The Truth in Historical Fiction
Mark Twain, famous American author and humorist, loosely coined the phrase, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” He was considered by luminaries such as William Faulkner to be the “Father of American Literature.” Twain’s musings can be interpreted to mean that faithful renditions of real people and real events are far more exciting, inspirational, and mind-boggling than hyperbolic fictions of great battles, conquests of the heart, or other stupendous accomplishments by grandiose but imaginary characters.
Roots: The Saga of an American Family (a novel written by Alex Haley and first published in 1976, adapted into a hugely popular, 12-hour television miniseries, Roots, in 1977, and a 14-hour sequel, Roots: The Next Generations, in 1979) was a spectacular success that won a Pulitzer Prize, nine Emmys, and a Peabody. The reason Alex Halley’s Roots was so powerful was because of his careful attention to the details of his family’s history with an occasional node to the muses. He infused his fiction with generous quantities of fact.
Writers of Afrocentric historical fiction have a great opportunity to create astounding stories based on the “truths” of the African influence on world history, as well as help correct the lies and half-truths conventionally conveyed to readers and movie-goers. One of those half-truths is the European colonization of Africa. The truth is: Africa first invaded and colonized Europe, several times. Don’t get confused by revisionists who argue that Moors and Africans are separate peoples or that Egypt and the lands of the Bible are not a part of Africa or that there are two Africas: a southern black Africa and northern brown Africa. Africa is Africa, the launching pad of human civilization.
In a perfect world, there would be hundreds of novels, movies, and stage plays about audacious imperial conquests led by Africans of all colors and creeds. Instead, today we get swamped with clichéd Roman gladiators, evil Nazi storm troopers, or faceless Arab terrorists.
It is no great surprise that self-serving individuals, governments, or religious sects rewrite history to justify doctrine or further the manipulation of people and social institutions. For instance, most Americans don’t really know the truth about Abraham Lincoln; there are many, many examples of the remolding of history, but for the sake of brevity and focus, let us examine the pervasive myth that “Europeans Discovered Africa” and how the truth is much more exciting than poorly fabricated fantasies of King Arthur or Robin Hood.
In thousands of history classes throughout America, students are taught that Greece was the start of modern Western civilization, followed by Rome and eventually leading to “Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves” until the Americans took over. The entertainment industry has produced shamelessly biased cinematography based on novels that ignore the Black contribution and participation in world events, past or future (again, another long diversion we will avoid at this junction).
But when you study highly reputable historians such as Dr. Ivan Van Sertina or Dr. Asa G. Hilliard, you will discover that the true roots of world civilization started with the Nubians and other great, early African empires that embraced writing, astronomy, medicine, and government long before the Europeans. Likewise, there are recorded accounts of African heroes, scholars, bad boys, scheming ex-wives, desperate criminals, and hopeless romantics, all of whom are waiting for their stories to be told. Novels based on the facts of African involvement in world history can wow current-day audiences, just like Roots enlightened and thrilled millions of people of all races. As writers in the Afrocentric genre, we don’t have to fantasize or make up anything for our literary plots; all we need to do is study history and base our characters on real people who existed before us.
Point: The following historians are good places to start your research: Ivan Van Sertima, Cheikh Anta Diop, Asa G. Hilliard, Stanley-Lane Poole, Yosef ben Jochannan, Runoko Rashidi, Joel A. Rogers.
A brief sample of books to read include:
African Presence in Early Europe (Journal of African Civilizations) by Ivan Van Sertima
They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America by Ivan Van Sertima
Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology by Cheikh Anta Diop
Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C to 2000 A.D. by Chancellor Williams
Great Negroes: Past and Present by Russell L. Adams
Islamic Spain, 1250 to 1500 by L. P. Harvey
Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of al-Andalus by Hugh Kennedy
One Hundred Amazing Facts about the Negro: With Complete Shortcut to the World History of the Negro by Joel A. Rogers
One historical fact: Mansa Kankou Musa was the tenth mansa, or emperor, of the Mali Empire during its height in the 14th century. He ruled as mansa from 1312 to 1337. Musa is most noted for his 1324 hajj to Mecca and his role as a benefactor of Islamic scholarship.
Speculative Fiction Suggested Reading
The following is a very small list of speculative fiction novels that may interest you. I certainly enjoyed every one of these books. There are many more writers offering tales of science, the fantastic, and the future from an Afrocentric viewpoint.
Black Empire by George S. Schuyler. Schuyler’s novel fantasizes a 1930s where one black man plots to take over a continent, drawing Europe back into global conflict. Dr. Henry Belsidus has brought together a group of black professionals whose collective knowledge and skills become the backbone of Black Internationale, an underground group spanning the globe. Through alternative energy and farming techniques, murder and robbery, and even a new hi-tech religion, the Black Internationale plans to manipulate the world powers and reclaim Africa as a black nation, wiping out anyone, regardless of race, who stands in its way. “Considered to be the first Afro-centric speculative fiction story ever published, many of the technological triumphs explored in the novel are science fact today!”
Black No More by George Schulyer. This scathingly humorous novel established George Schulyer as one of the leading satirist of the Twentieth Century. The plot revolves around the picaresque adventures of the young black protagonist, Max, who goes to a brilliant physician who has discovered a “cure” for blackness. Max takes the cure and, needless to say, is transformed. However, life then takes some very strange twists as he desperately tries to recover what he has recklessly thrown away. Also, Schuyler creates thinly disguised portraits of black leaders such as W.E.B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey with characteristic irreverence. “Fast, funny, and immensely satirical, Schulyer has been called the precursor to Ishmael Reed.”
Blue Light is Walter Mosley’s first sci-fi novel and the prelude to his trilogy. From an unknown point in the universe, a miraculous blue light enters our solar system. When it reaches Earth, it transforms everything it strikes, causing rapid evolution of people, animals, and plants. Each human hit with the light becomes the full realization of his or her nature and potential, with strengths, understanding, and communication abilities far beyond normal imagining.
Bwana & Bully. Mike Resnick gives us two novellas—one set in the far future and one set in a fictional past. Bwana is the story of a utopian African society constructed on an orbiting asteroid. The inhabitants hunt transplanted game, live in thatched huts, and abide by traditional laws, isolated from the evils of modern technology. Only the Shaman has access to the modern world and he demands strict obedience to tradition. But when forest beasts attack and kill human children, the villagers cry out that an outside hunter with modern weapons must be brought in. But as the old saying goes, “Once the Lion has chased away the Hyena, who chases away the Lion?” Bully is a satirical look at a fictional account of President Theodore Roosevelt’s escapades when he tries to bring American civilization to Africa. Despite his good, yet somewhat imperialistic intentions, the Africans have their own views of what they want to do with their continent.
Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora edited by Sheree R. Thomas. Short stories by Steven Barnes, Octavia E. Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Tananarive Due, Jewelle Gomez, Nalo Hopkinson, Walter Mosley, Ishmael Reed, and many more. This is an excellent collection of Black sci-fi and a must read for anyone considering publishing in this genre.
Dawn by Octavia Butler. Dawn is the first book in the Xenogenesis Series. Lilith Iyapo, a Black woman who has survived Earth’s final nuclear holocaust, awakens aboard an alien spaceship. In a bleak, windowless cell, Lilith has only fragmentary images of her captors—the Oankali, beings hideously ugly to humans. The Oankali offer Lilith and a handful of fellow survivors a chance to rebuild, if humankind is willing to make a valuable trade. But the ultimate price may be more than both species could ever have imagined.
Futureland by Walter Mosley. Life in America a generation from now isn’t much different from today: The drugs are better, the daily grind is worse. The gap between the rich and the poor has widened to a chasm. You can store the world’s legal knowledge on a chip in your little finger, while the Supreme Court has decreed that constitutional rights don’t apply to any individual who challenges the system. Justice is swiftly delivered by automated courts, so the prison industry is booming. And while the media declare racism is dead, word on the street is that even in a colorless society, it’s a crime to be black.
Gorgon Child by Steven Barnes. Fanatics plots to enslave the entire country through the use of a genetically engineered breed of invincible killers. Aubry Knight, a futuristic Null-Boxer, uses his hi-tech fighting skills to battle treacherous politicians, an inhuman army, and confront the terrors of his own past. “Picking up the tradition started in Street Lethal, Barnes gives us fast-paced action and intrigue from the future where the line between human and monster is gossamer thin.”
Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology is the first anthology dedicated to sword and soul, an exciting genre that combines African traditions, history, and culture with heroic fiction and sword and sorcery. Fourteen writers and 14 artists were chosen to express their interpretation of this new genre, resulting in a book that is as exciting to view as it is to read. Griots is edited by Charles R. Saunders, author of Imaro and creator of sword and soul, and Milton Davis, owner of MVmedia, LLC, and author of three sword and soul novels.
Ivory by Mike Resnick. In this Nebula-and-Clarke-nominated novel, researcher Duncan Rojas is approached by the last Maasai and offered a challenge he can’t turn down: to find the ivory of the fabled Kilimanjaro Elephant, the greatest trophy ever taken. As Rojas traces the ivory across the galaxy and through the eons, he also begins to learn why it is so important to his client.
Kindred by Octavia Butler. Dana, a Black woman, celebrates her 26th birthday in 1976, only to be snatched abruptly from her home in southern California and transported through time to the antebellum South. Rufus, her ancestor, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned across the years to save him. If she doesn’t, he’ll never grow to manhood and Dana will cease to exist. “This is a book you’ll find hard to put down.”
Lady El by Jim Starlin and Diana Graziunas. Arlene never got many lucky breaks in life. She was born poor and Black in the South. After her father was killed, she ran away to New York City. There, she only found menial cleaning jobs and menial lovers. But just as life was beginning to shine a little, fate deals this struggling Black woman another change of fortunes—she is struck down by an express subway train. Normally, this would be the end of the story, but for Arlene, it is a new beginning. Her brain is transferred into a super computer and linked to the world. Gradually she reawakens and discovers tremendous new power and a chance for revenge.
Middle Passage by Charles Johnson. Winner of the National Book Award, this is a stirring saga of a free Black man’s adventures at sea—a tale of mutiny and magic, of the dignity of the African past and the horror of American politics. Rufus Calhoun, a former slave, is determined to lived as wild and as free a life as possible in New Orleans, a thriving port town filled with the idle rich, prosperous crime lords, and petty thieves. But when a woman is determined to marry Rufus and change his evil ways, he hides aboard a ship heading out to sea. But to his dismay, Rufus has taken refuge on a slave ship bound for Africa. In the cargo hold is a mysterious African god.
Street Lethal by Steven Barnes. Champion “Null” boxer, Aubrey Knight, is a futuristic gladiator who has mastered formidable, scientific fighting skills. All he wants to do is stay top contender but first he has to outrun hi-tech crime bosses as well as escape computerized police when he is falsely accused of drug trafficking. And then his luck really goes bad.
Sundiata by D. T. Niane. Epic tale of the ancient Mali Empire told by a master griot, this novel captures the mystery and majesty of a medieval African kingdom and the titanic battle to return a true ruler to his throne. “Part history, part legend . . . ranks with the Odyssey in scope and grandeur.”
The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem by Rudolph Fisher. Originally published in 1932, The Conjure-Man Dies is the first known mystery novel written by an African-America. Rudolph Fisher, one of the principal writers of the Harlem Renaissance, weaves an intricate story of a native African king, who, after receiving a degree from Harvard University, settles into Harlem in the 1930s. He becomes a “conjure-man,” a fortune teller, a mysterious figure who remains shrouded in darkness while his clients sit directly across from him.
The Fablesinger by Judith Woolcock Colombo. Author Judith Colombo is a Jamaican writer who has created a fascinating feminist fantasy. The old Fablesinger, a great shaman who has the ability to control the forces of nature, is commanded to relinquish her power to a younger woman. The younger woman is at first reluctant but gradually accepts her destiny to carry on as protector for her people. But before the training can be completed, an evil adversary attempts to kill them both. This deadly male sorcerer seeks ultimate magical power but the Fablesingers stand in his way. Cosmic forces take sides for the final battle. “The story explores the richness and beauty of the magic and myths of the Caribbean.”
The Living Blood by Tananarive Due. Jessica Jacobs-Wolde’s life was destroyed when her husband, David Wolde, disappeared after apparently killing both their daughter Kira and Jessica herself, and reviving Jessica to immortality with his healing blood. David was a Life Brother—a member of an ancient, secret, and immortal African clan that had hidden itself from the modern world until now.
Under African Skies by Mike Resnick. Resnick brings together a collection of science fiction short stories written by different authors who have used Africa as the backdrop and setting for their tales. The stories, told from both European and diasporic viewpoints, take a look at the past and the future. Tales of invasion by alien flora, a space baby adopted by an African woman, the rise of Africa after a nuclear war, a space utopia modeled after ancient Kenya, and other stories of fantasy and speculation filled this book.
Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. Doro was born deep in Africa and cannot die. He is the most powerful man on the planet Earth. Anyanwu, an African witch, goddess, grandmother, and wife cannot be killed. Her awesome healing abilities allow her to oppose Doro and his plans for her hundreds of children yet to be born. Together, these two immortals are locked in a war of wills and locked in a love that carries over several continents and hundreds of years. “Octavia Butler is a master of science fiction and never seems to do the expected. She will be greatly missed.”
As I stated earlier, this is only a tiny sip of the Black speculative fiction universe. Be sure to explore the many online resources to discover a growing body of talent, energy, and imagination that is currently taking place among writers of color who are weaving fantastic tales featuring darker faces.