In the thirteenth episode of the sixth season of Deep Space Nine, I dream of a life beyond the stars. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For extensive talk of racism, anti-blackness, and police brutality, as well as a brief mention of homophobia/use of homophobic slur.
I can’t pick out a single memory. There are so many of them, smashing into one another in my mind. Some were on the playground. Others in classrooms. I heard things from my parents. Friends. Teachers. Counselors.
And countless people watched. They watched someone deride me for my black hair, my brown skin, my thick eyebrows, and they said absolutely nothing. Did nothing. Stopped no one.
I dislike many of them as much as I dislike the bullies.
Benjamin Sisko has always been explicitly black. That may seem like a strange statement to make, but Star Trek – and really, much of science fiction as a whole – often fails to take into account the minute or the obvious differences that non-white characters have within the context of the story. Sure, Star Trek is set in a time when racism is “over,” but it’s still a fictional series crafted by writers, most of whom are white. Unlike characters such as Uhura, Sulu, Geordi, Julian, and Harry, Sisko’s identity as a black man matters deeply to the stories that are told, often in how his upbringing reflects his current state. (On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the clumsiness of Chakotay, who is non-white and apparently indigenous/Native, but the Voyager writers never quite know how to address this outside of stereotypes.) Sisko’s cooking is a character detail, which comes a tradition of cuisine and culinary arts in Louisiana. It is all unmistakably black. Practically all of this has been invoked throughout the show without having to make any of it about racism. Instead, it’s a character identity, and it makes Sisko unique.
In another context, I might have been wary of this show suddenly trying to address racism. I often am when it comes to science fiction in general, since white authors prefer metaphorical scenarios or hypothetical oppression-reversal experiments rather than the actual thing. As I said before, it comes across as clumsy. Maybe well-intentioned, but a far cry from reality.
Not here. And it’s what makes “Far Beyond the Stars” so compelling: this is an unflinching, brutal, and necessary look at something that was real and continues to be real.
I can remember many moments in stunning detail. There’s a sensation you feel, where the world freezes, where time seems to slow to a crawl. Everything seems sharper around the edges. The words. The looks. The lopsided smiles, lips pressed together tightly like it’s part of a ritual. It’s something they do when they want to disarm the weapons that fall out of their mouths; a smile, no matter how fake, no matter how real, will cover up their crimes, their offenses, their violence.
She came up to me at a party. I had a bowl of party mix in one hand, munching at it nervously. I felt out of place before she arrived, before the terror slipped out, before I was trapped in a corner. I was out of element, in a crowd that was older, paler, and certain. But I made the most of it; I knew that I was going to be uncomfortable in a community I had not even known existed a year prior. It came with the territory, I reasoned.
She drifted on the edge of the half circle I stood in, like a satellite in a distant orbit. She saw the opening as the two people who were talking to me moved off to get drinks. She sidled up to me, and I saw how her tiny hat sat crooked on top of her hair, and it’s what I was focusing on when she opened her mouth.
“I had a question about something you said on a panel earlier,” she asked. That smile. Tight lips, a thin line.
I wasn’t in the mood to talk shop, but she was the first stranger who had approached me since I had arrived at the convention. Maybe this is how it starts, I thought. Maybe this is how you make friends.
Sure, what’s up?
“Well,” she said, her eyes glassy in excitement, and she leaned in closer, spoke louder. “I’m writing a short story with a Middle Eastern character in it, and I wanted to ask you. How come you’re not wearing your turban and do you wear it in the shower?”
A chasm opened up between us. She tilted her head to the side, her lips pursed, and I found myself staring at the hat again, and I couldn’t find words. Words are my thing, and most days, I take it for granted how well I can parse a phrase or string words together. I wanted that power back in that moment, but it was gone, lost in the hat and the smile and the expectation on her face. She really wanted an answer. She anticipated one.
I knew I didn’t belong, and it was the very first day at my first science fiction convention.
There’s a desire I have to identify with much of what appears in “Far Beyond the Stars,” and in a general sense, that’s not a terrible thing. I have been denied chances because I am not white. I’ve had bosses tell me to my face that I am not the right kind of “material” for the job; I had another tell me I was too “ghetto” for the regular clientele. I had one say that if I looked more “classy,” she would have considered promoting me.
I had counselors blame bullying on me because I was too much of a faggot. I had a boss tell me that he was wary about promoting my work because he wasn’t sure that the users on the site were ready to identify with “a gay.” That same man once stated in a company meeting that I should be able to relate to pedophiles since “that’s basically the same thing.”
And the police started hassling me as a teenager. First, in high school; our campus officer loved to pick on me, to make references to how tight my jeans were and how dirty I looked. Then he’d threaten to have me arrested if I ever told anyone. There were the cops in Downey who stalked me weekly, who would stop me as I walked to work and force me to sit on the curb while they searched my backpack. They never found anything the first time they did it, and they didn’t find anything the tenth time they did it. There was the officer who tackled me from behind at the May Day rally in MacArthur Park in 2007, who dragged me by the arms across the hot asphalt of Wilshire Blvd, tearing up my knees, giving me scars that are still hard to look at these days.
Then there’s the officer who mistook me for someone else, who was furious when he got made fun of by the crowd for mixing up two people who looked nothing like one another. He shoved me from behind and I landed on my camera, which bruised my sternum. I had to watch as they beat my partner at the time, who tried to help me up, and I had to feel them kick me in the ribs, all while listening to the officer call me a dirty wetback and a fag and I could do nothing. I have never felt as powerless as that moment.
I identify with much of what appears here, but in that identification, I cannot mistake this reality for mine. Anti-blackness is a specific form of white supremacy, and to divorce that context from “Far Beyond the Stars” would be absurd and ahistorical. This is about the anti-blackness that is coded into the very fabric of American society, the same phenomenon that denied men like Benny Russell jobs and opportunities, that shot men like Jimmy and continues to do so, that prevented men like Willie from living where he wanted, that invalidated the agency and humanity of every black person in this country because it gave them power.
I can’t forget that.
I got the sense that each of these characters was here for a reason, though they may not be obvious ones. It’s easy to write a character like Pabst. For many people, he’s probably a cartoonish villain, someone dedicated to evil who lacks any conscience and who provides the conflict for Benny. He’s the obvious racist, the one who says things without remorse and who accepts the status quo because it’s the safest thing.
And yet, every other one of those writers exists to highlight a different aspect of Benny’s struggle. There’s Rossoff, who is the most vocal about Benny’s oppression, yet for every time he threatens to quit, he doesn’t. His actions might irritate Pabst, but in the end, he doesn’t put Benny before himself. There’s K.C. Hunter, who serves as a direct reference to the many women who wrote science fiction but were forced to use ambiguous names in order to be published. There’s Darlene, a science fiction fan who is constantly dismissed because she’s not the “typical” idea of a sci-fi fan. There’s Julian Easton, who may vocalize his support for Benny because he’s also a man of color, but his British identity adds a layer of exoticism to him, which makes him appealing and consumable to a white audience. (Does Julian do anything substantial out of solidarity? No, he does not.)
And then there’s Albert Macklin, the awkward and well-meaning science fiction writer and fan, who occasionally offers his verbal support to Benny, but who does nothing to help him. Out of every character here, though, he serves the most bitter purpose: he is white mediocrity defined. He is the author doing the bare minimum, the one who repeats himself and doesn’t care to subvert or expand what science fiction is, who is lauded with opportunity and praise. Benny is, by all accounts, a better writer, has a more vivid imagination, and has written a body of work that challenges others. Encapsulates imagination and the spirit of science fiction.
Yet who is rewarded and praised? The white man who doesn’t even have to try half as much.
This aired nearly twenty years ago. We can note the progress that’s been made in science fiction since then – which is a valid thing to do, and we should continue to push for it – but “Far Beyond the Stars” feels like like the ancient past and more of a prophecy. For years now, the science fiction community has been plagued by men like Pabst, by people who are comfortable by the status quo like Macklin, by people who are vocal like Rossoff and Easton and Kay but who ultimately chose themselves. You only need look at the Hugo Awards for the past couple years for evidence of white supremacy and homophobia and misogyny and transphobia. You only need look at the organized campaigns that celebrate and yearn for the world that is depicted in this episode. Science fiction was more pure then; we knew what to expect from our stories, from our covers, from our (white) writers.
But that purity was based on a flawed perception, on a literal and figurative whitewashing, on the direction of violence towards black bodies, black ideas, and black creativity. Science fiction, if any pure element of it can be denoted, is about the realm of possibility. We look far beyond the stars to imagine a world where things are real, where people are real, where issues are real, where life can exist in a different way from our own. It is the genre of dreamers. Thus, it is decidedly antithetical to claim that it is a genre for men. For white men. For straight white men. For straight white cis men. Truthfully, it was never your genre, and it never will be. Because science fiction lives in the imagination of countless brown and black children across the world. It lived in the hearts of Octavia Butler and Charles Chesnutt and Pauline Hopkins and W.E.B. Du Bois. It continues on in so many more writers, some of whom I now call friends, others whom I adore and idolize, others whom I’ll never meet but whose contribution to the body of science fiction is nonetheless important and vital.
You cannot take these ideas away from us, no matter how much you try.
There is much to be done. The perceptions of the science fiction community – both from those in it and outside of it – might make it seem like everyone is white and straight and cis and whatnot. It’s simply not true, and it never has been. Yet that’s not an attempt to deny the reality of hurdles. Fireside Fiction published a devastating study earlier this year, which proved that more than 18 years after this episode aired, and more than sixty years after the setting of “Far Beyond the Stars,” black science fiction authors are still facing an unconscionable level of discrimination. I have anecdotes that could extend this piece to ten thousand words or more. It is a sad state that the exception right now is when I go to a convention and I don’t experience racism or homophobia.
We are supposed to be a community of dreamers, and far too often, we lack that imagination. We’ve let our prejudices inform our dreams, and we push back when someone challenges of us to think grander, bigger, more complete. I want a world where I don’t have to dream of this reality. A reality without roadblocks in publishing, without a white dominance in editing, without an audience of fans who wants their science fiction white and limited. I expect better of us.
You should, too.
As a final note, I just wanted to state that Avery Brooks’s directing and acting is among Star Trek‘s best. This is a bold, scary, and ambitious episode, and you can see the fearlessness in the final product. Brooks committed to the story written by Ira Steven Behr, Hans Beimler, and Marc Scott Zicree, but I’ll argue something else: Brooks was the best man for this job. There is a vicious accuracy into what is portrayed here, not just in how white supremacy is depicted, but in how Benny Russell reacts to it. Benny’s emotional and heart-wrenching breakdown at the end of “Far Beyond the Stars” is not just a work of art, nor is it solely the natural conclusion of Benny being denied one opportunity. His final words are a declaration: I am human. My experiences are real. You can never destroy me.
This episode is a condemnation and a victory at the exact same time.
The video for “Far Beyond the Stars” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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