In Defense of Sword and Soul

ImaroIf you’re a frequent visitor of my blog, you’ve seen me talk about Imaro. You’ve seen me post about it’s impact on me as a reader and writer. I’ve stopped just short of arguing that it should be considered among canonical SFF texts, right there with the works of all the racist grandpas. I am constantly elevating Imaro, indeed, all of the works that have been inspired by that original collection, because of the singular space that it/they occupy in the genre, and because of the inspiration that they continue to provide me.

Charles Saunders, through Imaro, introduced the world to Sword and Soul. Sword and Soul, by Saunders’ own definition, is heroic fantasy in the vein of Sword and Sorcery, but with some key features that set it apart:

From the beginning, my stories were based on African history, mythology, and folklore, as opposed to the usual Celtic, Arthurian, and Scandinavian underpinnings of most modern fantasy, from Tolkien to Rowling. I saw a need and believed I could fulfill it.”

Consider the times during which Saunders wrote the Imaro stories, times of great political and social change in the lives of African-Americans following the American Civil Rights Movement, and the ongoing embracing of aesthetic, ideas, and cultural heritage from African history by those who were beneficiaries of the changes. Consider the environment, where a group of people who had basically built the United States, fought in its wars, taken care of its children, and sowed its fields were considered second class citizens by the state, unworthy of even taking part in its political process–a process which was made possible in large part by labor stolen from them. Saunders, a fan of (racist grandpa) Robert E. Howard, decided to create his own worlds, based on places that had meaning to him. His decision has inspired countless others, people like me who found themselves fatigued of being pushed to the margins of SFF texts, fandoms, and consciousnesses.

Like a power-mad deity, Sword and Soul has enjoyed a rebirth thanks to pioneering independent authors like Milton Davis, whose Meji and Changa’s Safari continue the Sword and Soul tradition. Indeed, the partnership of Milton Davis with author Balogun Ojetade has resulted in many “funk” themed genre re-works featuring and inspired by the history of people who were a part of the African Diaspora. Each new addition to the funk/soul canon brings more and more supporters, fans, and friends into the fold. Davis and Ojetade are changing lives–saving lives even–by proving that it’s perfectly fine to create what you want to see, and support those who are doing the same.

changa-2Lately, there have been rumblings on the internet that the “funk” subgenres are–wait for it–segregation. That Sword and Soul, Steamfulk, Dieselfunk, and the other genres are somehow offensive in their separation from other groups (namely, the mainstream), and that the creators of these genres should be ashamed of themselves for daring to dream up their own worlds and characters. Sometimes, predictably, these people belong to the group that has always ostracized and attacked folks who routinely fight to have their own spaces. But sometimes, these criticisms come from other black people, who consider Sword and Soul a form of “segregation”, despite black people choosing to create in spite of organizations that continue to exclude them.

I find this lack of self-awareness frightening.

There has been a New movement among Black people, (and lately, some black nerds) where some members of the those classified as African American choose to fight against what they consider the limitations of their race by pretending that racial classifications (and the destructive racialized history of much of America) simply doesn’t apply to them. They, instead, claim that they are above race, and that those who continue to concern themselves with it are in fact limiting themselves. I hate using the term “wake up”, but this seems like a nice dreamland to be living in. I wonder if Technicolor is banned there?

I have a few problems with this characterization of Sword and Soul as “segregation”. Firstly, the racial weight that the word carries, especially when uttered by a black body, completely negates this kind of insult being harmless. It asks of Sword and Soul creators, “what right have you to feel like you can separate your black ass selves from the mainstream?

And the answer to that is: every single right that exists. Opposition to people who don’t fit into the privileged norm as valued contributors to the literary canon of SFF has caused an entire group of dissidents to terrorize the Hugo awards. The racist actions of the publishing industry seek to exclude marginalized folks at every single turn. SFF has its gatekeepers and racist grandpas, who blatantly let folks who aren’t in the traditionally dominant culture club know that they’re not welcome, even when they are recognized as being exemplary. I can’t say that I blame Sword and Soul authors and creators for remaining independent. Black folks in America have a long history of having to separate themselves from at-large America just to be able to survive, much less thrive.

Additionally, many of these creators, being independent owners of their own products and ideas, have the freedom to provide opportunities to struggling young writers who dare to create their own worlds and tell their own tales. And yes, I’m the struggling young writer referenced in that previous sentence. the TOC’s of both Griots anthologies and the Steamfunk anthology are pretty diverse, even going so far as to feature *gasp* white writers in the ranks. The projects of these creators, and the creators themselves, have never expressed any desire to exclude anyone from any group. This misguided idea to characterize Sword and Soul as segregation fails to take into consideration the fact that no one is actually being segregated.

As Davis himself put it, “How can you segregate yourself from something that you’re not a part of?

There you have it. We are most certainly allowed to make our own spaces. We always have, and we will continue to do so despite misguided criticisms and outright terrorism.

I’ve talked about MVMedia’s projects before. Milton’s new Steamfunk novel, From Here to Timbuktu, is available now. Additionally, check out some of his classics, Meji and Changa’s Safari. He’s even taken it upon himself to publish Charles Saunders’ epic, Abengoni: First Calling, in addition to him and Balogun having their fingers in film, gaming, and animation projects! Support, get your fix, and change your view.

11 thoughts on “In Defense of Sword and Soul

  1. Totally appreciate where you are coming from Troy. Thanks for all the support of Sword & Soul and Changa!! We are very hard at work on developing all the Changa stories as high quality animated content and we then want to continue to bring about a movement to get as much great black speculative content s we can to the screen

  2. I had my worries when I came across the Sword and Soul sub-genre a few days ago. Yes, a few days ago when I downloaded a sample of Griots on Amazon. My worries stemmed from this: Is this a movement toward encouraging more black characters into our novels, or it is just about novelists of colour? Are we going to have another sub-genre in Thrillers as well, or in Romance, for protagonists that are non-white?
    Forgive me, but I am trying very hard to identify with this. I am, after all, also writing a novel with a brown/black protagonist.

    • I feel as if the Sword and Soul movement encompasses both of those things you mention: the telling of stories using oft-unseen and unheard characters, written by authors who are also often ignored by traditional publishers.

      Of course, no one is trying to force anyone’s work into this genre…your novel (and the work that you choose to read) can fit in whatever genre you want it to, or it can remain unclassified. What kinds of problems are you having with identifying? I’m truly interested in your thoughts.

      • Ah, I joined the train already. I realised that when others push you and your kind out of the industry, you can either beg them to let you in or you can join movement. I chose the latter and have my first novella out already. Thanks for the response.

  3. “But sometimes, these criticisms come from other black people…” I am late to this party, but I too have found that black people tend to resist ideas (Black ideas) that go against the mainstream. It is extremely frustrating to my own endeavors.

  4. White dude here. I don’t see any inherent problem with “sword & soul”, “dieselfunk”, or any other subgenres that make note of their settings and characters’ cultural backgrounds. They’re no less valid than K- or J-pop (for Korean and Japanese pop music, respectively). As long as people want to read fantasy, sci-fi, or any other speculative fiction that isn’t Eurocentric, they should be more than content with whole subgenres of fiction existing outside that mold.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s