Subverting and Surviving: How Black Storytellers Remix Sci-Fi’s Racist History

Illustration: Atticus Freeman (L) and Letitia Lewis (R) by Afua Richardson‌

This piece originally ran on VanityFair.com.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft is considered one of the most influential writers of the science fiction genre. While his writings were not necessarily essential reading during his lifetime, his stories of a gaping, consuming cosmos that is unconcerned with the trials of humans have found a devout audience in the decades since his death in 1937. His work has influenced generations of writers and spawned video games, a two-city film festival, and even an entire religion known as the Church of Cosmic Indifference.

Unfortunately, Lovecraft was also a virulent racist whose work played an integral part in shaping Sci-Fi’s shameful legacy of imagining futures where Black people are either mortal threats or cease to exist. In Lovecraft’s worlds, the shoggoths are stand-ins for Black folks who seek to disrupt the order of things but are ultimately powerless in the face of the formidable White heroes. But Lovecraft didn’t limit his racism to his horror stories; his 1912 poem “On the Creation of Niggers” is about exactly what you think it’s about, and his letters reveal that he lived in fear of race mixing and advocated for lynching as a method for preserving “Caucasian integrity.” So it’s no wonder that the White supremacists of today have added rooms to the house that Lovecraft built, leaning into Sci-Fi as a conduit for recruiting via books like “Hold Back This Day,” a cautionary tale of White people forced to colonize Mars to escape extinction on Earth, which has been tainted by melanin.

Luckily, however, this is not where the story begins or ends. Many Black storytellers have been subverting racist tropes to create entire universes where Black protagonists fight both fantastic and mundane villains—and emerge triumphant and whole. The latest story that is changing the historically racist narrative of the Sci-Fi genre is Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country.

In the HBO series, the agents of racism that the protagonists encounter in 1955 Chicago and New England are scarier than the creatures they read about in their treasured pulp novels. Green summed it up well in an interview with The New York Times: “In horror, there’s a level of anxiety that your life can be taken at any moment. That’s the Black experience.”

Jordan Peele (L) Topsy (C) Misha Green (R) by Afua Richardson

The specter of Lovecraft and his work cast a suffocating shadow over the lives of the heroes, two Black families who unite to take back their power during Jim Crow. Lovecraft Country doesn’t just wrestle with the racism that undergirds the author’s work, it pins it down and exposes its skeleton, tangles its sinew, and rearranges its limbs to tell a story that forces the genre to be more expansive in its reach. Adapted from White writer Matt Ruff’s 2016 book of the same name, showrunner Green’s version reclaims space for Black people who have traditionally been excised from the genre. In this beautifully rendered world, generational hate takes violent aim, but empowered stars Atticus (Jonathan Majors) and Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) don’t just make their ancestors proud, they give them agency they never enjoyed in life. H.P. Lovecraft may have used his considerable imagination to cast Black people as semi-human beasts, but in Green’s Lovecraft Country, Black people get to be the heroes of their own stories. At every turn, they take a stand and shout that they are not only worthy of being here, but that they can be the new center of the universe both known and unknown.

But Green isn’t just creating a dynamic future for her characters—she’s moving the entire genre forward. In each episode of Lovecraft Country, she pushes Sci-Fi out of its silo, sampling its best bits and blending them with mystery and adventure to create an exciting remix. That willingness to disrupt also makes space for other Black creators; as showrunner, she empowered her team to believe in its own vision. In the end, that may be Green’s biggest legacy. Lovecraft Country is proof that magic doesn’t just live in racist books written decades ago, it lives in everyone who believes.

Here, we highlight other milestones that have birthed a new Sci-Fi legacy that not only centers the most marginalized among us but evolves the canon in ways Lovecraft could never have imagined.

1859: Abolitionist Martin Delany publishes Blake: Or, the Huts of America, a serialized novel hailed as the first. Sci-Fi publication from an African-American writer. The work of speculative fiction – which follows a formerly enslaved revolutionary determined to free and unite his people in an independent state–was released in a year that also includes Oregon’s admission to the Union with a state constitution that upheld racist exclusion laws. It’s also the year of white abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, which aimed to spark a rebellion and free enslaved Africans.
1940: The first Sci-Fi film written by an African American and starring an all-Black cast debuts. Shot on 16mm, the 70-minute project is now part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s collection in Washington, D.C.
1992: The first African American woman launches into space with six other astronauts and completes 126 orbits around the Earth. She credits a popular 1960s Sci-Fi television show as the impetus for her realized astronaut dream. The show broke ground when it as the first to cast a Black woman in a co-starring role.
1995: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation names Octavia E. Butler to its “genius” list, making her the first Sci-Fi writer to win the fellowship. Despite her contemporaries’ view that the only palatable way to talk about anti-Blackness was to invoke alien lifeforms, Butler was determined to create stories around Black women protagonists, and she deftly used the backdrop of Sci-Fi to explore themes rarely tackled by her white counterparts, including racism, slavery, gender identity, and sexuality. Few outside of true genre fans knew Butler’s work for years–some of her books didn’t even include her author photo. But her popularity saw a major jump after her death in 2006, and several of her books are currently being adapted for television.
2003: Janelle Monáe introduces her alter ego, arch android Cindi Mayweather, to the world via demo project The Audition. The 14-track album marked the beginning of a body of work that laid out a queer, Afrofuturist vision for revolution in a world that revels in oppression. Monáe has cited Octavia E. Butler’s Wild Seed as an inspiration to depict a liberator uprising.
2016: Writer Roxane Gay and Afro-Latinx veteran artist Alitha Martinex lead an all-Black women team in the creation of all five issues of Black Panther: World of Wakanda, which follows partners Ayo and Aneka as they train to be members of the King’s protection force, the Dora Milaje. They are the first team of Black women to helm a project in Marvel’s history and they won an Eisner Award in 2018 for Best Limited Series.
2018: The legacy of Black Sci-Fi writers is solidified when an African American woman becomes the only author in history to win the Hugo Award for best novel three times. This win is a victory against racist and sexist members of the Sci-Fi community who actively campaigned to freeze marginalized writers out of the awards. Despite being lucky enough to be recognized by her peers–and a massive fan base–during her lifetime, it took years to sell the first novel she wrote starring Black people. In a triumphant pivot, her latest book is a direct response to Lovecraft’s racism.