Challenging Racism with Fantasy Adventure
Born in 1859, Hopkins started off her career as a lauded actress and singer before becoming a legendary journalist, novelist, and playwright in the 1900s. Much of her literature was romantic in nature, but she wrote in a number of genres, including mystery and, of course, fantasy.
Her most important contribution to the fantasy genre was Of One Blood (1903), an adventurous novel about a mixed-race American who travels to Ethiopia searching for treasure. The novel explores the truth of humanity’s common ancestry and is complete with ghosts, African spirituality, hidden royal bloodlines, and prophecy.
Jazz and Black Horror
Henry Dumas was a poet and short fiction writer, and one of the most important voices of the Black Power Movement in the 1960s. His works are considered part of the closely related Black Arts Movement (or Black Aesthetic Movement). A teacher by trade, he also had a strong interest in music and studied with Jazz Musician Sun Ra in the mid-1960s.
Dumas died tragically at 33-years-old in a confrontation with a police officer. A limited amount of his work was published during his short life, and his literature was largely recognized posthumously.
One of his notable contributions to the fantasy genre was the short story “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which was part of his collection of short speculative works titled Echo Tree. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is set in an underground jazz club with a legendary, powerful instrument, and has elements of horror. In much of his work, magic is used as a way to give power to the powerless and bring about justice.
Charles R. Saunders
African Sword and Sorcery
Charles R. Saunders was a pioneer of the Sword and Sorcery sub-genre of fantasy. Sword and Sorcery is a sub-genre characterized by sword-wielding adventurers facing personal battles and adventures, often with a strong element of magic. This is compared to high fantasy, which typically deals with larger, world-threatening conflicts.
Saunders’ most famous work, his Imaro novels, are among the first works of Sword and Sorcery fantasy by a Black author. In them, he created the fictional continent of Nyumbani, inspired by Africa.
The Imaro universe started off as a collection of short stories and novellas published in the science fiction fanzine Dark Fantasy. Later, these were converted into Saunders’ first novel, Imaro (1981). The book follows the adventures of the titular hero, who leaves his fierce tribe of warrior-herdsmen to roam the vast continent of Nyumbani. Along the way, he faces powerful foes, both human and inhuman.
Imaro was followed by two more novels in the series, The Quest for Cush and The Trail of Bohu, along with further stories written in the Nyumbani universe.
Jazz and Voodoo Magic
Reed has written in many formats, including poetry, novels, essays, songs, and plays. He is also a publisher, and has edited 14 anthologies. His satirical works often challenge American political culture. Unlike the other names on this list, Reed is still alive and writing today.
His best-known work, Mumbo Jumbo (1972), is ranked as one of the 500 most important books in the Western canon. It blends many real elements, such as the United States occupation of Haiti and the attempts of whites to suppress jazz music, with more fantastical elements, such as Voodoo magic. Some literary scholars have considered Mumbo Jumbo a work of Afrofuturism.
Children’s Fantasy with West African Gods
Virginia Hamilton was a children’s author. She married poet Arnold Adoff in 1960, who supported the family by working as a teacher. Hamilton turned to writing and wrote more than 40 novels over the course of her life. She was the first Black author to be awarded the Newberry Medal, which she received for her 1974 novel M.C. Higgins, the Great.
Hamilton received many other awards during her prolific career, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing, the highest international recognition that can be given to an author or illustrator of children’s literature. She was the first children’s writer to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, in 1995.
One of her notable contributions to the fantasy genre was The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, which featured West African gods getting involved in Blacks’ struggle for freedom. The book struck a careful tone of exposing the horror of slavery while still allowing for a spirit of hope and joy.
Black Paranormal Fantasy
L.A. Banks (real name: Leslie Esdaile Banks) was another prolific author who wrote under five different pen names and in at least six genres, including romance, crime suspense, non-fiction, and dark fantasy/horror.
Her most well-known contribution to fantasy is her mass market, 12-book The Vampire Huntress Legend Series, starting with Minion in 2004. These books follow the adventures of Damali Richards, a woman in her twenties who has been born specifically to fight the Dark Realms. Her biggest enemy: Vampires.
Banks’ paranormal fantasy also includes the Crimson Moon novels, the Dark Avengers Series, and The Dark Series, along with many novellas.