The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl by Virginia Hamilton | Expanded Course in the History of Black Science Fiction

As I explained previously, this series is an expansion of my Fantastic Stories of the Imagination article titled “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction.” (That essay is now hosted []here and on my personal website.) At’s invitation I agreed to delve more deeply into each of the 42 titles on that list in turn.

The original essay became a popular reference–apparently there wasn’t anything else like it available. The Carl Brandon Society’s website seems a good home for both the Crash Course and my subsequent expansions, so with the agreement of I’m republishing them here on a monthly basis.

This month’s subject, Virginia Hamilton’s The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, is children’s novel about a child goddess come to Earth. From her heavenly home on top of Mount Highness in Kenya, Pretty Pearl journeys to America beside her brother John de Conquer. Their plan is to investigate the cruelties of chattel slavery. In the form of albatrosses they follow a slave ship to Georgia, but on landing they lie down in the red clay rather than jump right into interfering. Interference has a habit of backfiring, the grown-up god informs his little sister. But divine time runs differently than human time. They take a short, two-century nap, and soon after the Civil War ends they’re ready for action.

Interracial cruelties are by no means in the past even then. The two gods face Reconstruction’s dangers separately so Pretty Pearl can prove her full goddess-hood; she falls in with a community hiding away in the backwoods and joins them as they emerge to migrate north and west, re-entering the wider human sphere. Which at this point largely comprises the countryside.

There’s a school of thought that equates African-descended people with all things urban. Sure, we’re a people of cities, new and ancient–of both Memphises, arguably. Also, though, we’re not. Also we’re a people of farms, gardens, forests. The wild frontier. The hamlet and trading post. These ruralities are brought to loving life in Pretty Pearl. Ginseng hunters haunt shady groves, hidden lookouts send warning messages to their friends via fawn-and-twilight plumed passenger pigeons, and poplar leaves shield innocents from hate-filled would-be lynch mobs. I can literally relate, because while my mother’s side of the family is from New Orleans by way of Chicago, my father’s side is from sleepy little Vandalia, which consists of nothing but a cemetery, two churches, and a picnic shelter.

Hamilton’s own family history forms the hazy background into which the end of Pretty Pearl’s story blends. Bridging the gap between mythic and modern chronologies with our lives is a common tactic among those of us who belong to displaced and deracinated peoples. Where did we come from? Our origins, like Pretty Pearl’s, are mysteries.

The author depicts several figures from African, American, and African American folklore, including the Fool-la-fafa, the Hodag, the Hide-behind, John de Conquer, John Henry. She tosses around chapters and incidents with a casual air belying the concentration needed to keep juggling her plot and characters’ in nice, manageable arcs. That casual air fits oral storytelling traditions to a T.

So does Hamilton’s dialogue. It’s natural. It flows in the patterns of the people. Pretty Pearl and John de Conquer speak African American Vernacular English before they ever arrive on American shores. Pearl spies on slaver gangs and tells her brother how they “grab holt” of their victims; John explains, “What you see be subtraction….subtract de life, you got no kind of freedom. Subtract de freedom, you got no life.” Divine elocution mimics that of the “lower classes” so as to elevate the immiserated past–or rather, to point out the fact of that past’s elevation, those ancestors’ transcendent power and wisdom. The diction of Maw Julanna and the backwoods community’s “chil’ren” is never rendered unintelligible with overabundant phoneticization. Instead, syntax and culture-specific references, (words like “dayclean” and so on) give us the context essential to hearing what’s said.

In contrast, Old Canoe and his fellow Real People, aka Cherokee, use the Standard English of Hamilton’s narration. “I speak the language of the whites, but,” Old Canoe cautions his audience, “I am not white, remember.” Not all difference is audible in everyday conversation. Sometimes it must be marked deliberately.

Is this really a book for children? A book about hiding out from murderers and mutilators and corrupt, race-based systems of punishment? A book about people wandering in the wilderness sans homes or possessions of any sort, dependent on the kindness of complete and total strangers?

Yes. Children need to know about these things. They need to know about the aches and wounds afflicting the giants’ shoulders they stand on. They need to understand that the world is full of dangers–dangers many of the people who came before them escaped.

Fantastical literature written for children often lures its readers on to look for its adult equivalent. And seeing ourselves early on the way Hamilton portrays black people–as magical beings at the centers of stories–trains us to expect to find ourselves in the speculative worlds and imagined futures we encounter later in life, performing miracles, saving the universe, living happily forever after. Pretty Pearl and other Afrodiasporic Middle Years and YA fantasy, SF, horror and so forth create an expectation in their audience that there’s going to be more. Which is extremely important work. That expectation gets us hungry for more of these kinds of tales, hunting for them, ready to write them ourselves if our hunt comes up emptyhanded or we run out.

At a recent party, another guest told me The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl is a hard book to find. Apparently, scarce cloth copies in top condition are priced over $100. My battered paperback is probably worth a lot less money. But it’s worth something else: for me this book has been an ever-expanding portal into a marvelous possible past. Through that portal I can see the roots of stories I want to hear and tell. As a reader (and maybe a writer, too) of black science fiction, how much would you pay to feast your eyes on that?


Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry | Expanded Course in the History of Black Science Fiction

As I explained, this series is an expansion of my Fantastic Stories of the Imagination article titled “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction.” (That essay is now hosted []here and on my personal website.) At’s invitation I agreed to delve more deeply into each of the 42 titles on that list in turn.

The original essay became a popular reference–apparently there wasn’t anything else like it available. The Carl Brandon Society’s website seems a good home for both the Crash Course and my subsequent expansions, so with the agreement of I’m republishing them here on a monthly basis.

This essay is about Les Blancs, Lorraine Hansberry’s last play.

First produced in 1970, a little over five years after the author died of cancer at the age of 34, Les Blancs never achieved the acclaim of Hansberry’s massively successful Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun, nor that of the Off-Broadway dramatic adaptation her widower Robert Nemiroff patched together from her notes and autobiographical writings, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. But though it remained unfinished at the time of her death, she considered it her most important work.

Les Blanc’s action takes place in an unnamed African country modeled on Ghana and Kenya, according to Hansberry’s biographers, and also somewhat on the Congo, according to me. (See, for instance, the reference in Act Two, Scene 2 to the Belgian King Leopold’s favorite method of mutilation, the cutting off of indigenes’ hands.) The “Kwi,” this country’s original inhabitants, are in the midst of being supplanted by English-speaking whites. The supplantation is carried out via multiple methods: a paternalistic Christian mission-cum-hospital, a white-run government supported by a white-run soldiery, and political interference with the threat of military intervention from the US. Like many SF and Fantasy authors before and after her, Hansberry is able to analyze real-life issues with lessened fear of triggering reprisals by situating them in a purely speculative location. Rather than invoking an alternate past as I do in Everfair or an extrapolated future as Nnedi Okorafor does in Who Fears Death, though, Hansberry creates a semi-imaginary present. (Now, of course, that present has passed.)

Also, she offers us two personifications of a spiritual force. This is not simply a case of imbuing her realistic human characters with archetypal qualities. In the prologue, and at the end of Act One, and again in the second half of Act Two, Scene 3, Hansberry renders the essence of African independence as a dancing woman bearing a spear. Because she’s a supernatural phenomenon this woman is visible only to the protagonist and to us, the audience. Later (the whole of Act Two, Scene 6), the author renders this spirit as male, a “poet-warrior” named Ngago who exhorts his people to take violent action. These extramundane scenes show that Hansberry valued the fantastic highly enough to explicitly depict it.

Hansberry’s friend and collaborator Nemiroff says that much of her inspiration for writing Les Blancs rose out of watching a production of Jean Genet’s Absurdist “clown show” Les NËgres. Reacting to the racism Genet both exhibited and lampooned and to the Frenchman’s ignorance of a continent often romanticized by Europeans, Hansberry began work soon after that evening on her oppositionally-titled play.

But Les Blancs’ inspiration was also in the time’s disturbed and smoky air. During the early 1960s, the years in which Hansberry hammered the play out, the flood of African anti-colonialism was in full spate. Alongside members of the U.S.’s civil rights movement marching for equality, African nations fought and burned for self-rule. Hansberry, politically aware as she was, paid attention to the parallels. She felt the ties spanning the Atlantic and linking together the destinies of kindred peoples. She knew these links were genetic, cultural, and spiritual–real on many levels. She conjured up her two embodiments of freedomís essence because of that truth.

In just the five years between Hansberry’s untimely death and the play’s first public appearance, the pan-African political situation she referenced shifted: battles and legislative drives were won and lost, additional assassinations committed. Things have changed even more radically since. A work in progress that traveled with Hansberry on trips to the hospital towards the end of her life, Les Blancs could well have continued being reshaped to reflect emerging reality. It could also, like China MiÈville’s Iron Council, have employed the techniques of imaginative fiction to show the future’s ineffableness. If Hansberry had lived.

Here’s a brief synopsis of Les Blancs as we know it: In Act One, two men arrive at a Christian mission’s rural African hospital. They are a white U.S. journalist called Charlie (for most blacks that’s a racially charged name), and Tshembe, a black native who has returned from life abroad to attend his fatherís funeral. The two men interact with each other and various others–Tshembe’s brothers, the hospital staff, the local military commander–against a backdrop of guerilla violence. Tshembe receives but rejects a mystical call to arms, refusing to revenge his older brotherís betrayal of the liberation movement. In Act Two the violence intensifies. Tshembe accepts the call he earlier rejected and kills his traitor brother. But other deaths occur as well, and the final scene ends on his cry of anguish. There is no third act.

How would a longer-lived Hansberry have resolved her hero’s dilemma?

Originally, Hansberry’s notes reveal, Tshembe was Candace, a woman. Answering the dancing female spirit’s call to arms, killing the brother–in fact, the action of the whole story would have unspooled differently with a woman as its protagonist. What if–maybe in response to feminism’s building second wave–Hansberry had returned to her first conception?

Until we figure out how to access alternate timelines we’ll never know.

I came to this play through the guidance of Andrea Hairston, a fabulous author of award-winning fantasy and science fiction novels who is also a theater professor at Smith College. She helped me see its fantastic elements by making me conscious of habitual prose consumers’ tendency to discount such things as mere matters of dramatic convention.

Because of this introduction I have the privilege of identifying with Hansberry’s relationship to Les Blancs. My debut novel Everfair also takes place in an imaginary African country–but its imaginariness is historical rather than the result of a geopolitical mash-up. I can visit Everfair’s physical locations, though I never have. In writing it I relied, as Hansberry did, on remote research. So I can easily picture her in the throes of authorship, fretting over her play’s details, implications, and vectors, the branching consequences of carefully thought out decisions on what to represent, and who, and how…just as I’ve done. Just as numerous other African-descended creators of speculative works have done. And I can picture her happy now to know that we return via her words to her unnamed chimerical land; I can envision her smiling her gorgeous smile on learning from our comments and discussions what we’ve discovered there.


The Comet by W.E.B. Du Bois | Expanded Course in the History of Black Science Fiction

As I explained in this column’s first installment, this series is an expansion of my Fantastic Stories of the Imagination article titled “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction.” (That essay is now hosted []here and on my personal website.) At’s invitation I agreed to delve more deeply into each of the 42 titles on that list in turn.

The original essay became a popular reference–apparently there wasn’t anything else like it available. The Carl Brandon Society’s website seems a good home for both the Crash Course and my subsequent expansions, so with the agreement of I’m republishing them here on a monthly basis.
Our focus this column is on “The Comet,” a science fiction short story by W.E.B. Du Bois. Yes, as I note in the original Crash Course, that W.E.B. Du Bois: the well-known and recently misspelled critical thinker and race theorist. “The Comet” was first published in 1920 as the final chapter of his autobiographical collection of poems and essays Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. Though nowhere near as influential as Du Bois’ monumental The Souls of Black Folks, Darkwater was popular and well-received. But by the time, almost a century later, that author and editor and Sheree Renee Thomas was compiling her own groundbreaking book, the anthology Dark Matter 1, she found this early and prominent work of science fiction languishing in completely undeserved obscurity.

In early twentieth century Manhattan, bank employee Jim Davis is sent to retrieve documents from a deep vault. (It’s made clear that this is a low-priority, high-risk errand, and that it has been assigned to Davis because he’s black.) Accidentally locking himself in a secret chamber at the vault’s back, Davis emerges after a struggle to find the entire city dead–except for a wealthy white woman who spent those same crucial moments in her photographic darkroom. Everyone else has been poisoned by the gases of a comet’s tail through which the Earth has just passed. Moving confrontations with widespread mortality give way to the woman Julia’s realization that the racial separation she’s accustomed to means nothing. Her climactic vision of Davis as Adam to her Eve is then swiftly banished by the return of her daytripping suitor: the comet’s swathe of death has not been global but merely citywide.

“The Comet” is a prime example of speculative thinking from a man on the forefront of major intellectual developments. A pioneer in the field of sociology and the author of texts foundational to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other civil rights actions, Du Bois imagined the apocalyptic disruption of daily life as the background necessary for his depiction of true racial equality. Like many Afrodiasporic authors who’ve come after him, he deprivileged the racism inherent in the status quo by smashing that status quo to tragic smithereens. Though the dream of Utopic ages to come is conveyed only in a few paragraphs toward the story’s end and experienced by its characters in a nearly wordless communion, this dream, this communion, is “The Comet’s” crux. That a mind such as Du Bois’ used science fiction as the method to clothe his ideas in lifelikeness stands as a good precedent for those of us who do the same. If only knowledge of that precedent had not been buried and forgotten.

Darkwater is an intensely personal book. Most chapters other than “The Comet” relate scenes from the author’s life. Each ends in a poem full of metaphor and allegory, and these metaphors and allegories draw on Dubois’ own experiences, reflections, and longings. Born in Massachusetts a scant two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Du Bois lived a relatively privileged life for a black man of that period. He attended a school–integrated–and was recognized as the scion of a family with extensive local roots.

And yet, a century ago he could write with heartfelt weariness of daily microaggressions chillingly identical to those experienced by African Americans today. In the chapter just preceding “The Comet” he fends off an imagined interlocutor’s accusations of being “too sensitive” with an account of his milkman’s neglect, his neighbor’s glare, the jeers of passing children. He praises the world’s myriad beauties but then gives a harrowing account of the dangers and inconveniences of traveling to see these beauties under the baleful eye of Jim Crow.

These are the phenomena forming the original backdrop to the telling of “The Comet.”

Of course we also bring modern sensibilities to our reading of Du Bois’ story; by recognizing them as such we avoid confusing and corrupting a purely historical take on it. It’s easy from the vantage point of the twenty-first century to make comparisons to Jordan Peele’s movie “Get Out” or to Joanna Russ’s short novel We Who Are About To or to another of the many hundreds of stories dealing with the racial and gender issues “The Comet” brings up.

These are the phenomena forming the story’s contemporary backdrop.

To see these backdrops, change your focus. Examine the author’s assumptions: that a black man found in the exclusive company of a white woman is regarded with suspicion, for instance. Examine how they contrast with yours and your friends’: for example, that women are more than decorative childbearing organisms. Assumptions like these aren’t on the page; they are the page.

Maybe you’re unfamiliar with the term “Becky,” slang for the sort of privileged young white woman who’s offended by being labeled as such. For me there’s the added connotation of strong physical attractiveness combining with racial cluelessness to make the Becky dangerous–and especially dangerous to any black boys or men in her vicinity. “The Comet’s” heroine Julia is a Becky. That Davis survives their encounter is an outcome resonant with the author’s unusually positive and neutral experiences of whiteness in childhood.
The Becky Julia’s presence underscores Du Bois’ dichotomous perception of the world: she is white and female in complement and contrast to hero Davis’s black maleness. Her deadliness is at first superseded by the comet’s, but when the comet’s deadliness is finally shown to be less than universal, the Becky’s returns–though not in full force, because the threats and epithets it renders Davis susceptible to remain purely verbal through the story’s end.

It’s at the level of verbal virtuosity that “The Comet” is most enjoyable. Today Du Bois’ writing may seem flowery, but rather than shrinking from its apparent excesses I advise embracing them. “Behind and all around, the heavens glowed in dim, weird radiance that suffused the darkening world and made almost a minor music,” he writes, approaching the height of his rhetorical effervescence. Like Lovecraft but less turgid and more forward-thinking, Du Bois’ prose–which I confess to imitating somewhat in this essay–is a largely neglected source of exhilarating pleasure.