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Black writers crossing the final frontier

The first 'Black to the Future' festival celebrates sci-fi authors who are African American.

June 22, 2004|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — When novelist Octavia E. Butler set out in the early '70s to step off into the murky territories of science fiction, the consensus was that as a black writer, if you weren't writing about race -- or racism -- you were, frankly, wasting your time.

"There were lots of [stories with] big-bellied sheriffs," Butler recalled, in her burnished, down-deep basement voice, holding court before an on-the-edge-of-their-seats crowd on a recent Friday night at the Seattle Center complex. "That just got tiresome."

So Butler went her own way, but it was like traversing an inhospitable alternate universe -- one in which black writers and readers felt like strangers in a strange land. Inevitably came the rebuff: " 'But, I don't read science fiction ... because we're not there.' "

Now Butler is known far beyond the borders of her genre. Her books have garnered Nebula and Hugo awards. She's won a MacArthur "genius" grant. And her milestone novel, "Kindred," the story of an African American woman who slips back and forth between a thin membrane separating the 20th century and the antebellum South, is often cited as one of most original, thought-provoking works examining race and identity.

Which is why she's been invited tonight, standing on the dais to kick off the inaugural "Black to the Future: A Black Science Fiction Festival." Butler, dubbed the event's "first lady," stares down at hundreds of eager writers, readers, artists, fans -- most of whom are African American. She's been transported light-years away from those early days of being sometimes the only black person at sci-fi conventions or festivals or writers' retreats or workshops.

For many black fans, the world of "speculative" fiction (the umbrella term for sci-fi, horror and fantasy) has long been a closet obsession. Though delving into these genres would often marginalize black writers and readers alike, the surreal backdrops and dreamlike characters provided a fresh canvas to contemplate a history burdened by slavery, racism, segregation and lynching or to experiment with social taboos.

But for many it's been an isolating, sometimes thankless endeavor. "Black to the Future," a multidisciplinary forum, offered a corrective.

"Think about it," said program organizer Denee McCloud. "You're taken from your homeland. You go through the Middle Passage. You're put in the hold of a ship for months. You're separated from your family. You're robbed of your language. What does that sound like if not science fiction? Black life already feels like science fiction. But the thing is, that's not science fiction. It's real."

For black writers, speculative fiction has been a way to break down old walls of perception, a tool to push readers beyond societal limits and expand their imaginations. It was a way to merge history with speculative content -- African folklore with space travel for example, or contemplating re-imagined racial hierarchies -- a way to explore "blackness" in a more expansive way.

So along with the usual fare of robots and androids, spaceships and swampy netherworlds, black writers have meditated on a universe of what ifs: an alternate universe where Africans colonize the Americas (like Steven Barnes' "Lion's Blood"); slave narratives that also serve as time-traveling tales ("Kindred"); or space tales in which black people populate Mars (Nikki Giovanni's "Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea").

This wave of artistic expression -- books, short stories, poems, librettos, films -- ignited emancipating thought. They all began by simply asking:

What if?

If only?

If this goes on ...

In the glass-encased lobby of the Seattle Center's Leo Kreielsheimer Theatre, a curtain rises on an alternate future as the "Black to the Future" festival gets underway.

"What shocks me," said Denise Jacobs with one eyebrow arched, still slightly reeling as she surveys the crowd, "is all the black people! I don't think I've seen as many black people in Seattle in one place since I moved here. Where have they all been?"

To be sure, "science fiction" doesn't conjure up images of black America either. Jacobs, who is African American and teaches Web design at Seattle Central Community College, didn't expect to find too many compatriots -- despite the festival's label. She hadn't in the past. But she was hoping she might not be the only one.

She got her wish -- and then some.

Instead of rubber ears or light-sticks, the festival was a-swirl with kente and mudcloth, women in colorful head-wraps, men with cascading dreadlocks and throwback brass ankhs. Presented by the Seattle-based Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas, the three-day festival was keyed to the organization's larger goal: to confront historical and contemporary assumptions about African Americans in contemporary society.

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