Science Fiction Visionary Samuel R. Delany on Music, Race and Memory

Tirhakah Love speaks to the renowned author and critic

As a singular catalog of black cognition, Afrofuturism has always couched escapism as a basic fundament. Flight – away from the hold of the ship, from the whip and the soil, from the prison cell, auction block and constraints of Western time – is inherent to the feeling of elsewhere conceived by Afrofuturists the world over. But with its history of semiotics patterned by black artists, and in many cases defined, at least anthropologically, by the white hipster class studying them, Afrofuturism has lived a life in ideological flux. Teetering between its popular manifestations and the genuine practice of contemplating a future where black people will sustain, Afrofuturism has grown so big it can hardly escape itself.

When I asked visionary author Samuel R. Delany about how his perch atop the science fiction lit section came prepackaged with the Afrofuturist designation, he was truly nonplussed, reminding us that his most realized identity is that of writer. “To me,” he said, “it seemed artificial and not very relevant for science fiction.” But, of course, the polymath has quite the proclivity for genre-infidelity. Having worked most prominently in the field of science fiction, and secondarily in memoir, dance, screenwriting and criticism, Afrofuturism cannot – and perhaps should not – envelope the whole of his work. But what does permeate his sensibility, his writing and his speech is a depth of memory: of histories both real and imagined, of lingual power articulated through abstraction and the amusements of his quotidian existence.

We begin, first, with the music – interestingly, the Second Viennese School – that animates his life, toil through the origins of Afrofuturism and discuss how, even now, his experiences in ’60s Harlem continue to breathe through his work today.

Samuel R. Delany - September 20, 1997 Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

How were you first introduced to the Second Viennese School?

In my music appreciation class in high school. We had one session on the twelve-tone system and listened to a scene of Wozzeck (Berg’s first opera), and I was just knocked out by its emotional expressiveness. I enjoyed the early tonal works by these composers (Webern’s Im Summerwind and Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder), as well as their rigorously atonal works.

Also, before that at the Dalton School, I played violin in the school orchestra, and relatively modern works were actually commissioned for our school orchestra. They were not atonal, but their tonalities were very simple, akin to pieces by Carl Orff.

What kind of emotions do you remember those musics pulling out of you? Have they evolved since then, in the way they might animate your daily life?

When I initially liked a song, such as Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heatwave,” which I heard walking along W. 4th St. one day in the summer of 1963, I was excited, and for me, it was really the start of the ’60s. Only a couple years back, I sent Martha Reeves a thank you note, and she sent me a thank you note back. But that’s about it. There was a while, when I first heard the Bee Gees’ song “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” I even thought about becoming a singer and had a group for a while, about which I have written a book, Heavenly Breakfast. But while I have made friends with the one person who has gone on to keep singing, Bert Lee, and the two other people in the group I am pretty sure have died, no, music doesn’t get that kind of response out of me today.

I thought I was going to do everything – be a musician, composer, psychiatrist, artist, writer, dancer, scientist.

Martha and the Vandellas’ music is still so underappreciated when it comes to that period, so it’s fascinating to think about the lasting impression they had on you. At a time when you had been consistently putting out work in the late ’60s, why was it so important for you to get into music? What was going on in the realm of sci-fi lit that may have led you there?

I started out much more interested in music than in writing – or rather I was interested in writing and music and acting and dancing; read my books Heavenly Breakfast and The Motion of Light in Water. I thought I was going to do everything – be a musician, composer, psychiatrist, artist, writer, dancer, scientist; one by one they were cut out, and I realized I needed more of this or that – training for music and dance, though I was choreographing. It finally ended up between music and writing. Eventually I decided whichever one made me the more money I would follow.

By the time I was 24 or 25 and had written and published six or seven novels, I decided to go with the one that had made me more money. Writing had made me between 1,000 and 1,750 dollars per book. Singing in the coffee shops of Greenwich Village had made me marginally more and also a more regular income. So for a couple of years (during which I also made a two hour radio play out of “The Star-Pit,” which was broadcast annually on WBAI-FM around Thanksgiving; Susan Schweers [Lee in Heavenly Breakfast] and I edited it and did the music – all played by Sue – and put it all together) I worked with Sue Schweers and finally lived with the Breakfast for six intense months, when Con Edison changed its billing policies with eight small recording studios in NYC, and the whole thing went bust: We went for our recording session to make our demo and found chains on the doors, so we decided to break up. And after a very rough time, I went back to writing. Not till Dennis [Rickett] and I found chains on the doors of the Capri Theater in 1995, where we went to enjoy sex with each other and with, in Dennis’s case, the stimulation of the pornographic movies they were once showing, did a governmental policy cut into my private life so greatly. Our sex-life more or less recovered on its own, until it faded out on my side with age. But we still live and sleep together. Eventually then the music cut out, and I decided better stick to writing and teaching, which I did till my retirement in April 2015 and a disastrous move to Pennsylvania, where I’d been teaching. I don’t know how that’s going to work out. I’ve got money in the bank, but I don’t know the most efficient way of getting it out.

Your short film, The Orchid, felt like one of these moments where your many talents/disciplines coalesced outside of writing. The polymathic, multi-hyphenated artist/hustler has been made into the ideal entrepreneurial posture in pop culture today. It feels anachronistic, just in the sense that queer, black, working artists have dipped and dabbled in disparate mediums since the beginning of the beginning.

But your work and stories, for many, stand as a beacon for innovative artists to contemplate the constancy of black, and other oppressed people, into the future. When talking about your work with friends, the term Afrofuturist often comes up. I’ve always wondered how you might engage with that term, or, perhaps, how your thinking around the term has evolved along with your work?

I wanted The Orchid to be much more racially integrated than it was. As it was, there were only three non-Caucasian folks in the mix, such as dancer Eddie Barton, who, I believe, is either mixed race or mixed race and Latino, who eventually died from AIDS a few years after the film. He was a professional dancer and was in the first cast of Godspell. One of the chorus members was my friend Grover Noel, and at the very beginning, when we were still selecting, several black women came and at least one other black man, who possibly was with her. The women all dropped out because they didn’t feel they could do nudity without it seriously endangering their careers. At the time, actresses other than Marilyn Monroe (and the pressure didn’t allow her to survive either, though she was a serious actress) found that the discovery of any nude work in the past was tantamount to being declared a prostitute, and so the cast, which could have been perhaps a third black, ended up with only four black people in it.

The third is my young first cousin once removed, Steven Savoy, who is now in his 50s.

That’s not what I wanted, but it’s what I had.

Though I’ve always thought of myself as a black writer, I’ve never thought of myself as an Afrofuturist. The term was invented, as you probably know, by a white writer, Mark Dery, who, in 1984, decided to interview Octavia E. Butler; Tricia Rose and Greg Tate, two African-American journalists; Bill Gibson, a white writer from Alabama but a very liberal-thinking young man, who, like Butler, had also been my student; and of course me, six years older than Bill, five years older than Octavia. In fact, I think I was the oldest in the group.

Race itself – by means of the Spanish term raza – means a great widespread family. It’s smaller than a nation but bigger than an extended family that’s defined by a patriarchal name and assumed to be mediated by heredity.

Octavia (who grew up in Los Angeles and was discovered by white writer Harlan Ellison, and whom I taught for a week at Clarion) and I had very different childhoods. I grew up in Harlem, but I went to school at an overwhelmingly white private school (Dalton) and then at the equally overwhelmingly white Bronx High School of Science. Although I am not sure, I believe Harlan discovered Octavia in a black writers group and brought her on with him to Clarion, which is where I met her and taught her. She was extremely, almost pathologically, shy when I first met her, although clearly she was very smart. After the class, she went back to LA, and I went back to New York City, where I had been living in the East Village in a mostly white context. My science fiction tends to reflect what was around me at the time I was writing it, not my first ten years of home life, although that is reflected now and then in it as well.

You’ve asked specifically how I interpret the term “Afrofuturism.” To me, it seemed kind of artificial and not very relevant for science fiction per se. Maybe you know my own essay “Racism and Science Fiction” (1998), which has been reprinted a number of times and more or less covers my own feelings. One of the things I said then in that piece, which some people have seen as prophetic, is that when the racial divide ceases to be a case of tokenism and actually reaches the proportions of, let’s say, 20%/80%, so that a successful black writer such as myself is not like a successful performer or sports star but represents instead a correlation between a group that traditionally has to work harder to be noticed at all and an otherwise minority, then you will see overt examples of racism raise their head; and we did a couple of years ago with the Sad Puppies phenomenon, which was actually talked about in newspapers and magazines such as The New Yorker. We’ve just had a black woman win the Hugo Award four times in a row, with a number of others, and historically it comes on top of Octavia’s being the only black science fiction writer to win a MacArthur award. Because a MacArthur commands so much more attention (as well as money), it produces more than its share of envy and upset.

The sad truth is that all racial rhetoric is racist, not because of what it specifies but because of the social situations that have made it necessary to specify those distinctions in the first place and what makes them different from other more benign distinctions, such as freckled, ginger, or nearsighted. Race itself – by means of the Spanish term raza – means a great widespread family. It’s smaller than a nation but bigger than an extended family that’s defined by a patriarchal name and assumed to be mediated by heredity. This is why the 1866 Birthright Citizenship Act gave you citizenship because you were born in this country, not because you were related to someone who was a citizen. Although it was passed in order to subdue the southern states, politically it was still quite revolutionary, and we’ve still not entirely adjusted to it – though I’m certainly all for it.

I too, have some issues with Afrofuturism’s usage. I always found it odd that Dery and others would place the Afrofuturist tag on an author like Butler, as a lot of her work scans more nostalgic to me. It feels like science fiction makes room for that kind of posture but Afrofuturism – perhaps because of the racial rhetoric you mentioned – feels a bit narrower. But I also find that folks who are working within an Afrofuturist praxis are driven to excavate the inherent racism of the term. It’s been a long time since the “Racism and Science Fiction” essay was written and it doesn’t seem like much has changed (granted, I’m a relative outsider, so please correct me if I’m wrong) but from your view, have spaces like Readercon done more to, in your words, “build a certain social vigilance into the system”?

I wanted to also think about nostalgia again here. First of all, just having read so much of your previous conversations and lectures, it seems to me you have a notable recollection of your own memories, and want to know, rather simply, how? I do not mean to come off as disrespectful, but I’m genuinely curious about it because it seems you have the dates, times, locations and all who was there on hand and I just don’t think our memories – due to the speed of information flow and shortening attention spans – are really built for that anymore.

And finally, you mentioned in a previous conversation that you write from the life that is around you when you walk out of your front door. Is there still life out there that you’re called to document or to speculate? Has that calling shifted for you?

I tend to stay indoors these days, days at a time, so I don’t see the life on the street. Unless I’m specifically invited outside to see it, it passes me by, and I’m stuck for my politics with YouTube replays on You don’t come off in the least disrespectful. I’m a great believer in Theodore Sturgeon’s motto, “Ask the next question.” I just don’t know if questions about what I take from off the street provide much of an answer.

I never really found Readercon any more racist than any of the rest of science fiction – probably a good deal less so because the convention was restricted to people who read. As I’ve said, the rhetoric of race itself is racist, and until that vanishes or becomes an aesthetic distinction, that’s going to be the case.

Fredric Jameson says that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, and that, of course, is the real problem. As long as we live in the kind of capitalist world we do, I think we’re probably stuck with the notion of races, but I think it is also becoming more and more aesthetic with a few old fogies like me recalling the social origins of the whole situation. I don’t know whether you know my aunt’s book Having Our Say, but having grown up very close to that family, there was no way I could escape it. Hubert T. Delany and Wiletta had no children of their own, but their adopted children feel like Delanys. It’s one of the things that inspired me to write Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand.

As far as memory is concerned, I have the memories of my childhood friends in central Harlem and, later on, at the edge of Harlem in Morningside Gardens. The latter was a highly integrated community; the former was the all-black blocks that most people thought of when they thought of Harlem – not the Harlem Heights of Columbia University (which was just down the street from Morningside Gardens). It’s a family that’s always paid attention to itself and talked about itself, and those memories are pretty firmly entrenched. My mother’s side of the family was much the same way: My maternal grandfather was the chief Red Cap at Grand Central Station in New York and worked directly with A. Philip Randolph and, during some of his early travels, became friends with Paul Laurence Dunbar when both of them worked as elevator boys in the Callahan Building, before he came back to New York to marry my grandmother and have their four daughters (one of whom, Baby Sara, died in infancy). If you want a sense of that, take a look at my biography on my website: There’s a lot of backward-looking stuff, and there’s a lot of forward-looking stuff from someone who considered himself a leftist, small ’m’ Marxist, by the time I was in my teens, and had broken with the church at 13 by refusing to be confirmed (though up until that time, I’d been a choir member and an altar boy).

By Tirhakah Love on July 12, 2019

On a different note