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.


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’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 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.

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.

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.”

“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.


Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction and Fantasy


In 1909 Harvard’s president, Charles W. Eliot, issued a 51-volume anthology he claimed could provide its owners with a complete liberal arts education.  In the same vein, I’ve pulled together an annotated list of 40 black science fiction works that are important to your understanding of its history.  You’ve got the rest of 2016 to read them.  That’s doable, isn’t it?  Tackle them one per week….Sure, some of the older titles are going to be full of archaic and unfamiliar turns of phrase; some of the anthologies are thick, and a couple of the novels I recommend are fairly long.  But a few of my suggestions are short stories, a few are children’s books, and all of them are things I’ve enjoyed.  And if you start now, you should have at least one week you can use to catch up if you fall behind, or to explore any titles find yourself distracted by as you make your way through this crash course.  Plus, you may well have read some items on my list beforehand.

As I write this it’s February–Black History Month in the U.S. and Canada–for a few more days.  But just as black history didn’t just take place in the February of any given year, it takes more than a mere month to encompass it.  Even if the focus is narrowed to the black history of science fiction.

Just one caveat before you start ordering and downloading and diving into things: some of these works could be construed as fantasy rather than science fiction.  The distinction between these two imaginative genres is often blurred, and it’s especially hard to make out their boundaries when exploring the writing of African-descended authors.  Why?  Because access to the scientific knowledge from which SF often derives has been denied to people of the African diaspora for much of history.  And the classification of what is and is not scientific knowledge hasn’t been under our control–it’s frequently a matter of dispute.  Also, it’s sometimes difficult to understand the history of black science fiction without reference to the history of black fantasy.

Keeping in mind how inextricably the two genres are interwoven, I include works of fantasy in this history of black science fiction crash course reading list, though I’m careful to note their presence with a parenthetical F at the end of each entry, thusly: (F).

We begin at the beginning.

1859 Martin R. Delany: Blake, or the Huts of America — This is often cited as the first African American science fiction novel, though the author lived in England at the time it was published.  It’s about a slave revolt, with hints at the Utopia that may follow.

1887 Charles Chesnutt: “The Goophered Grapevine” This was the author’s first short story, and the first story by a black writer to appear in the prestigious glossy magazine The Atlantic. Heavily laden with “eye dialect” (stylized and phoneticized depictions of nonstandard speech), it’s one of Chesnutt’s popular “Uncle Julius” tales, which were collected in 1899’s The Conjure Woman.  (F)

1903 Pauline Hopkins: Of One Blood — A rousing adventure along the lines of H. Rider Haggard’s She and King Solomon’s Mines, Hopkins’s serialized lost race narrative takes readers from a sleety Boston campus to a Libyan desert’s “rosary of oases.”  Medical student Reuel Briggs discovers he’s the descendant of divine African kings, destined to rule the faithful inhabitants of “Hidden City” with the aid of a priestly hypnotist. (F)

1920 W.E.B. Du Bois: “The Comet” — In the post-apocalyptic New York created by the devastating toxic gases a crashing comet unleashes, a black man has a close encounter with the only other survivor, a wealthy white woman.  This unabashedly science fictional scenario is deftly handled by, yes, that Du Bois, the influential black thinker best known for his philosophic analyses of U.S. race relations.  It was reprinted in Dark Matter 1, which I cover later in this article.

(As you can see, I have no 1930s or 1940s titles to recommend.  All I can offer is the fact noted by author and librarian Jess Nevins that the race of the many anonymous authors published in the pulps in those years is unknown.  Onward.)

1954 Amos Tutuola: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts — Like his first novel, The Palm Wine Drinkard, this collection of related stories deals with the mythic realm of Yoruba-based cosmologies.  Unlike that book its young protagonist enters this realm unwillingly.  The stories appear non-sequentially, emphasizing the disjointed outlook resulting from his strange experiences.  (F)

1962 Samuel R. Delany: The Jewels of Aptor — Completed when Delany was a teenager and published when he was 20, this first novel tells in poetic language of a quest through post-atomic lands filled with mutants and surprising cultural survivals.

1969 Sam Greenlee: The Spook Who Sat by the Door — A wishful tale of overthrowing the status quo, this book, sometimes classified as a thriller or spy novel, pits black ex-CIA agent Dan Freeman against a corrupt white political system.  By arming and educating Chicago gangs Freeman brings about a violent revolution.

(How are you doing?  If you’re reading these titles in order you’ve absorbed over 100 years of black science fiction at this point.  Only a few more decades to go.  But I won’t lie to you; you’re not even halfway through all the wonderfulness.  Much more lies ahead.)

1970 Lorraine Hansberry: Les Blancs — A delirious air of surrealism pervades this play examining Europe’s colonialist control of Africa and Africans.  Though she’s best known for her 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry considered Les Blancs her most important work.

1972 Ishmael Reed: Mumbo Jumbo — The notoriously chauvinistic literary critic Harold Bloom considers this one of the world’s 500 most important books.  It was certainly an important influence on me and a myriad of other imaginative blacks when it appeared.  A quasi-historical, illustrated spree through clashes of the heroic proponents of jazz and voodoo with the oppressive fictional Wallflower Order, Mumbo Jumbo was Reed’s third novel.  It was preceded by “the first American Hoo-Doo Western,” Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, and the bitingly satiric The Freelance Pallbearers. (F)

1975 Samuel R. Delany: Dhalgren — When you read Dhalgren you’re automatically enrolled in a secret club made up of a special kind of intellectual.  A widespread cult has grown up around it–fittingly, since it’s a strange story strangely told: the last line, for instance, famously ends with the words that begin the first.  Set against the backdrop of the enigmatic ruins of a post-apocalyptic city, the exploits of the Kid illuminate both more and less than we want to see of them.

1977 Toni Morrison: Song of Solomon — Building on persistent legends of blacks escaping enslavement by flying back to Africa, Morrison relates the personal history of the descendant of one of those left behind.  Ten years later, in Beloved, Morrison again invoked the supernatural when recounting the lasting effects of American chattel slavery on blacks. (F)

1979 Octavia E. Butler: Kindred — Not her first novel, Kindred is Butler’s best known.  It was itself inspired by Black History Month; she wrote it in response to disparaging remarks about their enslaved ancestors made by black students ignorant of the extent of those ancestors’ oppression.  A modern black woman is drawn involuntarily back to the antebellum South, ensuring that a white supremacist lives to sire her grandmother. (F)

1981 Charles Saunders: Imaro — This book is claimed by some critics to be the first example of fantasy’s “sword-and-soul” subgenre (sword-and-sorcery with a majority of African-descended characters).  Rather than a novel, it’s a collection of six short stories centered on Imaro, who was a “black Tarzan” according to the cover copy.  Given the wizards and demons haunting the magical world of Nyumbani, site of Imaro’s struggles, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian is probably a better comparison.  (F)

1984 Octavia E. Butler: “Bloodchild” — What Butler referred to as her “pregnant man story” established new levels of squirm-worthiness in science fiction while simultaneously proving that this accomplished novelist could also easily handle the limitations of shorter forms.  It won both the []Hugo and the Nebula, science fiction’s two most highly sought awards.  A colony of humans stranded on an alien planet becomes the preferred reproductive medium for the sentient, cultured, yet quite savage Tlic.

1986 Virginia Hamilton: The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl — This children’s fantasy of West African divinities becoming involved in blacks’ struggle for freedom conveys the sorrow and pain of enslavement without omitting humor and hope.  A great introduction to black history’s depth and breadth. (F)

1988 Gloria Naylor: Mama Day — I love this book.  It’s an ambitiously structured narrative that combines romance with folklore and delves deep into the apparent dichotomy between magic and common sense.  Generations of women fall into and out of conflict with one another and their definitions of emancipation on the gloriously real-feeling Georgia sea island of Willow Springs.  (F)

1990 Charles R. Johnson: Middle Passage — Though it’s usually considered a non-fantastical and purely historical novel, much of the action of Middle Passage centers on a captured West African god and the healing visions he bestows on the novel’s hero, freedman Rutherford Calhoun, when he stows away on the slave ship Republic.  (F)

1992 Derrick Bell: “The Space Traders” — Plausibly though controversially, this short story depicts the advent of aliens willing to trade their endless bounty for the imprisonment and delivery to them of all blacks in the U.S.

1998 Nalo Hopkinson: Brown Girl in the Ring — Winner of publisher Warner Aspect’s First Novel Contest, this near-future tale of an unwilling medium surviving in an abandoned urban core established Hopkinson as a major force in the genre.  Organ harvesting, teen motherhood, murder, and other topics vie for attention as the fast-paced plot hurls readers through Canada’s vividly described Afro-Caribbean subculture.

1998 Sandra Jackson-Opoku: The River Where Blood Is Born — This book was lauded by Mama Day’s author Gloria Naylor as a “stunning feat.”  Spanning continents and centuries, it’s an intergenerational saga of inherited dreams and the legacy of defiance bequeathed on modern blacks by those who fought oppression before us.  (F)

1999 Colson Whitehead: The Intuitionist — Embraced immediately by such non-genre notables as John Updike and Esquire magazine, Whitehead’s debut novel describes a city like and unlike New York, where an elevator inspector tries to determine why her nonrational methods have failed her.  It’s self-admittedly a work of speculative fiction, and Whitehead’s 2011 zombie novel Zone One sealed his reputation as someone who willingly takes on SF’s concerns whenever he feels they’re what he needs to write about.

2000 Nalo Hopkinson: Midnight Robber — This may be my favorite of Hopkinson’s many amazing novels.  Taking us first to the near-Utopian planet of Toussaint, a world settled by a diverse Caribbean population, then to its transdimensional prison colony of New Half-Way Tree, Hopkinson tells the moving tale of innocent bystander Tan-Tan’s adaptation to strange new living conditions.  Dialogue and narration highlight Island speech patterns–not the first time an author has done this, but an extremely fine example of using nonstandard English to introduce readers to black culture. 

2000 Sheree Renée Thomas: Dark Matter 1 — Here we have a groundbreaking anthology covering historic expressions of the Afro-diasporic fantastic such as the aforementioned Du Bois story “The Comet,” well-known SF authors such as Octavia E. Butler, and then-newly emergent ones such as Kiini Ibura Salaam and yours truly.  The two Dark Matter anthologies provide an even crashier-course in the history of black SF for those looking for a drastically condensed overview.  Plus, this first volume also includes Samuel R. Delany’s essential essay “Racism in Science Fiction,” the basis for the founding of the Carl Brandon Society and other milestones of SF activism.

2001 Walter Mosley: Futureland — For years known for his superb crime novels such as Devil in a Blue Dress, Mosley published these nine loosely connected short stories as a warning about how technology can be used to rob us of our hard-won civil rights, making his “imminent future” both a social and a scientific extrapolation.

2003 Steven Barnes: Zulu Heart — This is the second of Barnes’s alternate histories.  Both are set in a world in which Europe’s population was so devastated by the Black Plague that it colonization of the Western Hemisphere was left to China and North Africa.  I picked its sequel over Lion’s Blood because it includes such thrilling episodes as a reprise of the fight for the Alamo and the deployment (by a disabled teen-aged girl!) of a newly-invented, hacked together submarine.

2003 Tananarive Due: The Good House — This tale of a haunted house deliciously and simultaneously showcases Due’s power to invoke blinding terror, her respect for religious traditions outside the mainstream, and her intimate knowledge of the violence directed toward young black men.  It’s as timely now, unfortunately, as it was at its publication. (F)

2004 Minister Faust: Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad — Faust, later the winner of the Carl Brandon Society’s Kindred Award, kicked off his career as a novelist with this account of a grail quest as pursued by two teenaged Ethiopian-Canadian SF fans.  Game player-like character cards spell out the strengths and weaknesses of these heroes and their drug-dealing antagonists. (F)

2005 Octavia E. Butler: Fledgling — This was Octavia’s last book.  Heroine Shori is a 53-year-old top predator-type of vampire with the appearance of a twelve-year-old black girl.  Octavia actually thought of this biologically rigorous novel, starkly realistic in its portrayal of the mechanics of death and feeding on humans, as a fun, lighthearted romp.  Shori’s battle against the attacks of her white relatives cries out for the sequels Butler died before she could write.

2006 Andrea Hairston: Mindscape — Winner of the Carl Brandon Society’s Parallax Award, Hairston’s first foray into fiction (she’s a seated professor of theater and Afro-American studies at Smith College and has written plays and academic papers for decades) was also a finalist for the Philip K. Dick and James Tiptree, Jr. awards.  She won the latter for her second novel, 2011’s Redwood and Wildfire, but this is the work that marked her as an SF author to watch.

2008 Nisi Shawl: Filter House — At first I thought I shouldn’t include a collection of my own short stories on this list.  But Filter House actually is of historical significance: it’s the first book by an African American to win the James Tiptree, Jr. award.  And I believe you’ll like it.

2010 Nnedi Okorafor: Who Fears Death — A novel that haunts your dreams for weeks after you’ve read it is indisputably remarkable.  Who Fears Death won both the World Fantasy and Parallax awards.  It captivated an international audience with its grim yet elegant account of a child of rape born into a post-apocalyptic Africa and seeking to overcome the sorcerer who sired her.

2010 Karen Lord: Redemption in Indigo — Telling a Senegalese folktale as science fiction, Lord’s debut novel stretched the familiar parameters of these related genres to the breaking point and beyond.  This story of a runaway housewife who’s given the power to manipulate time and space won the prestigious Frank Collymore Award before it was even published; after publication it garnered the Parallax, the William L. Crawford, the Mythopoeic, and the Kitschies’ Golden Tentacle awards.

2010 N.K. Jemisin: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms — The publication of best-selling author Jemisin’s debut novel almost instantly created an army of adoring fans.  First in an epic fantasy series with a distinctly “romance” feel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms successfully proclaimed the right of characters of color to inhabit the imaginary worlds authors love to create. (F)

2011 Mat Johnson: Pym — Piercingly witty in its depiction of African-descended people’s foibles (“You know, I got Indian in me.”), Pym is a metafictional account of an out-of-work academic’s mission to the South Pole, guided by what he believes to be the diary of a black follower of Arthur Gordon Pym–the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s sole novel. (F)

2011 Nnedi Okorafor: Akata Witch — A fantasy for children along the lines of Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Akata Witch supposes that magically endowed children spring from the so-called “Dark” continent of Africa as frequently as they do from the British Isles.  Twelve-year-old Sunny, an albino American black living in Nigeria, attends a wizard’s academy with similarly powerful children who soon must defeat a grown sorcerer threatening the very existence of life. (F)

2011 Milton DavisChanga’s Safari — In the tradition of Saunders’s and Imaro (recommended above), Davis spins a sword-and-soul novel out of related short stories.  They center on a crew of adventurers which includes a veiled Tuareg who has taken a vow of silence, a headstrong sorceress, and the hero himself, a disinherited prince of the Kongo, bent on avenging his slain family.  Changa’s Safari is the first of a series, and a good example of the emergence of self- and small press publishing as a black SF force to be reckoned with.

2012 Tobias Buckell: Arctic Rising — This fast-paced near-future thriller pits airship pilot Anika Duncan against corporate interests in a battle for the fate of an ecologically devastated Earth.  Grenadian born Buckell’s entry into the burgeoning sub-genre of “cli-fi” (climate change focused SF) was followed in 2014 by the equally intense sequel Hurricane Fever.

2012     Balogun OjetadeMoses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman — What better inspiration for an action hero than the Underground Railroad conductor who led so many to freedom?  In this book and its sequels, Ojetade re-imagines the woman called “Moses” as a psychic soldier as well as the spy we now know Tubman to be.  Steampunk inventions and hell-spawned horrors provide an intriguing setting for her larger-than-life struggles. (F)

2013 Alaya Dawn Johnson: The Summer Prince — Johnson’s debut young adult novel, this account of an atypical love triangle set in a far-future Brazil brings to life a multi-tiered society ruled by a matriarchy armed with nanotech.  It won the Andre Norton Award, which, like Johnson’s two 2015 Nebulas (for Love Is the Drug and “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i”), is a fitting tribute to the author’s involving characters and the intensely believable predicaments they face.

2014 Jenn Brissett: Elysium — Though at 197 pages it’s one of the shorter novels published this century, Elysium’s vision is ambitious and the fulfillment of that ambition beautifully accomplished.  Characters with shifting genders, literally ethereal computer architecture, and a spiraling narrative structure combine to make this an unforgettable, pleasure-filled encounter with a true myth.

2015 Kai Ashante Wilson: “The Devil in America” — I have a standing offer I make to anyone who reads this novelette: if you need to talk about it, call me.  That goes for you, too.  Email me privately and I’ll send you my phone number.  “The Devil in America” is a brilliant, devastating retelling of the oft-repeated destruction of a black town or neighborhood by mobs of angry whites.  Rosewood, Florida; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Wilmington, North Carolina–the hideousness shared by all these “race riots” instigated by white supremacists is stunningly imparted through Wilson’s gorgeous and moving prose. (F)

2015 Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown: Octavia’s Brood — In putting together this anthology, brown and Imarisha searched for what Octavia E. Butler called “change-the-world fiction.”  From Sheree Renée Thomas’s thought-provoking preface through Ethiopian American hiphop poet Gabriel Teodros’s time-travel story “Lalibela;” to Tananarive Due’s reflection on Octavia E. Butler, “The Only Lasting Truth;” this is a richly rewarding book, extrapolating what will come from what has been, bravely facing the future.

So that’s my list.  It’s long yet incomplete.  It’s missing some great books, books I’ve read that you’ll want to read, too.  Someday.  But if you make it through this crash course in the history of black science fiction you’ll at least have some idea of what it is, where it’s coming from.  Which will help you figure out where it’s going.