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December, 2009 : Criticism:

Dark Legacies Matter

How the Dark Matter Anthologies Challenge Racial and Gender Stereotypes

Speculative fiction is a field that specializes in imagining the unimaginable, and the black writers featured in the Dark Matter anthologies have been especially adept at doing that. When editor Sheree R. Thomas began organizing Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora and Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, she set out to find high-quality fiction with a speculative edge written by black authors. She writes in a recent "Strange Horizons" interview that she did this "[m]ainly because I am a reader first and foremost and the book that I wanted to read didn't exist at the time" (Brissett par. 6). Not all of the writers included in the anthology wrote stories officially deemed fantasy or science fiction when written, but all of the stories contain speculative elements.

Notably, most of the main characters in these short stories are black. As Samuel R. Delany can testify, this alone is often considered beyond the pale in the literary world (no pun intended) (387-388; Thomas, Century). Not only do the writers featured in these anthologies frequently include characters of color, but they also feature stories with female characters who defy stereotype. The imagination shown in these works of fiction extends not only to race but to gender as well.

Given the time period of their stories, the authors could very well have fallen back into placing their female characters in stereotypically servile roles. A story that addresses slavery set on the high seas of the early 1800s? Many readers of speculative fiction might assume that if one had a black female character at all, she would be a slave. Very few writers would take the course Cherene Sherrard charted in "The Quality of Sand." Her character is not only a black female pirate, but a black female pirate captain. How about a story set in 1920s Chicago? The unimaginative might assume the black female character is a blues singer. Not so for Jewelle Gomez in "Chicago 1927." Her character Gilda finds her way to the blues scene, to be sure, but she is a vampire capable of taking care of herself.

It's also a surprise, but no less delightful, that in these two stories the female characters do not become powerful through traditionally accepted means; they do not use sexuality to gain power. In patriarchal societies, a woman in power is assumed (erroneously) to have gained her position by exploiting her "feminine charms." Not that this doesn't happen in real life; to the contrary, it is the one of the few accepted means by which women reach high status. Inspect the roles powerful female characters get in a great majority of stories: queens (wives of powerful men), mothers (of powerful men), daughters (of powerful men), and concubines (of powerful men). In each of these roles, women often maintain their positions of power by using or protecting their sexuality to benefit men. Wives must maintain the appearance of chastity and birth a male heir. Mothers must continue to maintain the appearance of chastity and birth more male heirs as insurance policies in case the first male heir dies. When her period of fertility is over, so apparently is her sexuality. A daughter's virginity is at a premium, to be sold to the most desirable bidder (whomever the father deems appropriate). Clearly the role of the concubine or prostitute centers on her sexual availability to men. At the very least, women must appeal to the powerful male figures in their lives to remain powerful themselves. If a writer of speculative fiction has the audacity to imagine a woman as a pirate, often this is because she is the lover of another powerful pirate (a man, of course). If a writer has the audacity to imagine a woman as a vampire, that character will likely become a vampire through seduction and will feed by seducing and betraying men. Patriarchal values remain unchallenged, but not so for many writers in Dark Matter.

Granted, in "The Quality of Sand," Del becomes as powerful as she is through the help of a man. Jamal shares his blood with her, allowing her to become a more powerful fighter. But the tale assumes that he would not have done so if Del did not possess the capacity for piracy in the first place. We learn that she knows much of navigation before she even meets Jamal. In addition, her background makes her an ideal candidate for a pirate captain who specializes in taking down slave ships. Most importantly, she is not given the gift simply because she is Jamal's lover. Jamal loves Del because he thought she was worthy of the gift—at first, anyway. She gains the role of a pirate captain not by virtue of her sexuality, but because she has a talent for that type of work.

"Chicago 1927" is even more progressive; Gilda receives vampirism not from a man but from a woman. Gilda did not become powerful because she was the sexual object of a male vampire, as is often the case in vampire tales, but because the original Gilda wanted to give her fellow vampire a companion. In addition, the second Gilda does not fall into the stereotype of the seductress, luring men to their doom with promises of sex. Instead, she uses her overwhelming physical strength in order to feed.

The stories in the Dark Matter anthologies also metaphorically address racism, the legacy of slavery in America. Many authors seem to be asking a common question: When confronting a painful past, if a person is not personally responsible for the situation, does that absolve them of any responsibility for fixing the lingering problems? It is important to stress that the past is not limited to the characters' own personal histories. Instead, the past extends beyond their own narratives. In this way, we readers can apply these questions at a broader, societal level.

"The Evening and the Morning and the Night," "Like Daughter," and "The Magical Negro" all appear to have similar answers to this quandary. These stories suggest that even when the problems of the past are not of our own making, we still have a responsibility to rectify them. In "The Evening and the Morning and the Night," Octavia Butler's character Lynn certainly did not create the problem of the hereditary Duryea-Gode Disease (DGD). DGD was a side effect of a medicine that was thought to cure cancer, and it existed before she was born. Lynn was one of the unlucky few who inherited a malady that eventually causes its victims to mutilate themselves. However, Butler does not let Lynn off the hook simply because she was not personally responsible for bringing the disease into existence. Rather, Butler suggests that Lynn ought to use her gifts to help better the lives of other DGD victims, even when it means personal sacrifice. "Did I want to spend my life in something that was basically a refined DGD ward? 'No!'" (Butler 194). But in the end, Lynn decides it is simply the right thing to do.

Lynn 's conclusion—that social ills must be addressed, even by those who aren't directly involved in their origin—can also be applied to society at large. The racial implications are obvious. A white man might declaim responsibility for the wrongs of slavery and thus justify inaction in the face of slavery's consequences. Butler's story suggests that such a mindset is socially irresponsible. True, modern white men did nothing to advance overt slavery, as the institution disappeared before their time. But if they disavow responsibility for the consequences of slavery, the disease of white supremacy gets passed to the next generation children just like hereditary DGD.

There are right ways and wrong ways to confront the past, however, as Tananarive Due demonstrates in "Like Daughter." Again, the problems that Denise faced as a child were not of her own making: the adults in her family abused her. Despite her pain resulting from others' actions, Denise still takes measures to treat her lingering wounds. Unfortunately, the way Denise goes about confronting her painful past leads to even greater hurt. In cloning her own cells to birth a daughter who is essentially the same person, Denise thinks she can give this child—essentially herself—the childhood she never had. Denise completely disregards the potential negative consequences of her attempt to rectify the past. "'If I wait, I might change my mind,' Denise said, as if this were a logical argument for going forward rather than just the opposite" (Due 97). Denise never actually addresses the problems of the past. "Like Daughter" never suggests that Denise sought therapy or similar means to deal with her lingering pain. In the end, she experiences a mental breakdown.

Read on a broader level, such an ending could possibly serve as a warning to those who wish to confront the past. For example, white supremacy (a clear legacy of slavery) might be so overwhelming that some might seek to confront the problem violently. Tananarive Due might suggest this approach is problematic, because such gut-level action exacerbates the problem rather than dealing with it. Violence does nothing to heal deep cultural wounds.

The Magical Negro in Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu's story of the same name faces a unique problem: he must confront a genre of literature that has over the generations associated blackness with evil. The fantasy fiction of old is embodied in Thor, who refuses to confront his own prejudices. The Magical Negro tells Thor that to save himself, he must confront his own prejudices. "Look deep within yourself. You have the power—you just haven't tapped into it...." (Okorafor-Mbachu 92).

Thor (and by proxy his authors) doesn't take the advice to confront the prejudiced fiction of the past and create a fairer representation of African Americans. As a result, Thor falls off a cliff and the Magical Negro—a force of change—now carries the torch. He says, "'All this bullshit you readin' is 'bout to change. The Magical Negro ain't gettin' his ass kicked 'round here no more.'" (Okorafor-Mbachu 94). Though the Magical Negro is certainly not responsible for the painful-to-read literature of the past, he still takes it upon himself to bring about change.

All three stories serve as models for how modern society might deal with the continuance of white supremacy. Individuals who had no part in the creation of the problem are still responsible for fixing the consequences of that problem. If society does not confront that responsibility, it might throw itself off a cliff like Thor.

Perhaps many black speculative fiction writers create female characters who do not fall into traditionally female roles for the same reason they create black characters who do not fall into racial stereotypes. Because white privilege seems connected to male privilege in a hopelessly entangled system of prejudice, the only way writers can subvert the system is to challenge not only race but gender as well. Does being conscious of white supremacy make writers more aware of male supremacy, and does this mean that they accordingly challenge racial and gender stereotypes in their fiction? Not always, but many of the stories in the Dark Matter anthologies address race and gender in imaginative and culturally sensitive ways that typical anthologies may lack.

Works Referenced

Brissett, Jenn. "Interview with Sheree R. Thomas." Strange Horizons 16, Feb. 2009.

Butler, Octavia E. "The Evening and the Morning and the Night." Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction From The African Diaspora. Ed. Thomas, Sheree R. New York: Warner, 2000.

Due, Tananarive. "Like Daughter." Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction From The African Diaspora. Ed. Thomas, Sheree R. New York: Warner, 2000.

Okorafor-Mbachu, Nnedi. "The Magical Negro." Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. Ed. Thomas, Sheree R. New York: Warner, 2004.

Copyright © 2009, Bridgette Da Silva. All Rights Reserved.

About Bridgette Da Silva

Bridgette Da Silva is a 27-year-old writer of historical and fantasy fiction. Her genre-based nonfiction can be found in the webzine Strange Horizons.


Dec 11, 05:55 by IROSF
Please comment!
Dec 11, 17:59 by Lois Tilton
hrrmmm - "audacity" isn't quite the term I would use for imagining a woman as a vampire. Hardly a stereotype-busting image. Nor is the done-to-death daughter as victim of abuse.
Dec 13, 14:16 by Anne Murphy
I am surprised to see references at the end to three out of five of the stories referred to in the text ("The Quality of Sand," and "Chicago 1927" are missing from the references) but even more so that the essay by Delany is not listed, since the title, "Racism in Science Fiction," is not given in the body of the review. Especially since you thus miss the opportunity to link to where NYRSF has made it available online (
I also wonder why you didn't include a link to the Brissett interview in Strange Horizons (which in full was titled "Creating Dark Matter: An Interview with Sheree Renée Thomas,"

I was glad to see Strange Horizons in italics in the references section at least, although in the body of the piece it is erroneously given in quotes instead of italics.
Dec 18, 15:08 by LaShawn Wanak
Good article. I actually own a copy of Dark Matter after finding it on sale at our library. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I'll bump it up to the top of my reading pile. This would make a good supplement.

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