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The Matter of Black Lives: Reading Group

Blog by Isabelle Osborne, 2nd year, English

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The reading group opened ‘The Matter of Black Lives’ week as part of the Inspiring Minds programme, led by the Faculty of Arts & Humanities. The discussion was framed around two works of feminist science fiction that consider the nature of utopia and the struggle for a better world.

The session began with an introduction from Dr. Xine Yao, a lecturer in American Literature to 1900 in the English department. She opened with discussing the reigniting of Black Lives Matter awareness in recent months, touching on how the death of George Floyd in May brought the movement into the mainstream to provoke a ‘new generation of activism’. She went on to remind us that police brutality against Black people has occurred for many years prior to the present day.

Professor James Wilson of the UCL Philosophy department proceeded to touch upon his reflections on being a Black intellectual in a largely white-dominated department, before introducing the question of moral philosophy in relation to the short stories: is it ethically acceptable for someone to suffer for someone else’s gain? He asks us to question where the line must be drawn in regards to what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, before considering whether the science fiction stories concerned allow us to see our own worlds in a different way. This was followed by thinking about the relationship between the stories and racism in our own society; such a thought resonates with Dr. Yao’s view that science fiction as a genre exemplifies how we think about our own future. Wilson’s essay, ‘The trolley problem problem’ was referred to in the session as a follow-up source for those interested in considering the role of thought experiments, much like the ones presented in the short stories.

Dr. Yao introduced the phenomenon of Afrofuturism, referencing how Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delaney are authors who articulate the tradition of Black speculative thought using science in their own works. The genre of feminist sci-fi provokes us to think differently about power and gender, key components of exploration in the short stories discussed. The first story concerned was The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, a 1973 text by American writer Ursula K. Le Guin; the story tells of the utopian city of Omelas, a city that depends on the misery of a single child, imprisoned in darkness and misery, to thrive. The second was Afrofuturist N.K. Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight”, written in conversation with Le Guin’s text; it considers how one cannot relieve oneself of the responsibility for the system one lives under, and should engage with the oppressed community despite not having the power to change the system. The stories paint an image of how we respond, or should respond, to injustice, provoking us to question how activism can become a source of pleasure rather than mere obligation.

The group proceeded to split into smaller discussion groups, which offered attendees a highly informative and productive experience for discussing their own ideas on each story. One particularly interesting point of exploration during the group discussion was the symbolism of the child in both short stories. Jemisin tells us ‘The child needs you, too, don’t you see? You also have to fight for her, now that you know she exists, or walking away is meaningless’, which attendees suggested could refer to our awareness of the injustices of the world and our simultaneous ignorance of such.

Upon moving back into the ‘lecture hall’, student facilitators reported back on what their groups had discussed: the presence of disability in each text, how the short story genre functions, tonal differences reflecting differing political messages between the stories, and what each author may expect to be achieved after their work is read, to refer to only a few topics raised.

As the session came to a close, one began to consider the role individuals play in fostering world injustice in our failure to react and stand in solidarity with the child of our own world, as we allow inequality to penetrate our world.  Le Guin’s final line comes to mind: are we ‘the ones who walk away from Omelas’? Both the stories concerned and the session itself provoked a level of reflection, recognition and self-confrontation, attestation of an incredibly insightful session on two works of great social challenge.

Suggestions for further reading:

  • NK Jemisin's Broken Earth Trilogy
  • Octavia Butler's Kindred and Lillith's Brood series
  • Samuel R. Delaney's writings