Past Tense

Isabel Schechter tweeted a comment by N. K. Jemisin from a Wiscon panel

No stories about black folks doing time travel @NKJemisin -why would any sane black person want to go back in time? #SFFWOC #Wiscon

A rhetorical question, naturally. Of just the kind fans can’t resist answering.

There are a number of time travel stories featuring black characters – however, nearly all of them revolve around exactly the dangers Jemisin has in mind. The most famous of these is Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

The authors usually want to explore racism and slavery and pick a historical setting to trigger that issue.

In a few other cases, an author has sent a black protagonist back to a time where the assumptions are more favorable

Averted in S.M. Stirling’s Nantucket series: Capt. Alston, an African-American Coast Guard officer, is assumed, by the Bronze Age people she encounters, to be a respected Nubian warrior chief. Of course, many presume she is a man until convinced otherwise.

5 thoughts on “Past Tense

  1. From memory, Robert Silverberg’s Up The Line has a black time-traveller who does pretty well.

  2. Leaving aside the assumption that time travel is only backwards, and the implicitly-answered question “why would any sane person want to go back in time?”, an obvious answer to Jemisin’s question is “because the past is much deeper and broader than the 15th-20th century Western Hemisphere”.
    Iberia in the 8th and 9th centuries CE would seem like an interesting destination.

  3. Wilson Tucker’s 1970 novel, “The Year of the Quiet Sun” involves an African-American protagonist (his race is concealed for the first part of the novel), involved in a time-travel research project into a future scarred by violent race wars.

    But I also remember a short story that I read in an 1940s issue of Astounding, author and title forgotten, which also painted a downbeat picture of U-S race relations. A time traveler from the future manages to actually strike up a conversation with a housewife in the Midwest, and even convince her that he’s a time traveler. They’re having an interesting conversation about the future, but things go terribly wrong when she puts two and two together, and realizes her visitor is biracial. That apparently violates the natural order of things, and she shoots him. At least, that’s how I remember the story. Can anyone help me identify this one?

    Those two gloomy examples aside, I think there would be periods in African history that would be well worth visiting, and not all doom and gloom for people of color. And even in a country like the U-S, with its history of racial discrimination, there are moments of real achievement featuring people that would be well worth a time traveler’s time to meet.

  4. I can’t resist mentioning John Jakes’ Black In Time (Paperback Library, 1970). Not a great book by any means and never reprinted, but I love the title and the fantastic Steele Savage cover painting. The cover blurb: “A black militant, a white supremacist, and a time-travel device tangle in a fight to rewrite history and eternity!”

  5. The 1632/Ring of Fire series has Dr James Nichols and his daughter Sharon, but averts this trope somewhat: The racism in the series is aimed mostly at “down-time” Germans, or in the various national prejudices of Europe, not at the highly-respected “American Moorish doctor” whose services kings and princes vie for.

Comments are closed.