Explanatory note: This is an essay I wrote for the forthcoming anthology The Miseducation of the Writer — essays by writers of color on genre literature — to be edited by Maurice Broaddus, John Edward Lawson, and Chesya Burke. I’ll keep you posted on deets as they come.
Long ago, in the time before now, black people were all kings and queens.
This is not true.
There is a strange emptiness to life without myths.
I am African American — by which I mean, a descendant of slaves, rather than a descendant of immigrants who came here willingly and with lives more or less intact. My ancestors were the unwilling, unintact ones: children torn from parents, parents torn from elders, people torn from roots, stories torn from language. Past a certain point, my family’s history just… stops. As if there was nothing there.
I could do what others have done, and attempt to reconstruct this lost past. I could research genealogy and genetics, search for the traces of myself in moldering old sale documents and scanned images on microfiche. I could also do what members of other cultures lacking myths have done: steal. A little BS about Atlantis here, some appropriation of other cultures’ intellectual property there, and bam! Instant historically-justified superiority. Worked great for the Nazis, new and old. Even today, white people in my neck of the woods call themselves “Caucasian”, most of them little realizing that the term and its history are as constructed as anything sold in the fantasy section of a bookstore.
These are proven strategies, but I have no interest in them. They’ll tell me where I came from, but not what I really want to know: where I’m going. To figure that out, I make shit up.
Not so long ago, at the dawn of the New World, black people were saved from ignorance in darkest Africa by being brought into the light of the West.
This is bullshit.
When I was a child, my parents tried hard to give me a mythology.
I read every book they gave me. Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears (Verna Aardema) was a favorite. I voluntarily devoured volumes of Egyptian myths alongside the Greek and Roman mythology I was being shovel-fed in school. I eventually looked up the origins of my middle name — Keita — and discovered the half-mythic, half-real tale of Sundiata Keita, who might well have been counted among my ancestors.
Probably not. But my parents wanted me to be able to dream, and they knew that myths matter.
They knew this because they had been raised in the days when people like us were assumed to have no mythology, and no history worth knowing. Instead they were fed a new, carefully-constructed mythology: our ancestors were supposedly semi-animal creatures that spent all their time swinging around in the jungle until they were captured and humanized by lash and firebrand and rape. This shamed my parents — as such myths are meant to do. Generations before and including them wondered: if they truly came from such crude origins, did they have any right to want something more for themselves than powerlessness and marginalization? My parents’ generation was the first to really confront the lies in these myths, so I don’t blame them for trying to give me something better.
But as I grew older, I began to realize: the stories my parents had given me weren’t my myths, either. Not wholly, not specifically. My father has spent the past few years researching our genealogy. As far as he has been able to determine, I am many parts African, most of it probably from the western coast of the continent, though in truth we’ll probably never know. But I am also several parts American Indian — Creek/Muscogee that we know, some others that we don’t — and at least one part European. That component is probably Scots-Irish; we don’t know for sure because nobody talks about it. But that’s just the genetics. The culture in which I was reared, along the Gulf Coast of the United States, added components of Spanish and French to the mix. And the culture I’ve since adopted — New York, New York, big city of dreams — is such a stew of components that there’s no point in trying to extricate any one thing from the mass.
And no point in trying to apply any single mythology. I have nothing. I have everything. I am whatever I wish to be.
Very long ago, in the ancient days of the world, black people were created when Noah was sodomized by Ham, his son. In retaliation, Noah cursed all Ham’s descendants to be servants of servants for all eternity.
This is… I don’t even know what the hell this is.
J. R. R. Tolkien, the near-universally-hailed father of modern epic fantasy, crafted his magnum opus The Lord of the Rings to explore the forces of creation as he saw them: God and country, race and class, journeying to war and returning home. I’ve heard it said that he was trying to create some kind of original British mythology using the structure of other cultures’ myths, and maybe that was true. I don’t know. What I see, when I read his work, is a man trying desperately to dream.
Dreaming is impossible without myths. If we don’t have enough myths of our own, we’ll latch onto those of others — even if those myths make us believe terrible or false things about ourselves. Tolkien understood this, I think because it’s human nature. Call it the superego, call it common sense, call it pragmatism, call it learned helplessness, but the mind craves boundaries. Depending on the myths we believe in, those boundaries can be magnificently vast, or crushingly tight.
Throughout my life as I’ve sought to become a published writer of speculative fiction, my strongest detractors and discouragers have been other African Americans. These were people who had, like generations before them, bought into the mythology of racism: black people don’t read. Black people can’t write. Black people have no talents other than singing and dancing and sports and crime. No one wants to read about black people, so don’t write about them. No one wants to write about black people, which is why you never see a black protagonist. Even if you self-publish, black people won’t support you. And if you aim for traditional publication, no one who matters — that is, white people — will buy your work.
(A corollary of all this: there is only black and white. Nothing else matters.)
Having swallowed these ideas, people regurgitated them at me at nearly every turn. And for a time, I swallowed them, too. As a black woman, I believed I wasn’t supposed to be a writer. Simultaneously I believed I was supposed to write about black people — and only black people. And only within a strictly limited set of topics deemed relevant to black people, because only black people would ever read anything I’d written. Took me years after I started writing to create a protagonist who looked like me. And then once I started doing so, it took me years to write a protagonist who was something different.
Myths tell us what those like us have done, can do, should do. Without myths to lead the way, we hesitate to leap forward. Listen to the wrong myths, and we might even go back a few steps.
Throughout history, all over this world, black people have been scholars and inventors, hard workers on whose backs more than one nation was built.
This is true, but not the whole truth.
After my parents divorced, I spent every summer visiting my father in New York. We spent every night of those summers watching Star Trek (the original series) and The Twilight Zone, which came on back to back in syndication on Channel Eleven. It was father-daughter bonding over geekery. It was also, for me, a lesson in how hard it was to dream of the future when every depiction of it said you don’t have one.
Because Star Trek takes place 500 years from now, supposedly long after humanity has transcended racism, sexism, etc. But there’s still only one black person on the crew, and she’s the receptionist.
This is disingenuous. I know now what I did not understand then: that most science fiction doesn’t realistically depict the future; it reflects the present in which it is written. So for the 1960s, Uhura’s presence was groundbreaking — and her marginalization was to be expected. But I wasn’t watching the show in the 1960s. I was watching it in the 1980s, amid the destitute, gritty New York of Tawana Brawley and Double Dutch and Public Enemy. I was watching it as one of five billion members of the human species — nearly 80% of whom were people of color even then. I was watching it as a tween/teen girl who’d grown up being told that she could do anything if she only put her mind to it, and I looked to science fiction to provide me with useful myths about my future: who I might become, what was possible, how far I and my descendants might go.
The myth that Star Trek planted in my mind: people like me exist in the future, but there are only a few of us. Something’s obviously going to kill off a few billion people of color and the majority of women in the next few centuries. And despite it being, y’know, the future, my descendants’ career options are going to be even more limited than my own.
Fortunately in 1992, reality gave me a better myth: Mae Jemison became the first black woman in space. She wasn’t the goddamn receptionist. Only after that came Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, with its much-vaunted black captain.
In the present, black people can be anything they want to be.
This is not true. Yet.
For a long time, I was ashamed that I wrote science fiction and fantasy.
I write a little of everything — cyberpunk, dark fantasy, slipstream, space opera, liminal fantasy. But it bothered me most to write epic fantasy because, well, as far as I knew, epic fantasy was Tolkien’s British mythos. It was D&D campaigns writ large with stalwart pale-skinned people killing Always Chaotic Evil dark-skinned people, if the latter were even given the courtesy of being called people. It was doorstopper-sized novels whose covers were emblazoned with powerful-looking white characters brandishing enormous phallic symbols; it was stories set in medieval pseudo-England about bookworms or farmboys becoming wealthy, mighty kings and getting the (usually blonde) girl. Epic fantasy was certainly not black women doing… well, anything.
And that’s because there were no black women in the past, right? There will be no black women in the future. There have never been black women in any speculated setting. There are black women in reality, but that reality is constrained within wholly different myths from what’s seen in fantasy novels. (The Welfare Queen. The Music Video Ho. The Jezebel. The Help.)
And once upon a time I wondered: Is writing epic fantasy not somehow a betrayal? Did I not somehow do a disservice to my own reality by paying so much attention to the power fantasies of disenchanted white men?
But. Epic fantasy is not merely what Tolkien made it.
This genre is rooted in the epic — and the truth is that there are plenty of epics out there which feature people like me. Sundiata’s badass mother. Dihya, warrior queen of the Amazighs. The Rain Queens. The Mino Warriors. Hatshepsut’s reign. Everything Harriet Tubman ever did. And more, so much more, just within the African components of my heritage. I haven’t even begun to explore the non-African stuff. So given all these myths, all these examinations of the possible… how can I not imagine more? How can I not envision an epic set somewhere other than medieval England, about someone other than an awkward white boy? How can I not use every building-block of my history and heritage and imagination when I make shit up?
And how dare I disrespect that history, profane all my ancestors’ suffering and struggles, by giving up the freedom to imagine that they’ve won for me.
So here is why I write what I do: We all have futures. We all have pasts. We all have stories. And we all, every single one of us, no matter who we are and no matter what’s been taken from us or what poison we’ve internalized or how hard we’ve had to work to expel it –
– we all get to dream.
In the future, as in the present, as in the past, black people will build many new worlds.
This is true. I will make it so. And you will help me.