Black speculative fiction and what it says about our future
University of Kentucky Assistant Professor Regina Hamilton-Townsend’s introduction to the world of speculative fiction came in her undergraduate years when she was given Octavia Butler’s “Fledgling” by a friend. Butler’s one and only “vampire” novel, Hamilton-Townsend describes “Fledgling” as nothing short of breathtaking.
As she delved further into the genre, Hamilton-Townsend’s master’s thesis became concerned with memory, haunting, witnessing, self-definition and the redefinition of Black women in text. “All of it is connected,” she said, leading to a very important question: why in these futures, created by Black authors, is there still racism?
Naturally, this got her started on Black speculative fiction. Hamilton-Townsend’s research ponders: what are they doing when they create these time spaces in the future and what does this say about our present?
In her ongoing research, Hamilton-Townsend finds herself going back to the works of authors like Octavia Butler, River Solomon, Samuel Delany and George Skylar. Hamilton-Townsend said she likes to think of herself as a Butler scholar and a Solomon scholar, though Solomon is a fairly new author. In her opinion, Solomon has picked up the banner of speculative fiction and taken it forward into the 21st century.
Hamilton-Townsend said she's very strict about not being a scholar of science fiction or even Black science fiction. For her, it's more about staying within the African American literary tradition and thinking of those kinds of texts as Black speculative fiction instead.
“I think if you don’t understand the way that the American institution of slavery sort of put in place a foundational sediment of behaviors and discourses that are allowable in our nation and globally, then you don’t understand what the speculative devices are being used to get beyond,” Hamilton-Townsend said. There are texts all the way through the African American literary canon that use speculative literary devices for various reasons.
In her book, Hamilton-Townsend theorizes that one of the main obstacles to Black futurity and freedom is the American nation itself. So how does one get an entire population of Black Americans out of the nation?
The solution: some weird stuff — anything from time travel to hidden African cities. Ultimately, it will always require some maneuvering around reality.
In recent years, readers have seen a resurgence of dystopian and speculative fiction in the media, causing a natural overlap. In terms of Black speculative fiction, the dystopian elements remain all the way through. The way Hamilton-Townsend sees it, it doesn’t take a lot to make a future look dystopian.
“If you bring some of the most common, but terrible things that people experience in America right now, forward 100 years — that’s dystopian,” she said. “The dystopia is not a change for the worse; it’s the continuation of things that already make us a terrible species.”
For example, the COVID-19 pandemic is one of those things that could be recognized as a sign of dystopia. “The dystopian is feeding something in us right now,” Hamilton-Townsend said.
But the art that readers need will continue to be made.
Every book about the future often says more about the present than it does about the future. “It’s a response to what we see around us,” she said. Ultimately, it shows how the things we do now can be carried forward into the future.
This idea is equally true for Ph.D. candidate and former student of Hamilton-Townsend, B Bailey, who studies contemporary literature and film. While Hamilton-Townsend leans more towards the Afro-pessimistic aspects of Black speculative fiction, Bailey focuses on the Utopian takes within the genre. She has been researching speculative spaces and how these spaces allow us to imagine a future and a difference from contemporary happenings due to their ability to reorient us socially and physically.
Bailey turned more towards Black fiction and Black film as she worked towards her master's degree. As a queer disabled person, marginalization, and the way it is expressed, always intrigued her for both her own marginalization and how white supremacy oppresses everyone and everything it comes into contact with.
Bailey wants her contribution to this research to be a reexamination of how white people talk about these things and push for an uplift in the community that does not privilege their voices. “I am very aware of that, so I am making sure I am, in my conversation moving forward, talking about the systemic oppressions I am seeing and how those impact everyone without speaking over anyone,” she said.
Thankfully, there are plenty of scholars like Hamilton-Townsend and Bailey doing work on these books.
“There is always more work to be done,” Hamilton-Townsend said. “Any sort of critical analysis of Black productions is important.” Just saying these Black literary objects are worthy of being studied is important and valuable work in and of itself.