Feb 22, 2018 | essay

Imagining the Past: Speculative Fiction and the Recovering of Black History


Edited by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

In 1903, writer Pauline Hopkins published a serial of short stories in The Colored American Magazine, a monthly publication that covered African-American culture—and of which she would later take over briefly as editor. The stories were titled, Of One Blood; Or, The Hidden Self. The main character was a young Black man named Reuel Briggs. Raised on the racism so pervasive in America of his day, Briggs had come to believe in his own inferiority, showing little concern or understanding of the Black past. This all changes, however, when he travels to Ethiopia and finds the lost 6000-year-old ancient city of Telessar: where futurist technology is based on crystals, suspended animation, and even a means of telepathy.1

Hopkins’s story is one of the first by an African-American that used an African setting, and pulls on historical romance, science fiction, fantasy and mystery to confront–and in some ways overthrow–white supremacy. As Hopkins herself stated, her stories were intended to “raise the stigma of degradation from [the Black] race.”2 In her lifetime, that sense of racial degradation would have been quite familiar.

Hopkins lived during the Nadir, a period roughly from 1877 to the early twentieth-century considered the lowest point of race-relations in the post-emancipation United States. The year she published her imaginative story drawn on the histories of ancient Ethiopia, eighty-four Blacks were lynched throughout the United States; 900 more would follow in the coming decade, sacrificed to a rapacious Jim Crow apartheid that blanketed the country.3

Terror and trauma did not always take the form of the rope or the mob. White supremacy was entrenched and structural, pervading nearly every aspect of society–from popular media, to public policy, to academic disciplines. This was an era where scientific racism was normalized, used as justification for the inherent superiority of whites and the inferiority of all “others.” Black people were depicted in demeaning stereotypes, and as a people with a past rooted in savagery, if having a past at all.4

Pauline Hopkins turned to history in her struggle against this racialized terror. She self-published a 1905 pamphlet titled, A Primer of Facts Pertaining to the Early Greatness of the African Race and the Possibility of Restoration by Its Descendants. In her work, Hopkins used ethnographic, scientific, and historical accounts to refute scientific racism and claims of Black inferiority. She implored those who were “descendants of Africans in America,” to “become thoroughly familiar with the meagre details of [the] Ethiopian” past to counteract the racism of the age. History was the discipline to do this, and she would find ways to weave it into her fiction as well–with fantastic results.5

Hopkins’s use of history as a weapon against racial prejudice was a common theme among African-Americans of the age. In 1897, a group of Black intellectuals including W.E.B. DuBois and Alexander Crummell, along with writers such as the poet Laurence Dunbar, came together to form the American Negro Academy. Among its many pursuits, the publication and dissemination of Black history was foremost: a means to bring about the “vindication of the Negro race” then beset by what they termed “vicious assaults.” In 1911 Harlem, the Afro-Puerto Rican historian and social activist Arturo Schomburg joined with African-American journalist and Pan-African nationalist John Edward Bruce to found the Negro Society for Historical Research: a gathering of minds from across the Black Atlantic dedicated to creating a history of “the Negro race” irrespective of regional or national boundaries. The society’s purpose, in its own words, was “to show that the Negro race has a history which antedates that of the proud Anglo-Saxon.” 6 Perhaps most well-known, in 1915, the historian Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and went on in 1926 to initiate Negro History Week, which went on to become Black History Month. “Let us… study history,” Woodson urged African-Americans, “and study it with the understanding that we are not, after all, an inferior people….and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements.” 7

For writers like Pauline Hopkins, history came alive best through literature. In Of One Blood, she uses the history of ancient Africa to tell imaginative tales of science fiction and modern racial redemption. The protagonist Reul Briggs, in searching for ancient Ethiopia, is at once searching for his own identity and subverting the racist ideas of his age. Hopkins suggested that this skewing of the past not only disadvantaged African-Americans, but created a false sense of supremacy among whites as well. In one jarring passage, a white man upon learning of ancient Ethiopia exclaims in shock, “Great Scott!… you don’t mean to tell me that all this was done by niggers?”8

Whatever the white world believed, African-Americans like Hopkins had long been forming their own counter-narrative of the past, keeping the memory of Ethiopia alive. Sometimes Ethiopia was Kush, the land of pharaohs who once conquered Egypt and god-Queens who defied Rome. At other times it was Abyssinia, home to ancient Axum and to Menelik II—in Hopkins day, still celebrated throughout the Black world for his stunning defeat of the Italians at Adwa in 1896. At other times, Ethiopia could simply be a stand-in for all of Africa—reaching back to a past half-remembered, genealogical memory of which they had been robbed. As the Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay in his 1922 Outcast, ruminated: “For I was born, far from my native clime,/ Under the white man’s menace, out of time.”9 In the 1920s the poet Gwendolyn Bennett similarly dreamt of a Black past filled with “slim palm trees” and “lithe Negro girls,” where she could listen to “silent sands, / Singing to the moon” before the face of the Sphinx.” This past, she believed, was the power of a whole race, that lay “hidden” behind the dehumanizing “minstrel-smile.” 10

Not all of Hopkins writings were speculative; nor did they always journey to the distant past. Most, in fact, like Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South, (1900) and Hagar’s Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice (1901) examined themes of slavery, race, and freedom in ante and post-bellum America. Yet, they also utilized the romantic novel to create “fictional histories” that functioned as a form of social activism. In her preface to Contending Forces, Hopkins issues a rallying cry to fellow Black writers on the uses of fiction in recovering the past:

Fiction is of great value to any people as a preserver of manners and customs—religious, political and social. It is a record of growth and development from generation to generation. No one will do this for us; we must ourselves develop the men and women who will faithfully portray the inmost thoughts and feelings of the Negro with all the fire and romance which lie dormant in our history, and, as yet, unrecognized by writers of the Anglo-Saxon race.11

The inheritors to Pauline Hopkins dot the landscape of Black speculative fiction. History has become the source material and context for many creators of the genre. Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979) sends readers back in time with a young black woman who is suddenly, without seeming cause, transported to the era of slavery. Charles Saunders Imaro (1980) reimagines a precolonial Africa in the fantastic setting of Nyumbani—a world of spears, monsters and magic, with black heroes and heroines. Steven Barnes’s Lion’s Blood (2002) overturns reality itself, creating a counterfactual history where African Muslims own opulent plantations in an alternate nineteenth-century America, worked by European slaves. Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (2016) delves into Black life in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance—complete with an esoteric divine alphabet and a reworking of the inherent racism of early twentieth-century Lovecraftian horror. Justina Ireland raises the dead of the Civil War battlefield to explore the seminal struggle and the often mythologized and mis-remembered Reconstruction that came after in her upcoming Dread Nation (2018)

Within my own recent short story, The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington, I take up Hopkins’ challenge. As with so many histories of the voiceless, we are only left with a clue: an account book notation in 1784 at Mt Vernon that reads, “By Cash, paid Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr Lemoire.” 12 Who were those nine men and women who sold their teeth to America’s founding father? Did they part with them willingly? Can a fair and free trade be made by persons considered property, placed outside the bounds of citizenship? What were their daily lives like? What were their hopes, their dreams, their fears? The archive has its limitations. And sometimes it offers silences, especially on the experiences of the marginalized. But even if I cannot know, I can still imagine. So, I turned to the speculative, mixing bits of our own history—from runaway slave advertisements to plantation records—with elements of the fantastic to root out larger truths.

It’s not surprising that in so much of Black speculative fiction, history is often a constant. It is the construct and the canvas around which we dream of things lost, remembered, or rewritten. Despite calls from some quarters for apolitical SFF, the reality is that for Black creators, fiction and history, have always been political. In a world where imagining and recovering the Black past is itself an act of defiance, it can’t not be.

  1. Pauline Hopkins, “Of One Blood; Or, The Hidden Self,” serialized in The Colored American Magazine, 1902-903. 

  2. Pauline Hopkins, Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South (Boston: Colored Co-operative Pub. Co., 1900), 13. 

  3. Rayford Logan, The Negro in American life and thought: The Nadir, 1877-1901 (New York: Dial Press, 1954); Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1989; Douglas O. Linder, “Lynchings by Year and Race,” Famous Trials, 2018. 

  4. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011); Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation Books, 2016); Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright, 2017). 

  5. Pauline Hopkins, A Primer of Facts Pertaining to the Early Greatness of the African Race and the Possibility of Restoration by Its Descendants, with Epilogue. (1905). 

  6. Vanessa K. Valdés, Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (New York: SUNY Press, 2017), 64-67. 

  7. Carter G. Woodson, “Some Things Negroes Need to Do,” Southern Workman, 51 (January 1922), 33-36. 

  8. Hopkins, Of One Blood, (Serial) [Part V, Chs. 12-14], 342. 

  9. Claude McKay, “Outcast” in Complete Poems (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 173-174 

  10. Gwendolyn Bennett, “Heritage” in Maureen Honey ed. S_hadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance_ (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006), 5-6. 

  11. Hopkins, Contending Forces, 13-14. 

  12. Kathryn Gehred, “Did George Washington’s false teeth come from his slaves?: A look at the evidence, the responses to that evidence, and the limitations of history,” Washington Papers, October 19, 2016.