WorldCon 74: “The Future of Afrofuturism” Panel

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This was the most depressing panel I attended at Worldcon. It wasn’t because the panelists weren’t good; on the contrary, they were very intelligent, personable, and knowledgeable. What was depressing is that as hard as it is to get science fiction published, it’s much harder if your story contains people of color. The stories that they told were real eye openers for me.

William Hayashi moderated the panel. He writes stories about a black separatist colony that started in the 1960’s. It’s called The Dark Side Trilogy. Ajani Brown teaches Afrofuturism. Dr. Nick Wood is from South Africa and writes stories with African characters. Bill Campbell heads Rosarium Publication and writes Afrofuturistic stories. Mrs. Cerece Renee Murphy is the author of the Order of the Seers trilogy.

The combined efforts of the authors on the panel prove that Afrofuturism exists and that you can find it to read if you look at small dedicated publishers and people who are self-publishing. If you’re looking for it in mainstream science fiction or bookstores, you won’t find it, except for the classic examples of Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany.

The room was packed for this panel. Photo by Teresa Wickersham
The room was packed for this panel. Photo by Teresa Wickersham

When asked if they thought that Afrofuturism would become mainstream or remain Afrofuturism, William Hayashi replied that there were no average black American families on television. Bill Campbell, who publishes in the Afrofuture genre, said that small publishing is integral to the genre. The publishing industry is old and conservative, scared to take chances and not built for inclusion. He said it was all in their heads that Afrofuturism was not mainstream. Black urban culture has always been at the foundation of American culture. Urban music, urban sports, and urban culture. He blames all the turmoil and backlash surrounding President Obama’s election for negating a lot of the positivity about black urban culture.

When asked if they thought that they had experienced a push back against their push for Afrofuturism, the panelists had interesting answers. Ajani Brown said that he hadn’t experienced any. Cerece, a lovely and vivacious woman, said that she had been rejected twenty times  before she self-published. She said, “My mom said everything worth doing is hard.” She added, “If you look like me, it’s probably harder.”

Dr. Wood said that he thought for his stories to be real, they had to be black characters. He was told by publishers, “Black people don’t read.” Therefore, no market for his books.

In my opinion, this is one of the most appalling things I’ve ever heard. For someone to say that, in this day and age, is horrifying. I do know that it’s a small subsection of the population in the U.S. that reads, to the point where only ten percent of the population is said to buy a book a year, but that subset is not restricted to white people. And it is nonsensical. In science fiction, the reader might identify with an alien from outer space, a monster, or a mythical creature. Anyone could be a character in a science fiction or fantasy book. But not a human with a darker skin tone?

Bill Campbell talked about the difficulty of getting published. At one point, he got a “fancy shmancy” agent, who told him his book wasn’t ghetto enough. He made it more ghetto. I believe he muttered something about crack vampires. Then he lost his fancy shmancy agent. He said that it wasn’t until someone wrote a dissertation on his first novel that he realized that he didn’t suck as a writer.

On a more positive note, Ajani Brown talked about cooperative economics. He orders books from small publishers for his classes, which helps to support small publishers. An anthology printed in 2000 was mentioned, Dark Matter: The Anthology of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction by Black Writers. A short story,”The Comet”, originally published in 1920, was mentioned as the beginning of Afrofuturism.

A clear takeaway from the panel is that small, dedicated publishers and self-publishing is essential to the future of Afrofuturism, just as it is for LGBT books or books that don’t fit in established genres. Self-rejection was mentioned. You have to keep trying rather than assume that your work will be rejected. The problem with these avenues, of course, was pointed out by William Hayashi. “How do you rise above the noise?”

As disheartening as the future of Afrofuturism seems to be, I am sure that with passionate, dedicated writers, publishers, and advocates like these that we will see more Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism will either become more mainstream or take its place in a world of many interesting genres in the future.

For more coverage on Worldcon, check out this link for articles and interviews.

 

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Teresa Wickersham

Teresa Wickersham has dabbled in fanfic, gone to a few conventions, created some award-winning (and not so award winning) masquerade costumes, worked on the Save Farscape campaign, and occasionally presents herself as a fluffy bunny or a Krampus.

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