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 Tor.com’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 Tor.com 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 Tor.com’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 Tor.com 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.


Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett | 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 Tor.com’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 Tor.com I’m republishing them here on a monthly basis.

I don’t want to inflict vertigo on you, but in this installment of a deeper dive into my Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction we fly from the far past of 1887 and “The Goophered Grapevine,” to a novel of the nearly now.


Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett could be categorized as the hardest of hardcore science fiction: aliens, spaceships, supercomputers–it has them all. Yet the lasting impression left by this brief but monumental 2014 novel is one of ethereality. Empires fall, towers melt into the air, and in the end only the most beautiful of ephemera abide: love and stories.

In a series of vignettes separated by ones and zeros and DOS-looking command strings, a protagonist named variously Adrian and Adrianne, of shifting gender and age, loses and finds and loses again the person they love. This loved one, whose name and gender and age also change, is sometimes Adrianne’s brother or father, sometimes Adrian’s pregnant wife or AIDS-stricken husband. And sometimes they’re someone else: Adrian/Adrianne loves Antoinette/Antoine through a multitude of scenarios. These vignettes’ action and dialogue overlap and in part repeat themselves, advancing gradually into grimmer and grimmer territory. Beginning with an accidental injury to Adrianne’s head that seems to occur beneath one of New York City’s ubiquitous scaffoldings, Brissett transports readers from that recuperating woman’s sad apartment, site of her lover’s inexplicable disenchantment with their relationship, to a vast underground city, to the post-apocalyptic ruins of a museum, to other even stranger locales.

Over and over again, owls and elks appear in mysterious and completely inappropriate circumstances. A green dot glows constantly in the sky. Along with continuity glitches such as autumn’s advent in the middle of high summer and the return to life of those indisputably dead, these recurrences delicately undermine each episode’s narrative reliability. Each until the last.

Touchstones with the black experience abound in Elysium. At the most superficial level many of the characters’ physical traits–skin color, hair texture, facial features–are described in ways that tell readers they are black. And there are textual references, too, as when Adrianne follows the green dot through spectral city streets “like the slaves of old the northern star.” Digging slightly deeper you’ll find one version of Adrian musing about the protection from an alien-induced plague his high melanin count gives him. In this instance blackness is not only present, it’s a plot point.

Earthlings’ interactions with different passages’ differently rendered alien invaders also model facets of the black experience. Elysium’s depiction of the alien colonizers’ implacable elimination of anyone in their way will be familiar to all people of color. Denying others’ humanity is yet another imperialist tactic used around the globe, echoed here by the pest-control-like tactics apparently employed against all humans. However, their wider resonance does’t make these elements of the book any less relevant to blacks: the particular source of them in Brissett’s black heritage lets its outpourings become universal but stays anchored in the hurt and defiance of the ever-present African-descended ancestors many of us share.

Finally, there’s Elysium’s connection, deliberate or not, with the concept of survivance. As noted in the linked article, survivance is a deliberately ambiguous term first used by Native American critical theorist Gerald Vizenor. A step beyond mere survival, survivance entails adaptation. It implies growth and change, not just preservation, and renounces the subject-weakening acceptance of a history of victimization.

Invisibly coded into Earth’s atmosphere, the fictional computer whose machine-language interruptions punctuate Brissett’s story contains a record of our whole world’s culture. History, art, science–everything is archived here. But the archive isn’t meant, as Adrianne rebukes an alien eager to explore it, “for the likes of you.” It’s meant for other humans, as a tool with which to build and rebuild the essence of our evolving lives.

“Ambitious” is the word most frequently used to describe Elysium. In form and topic, that description is apt. Intimately detailed scenes portray a galactic epic superbly. Sublimely.

This book has a poem’s grace. That is to say, though made of words, it dances. Spare yet gorgeous, Elysium’s turns of phrase require no decorative enameling, no armature or exoskeleton to hold them up or flatteringly frame their substance. Rhythm and repetition strengthen Brissett’s message about love’s enduring power. Rhythm and repetition help; ultimately, though, the words she uses are exactly perfect, and being perfect, they’re all that’s needed.

When asked to list African-descended science fiction, fantasy, and horror authors, readers will often come up with a very small number of names. Usually Samuel R. Delany gets mentioned, and usually Octavia E. Butler. Resourceful people are able to cite a few others without resorting to internet search engines. But there are many more, as my original Crash Course post made clear.

Jennifer Marie Brissett is one of them. Elysium is her debut novel; she has also written several short stories. As one of an emerging crew of African Americans working in the imaginative genres, she’s in the vanguard of a literary movement, a gloriously gifted voice raised in the newly swelling choir of speculative griots. As a living author currently working in the imaginative genres, she thrives on audience support. So let’s give it to her.