20 legendary Black science-fiction authors you need to know

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Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, and Essays (Cover image via Library of America)

Charles W. Chesnutt

In post-Civil War America, matters of race and ethnicity were as central to someone’s identity as they were before. People seemed primed to endlessly argue who should get what rights, what identified a person as “Black” or “white,” and how to build communities of color.

For author Charles W. Chesnutt, those matters were complicated by his appearance – which, to many, was that of a white man – with his family history. His parents, Ann Maria and Andrew, were “free persons of color.” Chesnutt, who acknowledged that he had white ancestors, consistently identified himself with the African-American community throughout his life. Given that he lived through the post-war Reconstruction Period and the cultural movements of the early 20th century, this was a significant choice. Besides his writing, Chesnutt also became a social activist, a prominent lawyer, and a leading member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

For all of that work, Chesnutt is still best known for his writing. Before he published any of his novels, Chesnutt produced The Conjure Woman, a collection of related short stories. In this work, published in 1899, two white characters hear stories from Uncle Julius.

Don’t think that Julius is a friendly Uncle Remus or a docile Uncle Tom, however. His stories focus on powerful ex-slaves who are skilled in conjure work, often drawing on magical realism to put the tales together. Chesnutt’s fantastical stories have a real-world mission to condemn plantations, undermine racist stereotypes, and depict Black agency through a fantastical, quasi-science fiction lens.