Award Winners for 2019 — Press Release

The Carl Brandon Society is pleased to announce the winners of our 2019 Parallax and Kindred Awards. “After a hiatus of several years, we’re very proud to once again highlight outstanding works of speculative fiction written by BIPOC authors—the Parallax—and focused on racial issues—the Kindred,” said CBS steering committee member K. Tempest Bradford.

The winner of the 2019 Carl Brandon Parallax Award is Pet by Akwaeke Emezi from Random House Children’s Books. The 2019 Carl Brandon Kindred Award winner is “Doll Seed” by Michele Tracy Berger published in FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. “The jury considers works published in the preceding year. So, these winners were published in 2019 and selected in 2020,” explained Carl Brandon steering committee member Candra K. Gill. “Both authors will receive a $1000 cash prize in addition to the physical award.”

The honors list for the 2019 Parallax Award is “Mister Dog” by Alex Jennings, “Kali_Na” by Indrapramit Das, “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” by Jaymee Goh, “Harvest” by Rebecca Roanhorse, A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurence Gidney, and David Mogo: God Hunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa.

The honors list for the 2019 Kindred Award is Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender, “Blood Is Another Word for Hunger” by Rivers Solomon, “Burn the Ships” by Alberto Yáñez, and “A Brief Lesson” in Native American Astronomy by Rebecca Roanhorse.

2019 jury members were Jacqueline A. Gross, Julia Rios, J.G. Stewart, and Yang-Yang Wang.

Details of the upcoming online presentation ceremony will be forthcoming soon.

For jury statements on the awards’ winners and honors lists and a list of previous winners, please visit carlbrandon.org/awards. Nominations for the 2020 Parallax and Kindred Awards are now open; access the nominations form there also.

–The Carl Brandon Society Steering Committee

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.

WHAT HAPPENS
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.

WHY TO PAY ATTENTION TO IT
“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.

WHAT ISN’T ON THE PAGE
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.

WHAT BECKY’S DOING IN THERE
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.

THE BEST WAY TO HAVE FUN WITH IT
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.

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The Goophered Grapvine by Charles W. Chesnutt | 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 and 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 began with Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day (1988) because of the special place it holds in my heart. Next I look even deeper into the past to talk about ‘The Goophered Grapvine‘ by Charles W. Chesnutt, a 19th century story that deserves our attention because of its brainy convolutions.

WHAT HAPPENS
Though itís relatively short at 4700 words, ‘Grapevine’ contains twists and turns enough for a much longer work. It begins with the account of a presumably white northerner who meets a “venerable-looking colored man” when he visits a North Carolina vineyard he’s thinking of purchasing, but the tale is quickly wrested away by this old man, who’s known as Uncle Julius. Uncle Julius cautions the would-be buyer that a spell has been laid on the property: the fruit of these vines, he explains, poisons those who steal it. Then follows a long anecdote about a newly acquired slave who unknowingly eats the “goophered” grapes. Hasty intervention transmutes the death curse into a mystical link between this man’s health and the seasonal life of the vines. Ultimately, though, these twin lives culminate in twin deaths due to an unscrupulous Yankee’s rapacious agricultural practices.
And yet there are grapes growing on the property at the time Uncle Julius tells his tale. Moreover, he’s sitting there eating them. When his audience asks for an explanation of these facts he reveals that the current crop springs from a combination of replanting and regeneration, but warns the prospective vintner that only he, Uncle Julius, can reliably avoid its goophered elements. Attributing this caveat to Uncle Julius’s jealousy of the profits to be reaped from the neglected vines, the visitor buys the vineyard anyway. He hires Uncle Julius as his coachman, stating at “Grapevine’s” conclusion that doing this is more than sufficient compensation for the lost revenues.

WHAT’S TO LIKE ABOUT IT
There’s a whole lot of perspective shifting going on here, and to my mind that’s fun. Pick your protagonist: the northern visitor? Uncle Julius? The man with sap for blood? That last one dies, but perhaps is reborn, Golden Bough-like, with the vines which, according to Uncle Julius, only appear to die.
In the eyes of the northern visitor, Uncle Julius functions as a wise trickster who while telling his cautionary tale also educates the immigrant about ìthe darker side of slavery. Considered from his own viewpoint, though, he’s a tragic figure. At his first appearance he’s an independent entrepreneur enjoying the fruits of others’ labor; by “Grapevine’s” close he has sunk to the level of a servant, unable to maintain his hold on the source of his livelihood. Only his wits remain to him, and these he employs in the story’s sequels.
I find the northern visitor interesting because of his ambiguity. Certain characters are explicitly marked as African American by the narrator; he doesn’t label himself racially at all. Since Otherness must always be marked, he was most likely assigned the era’s default European American status by readers of The Atlantic when it published “Grapevine.” And yet a look at any of Chesnutt’s portraits shows a man to all appearances white. Born before the “one drop rule” was legislated, Chesnutt identified as “negro” despite his majority European ancestry. I can’t bring myself to believe that whiteness was an uncomplicated concept for Chesnutt; at the very least he would have agreed with South Carolina congressman George D. Tillman, speaking at the state’s 1895 constitutional convention that, “It is a scientific fact that there is not one full-blooded Caucasian on the floor of this convention.”
My take on Chesnutt, based on his biography, is that for him race was a performance, more cultural than biological in nature. His characters’ various dictions reflect class and experience, not innate worth, and this evenhandedness is part of the attitude of “Grapevine’s” narrator as well: he overcomes the “shyness” of a “little negro girl” to obtain directions to the vineyard rather than railing at her stupidity, and categorizes Uncle Julius as “venerable” rather than lazy, shiftless, or any of the other perjoratives he could have used. He does, however, credit the man’s shrewdness to his “not altogether African” heritage.
Still, the offensive n-word comes only from Uncle Julius’s lips. Modern readers may be driven to compare its presence under this restriction to its usage in by hip hop artists. His passages are, alas, full of “suh” and “dey” and “wukkin,” and other phoneticized representations of the period’s black vernacular. Less difficult to absorb than some written dialect, it’s still work to plough through. I teach classes on how to handle the problem of depicting nonstandard speech patterns; I tell students there’s no one sure way to do it, but many ways to try. Back in 1887 this strategy was common; these days it’s seen far less.
I question to what degree the story Chesnutt has Uncle Julius deliver is mere third-hand minstrelsy, to what extent itís meant (as its auditor guesses) to frighten away well-meaning but intrusive cultural outsiders, and how much of it is a subversive message about “the darker side of slavery.” And although “Grapevine” contains page upon page of barely readable “eye dialect”–a term I prefer to the cumbersome if technically more correct “pronunciation respelling“–Chesnutt is capable of wonderfully sharp turns of phrase in standard English. “Grapevine’s” opening describes the narrator arriving in “…a quaint old town, which I shall call Patesville, because, for one reason, that is not its name.”

WHY ELSE IT MATTERS
“The Goophered Grapevine” was, as I point out in my original article, the first story by an African American author published in a high-prestige “slick” magazine, making it historically important. Also, it led to a long mentorship between Chesnutt and its publisher, The Atlantic, and it could lead you to read his other works, including his biography of Frederick Douglass and his play, Mrs. Darcy’s Daughter. Several more “Uncle Julius'” stories appeared in The Atlantic. They were collected in the 1899 book The Conjure Woman. Another collection of fiction with no fantastic elements, The Wife of His Youth, came out that same year. Chesnutt also wrote novels; the one I’m most impressed by is The Marrow of Tradition, a fictionalized account of the 1898 Wilmington Massacre (aka “race riot”) published just three years later, in 1901. Some of us have dared to read what he dared to write.

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