Derrick Bell’s chronicle of 'The Space Traders': Afropessimism and the future of racial justice in the USA’

Lee-Price, Simon (2021) Derrick Bell’s chronicle of 'The Space Traders': Afropessimism and the future of racial justice in the USA’. In: Speculative Fiction and Ethics, 23-25 Sep 2021, University of Cologne, Germany.

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In his science fiction story 'The Space Traders' scholar-activist Derrick Bell sketches a scenario in which the overwhelming majority of white Americans vote to hand over their African American fellow citizens to visiting extraterrestrials in exchange for a much needed financial bailout and advanced alien technology. Bell’s speculative tale continues to provoke strong reactions. Many readers regard it as offering an excessively pessimistic view of American race relations that ignores the substantial progress made by civil rights struggles, while others find Bell’s scenario plausible. In addition to attracting critical attention from across the academic disciplines, some readers have responded to Bell by writing alternative (usually happier) endings of their own. ‬‬‬‬‬‬ Responses to »The Space Traders«, whether scholarly or creative, address more or less explicitly two related ethical issues: (i) the moral potential of the majority white population to value black lives as much as their own and (ii) whether the struggle against racial oppression has been, or indeed can ever be, successful – a question which also has important implications for morale, for if progress is at best a mirage, a series of empty symbols, and racism is permanent and ineradicable, as Bell claims, then what is the purpose of resistance? This paper argues that the generic status of 'The Space Traders' as a science fiction narrative within Bell’s elaborate multiple-story fictional world needs to feature centrally in any interpretation of the story’s ethics. In developing this argument, the paper builds on the work of Fredric Jameson, who proposes that science fiction narratives ostensibly about the future are in fact intended to make the present – the here-and-now – knowable through techniques of projection and defamiliarisation, and on the work of George Taylor, who reads Bell’s story as a parable that seeks to disorient readers and destabilise familiar understandings of historical progress. The paper concludes tentatively that Bell locates ethics in the lived experience of individual and collective engagement in the ongoing struggle for racial justice. To that extent answers to the questions regarding the moral potential of white Americans and the providential course of history are secondary and can be left undecided when it comes to living an ethical and meaningful life. It is the very act of resisting oppression and not success that, for Bell, counts as victory and brings salvation.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Depositing User: Dr Simon Lee-Price
Date Deposited: 14 Jan 2022 15:24
Last Modified: 14 Jan 2022 15:24

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