Is there race in space?

We mean you no harm…

Because this question is still dancing around inside of my head, and I suspect my musings on this subject will make a few more appearances on these pages from time to time in coming weeks and months. And in my ongoing attempt to provide some sort of answer to this question, I decided to get outside of my own head and refer to a scholarly piece on black science fiction written by a good friend of mine of more than 40 years, Professor Salim Washington. What Salim delves into here is how certain black science fiction authors such as Henry Dumas and Samuel R. Delany employ music as a part of the story’s focus to the point where it can even be considered a character. Furthermore, given the peculiar set of circumstances surrounding the history of African Americans, it should come as no surprise that some black authors feel compelled to address these circumstances and that history utilizing science fiction as the most appropriate form of storytelling to express what some might see as an otherworldly type of existence.

I can’t post the entire 19-page article here (although I wish I could),  but here you go:

Some musicians rendered the science-fiction fantasy of extraterrestrial life and space travel more explicitly and even used it as thematic material for their lyrics. The most consistent and notoriousexamples include pioneering jazz pianist/composer/bandleader Sun Ra with his variously named Intergalactic Arkestra and George Clinton’s doo wop-cum-rockcum-funk band, Parliament/Funkadelic. The secular, nationalistic expression of Parliament/Funkadelic, the deist devotion and pan-African expression of EWF, and the otherworldly musings of Sun Ra all employ the metaphor of the Mothership implicitly or explicitly. The Mothership, whether leading “one nation under the groove just for the funk of it” or shuttling Sonny back and forth to Saturn while on his mission as the Creator’s private composer, is a metaphor that resonates with the exilic condition so fundamental to the history of African American existence. It is also a colorful offspring of the belief held by some blacks since the days of slavery that they are God’s chosen people, burnished by the fire of racism and oppression to be made ready for the eventual rapturous return to God’s bosom.

And furthermore…

Following the lead of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, black authors, including science fictionwriters, make frequent use of black music as thematic material, rather than simply as markers of difference, and also usually avoid a straightforward reliance upon minstrel stereotypes.20 When music is used as thematic material, the music becomes one of the characters of the story—if not quite sentient, then certainly capable of action. In other words, in these narratives music accomplishes something that only it can accomplish.By contrast,when music is used as a marker of difference, it is not essential to the plot. In these cases, music is used as an aural clue to the race or some other trait of the character that it accompanies. It is analogous to a writer’s use of dialect to provide a visual clue for the reader as to the ethnic or class background of the speaker.

I’ll be back with more next Friday, and I’ll be coming from an entirely different direction.


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Writer and musician.

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