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Racial justice, American exceptionalism, and

speculative ction

BY ANDR CARRINGTON
Assistant professor of English at Drexel University

In the 21st century, society has grown to rely on the axiom that race is a lie. For some people,
out of paranoia or a desire to avoid conict, touting the knowledge that race is socially
constructed is a way of declaring that ignorance about what it means is willful. For the rest of us,
knowing that the disparities causing us to live and die in painfully different ways stem from
irrational pseudo-science is just an insult piled on top of injuries.
We all deal with the ctions on which white supremacy is founded and the fantasies that aim to
rationalize the subordination of everyone else in different ways. Doctors and nurses convince
themselves that Black people feel less pain or tolerate it more. White grade-school teachers
commend the talents of Black girls and boys at lower rates than their white cohorts. Borrowing
language from the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the
mass incarceration that consigns so many Black people to unfreedom in the post-Civil Rights
era as The Gray Wastes.
And now things get queer: the critique of state-sanctioned racial violence meets the repertoire of
fantasy and gaming. How can you write about life and death in the obscure rhetoric of a teenage

diversion? How can a trivial hobby provide the words we need to shake the serious-minded
know-it-alls wringing our hands about crime and the Black family out of our conventional
wisdom? The Gray Wastes is a compelling topos within Dungeons & Dragons, according to a
review that Coates cites, because its terror erodes the sense of purpose that is the hallmark of
an alignment-based philosophy. The place where strongly focused evil resides is so thoroughly
suffused with the meanings ascribed to the category of the unjust that this intangible moral
quality becomes a spatial and temporal reality, precipitating down from the realm of abstraction
to soak everything in a cold, aching despair. Coates nds this highly evocative metaphor
powerful enough to describe what prison does to African American families. Our carceral society
discolors your life even when you get back to living it. Legal discrimination against ex-offenders
cuts off your access to a fullling livelihood and civic participation, and state-sanctioned
exploitation strains every relationship youd hope to maintain with lovers, family, and friends
none of whom will ever look at you the same way again. Its a fate not unlike like what Orlando
Patterson termed Social Deatha state of natal alienation or displacement from the bonds of
community, time, and spacewhich eerily intersects with the lack of a sense of futurity that
animates (or paralyzes) some branches of queer theory.
Each of these conceitsthe Gray Wastes, Social Death, antisocial politicslends credence to a
hypothesis that I call the speculative ction of Blackness: the notion that Black people might
populate discourses of impossibility, haunting, death-defying, and the otherworldly as a matter of
course. The notion that the supernatural should come naturally to descendants of enslaved
Africans in the Americas is a corollary to operations of white supremacy in culture that positions
Black people as freaks of nature, not quite up to full participation in the Age of Reason. Alain
Locke called it: For generations in the mind of America, the Negro has been more of a formula
than a human being. Richard Wright called it: The Negro is Americas metaphor. Toni Morrison
called it: in American literature, race has become metaphoricala way of referring to and
disguising forces, events, classes, and expressions of social decay and economic division far
more threatening to the body politic than biological race ever was. Hortense Spillers called it
when she said that black women are the beached whales of the sexual universe, unvoiced,
misseen, not doing, awaiting their verb. Speculation from the hollows where Black genius
resides produces poignant reconstructions of the past like Julie Dashs Daughters of the Dust as
well as prophetic polemics like Public Enemys Fear of a Black Planet. By eschewing the codes
of modern social scientic realism, imaginative cultural production allows Black thinkers and
dreamers to lay claim to the speculative ction of Blackness on their own terms.
In some crucial respects, the speculative ction of Blackness takes exception to the richly
allegorical gestures of fantasy, science ction, roleplaying games, and horror. With the lines

between good and evil drawn in such stark metaphorical terms, you might expect that the
millions of white Americans who came of age playing games like D&Dthe people for whom an
allusion to the Gray Wastes is most intelligiblewould become the staunchest allies in the ght
against police brutality, prison-based gerrymandering, and other forms of institutional racism. But
you know that did not happen. You might think that a society realizing the wildest dreams of our
forebears, knowing that race is no biological reality but a social fact, would harness the power of
the imagination to confront the most intractable problems we have ever faced in novel ways.
As a humanities scholar, I am concerned about ostensibly conscientious contributions to social
and political thought in popular culture. When ctions of social transformation dont defer to the
vast body of antiracist knowledge in the modern worldor worse, when they diminish it, draw it
in caricature, or reduce it to its imageextrapolations on the nature of racial conict fail utterly at
their social task. A similar pattern lays the groundwork for struggles over the meaning of
gendered and sexual difference in the genre: compared with their feminist counterparts who
devote their entire lives to understanding the complexities of patriarchy, gender, and sexuality,
anti-feminist writers who dont believe in or dont understand the critique of patriarchy do a
terrible job articulating what the far-fetched possibilities of their ctions mean for the respective
roles of women and men. The problem is the same: when the metaphor eclipses its subtext, it
mysties rather than demystifying.
With few exceptions, the story SF tells about itself recapitulates conventional tendencies when it
comes to race thinking, because it is coextensive with the structures and traditions of cultural
production that characterize the society in which we live. White supremacy is among the most
enduring of those traditions. My term for the default setting of the relationship between race and
genre is the whiteness of science ction. Struggle though we might to comprehend the alterity
of the genre in countercultural terms, without adopting a critique of racism that actually attends
to the priorities of antiracist intellectuals and the social formations we come from, SF writers
dont enjoy any special purchase on the repertoire of cultural practices that will lead us out of our
present when it comes to the racial status quo. Where a transformative vision of racial justice or
a resonant meditation on being brown, postcolonial, or Diasporic shows itself in literature and
other media, you can trust that vision is indebted to the deep roots of speculation in communities
of color.
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andr carrington is author of Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction. He
is assistant professor of English at Drexel University.