by Maisha Z. Johnson
I’ve seen justice for all genders and classes and sexualities, and it was as alien to me as the extra-terrestrial creatures who practiced it. This image of justice sprang from my own imagination, taking place on another planet, in another time, for a species of people very unlike humans. It took science fiction for me to see a clear picture of what justice could be. And at the end of the day, that’s all it was – fiction.
What good is science fiction to people who struggle to survive here and now? To those of us whose oppression in this world is still very, very real? What good is science fiction to black people?
In her essay “Positive Obsession,” Octavia Butler said she was still asked that last question. Not long ago, I would’ve been one of the people asking.
I’ve never been great at following the narrow path of what a good black girl “should” be, whatever that is. From under the contradictory stereotypes and expectations of being a savage jezebel and a desexualized Christian girl, being outspokenly angry and silenced until spoken to, and being a pillar of strength and a bearer of pain, I grew up as a shy weirdo, carrying a shadow of shame from every expectation I failed to meet. I had a feeling some of the things I was fond of were parts of my identity I should keep to myself.
Butler begins responding to the question of what good science fiction is to black people by posing another question: “What good is any form of literature to Black people?” For this question, I had answers from a young age. As a child, only written words gave me permission to venture through my whole imagination, free from falling in line with who I was supposed to be. Reading was all about possibility, and anything was possible. Soon I wrote my own stories, usually pages and pages of talking animals and other forms of magic.
At some point, I grew out of magic and into reality. As a young queer black woman, the dominating monsters of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy pelted more contradictions and struggles at me. I discovered Audre Lorde, June Jordan, James Baldwin – writers who were queer like me, black like me, and speaking to a reality very much like mine, and I decided I wanted to write like they did. To share my deepest, most vulnerable truths, and in the process, contribute to creating change, so that someday, the people in my communities would suffer no more.
Someday. That day feels so damn far away sometimes. Being a nerd makes me a weirdo, sure, but it’s not the most stark struggle I face when people from my communities live with criminalization and limited access to the resources they need. With these conditions so deeply embedded around me, sometimes I still feel like my imagination’s all I’ve got. So again, I turn to literature.
But to sci fi? Is this a stretch? Like so many others, I once thought of sci fi as a white man’s genre. But like all literature and virtually all art, while the genre came to me under the cloak of white men’s ownership, I’ve found my own heroes, disproving the dominant narrative that devalues the stories of people like me. Black women like Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, Tananarive Due, and Nnedi Okorafo dismantle and rebuild our world to center black women’s voices where they’re so often silenced. They infuse their writing with ancestral spirits of Africa, fabulist folklore from the Caribbean, and the innovative power of our people.
The imaginative spirit of science fiction lets me know that, in spite of what I’ve heard, the genre is mine to have. My imagination has always been mine and used for everything from dreaming up talking animals to expressing the inexpressible about the trauma of sexual violence and domestic abuse. Science fiction pushes against the constraints of reality, and in order to embrace it, I have to suspend disbelief about many things, including the limits imposed on me.
Some might call sci fi a means of escape, a vessel for turning away from the ugliness of our world. But as black women, we can’t escape. Oppression is part of our reality at every moment of every day. And black women’s sci fi does not represent a flawless utopia of eradicated oppression. Instead, these writers draw the reader’s eye to issues like colonization and white supremacy, even when those forces seem absent – even the most imaginative science fiction exists in conversation with the reality it differs from.
Through science fiction, we create conversations challenging the conditions we’re struggling in and shine light on the remarkable ways our communities survive and work to support and liberate one another. We can question our expectations of gender expression and race, and our sense of who economic and technological systems should benefit and how. I can wonder, “What if everyone in the world was as queer as I am?” and actually take to the page to visualize a world of magical topsy-turvy gender expression and abundant flirtation. I can do one of the most loving things I could ever do for myself – step away from the expectations and walk the wild path I can only create for myself.
As with any act of self-love for a person who is continuously told not to love themselves, the impact of black women crafting their own paths through science fiction creates ripples of change.
I’ve long wandered from the status quo, so for a moment, I thought my love of sci fi was just a natural progression to add one more thing to my weirdo status. But now I know it’s more than that. It’s made of my lifeblood: imagination.
I am not everyone. I’m on my own beautifully strange ship, and with science fiction, I’m finding another tool to chart my own path through this world. To celebrate the resilience and spirit of the people in my communities. To show what we’re working toward: the liberation of all people whose bodies and histories are trapped in cycles of systemic violence. To bring closer another world that is not only possible, but on her way, heard breathing on a quiet day.
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Maisha Z. Johnson is a healer, a troublemaker, and author of two poetry chapbooks, Split Ears and Uprooted. She breathes her Trinidadian roots and experiences as a queer black woman and survivor of violence into her art, working to amplify the voices of those often silenced. She blogs at www.maishazjohnson.com.