The Meme: Recommend, review, and/or discuss poc characters/authors in sci fi
Derrick Bell’s Afrolantica Legacies begins with a question: how to explain the innovations of the present to President Jefferson if he were to appear in the present. The answer: start with how a black man has the right to explain anything to a white one.
As this question and answer imply, the book explores the progress of African Americans while questioning the legacy of racism that remains constant in our nation even amongst liberals and the working class. Often the discussion goes beyond the stereotypical white=bad: black=good discussion and starts to interrogate black leaders, civil rights tactics, and the meaning of oppression in general. Unlike both traditional race and science fiction narratives, it also includes strong female characters and discussions of feminism. Where it falters is in the execution of some of its ideas and characters, clunks dialogue, and a section of Jewish-black issues that is problematic at best.
The Form and the Content
The mythic island of Afrolantica is resurfacing equadistant from the U.S. and Africa. It’s previous appearance prompted African Americans and members of the African Diaspora to pack up their lives and attempt to establish a free society on the island oasis only hospital to black people. Instead, they received a list of 7 principles with which to confront oppression and empower themselves while the island returned to the ocean.
As the nation and the world prepare for its return, several parties prepare for critical discussions about race and what it will mean for black people to leave N. America for good over inequality. Among them is a speech by the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, apologizing for racism and the author of the speech, Derrick Bell, and his alien/sorceress colleague Geneva Crenshaw, outlining illustrations of the 7 principles to light the way.
Each chapter of the book is an individual story illustrating a corresponding principle and introduced by some stilted banter between Crenshaw and Bell as they “relax” on the island of Afrolantica. Some stories are more succesful than others as pieces of fiction; the majority operate more as intellectual essays on the issues barely passing themselves off as part of the semi-fantastical world that supposedly frames them. On the positive side, these essays/stories are full of cited research and law cases that illustrate how race, privilege, and moderate or liberal (defined as changing laws to equalize representation and protections in the existing system) politics have worked in the U.S. over time. Many of these essays ask the reader to think about how power is amassed, retained, and learned, all important things to understand if we are ever to dismantle oppression.
On the negative side, the essays/stories will appeal more to academic readers interested in the subject than to science fiction or fantasies readers who might become interested if introduced through their favorite genre. Worse, the genre itself seems to be a mere prop that is often falling down. Thus while the first two stories involve an alien and a fantasy land respectively, others take place between academics on campus or are review essays of novels or significant historical figures.
While Bell makes several key points about race that remain critcally salient today (and resonate with current events), he is less successful or consistent with other identities presented in the book. Though Bell fills his book with strong women, many of the descriptions or internal narratives about his attraction or lack there of to them arer completely out of line and out of place. Moreover, the recognizable women of color in his novel are all aliens or sorceresses whose concerns are largely for their own agendas. The one exception is a character named Tamara, who functions as white in a story about a Citadel full of people with unearned privilege who lorde it over lowlanders. Tamara is described as extremely intelligent and passionate both of which she gets from her father b/c her mother is dead, and these characteristics are written as gifts from her father rather than hard earned traits. In attempting to solve race relations, Tamara champions lowlanders in typical bleeding heart fashion, remaining silent in public when it will cost her prestige, feeling both attracted and distracted from the “best” lowlander in the area, etc. It is not until the end of the story that we discover that Tamara and the rest of the Citadel dwellers are people of color and that they got their power by taking it from the white lowlanders who use to oppress them. In terms of a racial discourse, this is a fascinating twist that calls up Fanon and/or Lorde. However both Tamara and Offred (yes that Offred) are the most developed female characters in the book. They are written clearly as feminist revolutionaries from which the rest of the characters in the stories can and should learn. There is no similar championing of Chiara who is duplicitous, occassionally judgmental, and seems as various points to use or advocate violence or Crenshaw, who is judgmental, unattached, and also weilds power in ways that do not take into account Bell’s schedule or needs. Thus Bell gives us a world in which all the men are black and all the feminists are white, or passing for it, and everyone is straight. (Interestingly, the Chiara story does include a critique of gender and gender binaries, tho there are no transgendered characters in the book.)
At the same time, Bell has to be commended for including women as powerful presences in almost all of the essays/stories in the book. All of them are strong, intelligent, and outspoken. Many of their struggles symbolize the struggle of African-Americans in the book drawing and clear and important line of connection between women’s rights and those of people of color (regardless of gender). Often Bell, as narrator, takes time out to point out the efforts of women, breakdown their activism, and champion it. And in at least one story, he promises a brand new world founded by a woman who chose to be cast out rather than collude any longer.
Unfortunately, he is less successful in discussing antisemitism and the conflict between some Jewish people and some African Americans. His essay/story “Shadowboxing” dispenses with any pretense of science fiction or even much fiction in order to posit a conversation between Bell and a fictional Jewish colleague who Bell feels is unreasonable and slightly racist. Hirsch, the colleague, comes across as a hyper-sensitive, self-obsorbed, colleague invested not so much oppression olympics as oppression eclipse in which only Jewish people suffer. In other words his character is an offensive stereotype. Worse the way that fiction Bell interacts with him about race and ethnicity exempts antisemitism while holding Jewish people accountable for racism. I’m unclear what is worse in this chapter, the insistence that Jewish people overreact to antisemitism to the erasure of other forms of oppression by a character who is guilty of the exact same thing, or the fact that important events in which Jewish boycotts of black leaders and companies led to their demise are eclipsed by the profoundly negative narrative of this chapter. It took me days to push through this chapter and its presence in the collection ensured that I could not recommend this book or gift it to anyone else.
Ultimately, despite pedantic and clunky metaphors and dialogue, inconsistent use of the genre and depiction of women, and the essay above, the book has some incredibly insightful things to say about race and racism and gender and feminism. Better still, it backs up much of its argument like a traditional academic essay, chalked full of references to research, court cases, novels, and historical figues and events. The endnotes alone make this worth perusing in your local library. But if you choose to read it, you should know only some of it is science fiction and only some of it is truly committed to equality.