A Racial “Crystal Gems test”

I was reading locuas642′s Crystal Gems omnibus test for representation of women, and thought back to proposals for Racial Bechdel(-Wallace) tests.

Deggans’ rule recommends the following:

  1. At least two non-white human characters in the main cast…
  2. …in a show that’s not about race.

Alaya Dawn Johnson’s test goes like this:

  1. It has to have two POC in it,
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something other than a white person.

Ars Marginal posted the following test:

  1. At least one named character of color,
  2. Whose primary trait is not their race,
  3. Who does something important besides help a White person.

I also have an interest in whether such a character has a narrative arc of their own, as well as pushing the discussion beyond just 1 or two POC characters in a cast. Some who have discussed the Mako Mori test have criticized how the test is not usually utilized in relation to Mako Mori being a POC character as well as a woman. Basically, I would like to see the conversation about POC in fiction be elevated beyond mere quantity of representation to include the quality of representation.

So here’s my draft of a Racial Crystal Gems test:

  1. A work must have at least four POC characters.
  2. It must pass Deggans’ Rule;
  3. It must pass Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Racial Bechdel-Wallace test;
  4. It must pass the Ars Marginal test;
  5. At least one POC must have a narrative arc of their own, which is not about supporting a white person (literally the racial Mako Mori test);
  6. At least one POC must be meaningful enough to the plot that removing the character would have a significant effect.
  7. Each [major POC] character must pass at least one of these tests, and each test must be passed by at least one [major POC] character; the more times you can repeat the previous step, the better.

Strictly 4 My Blerds

Here’s an idea, perhaps for fanfiction: bring all the best-known African-American nerds and geeks from television, film and comics together under one roof. To solve a mystery, to find love, to save the world (or some other planet, like America), to go Hunger Games on each other, to break out of a dystopian neighborhood/school together, to do a heist of somebody’s dream, I dunno.

I just want to see all the black nerds (blerds) and geeks to get together in an alternate universe. For once, they won’t be sidekicks and best friends, but the center of the story.

I’ll flesh this out more later.

Video games in public libraries

I was just thinking about what else that public libraries could host as a service of information to the public. Libraries now serve books, CDs and DVDs, yet libraries still face budget cuts due to lower patronage in the Internet era.

What else can libraries offer that would be appreciated by the public?

I think video game discs and cartridges are the next big information medium that should be hosted at the library. Thankfully, just as I was starting on this post, I came across a CNN column from last year which stated the exact same thing

But rather than the good-for-funding angle that Ruben Navarrette brings up in his column, I think that hosting video games would fulfill one of any public library’s core functions in the community: providing access to information by lowering the profit motive from the equation. 

Granted, public libraries have been historically established to provide public access to knowledge, and they have done so (for all ages and levels of education). But at some point, fiction became a section of the typical library that was updated with ever more modern titles, and such titles are as entertaining as they are sources of knowledge (however trivial or vital they may be to the reader). Fiction media in the library was extended when films were donated on DVD and VHS to the typical library (for taking home or to watch in a private booth). 

So why not extend the service of fiction media access in the library even further? Video games, as engaging of the body as they are, are also (often) works of fiction. From a cinematic standpoint, video games allow the player to be visually immersed in the story being depicted (as much as they fuse cinematics and visuals with ludological participation). 

It would do for the fusion of cinematic and ludological entertainment what the earliest public libraries did for book-bound knowledge: take out the profit-making wall from the bridge between the public and the information which they seek to consume. Libraries can provide access to these works of “fiction” without the profit motive. 

Libraries don’t have to specifically focus on physical books, and neither do they need to chuck those books from the shelves. Books, eBooks, PCs, CDs, DVDs, Video game discs – they can all coexist in a venue built for the people’s sensory fulfillment. 

Let’s have more video games and video gaming rooms in public libraries. 

SADC and thoughts of a Bantu Republic

The Southern African Development Community looks like the perfect root for an African superstate.

Linguistically, the states of SADC (and most of the states of Central Africa and the Great Lakes region) are largely populated by speakers of Bantu languages, including KiSwahili, isiZulu, chiShona and kiKongo. This common linguistic heritage, spread out over such a vast geography and its natural resources, could reasonably lend itself to a state which governs over a third of the continent.

BantuRepNoBordersPolitically, a Bantu superstate would be the most visible representative of the African continent to the international community. It would also reduce the visibility of internal ethnic rivalries and any specific exploitable natural resource (such as oil, minerals, etc.).

Finally, it would be the best way for an African state to ably exit all of the many post-colonial federations such as the Commonwealth and La Francophonie, while using the government and diplomatic apparatus to highlight and export a more uniform amalgam of Bantu culture and language to the world, especially to the African diaspora in the Americas.

Let’s call it the Bantu Republic, or Azania.

Steamfunk, Sword-and-Soul and Afrocentric Fantasy

While reading about Black characters and authors within the speculative fiction genres, I came across two terms: “Afrofuturism” and “sword-and-soul”.

I was more familiar with the first term, at least in reading about how African-descended writers incorporated vivid and challenging mishmashes of aesthetics and cultural experiences into their science-fiction writings, including Samuel Delany and the late Octavia Butler. But the latter term – “sword-and-soul” – was something less familiar to me, but it appealed to me a bit more.

Sword-and-soul?” As in, “sword-and-sorcery”, but with Black people in it, set in Africa?

Then I searched into it, found several articles which helped to explain what is meant by sword-and-soul: “fantasy fiction which involves African/African-descended people and their mythologies in the same way that ‘sword-and-soul’ revolves around people of European descent and their mythology.”

This intrigues me. Finally, a term for the type of fantasy fiction I was looking for, even though the genre has only been revived and expanded from just one writer – Charles Saunders – to an entire publishing label – MVmedia – thanks to an Atlanta-based professional chemist and part-time writer, Milton Davis, who has taken strategic advantage of the e-book era to publish Afrocentric SpecFic.

Finally, we have “sword-and-soul” as another fiction genre to geek out over!

Steamfunk and the Question of Continuity

While we’re on the subject of Black SpecFic, I looked at the subgenre of “steamfunk”.

Again, it’s similarly set in the “steam” era of the 19th and early 20th centuries, just like the pseudo-Victorian “steampunk”.

But that’s it, though. Unlike the striking visual difference between Sword-and-soul and Sword-and-sorcery, the art used in current works of Steamfunk largely harkens to Steampunk’s Victorian-era European aesthetics. Why?

Instead, shouldn’t there be a continuity between steamfunk and African-themed sword-and-soul?

I cite Nickelodeon’s Avatar franchise for its setting in a pan-Asian fictional universe. The first series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, takes place during an earlier period that’s wedged somewhere within ancient/medieval (“sword-and-sorcery”) Asia with a bit of steampunk mixed in at certain points. The second series, The Legend of Korra, takes place 100 years after the Avatar, in a world that is between steampunk and dieselpunk, but still within a very pan-Asian setting and with harkenings to the “past” of sword-and-sorcery.

I think the way that Nickelodeon’s Avatar franchise handles this historic continuity from the medieval to the steam era within a thoroughly pan-Asian fictional universe is a model that can be followed for an “Afrocentric” fictional universe. Avatar, which I guess could be described as “sword-and-chi”, has a sense of alt-history chronology and technological succession that those who write Afrocentric SpecFic really need.

Simply placing Black characters in pseudo-Victorian-era garb, or medieval armor, is not enough. Let’s start with the aesthetic of Sword-and-Soul and work our way forward.

Sword-and-Soul in Fantasy Art

Finally, when talking about aesthetics, I feel that Fantasy Fiction Artworks, especially works which are commercialized, are seriously lacking in the inclusion of People of Color (PoC). The artistic depiction of sword-and-sorcery themes, at least here in the U.S., are typically steeped in medieval European culture and aesthetics. But I think there is precedent in works like Avatar for the medieval aesthetic to be shaken up and made more diverse.

The issue raised by the Racebending.com initiative against the “whitewashing” of lead characters in Nickelodeon’s Avatar franchise brings to mind just how non-diverse that modern fantasy fiction tends to be, or at least the commercial challenge faced by artists and writers of fantasy fiction which is affirmatively diverse in skin color. Avatar is perhaps the most groundbreaking Western-authored fantasy fiction franchise in terms of PoC inclusion, as the story universe of the franchise is set in a highly-inclusive pan-Asia-Pacific setting, pulling together anagramic ethnicities, languages, kingdoms, topologies, geographies, climates, skin pigments, clothing, cuisine and so on from the entire continent and almost all ends of the ocean.

With its ongoing realization of a newer pan-mythos from the entirety and vicinity of Asia, Avatar and other similar franchises have ship-tons-plenty of written history and mythology to draw from.

Unfortunately, as a PoC of African descent, I feel incredibly jealous for this pan-Asia-Pacific setting. I don’t feel that Africa, as a continent, lends as well to such an expansive pan-mythos as does Asia or Europe. Africa doesn’t have the the sort of geographic or climatological expanse that is endemic to the Asian continent, nor does it have the heritage of written language which is endemic to both Asian and European peoples, nor do its peoples – including our ancestors – have the best experience or history of relaying their own mythological, spiritual or artistic canons on their own terms, nor do Africans have the history of mass settlement outside of the continent like Europeans (the slave trade still constitutes the primary historic source of the African diaspora in the Americas).

Hence, for developing a fertile space for fantasy art and fiction, African-descended artists and writers who are conscious about PoC inclusion have more of a reason to improvise and derive. I guess that’s where Sword-and-soul kicks in.

On the Internet

These galleries provide good sources for PoC-affirmative fantasy fiction, and I’ll add more links in the future:

And MVmedia, Milton Davis’ publishing label, is the premiere house for Sword-and-soul fiction. Please check it out.

My Fantasy African-American Children’s TV Block Lineup

To date, I have not heard of anyn African-American-oriented television network (BET, Bounce, Aspire, TV One, or Song of the South) having a children’s television block.

I find it rather sad that there is a dearth of African-American lead characters in children’s, teen’s or YA television, or at lest not enough to fill a morning or afternoon block on these television channels, particularly because of a lack of presence for characters to which young African-Americans can relate, or be inspired, or find character narratives which they can follow with avid interest. 

But really, if television channels which talk of catering to an African-American audience are not building a gallery of titles aimed toward children within this mandate, then what room does any person have to bemoan the state of self-esteem among African-American youth, or of education, or of culture?

So I’m posting this list to raise awareness of television series which should be considered for inclusion in any of these channels’ hypothetical, nonexistent children’s/teen’s blocks:

  • Static Shock
  • Gullah Gullah Island
  • The Famous Jett Jackson
  • That’s So Raven
  • Corey in the House
  • A.N.T. Farm
  • Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids
  • The Proud Family
  • Little Bill
  • True Jackson VP
  • Men in Black: The Series
  • Gargoyles
  • Mister T
  • The Super Globetrotters
  • The Jackson 5 Cartoon
  • Class of 3000
  • Reading Rainbow

And heck, I’ll even throw in an import from South Africa: URBO: The Adventures of Pax Afrika, as well as an obscure, realistic-without-being-offensive web series titled Blokhedz

I purposefully exclude the following:

  • live-action “family” sitcoms which only focus on the goings-on of a family (there’s plenty of those nowadays). 
  • animated sitcoms which are aimed toward an adult audience, content-wise (i.e., The Boondocks and The P.J.’s).
  • animated action series which are aimed toward an adult audience, content-wise (i.e., Afro Samurai and the short-lived Black Panther)

After those are excluded, one has too look through much of the post-1970 history of animated and live-action children’s television just to find such shows as listed above. Maybe those who take the depiction of African-American lead characters seriously might use the above viewing list as a starting point. 

The Unprogrammable: The border between “Simulation fiction” and “simulation fantasy”

Since first watching the Digimon: Digital Monsters series in 1999, I’ve been fascinated by the appealing science fiction and science fantasy behind the series.

But with growth in the application of virtual/augmented reality since that time, the number of works of fiction which dramatize virtual/augmented reality has greatly expanded.

One thing I’ve noticed is how a growing number of anime series are set in the drama of players logging into and playing inside MMORPGs. Most often, these series are intended as vehicles for the accompanying MMO franchise, while others are more interested in dramatizing the impact of the MMO – and the means by which the MMO is accessed – impacts the players’ offline lives and relationships.

But it is in this setting that one can find an interesting two-fold phenomenon:

  1. even though a debatable majority of MMORPGs like those depicted in these anime series are “fantasy”-oriented, the series themselves rarely lend themselves to what would quantify as “fantasy” plotlines; and
  2. it technically would not take much for such an anime series to cross the threshold to a “fantasy” plotline, only needing some event or manifestation which does not arise from, but interferes with, the MMO setting.

As far as genres are concerned, the specific niche occupied by works like Sword Art Online, Log Horizon, the .HACK series, Accel World and others which have straddled the fence between fantasy/sword-and-sorcery and science-fiction genres should be allowed to occupy their own specific genre of fiction. These works involve the trappings of sword-and-sorcery fantasy, except that they take place on a real-world-located server or network of servers which allow for programmed (and programmable) “acts of magic” or defiance of the laws of physics to take place.

At the same time, the configuration-centric and usually gameified mechanisms of the virtual world may serve as the means of propulsion and motion for the plot, the presence in-world of artificial intelligence with self-operative autonomy and the means of accessing magic adds a degree of unpredictability and complexity which pushes this niche away from too much of an overriding real-world basis.

It is this combination of a virtual world hosting a sword-and sorcery setting with autonomous AI which makes the border between “simulation fiction” and “simulation fantasy” such a seemingly-random, but critical border.

Breaking it down

With the above, I’m saying that we should understand and appreciate this border within our fictive depictions of virtual reality.

Through works of simulation fiction, we understand that MMORPGs demonstrate the capacity of our ability to program fictional universes of our own making into a virtual existence, to have control over how a virtual universe operates and affects the players, and – in the instance of our losing control over the functions of this universe through bad code or security flaws – how we try to correct errors in the universe through the coding of solutions or the “patching of the hull” of the MMORPG universe.

But through works of simulation fantasy, we could entertain the thought that MMORPGs could have moments in which an agent or event can manifest inside the MMORPG environment without originating from an outside player or being coded as an NPC, agents which are not programmed nor programmable by human fingers but which will affect the human players in mysterious, indelible ways.

And we could entertain the fact that a work from the former genre transforms into the latter as soon as that non-programmed agent, that uncontrollable force, enters the picture.

It could be an alien, or a highly-evolved and suddenly self-aware AI, or even a ghost of a dead player?

What else would potentially constitute the “unprogrammable” in a programmed environment?