Diasporic Blackness and Revising Steampunk Characters
I’ve been thinking a lot about the rift between black Americans and continental Africans, and how more visible it is these days, thanks to social media. From Seren Aishitemasu’s slightly unhinged but still insightful YouTube videos about continental Africans’ appropriation of black American culture for profit and fame to the online grumblings from continental Africans about Black Panther/Coming to America mashups earlier this year to Luvvie Ajayi starting what felt like a diaspora war on Twitter last week when she tried to talk slick about Tevin Campbell, I’m seeing more clearly the fissures in the already fragile foundation on which black Americans and continental Africans stand. As someone who does steampunk from a multicultural perspective centering on a West African narrative, this all makes me think about changes I could make to my character’s backstory.***
A few years ago in this blog, I wrote a post on how I went about rooting my steampunk character’s backstory in some aspects of real West African history. I come at steampunk cosplay in a way that isn’t often seen – a black American with a solid enough understanding of African history to diverge from facts into the fantastical. Back then, I was mostly concerned with representing an African diasporic view inside of a genre whose visual cues are still very, very white. I mainly wanted my character to represent something outside of the American Wild West or Victorian England aesthetics. In fully going outside of the American experience, I bypassed this country’s history as it relates to slavery and my recent pondering on black Americans vs. continental Africans has me ready to make some changes.
I recently reached out to Milton Davis, the author of From Here to Timbuktu, to ask if he would be okay with me setting part of my character’s backstory in his Freedonia universe. For those who haven’t heard of From Here to Timbuktu, the universe it encompasses is an alternate 19th century world where the United States shares North America with a nation of liberated slaves known as Freedonia. In this world, the states that make up the Southern Belt – with the exception of Florida and Louisiana which are “New Spain” – belong to Freedonia, which butts up against the northern states that make up the U.S. with “New Haiti” to the west.
After chatting with Milton, I decided to make my character’s dad a scientist from Freedonia who falls in love with one of the Mino during his long-term stay in the Kingdom of Dahomey as part of the Dahomian-Freedonian Science Exchange Program. This allows me to cover both a fictional North America that acknowledges what happened to African people who were brought to the country as part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and incorporates the narrative of the powerful African woman warrior I was going for when I first created my steampunk character’s backstory four years ago.
Continental Africans and black Americans being at loggerheads with one another on the internet – in both significant and petty ways – made me want to be more clear with my steampunk character intentions: I love my blackness and that blackness is shaped by me being a descendant of slaves. I have no interest in being disrespectful of those continental Africans who are much closer to those cultures of the Motherland and capable of embracing them in a way that I can’t fully embrace them as long as they are not disrespectful of the ways in which black Americans have continuously made a way out of no way in a land that has never wanted us to be anything more than calves for slaughter. We are the same but we are also different and that must be acknowledged and wrestled with in order for us to move forward…together.
***Disclaimer: I’m probably doing way too much for a steampunk character backstory but I needed to get this out. LOL