Happy Black Speculative Fiction Month, y’all.
Since I was a kid, Black sci-fi and fantasy have nurtured my imagination to fill it with wonder, creativity, and some clever turns of phrase. As an adult, I am grateful that there is a plethora of Black sci-fi and fantasy works to enjoy across mediums, from films to poetry to novels.
In fact, I was so moved by Black sci-fi and fantasy impact on my young mind that I paid tribute to certain folks in my poem “Black + Nerd = Blerd.” To celebrate Black Speculative Fiction Month and my return to Black Sci-fi as a contributor, I am looking back on ten of my most influential Black speculative media.
1. Cinderella (1997)
Starring the late great Whitney Houston and the fabulously talented Brandy Norwood, this version of Cinderella rocked my world as a kid. Brandy’s Cinderella was gorgeous, imaginative, and innocent in a way I didn’t know a Black girl could be. Meanwhile, Whitney’s fairy godmother was the Black auntie and mother figure I always wanted. A comforting line from this film is, “You wanna know what her problem is? She can’t handle how fabulous you are!” Combine the star power of these two with an equally fantastic supporting cast and cinematography, and you have a timeless classic.
2. Static Shock (2000)
Created by Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, Derek T. Tingle, and Christopher Priest, Virgil Ovid Hawkins, aka Static, brought a shock to my system in the ’00s through this animated series. Here was a Black, nerdy teenage boy with electromagnetic powers who dealt with everyday problems alongside supervillains. A special thing about this show is that it featured topics like racism, the loss of a parent, and homelessness without talking down to its viewers. It also featured Static working alongside cool characters like the African superhero Anansi and DC Comics superheroes like Batman and Robin.
3. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
Sometime during the early 2010s, I wandered to the back of my local library where the sci-fi and fantasy books were kept and randomly pulled out this book. I turned the book to the back cover, saw the author was a Black woman, and immediately decided to check out this book without hesitation. At this point, my imagination had been saturated with white fantasy authors like Tamora Pierce and Margaret Weis. To find a fantasy book with a Black female author was empowering, especially after being captivated by its lead heroine, Yienne Darr. This book was my introduction to Black sci-fi and fantasy, and I’m eternally grateful that it exists.
4. Agents of The Realm by Mildred Louis
Originally a webcomic I first read in 2014, Mildred Louis’ Agents of The Realm was the diverse, queer, magical girl comic I never knew I needed. Inspired by Naoko Takeuchi’s classic magical girl manga Sailor Moon, this comic stars a Black female college student named Norah Tanner. While walking home, she finds a mysterious amulet and is attacked by a monster on campus the next day. Using the charm and some unexpected help, Norah becomes an Agent of The Realm and must balance college life with a magical destiny. The artwork and lettering in this comic are great, the lore is rich, and the character interactions are mature and heartwarming. While this comic is on hiatus, the first two volumes can be purchased in paperback form on Mildred Louis’ website.
5. Life On Mars by Tracy K. Smith
Reading and writing poetry has been an important part of my life since I was a teenager. Yet I never knew poetry could take a speculative bent until I read and reviewed Tracy K. Smith’s poetry collection Life on Mars. With poems discussing topics ranging from the poet’s father to David Bowie to the connection between the universe and everyday life, this poetry collection filled my heart and soul with stars in 2016.
6. Niobe She Is Life by Sebastian A. Jones, Amandla Stenberg, Ashley A. Woods, Darrell May
I have always been about that fantasy fiction life, fam. Dragons, fairies, elves, you name it. You can imagine my delight when I first read the graphic novel Niobe She Is Life and met the Black half-elven girl Niobe Ayutami for the first time. This book is a powerful coming-of-age tale of a young woman coming to terms with her magical mixed-race heritage and potential. This book made me fall in love with the Asunda comics universe, which gets bigger with every new series.
7. The ArchAndroid by Janelle Monáe
Back in 2013, I came across Janelle Monáe wearing a pompadour and suspenders in an issue of TIME magazine. Between her outfit and the feature article that discussed her eclectic music palette and something about time-traveling androids, my interest in her music was piqued.
Listening to the album The Archandroid for the first time was cinematic, as I could see the story of Cindy Mayweather unfolding in my mind’s eye. Although I wasn’t the hugest sci-fi fan, I felt drawn to Cindy at that time as someone coming to terms with my worth, my relationship to race and ethnicity, and my stifled queerness. Five years later, the album would be my muse for my affirming poem “I Sing The Lady Electric,” which would be published in the summer 2018 issue of Fiyah Lit magazine.
8. Pieces In Space by Sammus
Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, aka Sammus, took on the moniker of the sci-fi video game heroine from Metroid and used it as a lens to speak her truth through some dope hip-hop albums. Released in 2016, Pieces In Space has Sammus exploring what it means to become her own hero as a Black girl taking up space in nerd culture. Discussing topics ranging from sex positivity to mental health to colorism and hyping herself up all the while, this is an essential album for Blerds everywhere.
9. We Are All So Good At Smiling by Amber McBride
This novel, in verse, uses poetry to tell the story of Whimsy, a Black girl and hoodoo conjurer who loves fairy tales and has clinical depression. Many years ago, she was touched by Sorrow when her brother Cole disappeared in a magic forest, and she vowed never to enter it again. One day, Whimsy meets Faerry, a Black fae boy who shares struggles and fears similar to Whimsy’s. As they get to know each other, they discover that the forest and Sorrow that haunts them must be faced head-on.
Using myths and folktales ranging from Hansel and Gretel to Mami Wata as a powerful allegory for navigating depression, this book showed me that it is possible to have mental health issues and still be magical.
10. A Wrinkle In Time (2018), Directed by Ava DuVernay
Adapted from Madeline L’Engle’s novel of the same name, this film tells the story of Meg Murray, a young girl who goes on a quest to help find her missing father. While I have my nitpicks about this film, it means the world to my Black, depressed, bullied teenage self who needed to know that they could be someone worthwhile. When Oprah Winfrey’s character Mrs. Which asks Storm Reid’s Meg, “Do you realize how many events and choices that had to occur since the birth of the universe, leading to the making of you just exactly the way you are?” I felt this in my core.
Latonya “Penn” Pennington is a Black-Asian genderqueer freelance contributor and poet. They’ve written a plethora of pop culture criticism at sites such as Popverse, Into More, Comics XF, and many more. As a poet, they’ve been published in places such as Black Sci-fi’s Scribes of Nyota, Fiyah Lit magazine, and The Daily Drunk. Check out more of their work on their website Words From A Penn.