a way of referring to and disguising forces, events, classes, and expressions of social decay and economic division far more threatening to the body politic than biological ‘race’ ever was.” Hortense Spillers called it when she said that black women are “the beached whales of the sexual universe, unvoiced, misseen, not doing, awaiting their verb.”
Speculation from the hollows where Black genius resides produces poignant reconstructions of the past like Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust as well as prophetic polemics like Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. By eschewing the codes of modern social scientific realism, imaginative cultural production allows Black thinkers and dreamers to lay claim to the speculative fiction of Blackness on their own terms.
In some crucial respects, the speculative fiction of Blackness takes exception to the richly allegorical gestures of fantasy, science fiction, roleplaying games, and horror. With the lines between good and evil drawn in such stark metaphorical terms, you might expect that the millions of white Americans who came of age playing games like D&D—the people for whom an allusion to “the Gray Wastes” is most intelligible—would become the staunchest allies in the fight against police brutality, prison-based gerrymandering, and other forms of institutional racism.
But you know that did not happen. You might think that a society realizing the wildest dreams of our forebears, knowing that race is no biological reality but a social fact, would harness the power of the imagination to confront the most intractable problems we have ever faced in novel ways.
As a humanities scholar, I am concerned about ostensibly conscientious contributions to social and political thought in popular culture. When fictions of social transformation don’t defer to the vast body of antiracist knowledge in the modern world—or worse, when they diminish it, draw it in caricature, or reduce it to its image—extrapolations on the nature of racial conflict fail utterly at their social task.
A similar pattern lays the groundwork for struggles over the meaning of gendered and sexual difference in the genre: compared with their feminist counterparts who devote their entire lives to understanding the complexities of patriarchy, gender, and sexuality, anti-feminist writers who don’t believe in or don’t understand the critique of patriarchy do a terrible job articulating what the far-fetched possibilities of their fictions mean for the respective roles of women and men.
The problem is the same: when the metaphor eclipses its subtext, it mystifies rather than demystifying.
With few exceptions, the story SF tells about itself recapitulates conventional tendencies when it comes to race thinking, because it is coextensive with the structures and traditions of cultural production that characterize the society in which we live. White supremacy is among the most enduring of those traditions.
My term for the default setting of the relationship between race and genre is “the whiteness of science fiction.” Struggle though we might to comprehend the alterity of the genre in countercultural terms, without adopting a critique of racism that actually attends to the priorities of antiracist intellectuals and the social formations we come from, SF writers don’t enjoy any special purchase on the repertoire of cultural practices that will lead us out of our present when it comes to the racial status quo.
Where a transformative vision of racial justice or a resonant meditation on being brown, postcolonial, or Diasporic shows itself in literature and other media, you can trust that vision is indebted to the deep roots of speculation in communities of color.
This article was originally published by the University of Minnesota Press blog.