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.
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