Book Cover: Blue Sky for Black America:
100 Years of Colored People in Western Utopian Literature
by Jesse Rhines Ph.D
The book, Blue Sky for Black America: 100 Years of Colored People in Western Utopian Literature, captured my interest as a lover of science fiction. Based on his early experience as an IBM Systems Engineer Trainee, the author Jesse Rhines applies IBM’s “blue sky” utopian approach to formulating its hundred-year projection in addressing urban hopelessness among underclass Black youth. He argues that hopelessness, a future oriented condition, requires a future oriented solution.
To facilitate this process, Rhines analyzes one hundred years of Western Utopian literature featuring Black Americans. Beginning with the pre-World War II period, he examines two classic futuristic novels by Edward Bellamy and Aldous Huxley. Blacks remain servants and are depicted as backwards, uncivilized, and rapists.
After World War II, the geopolitical situation changed with the foundation of the United Nations, a multiracial organization based on equality, freedom, and justice for all member states. With the desegregation of the Armed Forces and the Black Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a new kind of science fiction emerged: the futuristic space drama exemplified by the TV series, Star Trek, first aired in 1966.
While the Star Trek series aimed to reflect the new spirit of the United Nations, Rhines notes that only one among the hundreds of planets visited was dominated by non-white humanoids. Over 99 percent of the humanoid aliens were of European ancestry. With few exceptions, Afro-humanoids appear as the most violent and uncivilized people in the Universe.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., whites feared that militant Blacks would upset the racial hierarchy. This led to a new kind of dystopian science fiction. Rhines dissects five such works published between 1969 and 1971. In a world brought to the brink of destruction by white people, Blacks stand out as vile, immoral, and intellectually inferior to whites. Dr. King’s dream of global fellowship becomes a nightmare.
By the mid-1970s, with the need to address racism, American futuristic novels merged utopian and dystopian elements in their portrayal of societies in transition. But it was white feminist authors who led the move to incorporate Black Americans’ most radical goals into their imagined futures. Rhines also explores two novels, one by an African American, that go further in conceiving a multicultural utopia.
The revival of African American science fiction in the 1990s offers little hope for a better future. The majority feature dystopian worlds in which Blacks struggle against white American society.
Rhines concludes that “Black people are rarely willing to…even imagine themselves in an ideal socio-political situation, untempered by the demands, wishes, domination or power of Europeans” (98). To develop positive images of the future, he recommends that African American high school students read utopian literature and write their own stories of alternative ways of life. “By orienting students toward the future and their own place in it, we will stimulate in them hopefulness and feelings of agency” (101).
Would Rhines’ futuristic approach work for stimulating hopefulness among underclass Black Guyanese youth?
JESSE RHINES is a professor of African American Studies. He holds an M.A. in African American Studies from Yale University and a Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. He is author of the Gustavus Mayer Human Rights Award winning book Black Film/White Money and the 2011 book Black Havard/Black Yale. Blue Sky for Black America was published in November 2014.