20 legendary Black science-fiction authors you need to know

2 of 21

Martin Delany

Though a fair number of authors included on this list are firmly situated within the 20th century, Black science fiction is by no means a brand-new thing.

Martin Delany was, to keep it short, a lot of things. But, keeping this part of his story short doesn’t really do the man justice. Born in 1812 in the United States, Delany was a free Black man whose mother, Pati, moved him and his siblings from Virginia to Pennsylvania in order to keep them free. It wasn’t just the fact that Delany’s father, Samuel, was still enslaved that caused the flight, but also because Pati had dared to teach her children to read and write. For Black people, that skill was illegal in Virginia during that time.

Delany grew up, trained as a physician’s assistant, started publishing his own newspaper, became a well-known abolitionist, and eventually the first Black Field Officer in the U.S. Army.

Prior to the Civil War, Delany traveled to Africa. He was looking for land that would serve as a new nation for African-Americans who wanted to travel back to continent of their ancestors, if not the exact nations or tribes. Delany had already concluded that even white abolitionists couldn’t fully help Black people or separate themselves from racist systems. A separate nation, therefore, was the only solution.

So, where does the science fiction come in? Starting in 1859, Delany published serialized portions of Blake, or the Huts of America, a utopian separatist novel (it wouldn’t be published in one volume until 1970). It follows Henry Blake, a revolutionary escaped slave who travels throughout the U.S. and Cuba in an attempt to organize a large-scale rebellion. The depiction of an active, intelligent, and driven Black man was in strong contrast to more docile characters of the time.

The final chapters of Blake have been lost, so we’ll never know for sure if Delany showed a successful rebellion. But, knowing what we know about the author’s views, it wouldn’t be surprising if Blake was triumphant. The plot of the novel is so dramatically different than actual history that 20th-century sci-fi author Samuel R. Delany (no relation) argued that this is a work of alternate history, a close cousin to science fiction.