As an associate professor of English at Denison University, Diana Adesola Mafe makes her stride in the resistance where she teaches courses in postcolonial, gender, and Black studies. Her newest published endeavor is described to include “in-depth explorations of six contemporary American and British films and shows, this pioneering volume spotlights Black female characters who play central, subversive roles in science fiction, fantasy, and horror.” We were able to steal her away for a moment from her busy schedule where she is currently teaching a few classes to pick her brain about Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before and how it came to be.
Black Nerd Problems: Diana, thank you so much for making time in your busy schedule for us! First things first, presentation is everything. I love the book cover art and the title! The cover features a Black woman in a sci-fi type setting, centered in the middle of it all. I’m a visual learner so this image speaks to me before I even read a single page. Centering a Black woman is a very deliberate step in analyzing different collective portrayals of Black women especially when we are subjected to not being a leading lady in many mainstream projects. And it doesn’t go over my head that she’s a beautiful dark skinned Black woman, as European beauty standards have really amped up colorism. What input did you have on your cover and why was imperative to have imagery that aligns with who you are and your book’s content?
Diana Mafe: I’m so glad you mention the book cover! Despite the old adage about not judging books by their covers, book covers are an entry point to a text (much like titles) and they can send a powerful message even before you flip to the first page. I’m pleased to say that I had considerable input on the cover, which speaks to the flexibility of the University of Texas Press. I chose the image and filled out a questionnaire that allowed me to weigh in on things like design and color.
“Having a Black woman literally front and center is important because that, in many ways, is the point of the book.”
I remember spending several afternoons and evenings combing through online images in an attempt to find something that captured the spirit of the book. This meant doing keyword searches by combining terms like “Black women,” “science fiction,” “space,” “superhero,” “Afrofuturism,” and so on. Eventually, I happened upon a photograph of a black female Iron Man as portrayed by the Liberian model Deddeh Howard. As soon as I saw it, I thought, that’s it—that’s the cover. Having a Black woman literally front and center is important because that, in many ways, is the point of the book. To do otherwise would (ironically) perpetuate the very erasure of black women that I’m trying to interrogate.
BNP: I’m also very much in my fangirl feels because I’m assuming your title, “Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before” is a nod to Star Trek’s “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. Granted your introduction is titled, “To Boldly Go” and you mention Nichelle Nichol’s pioneering Lt. Uhura as one of few early gateway representations of Black women.
I think this is totally appropriate as stunningly revolutionary as her presence was (and how rightfully she is an icon), I love how you also dig in deeper critically and mention the shortcomings of Star Trek to her character. In your final chapter, you dutifully return to Uhura’s more recent portrayal in the rebooted Star Trek films. I really like how you come back to speaking about the male gaze regarding Uhura, especially in her newer portrayal. How do you think this critique can serve as food for thought for Uhura’s next portrayal in the future whenever that happens?
DM: Your assumption about the title is correct—a definite nod to Star Trek. The same goes for subtitles like “To Boldly Go” and “Final Frontiers.” Because Nichelle Nichols’s Uhura is such a pioneering figure, the first Black female science fiction icon, it was appropriate to begin and end the book with her character. And since she has been rebooted in the new millennium, her character offers some insight into how far we have come in terms of black female representation onscreen.
“So along with returning to and revamping classic narratives that we love, we also need to continue imagining entirely new narratives in which old molds are not merely stretched but broken.”
But as I discuss in the book’s conclusion, the “new” Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is not especially radical. The Eurocentrism and phallocentrism of the original show carries over into the reboots. Of course, there are understandable limits to rebooting classic science fiction television and cinema—if you change the original too much, it becomes unrecognizable and thus defeats the point. So along with returning to and revamping classic narratives that we love, we also need to continue imagining entirely new narratives in which old molds are not merely stretched but broken.
For Uhura, that means more screen time, more dialogue, and more agency. The key is to preserve this beloved Black female character without also preserving her constraints. At the same time, it’s vital that shows like Star Trek create fresh characters. Here, the franchise has made a “giant leap for Black womankind” (I couldn’t resist one last space cliché) by debuting Star Trek: Discovery, which gives us Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), the first Black female lead in Star Trek history.
BNP: Your dedication page reads: ”for colored girls, invisible women, hidden figures and blerds everywhere” which tugged at my heartstrings. I find myself on this page. I’m pretty sure several other folks, especially womenfolk will too when they pick up a copy. Is there anyone in particular that you want to name that this book is for? Perhaps even yourself in a sense?
DM: Sure! I’ve loved speculative fiction my entire life. When I was a child, I read just about every fantasy novel I could get my hands on. Not to mention Gothic tales like Dracula and Frankenstein. And even though I enjoyed film and television across genres, I gravitated to the speculative. Back to the Future, The Terminator, Mad Max, Conan the Destroyer, Robocop, Alien, Star Trek: The Next Generation . . . I loved them all. But these stories never put girls or women who looked like me at the center. For the most part, Black women are invisible in these narratives or they are caricatured in some way (think Grace Jones as Zula in Conan the Destroyer or Tina Turner as Aunty Entity in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). I had to reconcile the fact that I loved these stories with the fact that I was rarely reflected in them. When I did see a woman (or girl) of color in a key role—even a flawed role—it was something special. This book is for anyone who can relate to that experience.
“But these stories never put girls or women who looked like me at the center… When I did see a woman (or girl) of color in a key role—even a flawed role—it was something special.”
BNP: I love seeing Black women in academia! I love seeing Black women teaching at all levels but especially as professors! I love seeing Black women researching! When you were a student and/or when you first started teaching, were there any Black women who helped shape your path to where you are now?
DM: I’ll start with a troubling fact, one that shocked me when I really took a moment to think about it. I didn’t have a single Black female professor during my undergraduate and graduate education (all of which I completed in Ontario, Canada). That alone speaks volumes. Similarly, as a young professor starting out, I didn’t have a lot of Black female mentors, in part because of the paucity of Black women in senior academic positions. But Black women still shaped my path in fundamental ways. Reading the critical work of theorists like bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Michele Wallace had an indelible impact on my scholarship, my career, and my feminist praxis. And reading fiction by Black women writers has been just as important to me.
I remember taking a class on African American women writers when I was a college senior. I read Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing for the first time and her novels really spoke to me. Because of my own background (a white Dutch mother and a Black Nigerian father), Larsen’s portrayal of race and race relations resonated in a way I had never experienced before. The same was true for the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker.
Later I read works by African women writers such as Buchi Emecheta from Nigeria, Ama Ata Aidoo from Ghana, Bessie Head from South Africa and Botswana, and Tsitsi Dangaremga from Zimbabwe. I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t “met” all of these Black women (by way of their writing) along the way.
“…but Selena is never quite a ‘reassuring fetish object’ ,which is precisely what gives her so much remarkable agency in this film…” The author on Naomie Harris‘s character in 28 days Later on what makes her stand out. #wherenoblackwomanhasgonebefore by Diana Adesola Mafe!#bnplit #dianaadesolamafe #universityoftexaspress #bookstagram
BNP:Timing is everything! I’m glad to know you’ve been watching Star Trek Discovery and would have included Sonequa Martin Green’s Michael Burnham in this book if the show had aired before you finished writing. I do really appreciate the focus of complex Black female characters like Zoe of Firefly and Martha Jones of Doctor Who in Chapter five titled Intergalactic Companions… Are there any other women you’ve seen lately that hint at following Michael Burnham’s example?
DM: Now that’s a tough one. Nothing leaps to mind, which speaks to the rarity of a character like Michael Burnham. There are certainly some compelling Black female characters on speculative television at the moment but none of them is really a protagonist. Thandie Newton’s Maeve Millay on Westworld is pivotal to that series but she is not the lead like Burnham. There are isolated examples like the episode “San Junipero” from Black Mirror, which has Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Kelly, one of the two central characters. Mbatha-Raw is also top-billed on the recent Netflix space horror film The Cloverfield Paradox. In a similar vein, we can look back to the short-lived show Extant, which cast Halle Berry as the definitive lead. But Star Trek: Discovery really stands alone, at least for now, in its portrayal of a Black woman as the most important character in an episodic narrative. I hope the show will not only endure but also have a ripple effect in terms of how other science fiction shows imagine new heroes.
BNP: I watched your Tedtalk titled, “Where Are the Black Women in Speculative Film and Television?” which you did back in 2016 and want to follow the journey you’ve been on from then to now with this book finally written and published. What has been the most rewarding parts of this journey for you in getting this goal accomplished on your end?
DM: Writing a book is such an intense process. I knew I wanted to explore this topic and I had a sense of how I wanted to go about it. But the journey surprised me. Even if you think you have it all mapped out, it’s going to change and take you in unexpected directions. That is part of what makes it so exciting. I ended up adding sections, cutting others, reworking my methodology, and discovering new angles. Gradually the manuscript took shape. That’s the drafting process. And getting the manuscript through a rigorous peer review and seeing it go from a Word document on my computer to a published book is incredibly rewarding. Of course, there were challenges along the way. Critique can be hard. Revision can be arduous. But again, that’s part of the process.
“And one of the most rewarding aspects of this journey has been to see the palpable ways in which so many fans across backgrounds affirm, celebrate, and claim Black women in speculative roles.”
Overall, I loved writing this book and I’m delighted with the final product. I’m also aware that calling out systemic racism and sexism and calling for greater diversity in media has its naysayers. Not everyone thinks we need more diversity in Hollywood and not everyone wants to see Black women in major cinematic roles. As I discuss in the book’s conclusion, Black actresses can be easy targets for hostile audiences.
I’m thinking here of the Twitter attacks on Leslie Jones and Noma Dumezweni or, to give a more recent example, the backlash against Star Trek: Discovery for having not just one but two women of color in lead parts. But those hostile voices, thankfully, are not the loudest. And one of the most rewarding aspects of this journey has been to see the palpable ways in which so many fans across backgrounds affirm, celebrate, and claim Black women in speculative roles.
BNP: You expressed your interest and your expectations in the upcoming adaptation of the Ava Du Vernay directed A Wrinkle In Time. I, too, read the book around the same age as you did and I’m hyped for the movie on several fronts, one being that Meg is cast as a Black girl and she’ll be the one destined to stop the darkness. You’ve been quoted from a recent Q&A, saying: “I think the key thing here is that filmmakers are willing to imagine beloved characters from fiction—like a Meg Murry or a Hermione Granger—as any race or background.“ With that in mind…do you see more representation of Black girls and women coming to the front in such a major way when black women are directly involved or are we just getting lucky?
DM: The more women of color there are behind the camera, the more women of color there will be in front of it. Ava DuVernay is intentional about her film projects and her casting choices and A Wrinkle in Time bears that out. She chooses to spotlight a diverse cast and a Black female protagonist. Producers like Oprah Winfrey and Shonda Rhimes take a similar approach. So yes, I think having Black women involved in writing, directing, and producing has a direct correlation to the representation of Black girls and women onscreen!
BNP: Lastly, I’ve read about your challenge in your research on choosing examples of women in television and film to better serve your critique for this book’s theme. I can imagine this was not an easy process but ultimately a unique one as you ended up with an example that you originally didn’t think was a strong enough contender: Sanaa Lathan in Alien Vs. Predator.
On that, you’ve said, “The fact that there were enough examples for me to work with, and that I had to cut some in service of the project, is a good sign. It means that there are more Black women in speculative film and TV than we might initially think and that there is more work to be done.” I feel so hopefully in reading those words from you. Are there any other important insights you’ve gained from this whole creative process of getting this book written that come to mind now?
DM: Hopeful is good! That is the impression I want to leave readers with by the time they finish the book. Even as I necessarily chart things like the erasure and marginalization of Black women in speculative film and television, I also want to convey potential and possibility. And my case studies are just a few such examples. With the release of Star Trek: Discovery, Black Panther, and A Wrinkle in Time, I think we’re seeing more promise than ever before where Black women in this genre are concerned.
“But there is certainly more to explore. When it comes to scholarship on representations of Black women in popular culture, we’ve only scratched the surface.”
And there are other directions that I’d love to pursue—representations of Black women in video games or Black female comic book heroes in the new millennium. I’ve done some work in both of these areas. I’ve written on the game Bioshock Infinite and its Black female revolutionary Daisy Fitzroy. I’ve also written on Agent 355 from the comic book series Y: The Last Man. But there is certainly more to explore. When it comes to scholarship on representations of Black women in popular culture, we’ve only scratched the surface.
BNP: As a student, I’ve struggled to find a variety academic writing on Black women in nerd culture and media texts BY Black women. As a Communication major concentrating in media studies I struggled with a section in a literature review I wrote last semester. I ultimately rewrote and structured what I had on the absence of Black women in mainstream science fiction. I actually read and used Adilifu Nama’s Black Space Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film, also from University of Texas Press, which is a fantastic resource but lacked a focus on Black women. When I read the press release about Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before, I was ecstatic. I own a few offerings from Texas University Press this book is a welcomed addition in my opinion.
I’m a firm believer in critiquing the media texts we consume. Be it film or comics, cartoons or podcasts. As a budding media scholar, I’ve learned that a critical look back on what we’ve always loved and known can help bring a perspective we didn’t have before and can help bring that perspective to someone new. The call for diversity and positive representation for marginalized folks is not a new one, nor is it one that Black women have ever not lived without ceasing. When it comes to fandom, it’s not uncommon to be met with fans, critics and even trolls who don’t care about your valid criticisms when watching, reading and tuning in. It’s terribly exciting and comforting to know that Black Women are, for once, on center stage here and handled by someone that cherishes them and has studied them extensively. They may be fictional women yet these six Black characters are representations of us across the galaxy from speculative film and television that really get a chance to shine together.
Diana Mafe is an associate professor of English at Denison University. She is the author of
Mixed Race Stereotypes in South African and American Literature: Coloring Outside the (Black and White) Lines. Find this scholar, professor and gamer online here. Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before will be released from University of Texas Press come March 1st, be sure to pick up a copy!