Sunken Place – Britney Henry on Black Science Fiction Narratives

Helping us to contextualise Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred next week will be Britney Henry from the University of Delaware. In a recent (and spoiler-packed) article for MPCA/ACA Popular Culture Studies Journal, ‘Prototype of Sunken Place: Reading Jordan Peele’s Get Out through Octavia Butler’s Kindred as Black Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction Narratives‘, she draws interesting and unexpected parallels between Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred and Jordan Peele’s nail-biting, sci-fi horror movie Get Out. (CW: the essay includes discussion of sexual assualt, suicide, racism and the legacy of US slavery).

‘Science fiction and speculative fiction have imagined new worlds, species, and technologies that have influenced individuals and societies. These genres have a significant space within American popular culture as “popular culture is woven deeply and intimately into the fabric of our everyday lives. While it may be tempting to imagine such amusements and attachments as apolitical, popular culture reflects and plays a significant role in contouring how we think, feel and act in the world forbetter and often for worse” (Mueller et al. 70). Science fiction and speculative fiction are not apolitical. These genres within the space of Black culture have illustrated forgotten or distorted historical events within American culture.

‘America has a history of othering the Black body and the alterity of this body comes in the form of systematic oppression and racism. History has inflicted serious trauma and damage mentally and physically on Black bodies. I use “body”instead of “person” here because of the objectification of the body without regards to personhood which Hortense Spillers refers to as, “a territory of cultural and political maneuver” (67). Furthermore, the flesh and body are conceived as being separate. The body can become an object and dehumanized whereas the flesh takes the impact of the pain being inflicted. Black flesh has been abused, sexually degraded, and scientifically exploited throughout history. Mark Dery furthers this notion stating:

in a very real sense, [Black people] are the descendants of alien abductees; they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done; and technology is too often brought to bear on Black bodies (branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, and tasers come readily to mind). (180)

Black life in America started with dislocation and, from there, stripping of identity and ownership of body.

‘The examples that Dery calls upon are events that happened throughout America’s past that could easily find themselves within the creation of a science fiction narrative. With this understanding, “Black existence and science fiction are one and the same” (Eshun 298) because “the sublegitimate status of science fiction as a pulp genre in Western literature mirrors the subaltern position to which Blacks have been relegated throughout American history” (Dery 180). History is the basis from which Black science fiction and speculative fiction is derived, illustrating the ways in which Black existence is equivalent to the genres themselves. Two examples are used to illustrate this relationship. Jordan Peele created a sci-fi nightmare in his award-winning film Get Out (2017). While his film was marked as horror in the American market, this film is a Black science fiction and speculative fiction narrative. Peele uses slavery as the monster from which his character must escape, much like Octavia Butler did in her novel, Kindred. Slavery is the historical marker from which they make their sci-fi nightmare. Reading Get Out alongside Kindred illuminates how both Peele and Butler enslave their protagonists to illustrate the trauma of slavery bothin the past and the present.’

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