I would never argue that our film and narrative leads haven’t become more diverse, if by diverse we mean that we’re seeing a rise in females. However, even that admission comes with the caveat that leads in these narratives are still overwhelmingly male. That’s an entirely different essay I could write, however today I’m focusing on the African American lead in science fiction. Let me create a new list for you, and I promise this one will be far more brief.
Men In Black
After Earth

I tried, I really did, to conjure up as many black leads in science fiction as I possibly could. I’m not talking about side leads. There’s always a Lando Calrissian that plays a side lead to Han Solo or Luke Skywalker. These roles are far more abundant for African Americans, and include heroic duties for a black actor, but never as the central role. General Stacker helps the hero Charlie Hunnam in Pacific Rim; Morpheus helps Neo in The Matrix; Lt. Uhuru serves under Captain Kirk in Star Trek; Mace Windu serves the Jedi Counsel in Star Wars, but the stars are Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. As the central character, though, African Americans rarely take the lead. The only exception is for Will Smith, in a phenomenon literally known as “The Will Smith Exception”, in which Hollywood finds him bankable and acceptable enough to white audiences to place him in the lead. This problem of color in leads exists in other media as well. Literature is more diverse but still dominated by white heroes. Television shows with science fiction bents either place black actors into the side roles or, worse, allow for only one strong black lead at a time. The Walking Dead is a perfect example of that last phenomenon, as the introduction of a new black male character to the show always signals the death of the previous one.

Science Fiction and Fantasy has been my genre of choice since I was a child. I also had the good fortune to be raised in a diverse environment and while I’m definitely aware of privilege and my built in advantages due to my complexion, I have tried to be an active part of my community. As a resident of Houston, Texas, I live in what is arguably the most diverse population in America. Indian food is as easily available as Nigerian, while the local population of whites and Hispanics still make up a sizable portion of the city. However, diversity doesn’t always equal access.

Houston is diverse, but it’s also incredibly divided. A central part of town, Midtown, is known for its combination of enjoyable restaurants, slightly overpriced living, and of course its drinking scene. That same drinking scene has led to report after report of discrimination when black patrons have tried to enter these bars. ‘Saggy’ pants is a common reason given for why a black American isn’t allowed inside, even if the pants are designer jeans and no saggier than the white person that just got into the bar. The level of division is strange to the degree that I could mark for you the street where Midtown divides into ‘black’ bars from ‘white’ bars. However, that same sense of segregation was something I found as a doctoral candidate at the university. In my years there, I met only a single black candidate that was also in the History program.

Why raise these issues of barriers to African Americans in a piece aimed at science fiction? Well of course, context is everything. I originally joined the program because I am a writer and feel my greatest impact is not in doing research, but in how I communicate. I tell tales, spin yarns, weave webs, and whatever other cliché you want to use to describe writing. Recently, I made it an issue to get my novel published, FLOOR 21. When I did that, I made a conscientious decision: My lead will be black.

To which some might ask, why? Do I have an agenda? Yes, I have an agenda. At this stage in my life, almost all my friends are black. Some are from Nigeria, some are from Liberia, and some are from good old American states like New York, Rhode Island, Louisiana and Texas. These are people I’ve spent time with at graduation parties, celebrating birthdays, sharing business success with, or toasting to over drinks. So, to answer what my agenda was: to give greater representation to blacks in the one field I love most, science fiction.

And so was born Jackie. Writing, as they teach you at the highest level, is about identifying your audience. I had a certain, ‘teenage’ voice born from a slate of films that fall from the ‘twee’ genre to more popular high school escapades like Juno. However, this voice was also based on people I knew, such as the younger sisters of ex-girlfriends I remembered. In the end I created a character that fit my personality, an amalgamation of diverse influences. Jackie was black in a post apocalyptic world, enjoyed playing baseball and basketball, was a mild genius as the daughter of two brilliant scientists, and desperately introverted due to her hard upbringing. I liked Jackie. I loved her, really.  So did a lot of other people.

Then came the day I released my artist rendition of her. I was formerly a comic artist and so I typically try to draw scenes from my book. In the climactic final battle of the book, Jackie, dressed fully in her baseball uniform and padded by body armor, battles a creepy monster born from people’s nightmares. It’s a great closer and a scene I was really happy with. The drawing came out excellent, and all was well.

Except not for those people that seemed to have missed the idea that Jackie is, indeed, black. Not that I spent tons of time trying to describe these elements, since I believe overly long descriptions of characters’ physical appearances to be boring. But her description was no less brief that that of other characters, and if nothing else, the description of her family should have clued in readers that Jackie was actually African American, if America still existed in the world of the book.

So, of course, while most people were fine with the character choice, there were those questions:
“Is she really black?”
“Why did you make her black?”
“Are you trying to be politically correct?”
“Don’t you think that makes it harder to identify with her?”
“She doesn’t sound black.”

The statement “She doesn’t sound black” is one of the most ear grindingly, soul crushingly, terribly irritating statements on the planet. My last girlfriend, a graduate of A&M and a reporter, complained constantly of being told by older friends and some family that she talked white. She complained that white people made condescending comments growing up about being well spoken. Even some current acquaintances of hers made the comments that she didn’t ‘sound’ black, a refrain I’ve heard other of my black friends complain about to this day.

For me, the objective was to create a character. She had a certain color of skin because I had an agenda, but that choice should say nothing about what she sounded like, what her interests were, what she enjoyed to do with her free time, how intelligent she was or her capabilities of being a hero. Fortunately, the negative comments I got back were disproportionate to the praise, but there’s always this niggling thought in the back of my head. Say, one day, the book were to sell so well that it became a movie. Would I have people not realizing Jackie’s black and trying to cast white people into the role? Would this become a situation of white washing, with a person of color being replaced by a white lead? That situation has happened in movies such as A Tale of Earthsea, Celopatra, Prince of Persia, 21 and Avatar.

I don’t know. That’s such a distant hypothetical that to me, it’s not worth wondering about. This is my first book to be published, I’m damned proud of it, and I hope that I can contribute to opening the doors to greater diversity in the lead roles of science fiction. Of course, science fiction by its nature is speculative, so for now I’m okay for settling with the statement, “Only time will tell.”  But then again, even my ability to say that might just be a result of my privilege. So instead I should say that we need to be asking for greater diversity in film and media together.