Fandom Scholarship

Decolonizing My Fandom

Dr. Who. Star Trek. The Twilight Zone. The Night Stalker. Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Battlestar Galactica (the original series) E. E. “Doc” Smith. JRR Tolkien. David Eddings. Margaret Weiss & Tracy Hickman. Joseph Campbell. The Avengers (tv show and comic), Spider-Man, The Uncanny X-Men, DC’s Trinity and on and on and on. What do all of these pieces of geek-pop have in common? They were all generated from the minds of (mostly) white men.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with this, but it begs the question: Do I actually like this stuff, or is it all part of some kind of indoctrination into the dominant culture?

I identify as an “aca-fan,” and academic who is also a fan. I did my undergraduate work on “super” heroism in the Abrahamic religious traditions and my graduate work in Afrofuturism — I’m also a fiend for this stuff: mostly comics and science fiction. Lately, I’ve been moving more into the exploration of horror and how it plays out in the pop-folk-scape. But when I did my graduate work over a decade ago, it took me a very long time to find an advisor who would even take my interest in Afrofuturism seriously. “Afro-what?” “How does Marinetti and/or Russolo come into play?” “Can you really talk about futurism without including Mayakovsky?” The more I insisted that I wanted to use primarily POC scholars, I was all but laughed at. I’m glad I stuck to my theoretical guns (not that there was too much scholarship to draw from, at the time) and was able to win over my advisors. When I matriculated from grad student to independent scholar, I was stuck. There was very little POC-centered/focused popular culture to dive into. Wanting to scratch that particular itch, I turned my mind to the familiar white and male-centered speculative worlds I grew up with.

I felt cheated.

Why was I exploring this stuff? As a Black scholar, why wasn’t there Black SF popular culture to study? I was also doing quite a bit of hip-hop scholarship at the time, but I was as equally enamored of comics and science fiction (books, television, film, toys, all of it). I was working in an overwhelmingly white sandbox. I think working in that sandbox has left its mark on me in ways that I am only now beginning to realize.

The more I examine my participation in fandom, I realize how whiteness has been ridiculously overrepresented. When I think of a superhero, I immediately conjure images of Batman, Spider-Man, or Captain America (no women, no POC). Science Fiction? Asimov, Clarke, Gibson, Sterling, and (most thankfully) Octavia E. Butler. I have to wade through Greek and Arthurian mythology before I get to the mythology and folklore of the African Diaspora. In all honesty, it hurts.

It hurts because my first thoughts illustrate just how badly POC have been marginalized or outright omitted from both fan and geek discourse. Boomer from Battlestar? Uhura and Sulu from Trek? Lando from Star Wars? You know it’s bad when you can name every POC character surrounded by predominately white casts on television and in film. I cannot tell you how many white male SF authors I’ve read in my life, but I can name every woman and POC. Every. Single. One. They were/are that rare. Scholarship? When I was in school, it was nigh impossible to find any POC working in speculative fiction/comics scholarship, or geek culture (shout out to Dr. Alondra Nelson, the matriarch of Afrofuturism. It is a little better, today. There are people like John Jennings, Dr. Frances Gateward, Dr. Adilifu Nama, and others doing wonderful geek-cultural scholarship and fan studies work (which is still overwhelmingly white, but majority women or women-identified). But it is woefully lopsided. And this needs to change.

I’m known for the following quote:

popcultreligion
Photo by Hannibal Tabu

In regards to religion, I was introduced to a God that was filtered through the white imagination. What if this wasn’t the case? What if I was introduced to a God who looked like me, and operated within the same, familiar, axiological frame? Would I be a member of a church? Would I engage in daily prayer? The same goes for pop culture. Like my daughter, what if Storm and Miles Morales and Goldie Vance and Lumberjanes and White Tiger and Leave it to Chance where my introductions to the geek-pop-sphere? How different would my relationship to this stuff be? How much more fandom agency would I have? How different would my politics be? Would I still feel as if I am forced to engage in story-worlds that really have no place for me, but I love all the same? What would fandom mean to me? I am lucky enough to (kind of) find out.

As some of you may know, I have been made a Senior Fellow with the Pop Culture Collaborative. My action area is on the Future of Fandoms. I’m going to research the power and influence of a particular set of fandoms and participatory culture, and to co-generate strategies and tactics to better position fan communities towards justice and equity. Granted, there are a lot of ethical and agency concerns to consider while doing this work, but from what I’ve discussed with other POC fans, it is really time to see what the next level of fandom is, what it can be, and how we can co-shape it.

This work is giving me my second (geek culture) wind.

I’m looking forward to seeing what is discovered.

5 comments

  1. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Rukmini Pande’s work on decolonizing fandom/Fan Studies, but if not definitely have a look! She has a book forthcoming from University of Iowa press called Squee from the Margins, and an essay in the open access journal, TransformTive Works and Cultures. 🙂

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    1. Also, you might consider coming to the first Fan Studies Network North America Conference being held on October 26-27 at DePaul University in Chicago (fsn-northamerica.org), where we’re featuring four panels/roundtables on race and fandom. 🙂

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