I Couldn’t Have Imagined This: Black Woman Wonder and Why We Need More of It

Written by L. M. Davis

February 1, 2023

#BlackGirlMagic. #BlackBoyJoy. In the year of unnecessary Avatars, 2023, we are all familiar with these concepts. If not, I hope you soon cast off whatever rock has been crushing you and get into the spaces that these notions have opened and the new lens they have provided for writing about, thinking about, and imagining Black lives and experiences.  To this category that is, at its core, a rejection of the notion that Black lives are wholly circumscribed by the varieties of suffering—frequently via oppression—that we endure, I would introduce another concept: Black Woman Wonder.

I recently watched The Man Who Fell to Earth, the 2022 expansion of the universe created in Walter Tevis’s 1963 sci-fi novel of the same name.  One episode in and I was thinking “this is a lot of fun.” By the end of the series (and it is the end because unfortunately, as of this writing, there will be no second season), I was absolutely enamored.  This was in no small part due to some terrific performances, especially Naomie Harris’s embodiment of Justin (Jussie) Falls.  Harris brings so much to her role as a daughter, a mother, and one of the most brilliant scientific minds of her generation. But among all of these—the grief, the love, the hope, the exhaustion—it’s the wonder for me.   (Spoilers ahead, though I will do my best to keep them to a minimum). 

Naomie Harris. Photo by Aimee Spinks/Aimee Spinks/SHOWTIME – © 2021 SHOWTIME NETWORKS INC. All rights reserved.

When Jussie first appears, she is a harried mom, rushing between day labor working with waste materials, raising her precocious daughter, and caring for her dying father.  Her existence is hard scrabble; she’s barely eking out enough each day to buy her father’s medications let alone take care of all of her other financial responsibilities.  It’s a story that is not unfamiliar to a lot of Black women, a kind of experience that might crush even the strongest and most resilient of us.  And Jussie is—just a little—crushed.  The struggle of getting through each day has almost made her forget her former life as a quantum-fusion scientist on the brink of a world-changing discovery. 

When Jussie agrees to play a role in K. Faraday’s (the central figure of the series, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) mission, this all changes.  In Episode Three, “New Angels of Promise,” K. Faraday reveals to Jussie the reason why he has come to Earth.  He shows her the prototype for a quantum fusion device that has the potential to save his world and hers.  When Jussie sees the device, which fits in the palm of K. Faraday’s hand, she has a whole, entire moment (literally, at one point in the scene, she tells Faraday that she “needs a minute”). The subsequent wave of emotions that Harris takes us through as an audience is enough for us to require a moment for ourselves. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor& Naomie Harris. Photo by Aimee Spinks/Aimee Spinks/SHOWTIME – © 2021 SHOWTIME NETWORKS INC. All rights reserved.

First, there is awe, which is more than just rote amazement at possibilities signaled by the tiny device.  Jussie’s awe is intrinsically tied to the experience of seeing her vision made real.  The same vision for which she has been mocked, maligned, and called a failure for as a result of past mistakes, the same vision that she has given up on and resigned to the garbage heap, is all at once right in front of her eyes.  The second emotion is excitement, which has Jussie firing off questions at a mile a minute to learn the capabilities of the device and the science behind it.  The last emotion—perhaps euphoria, perhaps rapture, perhaps elation—is less easily quantifiable, but is enough to bring a tear to both Jussie and this viewer’s eyes. The combination of the three create this moment of wonder, which becomes this beautiful undercurrent infusing the entire series.

Wonder, while perhaps related to the joy that we have learned to search for in Black lives, is categorically different both for those who experience it and those who are fortunate enough to witness it.  Black joy, at least in the ways that it is commonly understood, is snatched from the gaping, sharp-toothed maws of all the mechanisms seemingly designed to rip us to shreds and then swallow us whole.  Black Joy is beautiful and intense, in part, because it stands firm in the face of that. Black Woman Wonder, on the other hand, transcends that dialectic altogether.  Black Wonder is not in spite of or because of any relation to oppression.  Black Wonder is vision. Black Wonder is possibilities. Black Wonder is the essence of Afrofuturism distilled into an emotional experience. Black Wonder is a touch of the sublime.   

Chiwetel Ejiofor& Naomie Harris. Photo by Aimee Spinks/Aimee Spinks/SHOWTIME – © 2021 SHOWTIME NETWORKS INC. All rights reserved.

In a world that gives us reason after reason to be wary and weary—even in our “escapist” science fiction and fantasy—we rarely get to see a Black woman in awe of the possibilities in the world, in the future, in herself.  For that reason, Jussie Falls’ continual access to and experience of wonder throughout The Man Who Fell to Earth is both refreshing, powerful, and dare I say wonder-inducing.[1] Witnessing a Black woman, even a fictional one, experiencing wonder is a very necessary reminder that our lives can be wondrous and something both more than we have ever imagined and also what we have already foreseen. And I, for one, need more of that. In fact, we all do. 

[1] It’s the same experience that many had to episode seven of Lovecraft Country, “I Am,” that has Aunjanue Ellis’s Hippolyta traveling through multiple dimensions, times, and lives on the ultimate journey of self-discovery; or at the first unveiling of Wakanda in Black Panther (2018). 

 L. M. Davis is a speculative fiction author who writes about shapeshifters, aliens, immortals, and witches. Her novels include INTERLOPERS, POSERS, FORGERS, and skinless. Her writing has appeared in PASTE MAGAZINE and on BlackSci-Fi.com. She is the writer and director of the award-winning short film, “Fevered Dreams.” Currently, she is working on several projects including two novels and multiple ventures for television and film. 

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