#StokersSoWhite: 2016-2018, the fall of tokenism at the HWA

Linda Addison, first Black Stoker winner (Poetry, 2001) and Lifetime Achievement Award winner, with Tananarive Due, first Black Stoker nominee (Novel, 1995) and guest of honor at StokerCon 2017 in Long Beach – Photo: Dave Duffy

Writing While Black, October 2019 edition

by Sumiko Saulson

In 2018, Linda D. Addison’s 17-year reign as the only Black Stoker winner came to a blessed end. No one was more grateful than Addison herself.

“I don’t step around touchy people – top, middle or bottom; I’d rather spend time stepping with people who are doing good work. The changes that happen to the organization and the genre, in general, are driven by many people, inside and outside the HWA,” says Addison, the 2017 HWA Lifetime Achievement Winner.

She’d been putting in work for more than a decade and redoubled her efforts in 2016 when the HWA got into hot water over allegations regarding David A Riley’s history with the National Front and possible racism in the selection committee ranks. Further, the HWA was trying to distinguish itself from charges that the entire speculative fiction world was filled with glass ceilings, white dominance and cronyism, which had been surfacing since the Hugo Scandals in 2015.

Addison wasn’t the only person inside the HWA trying to address the issues. Then-president Lisa Morton created a committee to address diversity issues. “Morton conceived the Diverse Works Inclusion Committee (DWIC), and asked me to join,” Addison recalls. “The committee is tasked with finding creators with diverse backgrounds to expand the membership’s awareness of individuals whose work they might not know”

2018 StokerCon Scholarship from Hell winner Kenesha Williams with Linda Addison and other Black authors

Black voices in speculative fiction aren’t new, but awareness of our participation in sci-fi, horror and fantasy is on the rise. This is partially due to the scandals and also to the increase in Black audiences in the sci-fi, fantasy and horror television and motion picture industries.

Historically, the horror world has been very separate from the Black writing world, which is why “Beloved” wasn’t considered horror by most when it was released. The perception that horror writers are exclusively white men has gradually changed, but not without work put in by people on the inside and outside. The first Black Stoker nominee, Tananarive Due, recalls her first nomination in 2015:

“I was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for my first two novels. For the first, ‘The Between’ (1995), I was just happy to be there meeting the ‘other’ side of my family after being so strongly embraced by mostly Black women readers. It felt like a big deal to me that I was invited – I got to meet Harlan Ellison and give him a copy of my book. And he called me out of the blue and actually gave me small notes on it, mostly grammar.”

While Linda Addison was working on changes from the inside, a group of Black authors from outside of the Horror Writers’ Association was also busy chipping away at the problem by making sure that the horror brand included Black authors. Black authors in the horror genre owe a debt of gratitude to Sheree Renée Thomas and the groundbreaking 2000 anthology “Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction” from the African Diaspora. Unlike many sci-fi and fantasy anthologies, it included horror under the general speculative fiction umbrella. It is the anthology that launched dozens of other anthologies celebrating African Diaspora authors.

“’Dark Matter’ inspired other anthologies featuring Black authors, and I was fortunate to have work accepted into ‘Dark Dreams I & II’ and ‘Dark Thirst.’ Even though I had enough fiction credits to be a HWA active member, poetry is my first voice, so I held out joining HWA until they added an active level for poetry,” Addison observes.

Toni Morrison and Linda Addison in a 2010 photo from Linda’s phone

Linda Addison and Kinitra Brooks got together with Susana Morris to give back to the community with their own anthology highlighting women writing horror from the African Diaspora. The Stoker-nominated 2018 anthology “Sycorax’s Daughters” had a Stoker-nominated non-fiction academic research companion book called “Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror.” Both are the brainchild of Dr. Kinitra Brooks, a scholar who studied Black women’s participation in the horror genre.

“Dr. Kinitra Brooks approached me with her idea of creating an anthology of horror fiction and poetry by African American women,” Addison says. “I was delighted to be a co-editor with her and Dr. Susana Morris to put together ‘Sycorax’s Daughters’ (Cedar Grove Publishing, 2017). The anthology contains 33 Black women authors – 28 stories, 14 poems. It got great reviews and was a finalist for the HWA Bram Stoker® award in the Anthology category. Although the book didn’t win, it put the anthology and the 33 authors on the map and that was everything I wanted!”

2017 was the staging ground for 2018, what would become a landmark year for Black voices in the genre, with screenplay writer and director Jordan Peele as its rising star. In 2018, he became the first Black Horror Writers’ Association Screenplay Award winner. He also won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Peele’s mainstream success is unique in the historically segregated world of Black horror.

Sci-fi legend Octavia Butler won a posthumous Stoker award for the graphic novel “Kindred” in 2018. All of these works were created in 2017. The HWA put a lot of work in on its diversity issues that year. The “Recommended Reads” list was part of that reparation and public accountability process.

“As much as anything else, there has been an increase of new diverse names on the Stoker recommendation list through the final ballot in the past years. The HWA has a new site to highlight the winners and nominees along with the public facing page, HWA Reading List, which lists the Stoker recommended work by year and gives exposure to new creators, whether they win or not,” Addison explains.

Banner design: Crystal Connor

In 2017, Tananarive Due, the first Black nominee, was bought back as an honored guest, restored to an honored position and invited to take a seat alongside the legendary George RR Martin. This seemed beyond appropriate, as Due had disappeared into the segregated world of Black writing when the diversity efforts of the ‘90s tapered off. Cronyism and the lack of other Black writers created a glass ceiling that affected authors like Due for decades.

“It feels to me that when horror editors started soliciting short stories from me in more recent years, recognition of my work began to grow again,” says Due. “But my books were promoted to Black circles much more than to horror circles because that was where my audience originated during the Black books boom of the ‘90s.”

Oakland’s own Boots Riley wrote and directed the brilliant Afrosurrealist horror satire “Sorry to Bother You,” which takes stabs at capitalism, the tension between the Black bourgeoisie, with its aspirations to the middle class, and Black revolutionary voices. Boots Riley’s debut screenplay was nominated for a number of mainstream awards such as the Hugos, but didn’t win them. Meanwhile, it swept a series of Black awards, winning the Black Film Critics Circle Award, three Black Reel Awards – Outstanding Screenplay, Outstanding Emerging Director, Outstanding First Screenplay. This is more common for Black writers and mirrors the experience of the first Black Stoker nominee Tananarive Due.

“When I was nominated again for my second novel, ‘My Soul to Keep’ (1997), somehow I felt a vibe that I might actually win – I’m not sure where I got that idea. It felt to me like there was a lot of buzz about it. So because I’d gotten my hopes up, the loss was like ‘Ouch,’” recalls Due.

Unfortunately, Sister Due’s feelings that insiders are better positioned are well warranted, and it’s a two-edged sword. The HWA rewards those who draw attention to other writers in the genre. This means that Black anthology editors, bloggers and magazine editors who put out who’s who lists and create access to Black horror authors are rewarded.

People who win Stokers and those who win Horror Writers’ Association scholarships are very horror branded. The Black winners of the Scholarship from Hell, Kenesha Williams (2018) and myself (2018), are both prominently involved in activities that bring attention to other horror writers, especially Black ones. I also ended up on the 2018 Recommended Reads list for “Black Magic Women.” Black horror bloggers and anthology editors are more likely to wind up on the radar of the Stoker voters, who are all part of the horror writing industry. But vested interests are hard-pressed to critique or self-criticize.

“The nominations were a huge confidence builder and I was grateful to the HWA for recognizing me at the very start of my writing career, but I also felt the sense that I would not truly be a part of the organization until I got to know more people – and that didn’t happen for many years, unfortunately,” Due remarked. “I got married and was raising my son and then teaching and screenwriting, so I drifted away from horror fandom for a long time.”

Carolyn Saulson and Sumiko Saulson, co-founders of the African American Multimedia Conference, flank Davey D, host of Hard Knock Radio on KPFA, as they discuss the conference on Black Renaissance in 1999.

I would be remiss not to mention that both Linda Addison and I are light-skinned, while Tananarive Due is dark-skinned. It would be a lack of personal accountability to neglect to mention that Jordan Peele is biracial like I am, and that Octavia Butler, a dark skinned author, won only posthumously. That my mother, a dark skinned Black woman, had challenges beyond the many I myself face as a light-skinned biracial Black woman, is something I will never miss.

I am aware of the need to call out light-skinned and biracial privilege, but I don’t think biracial Black people should step aside to make more room for the long list of white people. As Brian Keene says, someone has to assure that the public face of the Horror Writers’ Association doesn’t remain monolithically white.

“The HWA is the public face for all of us. Twenty years ago, the only people of color represented in that face were Linda, Maurice, Wrath James White, J.F. Gonzalez and perhaps a small handful of others,” says Keene, who initiated 2016 HWA boycott.

The 2018 Horror Writer from Hell Scholarship winner, Kenesha Williams, is another Black woman who is deeply invested in integrating the horror genre. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Black Girl Magic Literary Magazine. There is nothing wrong with the HWA honoring these efforts. They should. They should also honor the earlier efforts of Sheree Renée Thomas. And it becomes increasingly necessary for us to take a page from the Black women in the documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces that I Am” and push one another up, replacing the white male dominated old boys club with our own mutual admiration societies.

“Change comes from different directions, from inside an organization and outside,” notes Linda Addison, referring to the growth of publishers, conventions etc. from the Black community.”

People like Sheree Renée Thomas, Kinitra Brooks, Linda Addison, Ashlee Blackwell , Kenesha Williams and myself are part of a movement to make sure that Black horror writers are branded as horror writers. Horror bloggers like Ashlee Blackwell of Graveyard Sisters, editors like Linda Addison, scholars like Kinitra Brooks, Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes draw attention to the genre through classes and scholarly texts like her “Searching for Sycorax.”

Milton J Davis, Valjeanne Davis and Balogun Ojetade are doing something similar with Black sci-fi anthologies, and there is a lot of crossover in the genres. So are publishers like Nicole Givens Kurtz, who put out my anthology of Black women in horror, “Black Magic Women,” in 2018, on her Black woman owned and operated imprint Mocha Memoirs Press out in Tennessee.

Tune in next month for the November issue of #Writing While Black, “The Rise of Black Speculative Fiction,” and learn about how Black anthologies increase awareness of Black authors in speculative fiction. Stay tuned for more from Linda Addison and Tananarive Due, plus an exclusive interview with Sheree Renée Thomas, editor of “Dark Matters.”

Are you a Black author, filmmaker, singer-songwriter or other multimedia artist? Join the movement to take the convention scene back for the Black community. Join us as a presenter at the 2020 African American Multimedia Conference in February, produced by Iconoclast Productions, and sponsored by ReaderFest and the San Francisco BayView newspaper!

Bestselling author Sumiko Saulson writes award-winning multicultural sci-fi, fantasy, horror and Afrosurrealism. Winner of the 2017 Afrosurrealist Writer’s Award, 2016 HWA Scholarship from Hell, and 2016 BCC Voice Reframing the Other Award, (he)r monthly series Writing While Black follows the struggles of Black writers in the literary arts and other segments of arts and entertainment. (S)he is gender non-binary. Support (he)r on Patreon and follow (he)r on Twitter and Facebook.