Sci-fi author places Black people, history at the center of the universe

Arts no chaser

Back in the late 1970s, in one of Richard Pryor’s routines, riffing on the science fiction flick Logan’s Run, he noted there weren’t any Black characters in that movie and blithely opined to the audience, “Y’all ain’t plannin’ for us to be here.” Strictly speaking, Roscoe Lee Browne did make a blink-and-you-miss-him appearance, but for all intents and purposes the movie was white as snow.

In the same spirit of exclusion, the Star Wars franchise, which started around then, went to the bank featuring the voice of James Earl Jones as iconic villain Darth Vader but, when the helmet mask came off, it was a White actor underneath.

The movies may have caught up — sort of — with Denzel Washington and Will Smith starring in The Book of Eli and I Am Legend respectively, but the publishing industry seemingly still doesn’t plan for us to be here, either.

Writers like J. Darnell Johnson, whose novella The Opening came out last year, have other ideas. The synopsis to The Opening reads, “[It] is about a khem (Black) hue-man being named Ja, from the planet Kebb who has a yearning for

J. Darnell Johnson
J. Darnell Johnson

paradise in the stars and believes that the grass is greener on the other side … of the galaxy.

“Traveling through the Opening with his family, Ja finds a terrifying civilization where Whites are the slave master and their Blacks are enslaved. Ja, his family and other Blacks endure a daily dose of psychological and physical peppering while only Leo Bonaparte, the Compound’s evil owner, knows who Ja really is. In a shocking climax … will Ja become the planet’s slave or savior?”

Photos courtesy of J. Darnell Johnson
Photos courtesy of J. Darnell Johnson

Black sci-fi readers will delight to know that, along with The Opening, there’s a nice, thick anthology called Genesis (available at www.blacksciencefictionsociety.com) containing Johnson’s short fiction “Sit Com” in a collection of some 20-odd contributors, including women writers Lisa Bolekaja, Nicole Givens Kurtz and Elizabeth Camali.

J. Darnell Johnson comes highly recommended by an inarguably reputable source. “Drawing on the science fiction elements of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents, as well as the time-travel approach of Kindred, we get a new vision of the possible in The Opening, which is the function of all creative expression, after all,” says writer-educator (and former MSR editor) Shannon Gibney in a quote from the publicity materials.

Johnson (JDJ) gave the MSR an email interview to reflect on his work.

MSR: What prompted you to write science fiction?

JDJ: I have always been intrigued by science fiction as long as I can remember. I grew up in a time when there was a lot of sci-fi TV shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek, Lost in Space and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; and I was fascinated by them all.

It gave me an escape to impossible, but I always knew that it would someday be possible. It gave me ideas about the limitless possibilities of what man can do. It is as vast as the universe itself. So my imagination ran wild as I looked up into the night sky wondering in awe of its beauty and majesty. It gave me hope that I could one day travel great distances just to see what is on the other side.

MSR: Who — White, Black or otherwise — have been your influences?

JDJ: I really like the writings of the late, great Octavia Butler. She wrote about slavery by using a fantasy element of time travel in her book Kindred. She also wrote about Black characters and Black lives using a discovery of a new faith and theology in Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.

MSR: Why is there a need for such an entity as the Black Science Fiction Society?

JDJ: Because there is a black hole, if you will, or a void of support and closed avenues where Black people can come together to celebrate and acknowledge the achievements of other Black people who love the genres of science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, and horror from a Black perspective. It gives us a forum to nurture and encourage writers to write. It gives us access to resources that we have never had and an audience to of Black sci-fi fans who want to read our works.

MSR: What moved you write The Opening?

JDJ: After reading Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern edited by Ivan Van Sertima in the late 1980s, I was so intrigued. The book mesmerized me because the ancient knowledge of science was so high and almost [so] unbelievable that it almost sounded like science fiction.

There was a chapter about the Dogon of West Africa. They live about 200 miles from the legendary Timbuctoo. The Dogon are like astronomer-priests. They have known before telescopes were even discovered that Saturn had rings; they knew that almost all galaxies had a spiral structure like the circulation of blood within God. They knew that the moon was a barren world like “dried blood.” But what they are most known for are the stars Sirius A and Sirius B. They know their mass, radiation and orbits.

I used some of these elements to create The Opening. I just thought that the idea of a Black man from another planet, from an intellectually high civilization who doesn’t think his own civilization is good enough, search[ing] for a better life only to find himself on planet Earth, the antebellum South to be exact during the time of slavery, would be an excellent premise for my book.

MSR: How well has it been received?

JDJ: Everyone that reads it says that they like it because it is … different than anything that they have ever read. It gives them a glimpse of the possible from a Black perspective with a Black protagonist and a new/old world creation.

MSR: What are you working on at present?

JDJ: I am writing and putting my ideas together about discovering life under the ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa. I call it Africy.

The Opening is available in paperback or e-book at major online retailers. Books can be found at Ancestry Books 2205 Lowry Avenue North in Minneapolis. To place orders online go to Amazon.com or Lulu.com. E-book orders can be only be found on Lulu.com. The Genesis Anthology can only be ordered at BlackScienceFictionSociety.com.

 

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.