Dark Matter

A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora


By Sheree R. Thomas

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This volume introduces black science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction writers to the generations of readers who have not had the chance to explore the scope and diversity among African-American writers.


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Early one morning, in a fictitious Southern town, the residents are frightened by what they cannot see. On a sparse stage, under a sign marked STORE, Clem and Luke exchange pleasantries. As time passes on this hot summer day, Clem becomes curious, then alarmed. Something in the landscape has changed. Then Clem speaks, the "something" slowly dawning on him.

"Where is the Nigras?"

It is a query that no one can answer. All the blacks have vanished. The only ones remaining are the sick and shut-in, the ones who cannot work. The mayor mobilizes the Citizens Emergency Distress Committee in a vain effort to calm his nameless town—now paralyzed without its black labor force.

When the first black returns twenty-four hours later, he is unaware of the chaos his absence has caused. When asked of his whereabouts, he "don't rightly know." Before the curtain falls, Rastus shuffles away with a slight smile on his lips, leaving Clem and Luke to search alone for answers.1

In an article that appeared in the New York Times shortly after the Day of Absence debut, Obie Award–winner Douglas Turner Ward described himself as "a Negro playwright committed to examining the contours, context, and depth of his experiences from an unfettered, imaginative Negro angle of vision."2 With these goals in mind, it is interesting that he would choose as his first play to write a speculative work that centers on black absence. In Day of Absence, a highly satiric play, Ward doesn't give Clem, Luke, his audience, or his readers any explanation; however, I think one could say that for a brief moment, Rastus and the other black townspeople were "dark matter."

dark' mat"ern: a nonluminous form of matter which has not been directly observed but whose existence has been deduced by its gravitational effects.3

One of my goals with this introduction is to explain why I have chosen to use "dark matter" as a metaphor to discuss the speculative fiction of black writers and their contributions to the science fiction genre. What is "dark matter"?

After observing the motions of galaxies and the expansion of the universe for the past five decades, most astronomers believe that as much as ninety percent of the material in the universe may be objects or particles that cannot be seen. This means, in other words, that most of the universe's matter does not radiate—it provides no glow or light that we can detect.

Research suggests that dark matter may be Jupiter-sized objects, black holes, and/or unimagined "exotic" forms of matter. Scientists believe that the amount of "visible" matter in the universe is not enough to account for the tremendous gravitational forces around us. First theorized some sixty years ago by astronomer Fritz Zwicky, this "missing" or "invisible" matter was believed to reside within clusters of spiraling galaxies. Today astronomers and astrophysicists prefer to call the missing mass "dark matter," because it is the light, not the matter, that is missing.4

Because no one has yet found a method for detecting the components of dark matter, the theory is debated within the scientific community. As more talent and vision is brought to the field in this new century, perhaps someone will be able to answer definitively, What is dark matter? In the meantime, I will entertain a few speculative theories of my own.

Why "Dark Matter"

In his 1953 collection of cultural criticism, Shadow and Act, Ralph Ellison cautioned readers not to stumble

over that ironic obstacle which lies in the path of anyone who would fashion a theory of American Negro culture while ignoring the intricate network of connections which binds Negroes to the larger society. To do so is to attempt a delicate brain surgery with a switch-blade. And it is possible that any viable theory of Negro American culture obligates us to fashion a more adequate theory of American culture as a whole.5

By the same token, an examination of African diasporic speculative fiction from the past century may shed new light on both the sf genre and the mainstream literary canon. In the past there has been little research in this area. Like dark matter, the contributions of black writers to the sf genre have not been directly observed or fully explored. For the most part, literary scholars and critics have limited their research largely to examinations of work by authors Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler, the two leading black writers in the genre. Currently there is a considerable body of scholarship dedicated to the work of these formidable authors, and there is room for yet more. However, both sf and mainstream scholarship have overlooked or ignored the contributions of less well known black writers. It is my sincere hope that Dark Matter will help shed light on the sf genre, that it will correct the misperception that black writers are recent to the field, and that it will encourage more talented writers to enter the genre.

Before I began the research for Dark Matter, I had several goals in mind. The first was simply to introduce readers who have never had the pleasure of reading science fiction to a few of my favorite authors. I am speaking of the writers whose words kept me reading in the genre, writers whose visions reflected and critiqued my own culture and inspired me to write on my own. I drew up a second list of non-sf writers—"mainstream" writers whose work, I thought, certainly incorporated speculative themes and perspectives.

After I began my research, however, I realized that there was more to this genre than met the eye. As the call for submissions was shared throughout the sf and black literary communities, and the postcards—then envelopes, then manuscripts—began flooding in, I was humbled by the response. And just as I had hoped, the critical pieces began to arrive. When I finally spoke with author Charles R. Saunders, who had virtually "disappeared" (as far as the U.S. sf community was concerned) into the far reaches of Canada, Dark Matter began to take on a new shape in my mind. Later, while I was attending the six-week science fiction writing workshop at Clarion West in Seattle, a manila envelope arrived from him. He had forwarded me a photocopy of "The Comet," the W. E. B. Du Bois short story published in the 1920 collection Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. Dark Matter had acquired critical mass.

With W. E. B. Du Bois now in view, my original vision for the collection broadened. My new goal in compiling this collection was to offer readers an enjoyable entrée to the diverse range of speculative fiction from the African diaspora and to encourage more talented writers and scholars to explore the genre. By uniting the works of the early pioneers in the field with that of established and emerging new writers, perhaps the necessary groundwork for the discussion and examination of the "unobserved" literary tradition has been laid.

Dark matter as a metaphor offers us an interesting way of examining blacks and science fiction. The metaphor can be applied to a discussion of the individual writers as black artists in society and how that identity affects their work. It can also be applied to a discussion of their influence and impact on the sf genre in general. While the "black sf as dark matter" metaphor is novel, the concept behind it is not. The metaphor is neither farfetched nor uncommon if one considers popular themes within the black literary tradition. An excellent example is Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1945), a novel that introduced the idea of black invisibility. Ellison's "battle royale" scene and the ending in which the alienated, invisible narrator sits alone in the basement is classic sf.

Five years after the publication of Ellison's novel, Ray Bradbury published "Way in the Middle of the Air," a short story that appeared in The Martian Chronicles (1950). Like the black residents in Douglas Turner Ward's Day of Absence, the black citizens in Bradbury's story disappear—or, more accurately, they leave. While the blacks in Ward's play return without explanation, those in Bradbury's story escape to Mars, presumably never to be seen again. Twenty years after Ellison delivered his stylized portrait of one black man's invisibility, Douglas Turner Ward's play examined this auspicious invisibility and extended it to an entire community. These works consider the impact and influence of black life on society. In each story, the absence or presence of black life is an unknown value until the end. By applying dark matter to the discussion of the sf genre, I think it will become clear that black writers have been offering distinctive speculative visions to the world far longer than is generally thought.

Blacks as Dark Matter

As the dynamics of trade relations began to change during the African Middle Ages, the continent became the source of endless speculation.6 The visions of monstrous men and anthropophagi that had filled St. Augustine's descriptions of sub-Saharan Africa were not expelled until other Europeans such as Scotsman Mungo Park "penetrated the interior of Africa."7 In the European tradition "blackness," an extension of Africa, is often thought of as a resistant force, racially charged matter that must be penetrated—thus the descent into darkness.

In 1899 Joseph Conrad published The Heart of Darkness, a work that has inspired perhaps more sf stories (and criticism) than any other work of fiction.8 Premier genre critic John Clute writes that this twentieth-century classic's "grueling odyssey into the unknown, and its vision of the Otherness of alien life, has captured the imagination of sf writers ever since." In this description the "unknown" element alluded to is the African continent or, more specifically, the Belgian Congo of 1890; and "the Otherness of alien life" is the Africans themselves.

A century later, the phrases "heart of darkness" and "Dark Continent" continue to conjure up images of primordial blackness in our minds. (Ironically, Freud used the term "Dark Continent" to refer to the female psyche, but it is of blackness that contemporary minds think.) Blackness has exerted a power on the international racial psyche that is fantastical, perhaps more so than the dark, malformed monsters of St. Augustine's day. People have always been frightened by what they cannot see—and the specter of blackness looms large in the white imagination.

On the subject of blackness, race, and the imagination, critic and novelist Adam Lively writes:

From the "fantastic voyage" narratives of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, through the exotic imperial romances of the nineteenth, and up to the science fiction of the twentieth century, imaginative literature has been a means—like any mythology—of mediating between the domestic and that which lies at and beyond the limits of knowledge.9

Long before The Heart of Darkness, the imagination had acted as an instigator of historical change. Africa became the "unknown" and blackness was equated with the "Other." Two hundred years of slavery said so. And as these thoughts became institutionalized and codified, first in the form of slavery and later in the imaginary lines of political maps that documented the scramble for Africa, the people behind the "blackness" receded into the background. They became dark matter, invisible to the naked eye; and yet their influence—their gravitational pull on the world around them—would become undeniable.


Sheree R. Thomas

January 2000


Honorée Fanonne Jeffers


Right that moment when we climbed from the hot mud there was light. There wasn't any darkness, there was light. All light. And no rib, at least not with me. I don't even eat meat, even after all of it.

Me and that man were twins, born together, and that's why he wanted me next to his skin even after I left him, even after I didn't want him anymore, and him not letting me leave with my own child.

I felt Adam's heart start to beat at the same time as mine. The dirt was warm, we were swimming with first grace, and then we opened our eyes, let go of each other's hands. Blinked in the light. We were cold. Didn't know we were naked, but we knew we were cold. I didn't know his name, and didn't know what he had looked like all that time 'cause my eyes were closed. So I opened my eyes for him, and I thought he looked pretty good just to be getting here. Skin darker than our mud and rippling when he moved this way and that. And his eyes lit on me, smiled, and that's how I knew I was beautiful. I heard, "He is Adam. She is Lilith." And that's how I knew my name.

I heard soft rumbling. Sky streaked with red. "You are woman. He is man. You are together. Alone." And that's how I knew we were married. And the sun and the moon came up together and there were flowers under a tall tree and we lay down and we came together and we were swimming around each other again and we were finally warm and there was light light light light light light light.

Now all of a sudden, I'm bleached, I'm bone, a Jane-come-lately. All I see on those pages is God and Snake. Adam and his concubine. I just got to say that if a trophy wife was what he wanted, he sure got one. Somebody made him the most beautiful girl in the world, all right. And all that noise about her two sons. That is my blood on Cain's skin when he came into this world. I got the best of Adam. She got the rib out of an old man, my leavings.

How long? Time flies when you're young, married, and in love. It's always that way at first with any man. He's sweet when you're new and tight. Can't do enough for you, pick enough fruit and vegetables for you, stand on his head until his eyeballs roll, just for you. The loving five times a day, talking that sweet way all up in me. Everywhere. In the water, in front of the animals. And it was good. That one hundred (or was it two hundred?) years went by just like that.

He used to talk to me about my size all the time. He would say, "Lili, you just as little and soft and pretty as one of those doves flying 'round this tree." He would say, "I could pick you up with one of my fingers. You one sweet baby doll." Sometimes he would scare me a little when he would come in from the animals smelling a little funky and growl in my ear, "Boo, Miss Lili." Yeah, he scared me because muscles are trouble. They give the mind a sense of what can be taken. I only liked to pretend. I didn't really want to be an animal, just during season, always from behind.

After them one hundred—or was it two hundred? I can never remember—he still wasn't used to anything. Still went around grabbing all the time, picking up things for show. It was cute when we were newlyweds, but after a while—please. I could have said, "Adam, you so strong. Let me feel that big ole bump on your arm," but who has time for that? I'm a plainspoken woman. Always have been from the time my tongue moved. And I had a child to worry about by then. So I just grunt and keep on. And then when he plunk right on top of me for five minutes, I mean, what can you say to that?

They come up to me in a group one day. That bum rush of angels wearing white double-breasted suits. I knew not to trust them then. It wasn't fourth Sunday, so why all the white?

Of course, Adam was nowhere to be seen. Satan up front looking like a preacher about to pass around the collection plate twice. The man was too pretty. I guess that kind of perfection is supposed to be an asset, but it wasn't natural. You could tell there wasn't a mark anywhere on this man's body, just a smooth gold all over.

Satan took a step forward from his men. "Sister Lilith, We got us a situation here, " He said. "It seems Brother Adam is a bit discontented, and we all thought you should know." Now, this is the first I heard that my man was having problems with me. I knew how I was feeling, but didn't know it was going both ways. It hurt that somebody else was telling me my own business. Hurt more that my man was gone while I was being told. But here I was, pretending that I was walking right along with Satan. I wasn't going to give that angel the satisfaction of catching me out.

"Sister, Brother Adam says for the last century or so, things ain't been like they was." Then, from underneath one of his wings, he pulled out a white handkerchief and mopped his forehead. It wasn't a degree over seventy that day. He tucked his hankie out of sight, smoothed back his hair, and then he commenced. I should cook more fancy dishes for Brother Adam. Listen more attentively to Brother Adam's stories about the animals. Then Satan pushed his nose right into my bedroom. "You know, Sister Lilith, men really appreciate enthusiasm in the romance department. Why, a cooperative mate makes all the difference!" He didn't even have the decency to be 'shamed of himself. Thought he was being natural.

I looked Satan right in his face, asked him, "Did 'Brother Adam' tell you he don't help around the house none? That he don't pay no attention to little Cain? That he don't never ask me about my day or my stories? He tell you he don't even bother to kiss me before he come in jumping all up on me to 'cooperate' with him? I bet he don't tell you none of that, does he?"

The rest of them started looking around like they ain't never seen trees and sky before. Looking anywhere but at me. It didn't take a genius to figure out whose idea this little field trip was. Satan smiled all the wider and licked his perfect teeth so they got shiny. Kind of rolled back and forth on the balls of his feet. "Now, Sister Lilith, a lot is riding on you and Brother Adam. This concern is not only mine, this comes straight from the Top. Do you know what I'm saying here?"

"Yes, I know what you're saying, and it don't matter Who this come from. The truth is just what it is and you can take that back on up with you when you go."

Right then, the rest of Satan's crew made a noise together and stepped back and left him alone standing right next to me. He clucked his tongue at me the same way I did when Cain was having a tantrum. Like he was calm and I wasn't. "Sister, sister, I understand. I do. And I want you to know that I'm on your side. We all are. Listen, just meditate on it with me right now is all I ask." He closed his eyes and bowed his head. After a few moments, he peeped up at me and saw I was looking at him with my neck right where it always was. So he turned around, fluttered his wings all showy, then flew straight up in the air, with the rest of them following right behind.

It gets to the point where you see the path so clearly in front of you. And what and who remains is you and your child. A little piece that's always going to be yours, a little somebody all you got to do is love, and he gives you every little thing you need. Pretty soon, your womb don't move for nobody but your child.

The world was so small, I didn't worry about Adam. Back in those days, you could spit from one end of my universe to the other. I knew I was older than Adam in a lot of ways, but figured he didn't have nobody but me and Cain, and just how long could a man stay gone? A few months, a few years? Sooner or later he had to come back to me. He had to. And one day he did come back with that scar on his side.

I should have known Satan couldn't leave nobody's well enough alone. I guess that's why I ain't got a name right now. I been here forever in this place, and I know what I'm talking about. Been to hell and back and know the touch of scales on my finger. Been here longer than Adam and that woman lived. No, she ain't no wife. I don't care how long she was around, how many children she had. She ain't never going to be wife. It was me and I'm still here to prove it. Been here, longer than my child, and that's hard.

Can't go nowhere except looking at everybody and this little bit of land I got. A few flowers and a vegetable garden. Even got an apple tree—ha! All I got forever in this world is to be a watcher.


W. E. B. Du Bois


He stood a moment on the steps of the bank, watching the human river that swirled down Broadway. Few noticed him. Few ever noticed him save in a way that stung. He was outside the world—"nothing!" as he said bitterly. Bits of the words of the walkers came to him.

"The comet?"

"The comet—"

Everybody was talking of it. Even the president, as he entered, smiled patronizingly at him, and asked: "Well, Jim, are you scared?"

"No," said the messenger shortly.

"I thought we'd journeyed through the comet's tail once," broke in the junior clerk affably.

"Oh, that was Haley's," said the president. "This is a new comet, quite a stranger, they say—wonderful, wonderful! I saw it last night. Oh, by the way, Jim," turning again to the messenger, "I want you to go down into the lower vaults today."

The messenger followed the president silently. Of course, they wanted him to go down to the lower vaults. It was too dangerous for more valuable men. He smiled grimly and listened.

"Everything of value has been moved out since the water began to seep in," said the president, "but we miss two volumes of old records. Suppose you nose around down there—it isn't very pleasant, I suppose."

"Not very," said the messenger, as he walked out.

"Well, Jim, the tail of the new comet hits us at noon this time," said the vault clerk, as he passed over the keys; but the messenger passed silently down the stairs. Down he went beneath Broadway, where the dim light filtered through the feet of hurrying men; down to the dark basement beneath; down into the blackness and silence beneath that lowest cavern. Here with his dark lantern he groped in the bowels of the earth, under the world.

He drew a long breath as he threw back the last great iron door and stepped into the fetid slime within. Here at last was peace, and he groped moodily forward. A great rat leaped past him and cobwebs crept across his face. He felt carefully around the room, shelf by shelf, on the muddied floor, and in crevice and corner. Nothing. Then he went back to the far end, where somehow the wall felt different. He pounded and pushed and pried. Nothing. He started away. Then something brought him back. He was pounding and working again when suddenly the whole black wall swung as on mighty hinges, and blackness yawned beyond. He peered in; it was evidently a secret vault—some hiding place of the old bank unknown in newer times. He entered hesitatingly. It was a long, narrow room with shelves, and at the far end, an old iron chest. On a high shelf lay two volumes of records, and others. He put them carefully aside and stepped to the chest. It was old, strong, and rusty. He looked at the vast and old-fashioned lock and flashed his light on the hinges. They were deeply incrusted with rust. Looking about, he found a bit of iron and began to pry. The rust had eaten a hundred years, and it had gone deep. Slowly, wearily, the old lid lifted, and with a last, low groan lay bare its treasure—and he saw the dull sheen of gold!


A low, grinding, reverberating crash struck upon his ear. He started up and looked about. All was black and still. He groped for his light and swung it about him. Then he knew! The great stone door had swung to. He forgot the gold and looked death squarely in the face. Then with a sigh he went methodically to work. The cold sweat stood on his forehead; but he searched, pounded, pushed, and worked until after what seemed endless hours his hand struck a cold bit of metal and the great door swung again harshly on its hinges, and then, striking against something soft and heavy, stopped. He had just room to squeeze through. There lay the body of the vault clerk, cold and stiff. He stared at it, and then felt sick and nauseated. The air seemed unaccountably foul, with a strong, peculiar odor. He stepped forward, clutched at the air, and fell fainting across the corpse.

* * *

He awoke with a sense of horror, leaped from the body, and groped up the stairs, calling to the guard. The watchman sat as if asleep, with the gate swinging free. With one glance at him the messenger hurried up to the sub-vault. In vain he called to the guards. His voice echoed and re-echoed weirdly. Up into the great basement he rushed. Here another guard lay prostrate on his face, cold and still. A fear arose in the messenger's heart. He dashed up to the cellar floor, up into the bank. The stillness of death lay everywhere and everywhere bowed, bent, and stretched the silent forms of men. The messenger paused and glanced about. He was not a man easily moved; but the sight was appalling! "Robbery and murder," he whispered slowly to himself as he saw the twisted, oozing mouth of the president where he lay half-buried on his desk. Then a new thought seized him: If they found him here alone—with all this money and all these dead men—what would his life be worth? He glanced about, tiptoed cautiously to a side door, and again looked behind. Quietly he turned the latch and stepped out into Wall Street.


On Sale
Dec 2, 2014
Page Count
448 pages