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Anisfield-Wolf: Samuel Delany On Writing and Racial Reckoning

Samuel R. Delany has authored numerous books, including "Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders."  [James Hamilton]
Samuel R. Delany, in a bushy white beard, poses for the camera in his comfortably cluttered office.

Samuel R. Delany is honored for his lifetime achievement as a writer by the  2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, a longstanding Cleveland literary prize for writers who address racism and diversity in their work.  

He’s known as a Black, gay science fiction author. He’s also an essayist, literary critic and former university professor.

He was diagnosed with dyslexia in his 20s, which made writing a challenge, but that didn’t hold him back. He’s won the science fiction world’s top prizes, the Nebula Award and the Hugo award, several times over the course of a six-decade career.

As a kid in the 1950s, Delany said he was drawn to the other-worldly exploits of some early TV adventure heroes.

“The one that I watched religiously was one called ‘Captain Video.’ They also showed ‘Flash Gordon’ serials, which I also liked,” he said. “They weren't the day to day things you saw around you. That was a major appeal. They were heroic, and they were, you know, and television itself was very new.”

But those heroes were all white. And, as far as he could tell, none of them were outwardly gay. But, that didn’t bother him as a boy.

“Never noticed it. Never noticed the lack,” he said. “I mean, the thing is, there weren't any when you turned on television, there were never any Black characters on it at all. So, you just didn't expect Black characters to be there.”

Delany would go on to build a reputation for the portrayal of Black and gay characters in his books, but it wasn’t always easy. He recalled the reaction of a white editor to a semi-autobiographical book he submitted for publication years ago.

“He gave me the book back, and he said, ‘You know, this is a story where the main character is Black and it's in a first-person novel,’” Delaney said. “'And you don't tell me that the main character is Black until page 36.’ And he said, ‘I can't take a book like that seriously. And if you want anybody to take it seriously, we've got to know that on page one.’”

At this point, Delaney has outlived many of his editors and critics. His prolific output includes dozens of books, including science fiction, essay collections and memoirs. He even wrote a "Wonder Woman" comic in 1972. Delany said he doesn’t really enjoy writing, but doesn’t have much of a choice.

“Because, I enjoy not writing even less,” he said.

For Delany, part of the grind of writing is the eternal search for just the right word, for the perfect sentence. He said such refinements come in the second or third drafts of a book.

Because of the dyslexia, I have to write many drafts. My first drafts are practically illiterate,” he said. “There's no book I have ever written where there has not been a minimum five drafts. Most of them have sections that were rewritten, six, 12, 15 times, until I'm close to happy with them.”

One of Delany’s literary inspirations is the Black historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, particularly his seminal work “The Souls of Black Folk.” A key concept from that book was Du Bois’s description of Black people having to have a “double consciousness.”

“What he said is that you have to think of yourself as a human being, and then you also have to think of yourself as a problem,” Delany said. “Because, you exist at a social nexus where you are a problem for a lot of white people, you know? And that's what double consciousness is.”

And it extends to gay people and any other marginalized group, he said.

“Double consciousness, applies to anybody who realizes they are part of a group that is recognized as a group and is treated differently as a group. It's much bigger in some cases,” Delany said.

It’s a topic Delany has opined on over the years in essays and interviews. Recently, social movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have helped spark national conversation about a long dominant white male patriarchy. Early returns from the recent U.S. Census indicate that while white people are still the country’s largest racial group, there are nuances to how people identify. 

Delaney suggests we are in the middle of a national reckoning.

“It’s one of the things… a lot of white guys are going to have to accept,” he said. “The majority of the people in the country are not going to be white. When that happens, it’s going to be a very different country… and that’s one of the things that the far right, white reaction is responding to. They don’t want that to happen.”

What do these trends portend? Samuel Delany won’t hazard a guess.

“One of the things that I know as a science fiction writer is if there's one thing you cannot predict, it's the future,” he said. “That's the only thing that makes science fiction possible, is that the future isn't predictable."

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.