starlady: (do i dare disturb)
[personal profile] starlady
 The following is a very partial set of notes from the "Race and Star Trek" panel that I saw at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia last night, moderated by Betty Laurence. I didn't take notes on every topic that was covered; things that are attributed to the speakers are a mixture of quotation and paraphrase, mostly quotation. I've tried to contextualize things with brackets--feel free to ask for clarifications and I'll do my best to answer.

Early in the panel Laurence showed the audience a picture of her grandfather and great-uncle and her grandfather's 1885 diploma from The Franklin Institute for Mechanical Arts, as it was at the time.

AB: In terms of the world, where do I exist? can't talk about Philadelphia without context. I don't exist if he [SD] didn't write, if Betty's grandfather didn't graduate from the Franklin Institute in 1885. The reason that I'm there [in Trek] is contextual. The more important question is who we are as human beings, what we come from .

Avery Brooks played Paul Robeson in a play in the 1980s.

SD: Paul Robeson needed special dispensation from Columbia Law to attend--students would stamp their feet when he talked so that he couldn't be heard, with the professor's approval. Discourse at the time that black people aren't human beings--it was like having a goat in the classroom, the students felt someone was playing a joke on them.

According to SD, Robeson pulled the ringleader of the foot-stompers aside after class and told him that if he kept doing it, he [Robeson] would punch his lights out, which put an end to the foot-stomping.

AB: So few people know that SD is one of the most famous sf writers in the world, that Octavia Butler is one of the most famous sf writers in the world. Context is everything.

Laurence asked what they would change overnight, if they could.

AB: The place we call sf, in which we talk about extremes of possibility--what would I change overnight, that I would--no, I can't answer that.

SD: I'd change people's idea of what race is. Biological conception of race made things much simpler. Discovered genetics, we realized race is not genetic but an effect--geographical, cultural, social. [Note: Maybe also 'affect.'] But this means it can change--race today isn't waht it was 50, 100, 200 years ago. Intellectual shortcut of an explanation --> heredity. If people say lack of genetic basis makes things simpler, they're out of their gourds.
Culture is changing constantly, which is one of the reasons it's so hard to talk about.

AB: James Baldwin and people like that said culture is everything--the sum of our vicissitudes. The sum of who we are is manifest in everything we do.
Race and Star Trek is an oxymoron if you think about it--it's an abstraction. We can talk about television! Both things are imagined, so that's how we might talk about them.
I can't answer that [what it means to be the first black commander in Star Trek]--if I was that deep I wouldn't have to go to work at Paramount. The question about race is projected, and then you complete the thought. Not that it's the first, but that it has meaning. The challenge of being a man, a single parent, of trying to find some way to stay in love with the human race--I can answer those questions.

SD: Baldwin said "There are no white people." Whiteness and blackness are both projections, and whiteness is something people aspire to when they see someone they recognize as black. I always thought that was kind of witty.

What can be done?

SD: Acknowledging our complexity? Being a parent was a wonderful experience, especially since I'm a gay man, and gay men rarely have children, so I got the best of both worlds. Trying to teach my daughter [she's 35 and in law school, I think he said] that the world's not a simple place, that it's not just good and evil people, and that the people who are evil cannot be dealt with simply.

AB: To be a part of the equation of life-saving and life-giving. To incrementally positively affect the quality of life on the planet.

SD: In having conversations with children, listen to them.

AB: The latest one [Star Trek movie] reminds one of a Western. Roddenberry did have a brilliant idea--"Wagon Train" but in space--that means we can do anything. The power resides in the mind, in the people, not in the thing. Deep Space Nine--the wormhole, anybody, coming through that space, with a brown man who has to deal with everybody--what makes it so simple is that lineage, when you look back, you see African people have to deal with everybody all over the world today. Trek allows us to suspend the bias or the projection about how we could or should be--to see beyond ourselves. I'm proud to be a part of it; we fixed in 7 years what we couldn't fix in 7 million.

SD: sf is not about the future. sf is a way of presenting a significant distortion of the present, so then we're comfortable when these distortions become part of real life--and that's a good thing.

What was your favorite DS9 episode?

AB: "Far Beyond the Stars." 1953--a brown man writing sf in New York--who's that sound like? And then he [Benny Russell] is writing about the things that we're seeing--that's brilliant. It addressed the world we live in, its history, without distortion.

What do you think about the episode in which a black baby grows up to become a killing machine?

AB: I understood what they [the writers] were talking about. What it meant was, this killing machine, someone saying to a child, "I am going to limit your ability to see the horizon, to make you an addict to someting so that you can't live without it, so that you are without hope of possibility"--what town does that sound like? Children who don't have sense of possibility in our own country, who live by kill or be killed.

What do you think about post-racial, post-gender futures depicted in sf?

SD: The first 20 or 200 times I thought those books were interesting and good, but repetition banalizes, makes it banal. It became a genre convention like the hyperdrive--I find it more interesting to ask, how did we get there? sf about that process is way more interesting.
"Post racial" is a term to tar and feather people like me who insist that there is no biological evidence for something called race, that it's bound up with many things, with people living in isolated groups. And which bits do I want to change? there are wonderful things that come out of isolation--culture--music. I don't want to get rid of those things--I came from a large, supportive, black family. My grandfather was a slave.

AB: Rather than universe, it's multiverse.

Have you ever had an otherworldly visitation?

SD: No, I've never--I'm nutsy enough--I don't have room in my head.

AB: I've been out of my mind for as long as I can remember. [This reminded me of that famous quotation about how only insanity is sane for a black person in a racist country, but I can't recall it, or who said it.]

Question about conflation of class and race.

AB: There's a distance in English language as we speak it. It's the same language--money makes class. Speech can, maybe does, depending on the listener [mark class]. [Conflation] has everything to do with communication.

SD: The left has been afraid of a rigorous class analysis for the past 20 or 30 years because this is supposed to be a "classless society." Class is a dirty word, so we're not used to talking about class distinctions, class conflicts, class war.

Question about Liar by Justine Larbalestier and whitewashing.

SD: This is a problem that has a history in sf--Octavia Butler suffered from this, I suffered from this--I wrote a book about an Asian poet [Babel-17]--the Bantam cover had a Brunhilde figure, who was not who I wrote about. Sales were not hurt in Australia, which is not a post-racial country, with a cover that didn't have a Caucasian girl on it. Larbalestier is an interesting writer, I'd recommend her. Write the publisher. Object to that. The other part of listening is making people listen to you. [Note: My quick search didn't find Babel-17's whitewashed cover, but this page has a comparison of the first and last covers of Delany's Nova, the protagonist of which is a black man with red hair.]

Is there any hope?

AB: I think that in some gradual way that that [what I saw happening in the election and campaign last fall] is what bodes well for the world, not "post-racial" but where people don't care--where everyone is rolling together.

A kid named Avery shared that he was named after Avery Brooks by his parents, who are Trekkies, and that when he recommended Avatar: The Last Airbender to his sister, eventually his whole family started watching it, as an example of the effectiveness of actually listening to children.

Another kid (Christopher) asked what it meant to be the first black commander on Star Trek. AB went up and gave Christopher a hug when Christopher said that AB was as awesome as Dell Williams.

AB: Realizing that I'm a part of this grand idea, I have to forget about it when I go to work, but it's a responsibility to behave. When my parents left this planet, it was a responsibility on me to behave better. You can't see Captain Sisko falling down in Logan Circle!

Was there more to Captain Sisko than we saw? What do you wish the show had done more with?

AB: There was more to Sisko, but the writers never asked me. Also, I thought we should have spent more time with Jake.

SD: How to write interesting sf?

SD: Deal with small local problems. A flaw in sf is its tendency to focus on the big picture, forgetting that it's made up of small pictures.

ETA: One of the audience members stood up at one point to recommend The Twilight Zone on account of its engagement with race and racial issues. [ profile] shadowkat67 once met the writer of "Far Beyond the Distant Stars", who said that the episode's Twilight Zone-feel was deliberate.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-02 16:35 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks for the awesome notes! I was a that panel (mine was the whitewashing question), and I am excited to see how others interpreted Avery Brooks' comments. I understood where he was coming from in regards to the current generation of young children being post-racial. But at the same time, I am intersted to see what will happen when these "postracial" children come into contact with the very racialized. eg., the Avatar animated series was as postracial as it wanted to be, but that didn't stop the movie studios from whitewashing it.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-02 18:25 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Well, thanks for asking that question, since I thought it was a good one and very much liked Delany's response.

I just read an editorial in the New York Times this morning noting that in 30 years the USA is going to be a white-minority country: now that will be something. That'll just be when the current generation of children is coming into positions of power in society and it will be interesting to see what they make of it.

That term "post-racial" seems to be cropping up repeatedly in the media and society lately. Does it mean "color-blind" or "race is a cultural construct" or "seeing difference but not using it to divide"? I'm not sure, and I'm not sure that there is a broad consensus on what it does mean--if there is a consensus, I am ignorant of it.

What I'm trying to say is that I think I agree with Brooks about what to hope for and what is a sign of hope. But how long it will take to be permanent and universal? Clearly Trek posits that it's reality by the 23rd century. Will we get there by then? I may never know.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-02 19:07 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I asked Delany intentionally, because I knew that Avery Brooks would just ramble :/

That term "post-racial" seems to be cropping up repeatedly in the media and society lately. Does it mean "color-blind" or "race is a cultural construct" or "seeing difference but not using it to divide"?

This is exactly what I am thinking. I think that this confusion is already starting to manifest itself, with the folks in charge of hiring using the "colorblind casting" excuse to not hire anyone of color, but folks on the ground want to use it as a means to promote genuine meritocracy. I don't think we'll get anywhere until both sides are up front about their intentions. In my opinion, that will require taking a step back from using the terms "colorblind" and "post racial", which have already been misused too often.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-03 01:22 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Well, I think Delany as an sf book author was the one to ask. I personally had no idea about his books being whitewashed, since all the editions of his books that I've seen are from the 80s or later, with non-representational covers--though thinking about it, it makes perfect (if outrageous) sense that his books were whitewashed, considering the times in which they were published. I seem to remember having possibly heard that he didn't accept his Hugos in person? I could be completely wrong on that one.

I'd never heard "post-racial" used in the way that Delany defined it in the panel, which I think is an indication of its, well, dissolution as a term, even though it's relatively new afaik. In some ways it's almost coded language, where people who use it mean, or hear, what they want it to mean in a certain context.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-02 16:38 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
(Here by way of [ profile] selenak.)

Thanks for the panel write-up. When I read about this early last week I had hoped to go but ended up not leaving work until 7:30 pm on Friday. It also didn't help that I forgot about the panel until I saw the link for your post. I hate how the hectic work-week sends thoughts of anything fun and/or interesting like this out of my brain. This reminded me of how awesome Avery Brooks was on DS9. :D

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-02 18:18 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I nearly didn't make it because of the torrential downpours, conveniently timed to flood my route to the FI just as I left work, but I was glad I persisted.

Yeah, AB is pretty damn awesome in general. Memory Alpha says that he sometimes taught classes at Rutgers in his Sisko costume--now that's dedication.

via the ST Newsletter

Date: 2009-08-02 19:58 (UTC)
ext_1565: G's telling the truth about future and technology! (Coffee-pretty blue)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks for this!!

I come via the Star Trek Newsletter and Avery, not deep, yeah sure ya betcha.

I would like to link to this, is that okay?

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-02 21:46 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Excellent. Thank you for writing it up, I so desperately wish I could have gone.

Interesting that Brooks thinks there were things about Sisko we didn't get to see - I think Sisko is a really multi-dimensional character as is, so I wonder what he would have added. (I agree about the lack of Jake - they seemed to give up on Jake right around the time he got really interesting.)

Delany's reminder that sci-fi doesn't do enough small picture is great as well because it's so true.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-03 01:10 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I came away thinking that someone at Pocket Books should offer Brooks a contract to write a novel about Sisko, with or without a cowriter, a la the Shatner-Reeves-Stevens collaborations. In some ways no one knows the character as well as the actor.

I think Jake was subordinated to the war plotline. I really enjoyed the war plotline at the time, but in retrospect I wish there had been more Jake at the same time.

Glad you enjoyed the notes.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-03 01:49 (UTC)
ext_1565: G's telling the truth about future and technology! (SG1-Brata'c)
From: [identity profile]
I think they should give him a deal, all this ST reboot energy energizing so many parts of the STverse.

Also, this post has made me want some Sisko icons.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-03 03:28 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
It feels like they wanted to protect Jake's relationship with his father and so ran out of ways to develop him that were interesting. The DS9 Companion (afak: one of the best books ever written about making a TV show) has a nixed plot from season seven where Jake was going to Watergate his father's involvement in the events of "In the Pale Moonlight".

Which I think would have been great and devastating.

Andrew Robertson wrote one, and so did the fellow who played Martok, so there's some precedence.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-03 03:29 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Wow. That would have been amazing. And so DS9. Someone should write that book.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-03 15:26 (UTC)
pauraque: bird flying (Default)
From: [personal profile] pauraque
Thanks for the writeup, I really enjoyed reading it. Wish I could have gone!

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-04 03:35 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks so much for this writeup!

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-04 03:39 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
You're welcome. Awesome icon.


starlady: Raven on a MacBook (Default)

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