"Racism and Science Fiction"
by Samuel R. Delany
From NYRSF Issue 120, August 1998. “Racism in SF” first appeared in volume form
in Darkmatter, edited by Sheree R. Thomas, Warner Books: New York, 2000.
Posted by Permission of Samuel R. Delany. Copyright © 1998 by Samuel R. Delany
For better or for worse, I am often spoken of as the first African-American science fiction writer. But I wear that originary label as uneasily as any writer has worn the label of science fiction itself. Among the ranks of what is often referred to as proto-science fiction, there are a number of black writers. M. P. Shiel, whose Purple Cloud and Lord of the Sea are still read, was a Creole with some African ancestry. Black leader Martin Delany (1812–1885—alas, no relation) wrote his single and highly imaginative novel, still to be found on the shelves of Barnes & Noble today, Blake, or The Huts of America (1857), about an imagined successful slave revolt in Cuba and the American South—which is about as close to an sf-style alternate history novel as you can get. Other black writers whose work certainly borders on science fiction include Sutton E. Griggs and his novel Imperio Imperium (1899) in which an African-American secret society conspires to found a separate black state by taking over Texas, and Edward Johnson, who, following Bellamy’s example in Looking Backward (1888), wrote Light Ahead for the Negro (1904), telling of a black man transported into a socialist United States in the far future. I believe I first heard Harlan Ellison make the point that we know of dozens upon dozens of early pulp writers only as names: They conducted their careers entirely by mail—in a field and during an era when pen-names were the rule rather than the exception. Among the “Remmington C. Scotts” and the “Frank P. Joneses” who litter the contents pages of the early pulps, we simply have no way of knowing if one, three, or seven or them—or even many more—were not blacks, Hispanics, women, native Americans, Asians, or whatever. Writing is like that.