The African American Science Fiction Character in Literature, Television, and Film by Ben Davis Jr.

CUYAHOGA COMMUNITY COLLEGE—METROPOLITAN CAMPUS CLEVELAND OHIO
THE AFRICAN AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION CHARACTER IN LITERATURE, TELEVISION, AND FILM

JANUARY 21, 2003
BY
BEN DAVIS JR, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, ENGLISH

In 1951, Theodore Sturgeon, award-winning author of the acclaimed science fiction novel, More Than Human, defined the term “science fiction” as a story built around human beings with human problems and human solutions. In addition, it can be argued that science fiction in itself is a modern variation of “myth.” Many exploits, based on some technological and/or scientific problem, of science fiction characters parallel those of their mythological counterparts particularly the heroes of antiquity beginning with the archetypal Mesopotamian “Eternal man/God-king” Gilgamesh, the Homerian Odysseus and Hercules, the Danish Beowulf, the French knight Roland, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and, in the pop culture sense Joe Shuster’s and Jerry Siegel’s last son of the planet Krypton, Superman. In many of the stories about these heroes is the quest of truth, justice, knowledge, and the same is said for many science fiction characters.

Additionally, science fiction, argued to be an extension of human myth most of the time using creative, extrapolative technology, allows readers to have perhaps the greatest of all experiences: The journey to the center of the human condition. Readers will also hazard adventures to the noble and sometimes darker recesses of the human soul while authors simultaneously predict astounding futuristic societies, create technological wonders and terrors, and formulate alternative realities.

Even more unique to the SF genre is the emergence and inclusion of African American heroes and heroines created by Black authors, besides Samuel R. Delany, such as Octavia E. Butler, Walter Mosley, and Steven Barnes et al. Butler is most known for her series of novels about superhuman telepaths in Wildseed, Mind of My Mind, and Patternmaster. Barnes is known not only for collaborations with famed SF writer Larry Niven but also for his contribution to Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek universe with the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel Far Beyond the Stars affirming, via formulae of the [mythic] hero, that black characters, especially in that novel, are and will always be a strong presence in science fiction literature. Mosley, most known for his detective fiction featuring Black private eye Easy Rawlins, has ventured into SF literature with his novel Blue Light.

Today, there may be no doubt that Black SF characters are written as heroic and non-stereotypical, and now in the 21st century they remain complex trailblazers in the genre, ever-growing, ever-changing to solve human problems. However, the origin of the black character in classic 20th century science fiction literature is appropriate. Interestingly, until Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End, a Black male or Black female character is nowhere to be found in any other mainstream science fiction literature; afterward, Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human in 1953 introduces Beanie and Bonnie, Black telekinetic twins. Nonetheless, Clarke’s character, Jan Rodricks, a black man who becomes the last human on earth to witness man’s evolutionary ascendance, through his children, to the stars is unique in many respects: First, he is created by a white author in non-stereotypical fashion; second, his relationship to the alien Overlords, who appear as winged devil-like beings, is pivotal in the novel; lastly, he comments on the disintegration of the racist, oppressive regime of apartheid in South Africa, due in part to the intervention of the alien Overlords. However, there is no “blackness.”

Unfortunately, and for obvious reasons, there are not enough Rodricks with who black readers can identify; nothing else is learned of Rodricks–he is simply a bland representation for white readers. His racial identity may not have been an issue for Clarke–again for obvious reasons–and/or Clarke was culturally ignorant of Black Americans–when the book was published in the 1950s–of the very thing that is quintessential to black people–a soul borne out of the struggle against traditional segregation and institutional racism.

Consequently, Jan Rodricks does not have and does not generate, as traditional fiction does, the universal complexity, racial depth, and pathos of, say, Richard Wright’s Native Son protagonist, Bigger Thomas, or James Baldwin’s character in “Sonny’s Blues.” Conversely, Rodricks’ presence–though very racially marginal–as a black man in SF literature at all during the time is unique to say the least. Jan Rodricks’ presence in Childhood’s End is fortuitous in that although the character lacks “soul” or Black ethnicity–uncreated with that soulfulness and recognition of his blackness and its origin and travails—the character serves as a template for future Black characters yet to be written. History, race, culture, and gender equality are the essential elements which provide the imprint for making the African American SF character more three-dimensional. Black SF characters in literature would be written as equally strong and complex and as readily acceptable as white characters thanks to authors such as the controversial Harlan Ellison–one of Octavia Butler’s mentors–who created a strong and quite complex black character in the horror/sci-fi short story “Mephisto in Onyx,” in which its protagonist is Black. Black readers would have to wait a little longer before a black voice would emerge in this genre. However, a few SF television shows would showcase some black characters in the genre, though marginal still, and raise attention to them—this writer notwithstanding. Specifically, thanks to shows such as Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits, this emergence of Black SF voices would begin.

Envisioned in the world of American television by the late Gene Roddenberry as a “wagon train to the stars,” Star Trek is a metaphor for the human “inner space” and the human adventure giving its 1960’s audiences voyages of moral and social dilemmas in its handling of war, love, sex, and especially racism. Due to many important risks taken by its creator, Roddenberry’s series would allow a few of its ethnic characters—particularly Blacks–to connect with a much broader audience all over America and later abroad–access to the sci-fi genre. For example, the Black character most remembered by Trek’s fans is Lieutenant Uhura, played by actress Nichelle Nichols. Intelligent, brave, and beautiful, her character–a Starfleet communications officer, opened a door that would never be closed for future African American characters. Uhura’s character is an image of dignity and pride for the American TV audience. On Gene Roddenberry’s vision, Ms. Nichols recalls something she was told by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the series’ first run on TV in the late 1960s, “He has created a show that has . . . For the first time, men and women of all colors and background, including an alien, going forth in peaceful exploration as equals, not as robots, not as automatons but as human beings with a human frailty”. Nichols’ involvement with recruiting minorities and women for the NASA space program is poignant. On her view of how Star Trek and TV portrayed ethnic groups during the 1960s she states, “I think it did a damn good job of almost succeeding. You have to remember that Hollywood was still Hollywood, and this was an enormous breakthrough, in terms of what was acceptable” Just a few years earlier, African American actress Diane Sands portrayed an intelligent but strong character in a show titled “The Mice,” an episode from The Outer Limits, an early 1960s sci fi anthology TV series and a genre precursor to Trek.

Ms. Sands also performed with Sidney Poitier in the 1960 film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. Next, the show would also present a little known but still active performer in TV and film, Robert Doqui, who in The Outer Limits episode “The Invisible Enemy,” plays a doomed astronaut named Frank on a perilous mission to the planet Mars; consequently, audiences today may recognize Doqui as the beleaguered police sergeant in the RoboCop motion pictures. Actor-turned-Hollywood-director, Ivan Dixon, best known to the mid-to-late 1960s TV audiences as a cohort of Bob Crane’s in Hogans’ Heroes, also appeared as one of four human benefactors of alien brain cells in the classic 1963 Outer Limits two-episode “The Inheritors.” He also made an appearance as a preacher on The Twilight Zone. Even the late Gregory Morris, best known the character Barney, a member of the IMF on the spy/quasi-SF series Mission Impossible, made an early appearance as an Army sergeant on The Twilight Zone. With its stories of wonder of the human spirit and futurist prediction, Star Trek is itself a sophisticated American mythology enterprising its focus on humans (and aliens) with a sense of hope, especially for African Americans since one of its later incarnations, Deep Space Nine, showcases a strong Black character in Ben Sisko, portrayed by actor-director Avery Brooks of Hawk fame, who not only a Starfleet captain but is also a single parent to boot! Prior to the Sisko character, Geordie La Forge, played by Roots star Levar Burton—who is a director of a few Star Trek shows and is also host of the Emmy-winning children’s TV program Reading Rainbow—won audiences as the blind chief engineer of the The Next Generations’ 24th century starship Enterprise.

In film, many Black characters have also been emerging in SF. Very early in his career, African American actor Harry Belafonte plays one earth’s last survivors after a nuclear holocaust in the film The World, the Flesh, and the Devil in 1959, and so too does actor-dancer and Roots star Ben Vereem in the movie post-apocalyptic film Gas-s-s-s! by director Roger Corman in 1970. Next, Paul Winfield portrays an Army officer, who unfortunately meets a grisly fate with giant mutated man-eating cockroaches in Damnation Alley, 1977, also starring George Peppard of Banacek and The A-Team fame. It is interesting here to note Winfield’s quips about the fact that since he has been killed off in many SF/Fantasy films that he could create one entire film devoted to them including Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan! Actor Yaphet Kotto makes his presence known as one of the doomed astronauts in the 1979 motion picture Alien. In this film he is not killed off until near the film’s climax. While Belafonte’s presence is somewhat groundbreaking in the genre for its time, the other characters portrayed by the aforementioned actors are never treated with enough substance and prestige as their white counterparts nor do they stay around long enough for viewers to appreciate them. Nevertheless, in later SF films, the Black character is treated with a little more dignity and is given more breadth and depth of character. Such is the example of actor Joe Morton’s portrayal of a an alien in The Brother from Another Planet, which functions as a modern allegory, depicting the tale of a mute interstellar fugitive, who happens to be Black and winds up in the urban confines of Harlem, NY. For SF tropes, his alienness is ironically overt in that, although he has the appearance of an African American male, he has a removable eye and clawed three—toed feet. He is the “clever innocent . . . a healer . . .[and] he can fix machines” and director John Sayles conveys the message of the Black man as other, but craftily turns this notion on its ear in that the Brother character is the “alien among the alienated.”

NOTES

1. Sturgeon, Theodore. More Than Human. New York: Ballantine, 1953.
2. Quoted in The Turbulent Years: The 1960s. Time-Life, 2000.
3. Madsen, Dan. “Nichelle Nichols: Where No Woman Has Gone Before.” Star Trek Communicator. April/May 1998: 16 – 20.
4. “Catching Up with Nichelle Nichols,” Star Trek: The Magazine, November 2002, 29.
5. “Brother From Another Planet, The” in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 1995, 163.
6. Ibid.

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