Black History Month : The State of Speculative Fiction: Why Race Matters

The State of Speculative Fiction: Why Race Matters

by Valjeanne Jeffers

Why is race, why is diversity, important in speculative fiction? Why is it important, why should it matter, what race one’s characters are?

As a child, I devoured YA fiction, filled with ghosts and goblins. My TV interests were the same: I gravitated toward the weird, the fantastic, so much so I often had to look under my bed to make sure Dracula hadn’t found his new resting place there.

But there were, with few exceptions, no characters who looked like me. There were no characters from neighborhoods like mine. What was far worse was that many of the characters who later came, and are still around today, didn’t act like me or anyone else I knew. I wonder if my life would have been more enriched if there’d been a brown-skinned girl or boy who starred in the fiction I so greedily devoured? If he or she had walked across the TV screen of my youth? Of this I’m sure.

Diversity is important because we, people of color, need heroines and heroes to people the landscape of our imagination … to point the way, to help us dream, to help us see something better in our tomorrows. We need characters to help make us proud of who we are and where we came from. In short, we need characters to identify with. Characters who are coming from the same space. We need role models, most especially ones who don’t die in the first fifteen minutes of the story, ones who aren’t caricatures and stereotypes.

Now don’t get me wrong. I continue to enjoy literature and films created by white authors. But I still need, I’d venture to say we still need stories that emerge from the Black experience. And we aren’t the only ones who need this. Diversity in speculative fiction is important for folks of all races.

If you want to know what’s going on in my neighborhood, if you want to know what moves me politically, and socially, if you want to know what I dream, who better to ask than me? In other words, SF/fantasy/horror written not just by Black folks, but by Native Americans, peoples of Latin descent, written by the full racial spectrum, goes a long way toward making folks more intelligent, more tolerant … to moving our world a little bit closer to global humanity and understanding.

Racial inclusiveness, diversity, is just as important in speculative fiction as it is in every other aspect of our lives. And in 2019 it is becoming an everpresent reality. 

I’ve always hated it when folks overgeneralize and paint everyone with the same broad brush. So here’s what I have to say: to those white creators who are trying so hard to be racially sensitive and accurate. We are not talking about you. I myself, create Native American, Asian, Spanish and White characters based on folks I’ve been fortunate enough to meet in my lifetime. As I’ve said before, I hope that I do a decent job. Only my readers can answer that.

The authors and screenwriters we’re trying to move forward are those who have no idea how to create a nonwhite character and don’t even try to learn. Who just dig in their bag of stereotypes and throw something together. Personally, I’d rather be portrayed as a White woman with a deep tan, not perfect mind you, but better, rather than a “Yuk, yuk missus … I’s a-comin’” myth.

As writers, we’ve all heard of publishing companies that strong-arm authors into making their characters white or racially ambiguous, so they can attract white readers. Again, all publishing companies are not equal. But these stories have made me glad I decided to self-publish. I’d also like to say, since I have white readers, to these companies (you know who you are): you aren’t giving your readers enough credit. You should stop treating them like children. Folks will read good writing, no matter where it comes from, and who writes it.

And now to Hollywood. Oh man, don’t get me started!  On the stereotypical characters that make us all cringe, the people of color (yes, not just black folks) who die fifteen to thirty minutes into the film, to the scores and scores of films made with no people of color at all.

So what do we do? We keep on keeping on. In 2019, the speculative fiction landscape is filled with more films, books and animation created by folks of color than I have ever seen in my lifetime.

Our numbers will continue to grow. We are coming. We have arrived. We are here. 

And we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

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Valjeanne Jeffers is a science fiction writer and the author of Immortal, Immortal 2: The Time of Legend and Immortal 3: Stealer of Souls. She is a graduate of Spelman College, NCCU and a member of the Carolina African American Writers Collective (CAAWC).