Today’s guest post is by Sami Schalk, author of the new book Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction.
It is a good time to be a black nerd—a blerd, if you will. The past few years have seen increased appearances of not only black characters, but entire black speculative worlds, worlds where we are not merely sidekicks, but heroes and heroines. From Netflix’s Luke Cage and Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out to Ryan Coogler’s record-shattering hit film Black Panther and Ava Duvernay’s just-released A Wrinkle in Time, we are in an incredible moment for black speculative film, television, and literature. I use “speculative” here, like I do in my new book, Bodyminds Reimagined, as an umbrella term for non-realist representations, including science fiction, fantasy, horror, and magical realism. For a long time, African American literature and film were heavily burdened by the need and desire for positive, realist representations of black people to combat a legacy of influential racist stereotypes. As I discuss in the introduction to Bodyminds Reimagined, available for free here, positive, authentic representations for black and other oppressed groups are often assumed to only occur through realism, like life-writing and historical dramas, but increasingly more writers and filmmakers are experimenting with how speculative fiction and film can also provide empowering representations of marginalized people.
Black Panther represents an alternate version of our world in which the people of Wakanda, a secret African nation that went into hiding to protect its supply of vibranium from the colonizing world, have developed their own advanced technology and culture. In this cinematic universe, based on the comic book series of the same title, the Wakandan king, T’Challa, serves as the Black Panther, protector of Wakanda, and is given extraordinary physical abilities through a mystical heart-shaped herb. Throughout the film, T’Challa relies on his genius younger sister Shuri, princess of Wakanda, who develops and improves vibranium technology, and an army of strong black women, the Dora Milaje, who are led by General Okoye. In this speculative world, black people are leaders and inventors as well as farmers, warriors, and spies. Black Panther reimagines the meaning of blackness and womanhood as well as the roles and expectations for black men and women. Importantly, the film provides this reimagining in conjunction with political messages about the history of colonization while also remaining firmly in the superhero genre—full of dramatic fights and chase scenes required of any superhero movie. While black, disabled, and feminist authors of speculative fiction, like Octavia E. Butler, Samuel Delany, Nalo Hopkinson, and Nnedi Okorafor have been creating politicized non-realist texts which center marginalized characters for years, Hollywood is now beginning to catch up, learning to combine diversity and politics with superheroes, science fiction, and other non-realist genres.
The move to reimagine race and gender identity through speculative fiction and film continues in the new film A Wrinkle in Time, originally a 1962 award-winning speculative fiction novel by Madeleine L’Engle. The book was initially rejected dozens of times, due in part, the author speculated, to its divergence from genre norms at the time, such as featuring a female protagonist. In its current adaptation, A Wrinkle in Time casts a black girl in the lead role of Meg Murray and other characters are also played by women of color. In the film, Meg, along with her friend and younger brother, bend time to travel the universe in order to find and rescue Meg’s scientist father who has been missing for four years. While not as explicitly political at Black Panther and created for a younger audience, A Wrinkle in Time nonetheless reimagines race and gender norms by creating a smart black girl character who must learn to love herself as she is, using her knowledge of physics and love for her family to become a hero.
What is missing from the race and gender diversity of these recent black speculative worlds, however, is disability. In Black Panther, while we see some bodily and age diversity among the tribal leaders, we do not see disabled characters except for the villain Ulysses Klaue who has a prosthetic hand—a representation that aligns with the trope of disability as a symbol or cause of evil. In A Wrinkle in Time, although there are messages about self-love (especially for black people, women and girls) embedded throughout, from Meg’s self-consciousness about her naturally curly hair to Oprah Winfrey’s character Mrs. Which rhetorically asking “Is there such thing as the wrong size?”, disability makes no appearance in the film. Further, in Black Panther CIA operative Everett Ross is shot in the spine but is completely healed by Wakandan technology. This choice suggests that disability has been eliminated in Wakanda. In Chapter 3 of Bodyminds Reimagined, I discuss the role of disability and technology in representations of the future, particularly in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable series. There I explain that western visions of the future are typically disability-free futures, like that suggested in Black Panther. Despite the fact that advances in human technology are often used for violence and war (especially against people of color) and despite the fact that technology increasingly allows people to live with more severe and varied disabilities than in the past, we continue to hold onto the ideal of a technologically-created able-bodied, able-minded future in which disabled people cease to exist. The belief in and hope for such a future or fantasy world is based on ableist notions that disabled lives are inherently worse than non-disabled lives and that disabled people do not contribute to the world in important ways.
The lack of positive disability representation (that is, disabled characters who aren’t villains, especially ones played by actually disabled actors) in the increasingly diverse world of speculative film demonstrates that there is still more work to be done. In Bodyminds Reimagined, I analyze how black women writers reimagine the possibilities and limits of bodyminds by creating complex, interesting, and powerful representations of disabled characters. With the release and success of films like Get Out, Black Panther, and A Wrinkle in Time, it seems that speculative film is beginning to catch up the speculative fiction in terms of race and gender, but not as much in terms of disability. By highlighting the role of disability alongside race and gender in black women’s speculative fiction, I hope that Bodyminds Reimagined contributes to this powerful moment in black speculative representations so that perhaps in the Black Panther sequel and other future films, we might see the kind of engagement with and embrace of disability identity that we have begun to see around blackness and womanhood as well.