Race, storying, and restorying: What can we learn from Black fans?

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

Amy Stornaiuolo

University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Tracing storytelling traditions from historic roots within Black cultures to contemporary fandom, this essay argues for more research and critique on the ways that today's Black fans engage in restorying, with implications for reader response theory, research in digital literacies, and Black studies.

[0.2] Keywords—Black Panther; Fantasy; Race; Science fiction; Star Trek

Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth, and Amy Stornaiuolo. 2019. "Race, Storying, and Restorying: What Can We Learn from Black Fans?" In "Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 29.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Rebecca Wanzo argues powerfully for a rearticulation of histories of contemporary fan communities and cultures by asking that scholars acknowledge decades of Black scholarship in popular culture.

[1.2] One group of scholars who often could be categorized as acafans but who do not claim the name are many black scholars of popular culture. A number of scholars who study black popular culture have, for all intents and purposes, been acafans, with an intimate knowledge of the black community that has often been essential in fields where black histories have not been addressed. A rich critical history of black fans and black acafandom exists, although the latter is never described as such…these works, produced by fans of their subjects or about African American audiences, as well as discussions of race, are largely invisible in some of the most cited works in American fan studies. Even African American scholars trained in film and television studies are often excluded from scholarship about fandom; their absence from many studies cannot thus be solely attributed to disciplinary divides. (2015, ¶1.2)

[1.3] We take up Wanzo's call to contribute to "a new genealogy of fan studies…that includes different kinds of primary and secondary texts that have explored responses of black fans" (2015, ¶0.1). Indeed, the experiences of Black fans since 2000 have been illustrative of the kinds of critical race counterstorying that Black people and other peoples of color have engaged in for centuries, with Black fan and audience responses to popular culture in the United States predating the contemporary media cultures that gave rise to what we think of as fandom.

[1.4] In our 2016 Harvard Educational Review article, we focused on one form of critical race counterstorying, bringing our observations of racebending in fan cultures to bear on conversations about reader response and transactional theory in our own fields of reading, literacy, and English education. In it, we wrote, "We are particularly interested in how young people who do not see themselves reflected in dominant narratives engage in interpretive struggles, especially when many have access now to a wide variety of tools and spaces that invite them to create their own textual representations and to push back against dominant perspectives" (316). While we believe that this kind of push back has happened throughout human history in response to narratives that excluded some and not others, we also believe that the same new media technologies that led to the rise of fan cultures have also afforded new ways for participants to use digital tools to read and write themselves into existence, then broadly disseminate those new narratives to the entire world. Following Wanzo, we suggest that a genealogical approach to understanding how young people write themselves in to narratives also operates as a way of writing people of color in to the metanarratives of fan culture.

[1.5] In this Symposium essay, we briefly trace storying traditions from historic roots within Black cultures to their roles in contemporary narrative landscapes. From there, we briefly explore a few of the ways that today's Black fans are using fan fiction, fan meta, and fan art to engage in restorying, connecting this to reader response theory and research in digital literacies. We conclude by calling for more theory, criticism, and research in this area.

2. From storying to restorying: Black fan work in historical context

[2.1] In his book The Grey Album, visionary poet and Schomburg Center director Kevin Young whimsically describes storying as "animal tales; the spirituals as codes for runaway slaves; runaway slaves themselves; maroons; the blues code of life, tragic and comic, 'laughing to keep from crying'; nothing but a good man feeling bad; nothing but a bad woman feeling good" (2012, 3). He then quotes Sojourner Truth: "Sell the Shadow to support the Substance," and notes, "The lost shadow book is the book that Blackness writes every day. The book that memory, time, accident, and the more active forms of oppression prevent from being read" (14). Yet amid this persistent oppression, there is potential for new narratives: "The spaces between performance and pain, between blackness as a problem and a possibility, illuminate the storying tradition…Storying describes the way in which black writers have forged their own traditions, their own identities, even their own freedom" (67).

[2.2] Traditions of Black storying extend deep into the African past, predating the Middle Passage, yet the Door of No Return changed the tenor of Black Diasporic narrative (Brand 2012). While a historical feature of the Maison des Esclaves in Gorée Island, Senegal, the Door of No Return as a metaphor is described by Dionne Brand as "that place where our ancestors departed one world for another; the Old World for the New. The place where all names were forgotten and all beginnings recast. In some desolate sense it was the creation place of Blacks in the New World Diaspora at the same time that it signified the end of traceable beginnings" (5). Thus, Black stories became irrevocably entangled with Black embodiment. The Black presence in the United States came to define the project of the new nation-state, as Toni Morrison reminded us more than a quarter century ago in Playing in the Dark (1992). Indeed, what Morrison calls the "abiding, signing Africanist presence" in US letters is in itself a multitude of stories, emerging as Black storytellers found new words to share their lived experiences, imbued with memories and rememories, imagining new worlds.

[2.3] Albeit absolutely influential to popular cultures in the United States and beyond, the Black storying tradition has been suppressed over time, from Hollywood to children's literature (Smith et al. 2015; Tyner 2018). This suppression was even noted in one of the most enduring science fiction franchises of all time—Star Trek. andré m. carrington's Speculative Blackness provides insight into the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993–99) episode "Far Beyond the Stars" (6.13), in which Star Trek's first Black protagonist, the newly promoted Captain Benjamin Sisko (played magnificently by Avery Brooks), falls into a reverie where he and his space station crew have become a pulp science fiction magazine staff in 1950s New York City.

[2.4] During the course of the episode, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine viewers follow the journey of hopeful writer Benny Russell, who writes a story titled "Deep Space Nine," complete with a pencil illustration of the iconic late-twenty-fourth-century space station. carrington argues that "casting Avery Brooks in stark relief against the trenchant White supremacy of the mid-twentieth-century United States, the episode [raises] troubling questions about the inspirational rhetoric of science fiction—and Star Trek in particular—by situating the dynamics of racial conflict squarely within the history of the genre" (carrington 2016, 159). Of course, Russell's story is rejected, signaling the real-world astronomical odds of Black writers of short speculative fiction becoming published (Kane 2017). Even though Black authors of novel-length science fiction and fantasy—Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Tananarive Due, N. K. Jemisin, and Nnedi Okorafor—have won the highest honors in the field, as have notable Black comics creators like Dwayne McDuffie, Christopher Priest, and Nilah Magruder, with few exceptions, Black storying remains peripheral to most canons that are foundational to contemporary fan culture. Thus, it makes sense that in Steven Barnes's novelization of "Far Beyond the Stars," as carrington observes, Benny Russell is situated "along an infinite string of Bennys whose experiences Russell understands as his own" (189), signifying the episode's resonance beyond the world of Deep Space Nine or even Star Trek, and tying it into the rich Black tradition of the shadow book—and storying.

[2.5] "Far Beyond the Stars" frequently appears on lists of best Star Trek episodes for good reason. Here, we use it to mark that this suppression of storying led to a landscape of restorying that predates today's science fiction and fantasy. Such efforts to restory narratives that have excluded and silenced Black voices have a long history, joining centuries of work by people from nondominant groups to make their humanity legible through counterstories. These counterstorying practices have always embraced technologies for dissemination and collaboration. Just as publications from David Walker's 1829 An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World to the Combahee River Collective's 1977 statement on Black feminist organizing used the affordances of the printing press to challenge privilege, supremacy, and institutional power, the mass leveraging of social media has led scholars, activists, artists, and writers of all ages to tell powerful stories that reframe the dominant narratives about Black lives. Perhaps the most seismic example of these restorying efforts in recent years has been the Black Lives Matter movement, a global political project to affirm Black people's humanity that is rooted in the herstories of three radical Black women organizers.

[2.6] Tracing these historical antecedents of restorying is important for understanding how stories are told, shared, and revised in relation to metanarratives about whose stories matter. Today's young people, particularly young people of color, are engaging in fan practices that position them at the center of their literate worlds, as they agentively create counterstories that assert, I exist, I matter, and I am here. A central locus for this work is in fan communities online.

3. Radical reader response: How Black fans are restorying

[3.1] In our work on restorying, we have been particularly concerned with how relationships among readers, writers, and texts are being transformed in relation to new tools and platforms. We suggest that these relationships are characterized by a struggle over meaning, as young people who are not represented in dominant narratives push back through new media counterstorying practices. Our position on digital-age reader response not only theorizes reader-writer transactions as part of a dynamic and fluid relationship (Rosenblatt 1985) but also places identity at the very center of all interpretive acts. Digital media tools make possible new forms of representation and new pathways of circulation, inviting people into those sites of struggle over whose stories matter.

[3.2] If social media transformed the ways that teen audiences were able to interact, then Black teens, youth, and young adults both transformed and were transformed by the social media age. By 2015, according to Pew's survey on teen internet and social media use, "African-American teens (were) the most likely of any group of teens to have a smartphone, with 85% having access to one, compared with 71% of both white and Hispanic teens." Additionally, "African-American and Hispanic youth report(ed) more frequent internet use than white teens. Among African-American teens, 34% reported going online 'almost constantly' as do 32% of Hispanic teens, while 19% of white teens said they go online that often." Discourses about digital divides do little to describe the zeitgeist of our era: Black youth and young adults drive a disproportionate number of conversations on social media. The social phenomenon of Black Twitter, Black children and teens joyfully declaring "do it for the Vine!," the circulation of Black bodies as visual humor across platforms via GIF memes, and the rise of Black digital activism dominated social media platforms through the 2010s (Chow 2016; Clark 2015; Jackson 2017).

[3.3] The 2010s marked the concomitant rise of Black girls and women using social media to connect with other fans, advocate for more and better representation, and even create their own alternatives to popular culture. After the explosion of the RaceFail controversies of 2009 at the end of the previous decade, sites like Black Girl Nerds (founded in 2011), Graveyard Shift Sisters (founded in 2013), and others helped fans find each other across fandoms and created visibility and awareness about the plight of Black girl and woman characters in books, television shows, and movies. By 2015, periodicals like Black Enterprise were noting the power of Black girls and women in fandom (Evans and Darling 2015). They were among the first media outlets to acknowledge rising audience investments in characters like those from Shonda Rhimes's popular #TGIT lineup of shows like Grey's Anatomy (2005–), Scandal (2012–18), and How to Get Away With Murder (2014–); CW shows like The Flash (2014–); and cable shows like Game of Thrones (2011–) and The Walking Dead (2010–). Much like other fans, Black women and teen girls used social media tools like Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram to talk about their favorite shows. They also used social media to engage in civic action and social justice activism (Stornaiuolo and Thomas 2017).

[3.4] Moreover, young readers are choosing to restory characters from popular narratives as mirrors of their own experiences. After a viral 2015 BuzzFeed article by Alanna Bennett ( was shared among Harry Potter fans online, a new social media movement formed that insisted that Hermione's description in the popular novels meant she was really Black.

[3.5] One author of a viral "Hermione is Black" post, Breianna Harvey, talked with us about growing up with the Harry Potter series as a child and reading the uberpopular girl protagonist of the series as a mirror of the self:

[3.6] Prior to Tumblr, I had thought Hermione was like me and [the film] was my first experience at being upset with deviations from the book, specifically casting. But like many other Black girls in my situation, I kept my mouth shut. It wasn't until Tumblr that I started to speak up about it. I saw drawings of Hermione…where the artists would subconsciously draw Hermione darker than everyone else. Then my friend started posting fancasts of [multiracial Welsh actress] Jessica Sula as Hermione and I really loved it. Then I started to see fanart where she was darker than Jessica and followers were engaging in conversation with me about how much a Black Hermione would make sense along with speculation of her origins. (Personal communication, November 12, 2015)

[3.7] Breianna's reading of Hermione as a Black girl is quite radical, yet she is not alone. Black fans across fandoms are increasingly engaged in similar agentive readings of popular narratives and sharing their observations through fan work—fan fiction, fan art, and fan meta.

[3.8] It can be difficult to track the racial and ethnic identities of fan fiction writers and fan artists. While writing The Dark Fantastic, Ebony sought to collect links to Black fan work all over the web. However, fans are not always forthcoming about their identities (Brock 2009; Jenkins et al. 2016; Thomas and Stornaiuolo 2016). As an acafan, Ebony herself is a case in point—although her early 2000s Harry Potter fan fiction was connected to her real-life identity, since then, she has written fic in more than half a dozen fandoms under pseudonyms (Klink and Minkel 2015). This preference for anonymity has led some observers of fandom to underestimate the number of Black fans and other fans of color participating in fan work communities (cf. 2013 AO3 Census, However, writing and art by Black fans abound, even when not identified as such. Even if racial identities are not specifically articulated, often, Black fan creators focus on restorying often marginalized characters of color, such as Gwen in Merlin (2008–12), or Bonnie Bennett in The Vampire Diaries (2009–17). As andré carrington notes, "The narratives fans construct around minor characters respond to the discourse of trauma that inform nonheteronormative and diasporic identities…Through fan fiction, forgotten characters reappear, not quite undoing but remembering their marginal status, and complicating their…identities in the process" (2016, 212). Such cathartic, restorative work of narrative repair is integral to the Black storying tradition; unsurprisingly enough, it, too, seems critical to restorying.

[3.9] As fan writer Sharon (2015) notes:

[3.10] As a Black girl, when I first started to write fanfiction (privately), it was borne not out of a need to see a fictional version of myself hook up with the show's resident dreamboat (but even if it was, so what?), but to combat the nameless feeling that came over me every time I fell in love with a story that took place in a world where people like me, apparently, didn't exist—or worse, served only as the punchline or background characters. If I did see characters like me, the dialogue seemed to consist of tired stereotypes—your standard "oh hell nos" and "You go girl." There's nothing wrong with talking like that…but when that's the only Black girl on your show, you have a huge problem. And so, so much of what I see on TV and read in books—especially in genres I love, like fantasy and science fiction—has a huge problem.

[3.11] Sharon's essay is illustrative of Black fandom meta, a burgeoning genre of fan meta in the 2010s. Meta is where the contributions of Black fans to fandoms have been most visible, evident, and influential in recent years. Meta is to fandom what criticism is to society; in other words, fandom produces its own intellectual canon to explain phenomena in canon and within fanon. For instance, the Hermione is Black posts were meta. Other notable sources of Black fan meta include the following: Black Fangirls Unite (, Diverse High Fantasy (, Stitch Media Mix (, and Phoenix-Ace (

[3.12] More research, theory, and critique is necessary to understand how Black fans are restorying canons that have mostly excluded Black lives. Additionally, the stories and restories that Black fan artists and cosplayers are telling using traditional and digital art tools—as well as their own bodies—should be highlighted in fan studies as well (Scott 2017).

4. Conclusion

[4.1] It remains to be seen how—or if—Black Panther (2018) and other big-budget comic, fantasy, and science fiction narratives will fundamentally transform the landscape of popular Black storying and restorying in the digital age. As of this writing, there are over 1,800 Black Panther–tagged fan fiction stories at the Archive of Our Own website, and many others on Wattpad and Some believe that Black Panther has the potential to ignite the next generation of fandom movements (Taylor 2018). Still, it must be pointed out that the modern versions of Black Panther—developed by Black creators from Christopher Priest and Reginald Hudlin in the past to Ryan Coogler, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, and Nnedi Okorafor in the present—are themselves restorying the original Silver Age superhero created by two White men, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. While Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's tragic Benny Russell reminds us of the impossibility of Black authors publishing popular, fandom-worthy speculative narratives in the mid-twentieth century, it is twenty-first-century Black storytellers who have given that hero the breath of life.

[4.2] Many of today's Black storytellers began telling stories as fans. Ryan Coogler, director of Black Panther, notes the influence that comics had on him as a child:

[4.3] "The thing that got me most excited is that [Black Panther] was the first African American character that I was introduced to in the mainstream comics," Coogler tells MTVNews. "I used to go to a comic shop right next to my elementary school in between basketball practice and track practice. We would go there and hang out. I remember one day, I asked the comic book owners, 'Are there any comic books about black people? Like X-Men or different things?' And he pointed out a couple of issues of Black Panther." (quoted in Davis 2016)

[4.4] The Black imagination is vast and contains multitudes. The promise of Black storytellers and storytelling—across genre and mode—is similarly capacious. And part of the work of the Black Diaspora storyteller in these long centuries beyond the Door has been to restory. Kevin Young reminds us that the Black imagination contains underground railroads of meaning—"a practice we could call the Black art of escape" (Young 2012, 19), involving what gets hidden in plain sight, storied and restoried. If this rich restorying has led us to the global phenomenon of Black Panther, surely fan studies, media and communication studies, and education have much to learn from Black fans and their story worlds.

5. References

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