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If You Really Want to Unlearn Racism, Read Black Sci-Fi Authors

How Long Til Black Future Month book cover.

I wasn’t introduced to the science fiction genre until my third year in college. I was chest-deep in learning about the ugliest parts of humanity, the generational effects of colonization, how many humans died of starvation every day despite how much food was thrown away, the residual consequences of the various genocides that had happened across the globe over the years, etc. I needed some hope.

I shared this with my sociology professor, and he went to his bookshelf and took down The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. After that, you could say that a sci-fi love affair bloomed, and when I finally sat down with some science fiction written by black women, my life was changed forever.

I named my second born Nathaniel Arthur. We call him Nat for short, as homage to Nat Turner. Arthur was my Great Grandfather’s name. He had a farm, his own land, in Kosciusko Mississippi. My Grandma, his fifth oldest, tells a story of him sitting on his porch every Saturday night, with a shotgun, to confront the Klan, who never failed to pull up, asking where his teenage daughters were. He had always sent them away earlier in the day.

Every Black American I know has a story like this—a story of one of their ancestors doing some other-worldly shit that they lean on when they need strength and courage. The fact that we, as a race, are even alive is proof that someone in our blood lineage survived a 4,000 mile long journey chained, starved and alone. We have endured the type of trauma, abuse, torture, and gaslighting that sounds other-worldly—like something out of a science fiction novel.

I’m not sure how aware of this the general public is, but there are corners of the internet that are solely dedicated to books. I am a part of that community. Booktube and bookstagram, along with the rest of the planet, watched for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as George Floyd’s life was stolen from him. Although the outrage was universal, the levels of understanding varied greatly, with the learning curve being neatly divided by race.

Black bookstagram, still recovering from the recent news of Ahmaud Aubrey, did what is almost becoming standard operating procedure around public Black deaths: grieved with each other, shared passages of our favorite texts, and floated between the strangeness of grieving someone we didn’t even know existed until they were murdered and the practiced compartmentalizing that we’ve learned to enact upon recognizing that the rest of the world doesn’t actually give a fuck about Black death—except this time, it did.

White bookstagram, hurt and confused, did what all readers do in times of uncertainty: found some literature that spoke to the problem. Next thing you know, all of these lists centered around anti-racist texts started popping up everywhere. How to be Anti-Racist, So You Want to Talk About Race, Women Race and Class, White Fragility, and on and on and on. These lists were so dense, so academic, so heavy that I wondered if there was actually some type of certificate program people were participating in—if upon completion of the list, they would be dubbed “Woke White Official Anti-Racist Ally.”

Nonfiction, while important, still affords you the comfort of looking at the problem from the outside. You get to intellectualize the grief instead of sit in it. You can passively observe the percentages and statistics instead of giving the numbers names and mourning families. Instead of being one of the names or mourning family members. You get to step away.

In order for us to make any true strides in this fight, though, we can’t afford for anyone to do that. It has to hurt you like it hurt Emmitt Till’s mama, and Trayvon Martin’s, and Ahmaud’s. It has to be all our babies, fathers, sisters, and mothers. That is the only way that we can push towards the true utopia that feels impossible. We can only know how right it can be after we have all recognized how wrong it is. Nonfiction can’t do that. But science fiction can.

Society generally views the science fiction genre as one of leisure. You read it because you have time, not because you want to learn something. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. While all writers are charged with the task of creating a more empathetic society, science fiction writers have the additional burden of telling us what happens next.

Some of our best thinkers, and certainly our most comprehensive hopers, have been sci-fi writers. N.K. Jemisin has given us black female demigods who, despite their powers, still somehow suffer at the hands of an oppressive society. Octavia Butler has given us shapeshifters, time travelers, and voyagers who all had to react and survive under patriarchy and racism. Ursula K. Le Guin was creating entire non-binary societies … in the 1960s.

When I think of all of the literature I was forced to read as a teenager in school, and it was a lot—I always took extra english classes—we were never assigned science fiction, always given a white man’s criticism of the society he’s meant to flourish in and never a BIPOC’s dream of what society could be. We have to shift. Almost all of the work that has to be done around the racial dynamics in our country is internal. Everyone needs more courage. Informational text is important, but emotional text is crucial. While we fight for the world of our dreams, we should read pieces from the people who have already created it.

(image: Harper & Row)

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Cree Myles is a bookstagrammer and can be found at @BlkEmilyDickinson. She writes sometimes too.