When he was 11, Samuel R. Delany stayed overnight at a Harlem hospital for observation. It was 1953, and nearly a decade before Delany would publish his first science-fiction novel. He had already realized he was gay. With trepidation, he asked the doctor, a white man, how many gays existed in America. The doctor laughed. “[He] told me it was an extremely rare disease,” Delany says. “No more than one out of 5,000 men carried it.” Rest assured, the doctor added, no medical records existed confirming the existence of black homosexuals. “Simply because I was black,” Delany says, “I didn’t need to worry!”
In his 2007 novel Dark Reflections, Delany’s experience at the hospital resurfaces. The protagonist, a gay black poet named Arnold, is having his tonsils removed when the doctor notes the improbability of his identity. Such recollections, particular to Delany’s upbringing and voice, surface throughout the body of his work and have taken his science fiction to heights unexplored by authors ignorant of marginality. In July, on the occasion of the publication of A, B, C: Three Short Novels (Vintage; paper $16.95), The Nation spoke with Delany, a four-time Nebula awardee, about intersectionality, growing up black in New York City, and placing his legacy as a gay sci-fi writer of color in perspective. — Cecilia D’Anastasio
CD: You have said, “For better or for worse, I am often spoken of as the first African-American science-fiction writer.” What did you mean by that?
SD: What did I mean by “for better or for worse?” It’s a placeholder. It holds a place for ghosts—the ghosts around any such discussion as this, ghosts sometimes useful to evoke in discussions of any practice of narrative writing, science fiction or other.
In my 1998 essay “Racism and Science Fiction” that you quote, I mention some of those ghosts in the paragraphs following my sentence: M.P. Shiel, Martin Delany (no relation), Sutton E. Griggs, Edward A. Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois (certainly the best known), and George Schuyler—black Americans (or, in Shiel’s case, Caribbean), who wrote books or stories that we can read as science fiction. Full disclosure: Before I started writing science fiction, I’d looked through a copy of Shiel’s The Purple Cloud but had not known he was black by the current laws that made me so.
Today, I want to amend the sentence, in that I am the first broadly known African-American science-fiction writer to come up through the commercial genre that coalesced before and after the term “science fiction” began to appear more and more frequently in Hugo Gernsback’s magazine Amazing Stories between 1929 and 1932. Octavia E. Butler was the second. She was briefly my student in the summer of 1970 and my friend until her death in Washington State in 2006. We read together at the Schomburg library in New York City or shared panels at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, at a book fair in Florida, twice in Atlanta; and once we presented together for the Smithsonian on a rainy DC night.