Category Archives: History

Radical Dirigibles- Black Socialists, Anarchists, Reformers and Airships–Guest blog by P. Djeli Clark

[Note from Ay-leen: Cross-posting P. Djeli Clark's blog The Disgruntled Haradrim. Happy May Day everyone!]

black CPUSA

Pictured above, members of an African-American acting troupe who journeyed to the Soviet Union to star in a film in the 1930s. The group was led by the young Louise Thompson Patterson and included amongst them the poet Langston Hughes

“Socialism is the preparation for that higher Anarchism; painfully, laboriously we mean to destroy false ideas of property and self, eliminate unjust laws and poisonous and hateful suggestions and prejudices.”–H.G. Wells

“Steampunk will never be afraid of politics,” declared writer and Steampunk Magazine editor Margaret Killjoy in a well-read 2011 article. In it, Killjoy pushed back against any notion that steampunk was merely about brass buttons and brassieres–though it’s that too. Tracing the long history of political thought, and political radicalism, in the genre, she pointed to the early works of Jules Vernes and H.G. Wells, and the more modern anarchist tendencies of Michael Moorcock and Alan Moore. Killjoy went on to declare steampunk as even inherently anticolonial; in its re-imaginings of our historical past steampunk was “antithetical” to colonialism, the latter being “a process that seeks to force homogeneity upon the world” while the former “is one of many, many movements and cultures that seeks to break that homogeneity.”

Indeed, steampunk (beyond even its literary creations) has sparked numerous discussions and debates on race, slavery, colonialism, gender, class and sexuality. More than any other genre of speculative fiction, it forces us to confront our more immediate past, and has an active cadre that launches criticism upon anything that appears to fantasize, apologizes or fails to acknowledge the disparities and inequities of these by-gone eras. It makes steampunk a fractured genre, where the donning of a simple article of clothing or a decision to write about some obscure bit of the past, can spark debates or whole blogs on racism, cultural appropriation, gender inequality and [insert-your-privilege-here]-splaining. And that’s a GOOD thing.

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The Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai: 1938-1949–Guest blog by Historicity (Was Already Taken)

Shanghai, China, Jewish refugees in one of the "homes" established in Shanghai to house those who succeeded in escaping from Europe via East Asia in the 1940s

Shanghai, China, Jewish refugees in one of the “homes” established in Shanghai to house those who succeeded in escaping from Europe via East Asia in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of the Yad Vashem photo archive. Click for source.

German Jews did not immediately begin to put their emigration papers in order after Hitler came into power, or after the passing of the Nuremberg Laws, because as far as they were concerned they were fully assimilated Goethe reading, WWI fighting German citizens. They could not believe, and would not believe, that the country they loved would turn against them.

Hitler introduced his anti-Jewish legislation slowly over the course of the 1930’s, giving German Jewry time to rationalize each new piece; this especially held true for Jewish men, as they tended to work in traditionally Jewish occupations. Jewish women, however, through the regular contact with gentiles allowed to them by their place in the home sphere, became aware of the “social death” being imposed on them by Nazi legislation long before their husbands took notice.

In the wake of the mass arrests of Jewish men during Kristallnacht, it fell to these women to free their husbands—typically from Dachau. Nazi officials would not release men until their families provided proof that they would depart from Germany immediately upon their release. Thus, not only did women have to rescue their husbands, but they also had to navigate the emigration process by themselves. Due to the complex legal frameworks enacted by possible destination countries to keep Jewish refugees out, it was immensely difficult for Jews to secure visas out of Germany, and it became even more difficult when they were confronted with the massive exit tax Jews were forced to pay before leaving.

There was, however, one destination which had not put up legal roadblocks to fleeing Jews: Shanghai—this had more to do with the decentralized and highly colonized nature of Shanghai than it had to do with any sort of altruistic sentiment. While the Chinese government had the right to demand to see emigration papers before new arrivals would be allowed to enter Shanghai, this was seldom enforced. Thus, to get to Shanghai, all fleeing families needed were boat tickets. For this reason—in accordance with the necessity to present proof of emigration to Nazi officials before male family members would be released—Shanghai became the only option available to some of the families of incarcerated men.

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Visiting Academia: Roger Williams University Lecture “Re-Racing Steampunk: Race, Memory & Retrofuturism”

Visiting Roger Williams last Tuesday was an amazing opportunity and a great pleasure to present there. Dr. Jeffrey Meriwether, along with professors Laura D’Amore, Charlotte Carrington, Sargon Donabed, and Debra Mulligan were all immensely welcoming and kind.

That morning, Dr. D’Amore picked me up from the Inn, and she explained that the university has started a new social justice initiative to embrace the historical impact of its founder. That fall, they had their Social Justice Week to initiate conversations across campus. The History department in particular, wanted to contribute to this new venture in innovative ways; hence, the invitation to speak at their campus.

During my visit, I gave presentations to Dr. Carrington’s American History (where they just started a unit on African-Americans during the American War for Independence) and Dr. Donabed’s History of Religion courses (where they are currently studying Western perceptions of indigenous practices versus indigenous perspectives themselves).  Afterward, I held “office hours” in the department lounge for students to come and talk about steampunk, and ended up having a long involved discussions about cosplay, Legend of Korra, and Fullmetal Alchemist. Then came my public lecture at 5PM — and look, I have evidence that it happened!

The video is about 50 minutes long, but the lecture runs until 36:53. Afterward is the Q&A with the audience. Additional pictures from the event can be seen on Tumblr and Facebook. The PowerPoint presentation used in the video can be viewed  here.

That evening, I had dinner with several faculty members and other guests, including a reporter from Venezuela brought in by Dr. Paola Prado from the Journalism department to speak about reporting under Hugo Chavez’s regime. Needless to say, right before my lecture, the news broke about Chavez’s death, and that was one of the many topics we discussed during the meal.

It was a whirlwind trip, but I enjoyed myself so much. Already, I’ve gotten some very positive feedback (and quite a few new followers, pleasantly enough.) Thanks again to everyone at Roger Williams for being fantastic hosts!

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Black Empire: George Schulyer, Black Radicalism and Dieselpunk–Guest blog by P. Djeli Clark

[Note from Ay-leen: Cross-posting P. Djeli Clark's blog The Disgruntled Haradrim]

blackempire3232011Sometime in the 1930s, a black journalist is kidnapped in Harlem by the charismatic Dr. Henry Belsidius, leader of the Black Internationale–a shadowy organization determined to build a Black Empire and overthrow the world of white racial hegemony with cunning and super science. Journalist George S. Schulyer’s fantastic tale was written in serials in the black Pittsburgh Courier between 1936 and 1938 under the pseudonym Samuel I. Brooks. It quickly found a loyal following among African-American readers, who saw in Dr. Belsidius and the Black Internationale a heroic, sci-fi tale of black nationalism, triumph and race pride. The newspaper was surprised at the serials’ growing popularity, and pushed for more–sixty-two in all. Yet no one was as surprised at the story’s success than George Schulyer who, disdaining what he saw as the excesses of black nationalism and race pride, had written Black Empire as satire.

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The Americas’ First Black and Native President: Vicente Guerrero

Vicente_Ramón_Guerrero_Saldaña

Vicente Guerrero.

For this President’s Day in the United States, we’re honoring the first black president in the Americas. No, not Obama – this guy was Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña, the first black and indigenous president of Mexico.  Known as the George Washington and the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico, Guerrero was a leading general in the Mexican War for Independence, and abolished slavery in 1829, forty years before Lincoln would do the same.  Not only that, but he came from the “las clases populares” aka the working classes of Mexico, and rose from there to become one of the most influential leaders in Mexican history.

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Four Kinks Your Great-Grandparents Didn’t Want You to Know About–by Magpie Killjoy and Professor Calamity

The Victorians invented sex.

Okay, okay, there’s biological evidence suggesting their forebears figured it out too, but our cultural understanding of sex in the western world is more steeped in the late 19th century than even us steampunks would care to admit. Sure, they were notoriously prude, but the Victorians were obsessed with sex. They just lied about it, constantly.

[Read "Four Kinks Your Great-Grandparents Didn’t Want You to Know About" on Tor.com]

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Black Dispatches: Real-Life Superheroes in the Age of Steam(funk)–by Balogun Ojetade

Espionage—the act or practice of spying or of using spies to obtain secret information—has been with us probably since one of our first villagers looked over the hill to see what the other village was up to.

Espionage is one of the world’s oldest professions because as long as there is one person who has an advantage over another, be it military, agricultural, industrial, or even sexual, undoubtedly, someone will be skulking about trying to get their hands on someone else’s information or technology.

The most valuable thing in the world is not gold or diamonds, it is information.

Information of every kind has its own value depending on who wants it and why. Industrial espionage can alter the wealth of a nation and thus its capacity to compete commercially and wage war. A single act of industrial espionage elevated the United States to international economic eminence in less than 50 years. All it takes is one person to alter history, if they are in the right place, at the right time, with the right kind of information.

Having people in the right place at the right time was vital to both the Union and the Confederate armies during the American Civil War. Units of spies and scouts reported directly to the commanders of armies in the field. They provided details on troop movements and strengths.

The most useful military intelligence of the American Civil War, however, was provided to Union officers by “Black Dispatches” – a common term used among Union military men for intelligence on Confederate forces provided by black people. Let’s look at a few Black Dispatches and their invaluable contributions and acts of derring-do.

[Read "Black Dispatches: Real-Life Superheroes in the Age of Steam(funk)" on Tor.com]

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Queer Cogs: Steampunk, Gender Identity, and Sexuality–by Lisa Hager

Illustration by Keith Thompson

As an academic who specializes in Victorian literature and a steampunk who enjoys taking on the persona of Dorian Gray on occasion, I get a lot of questions and not a few strange looks from my colleagues and students when I explain what steampunk is (or at least try to) and why I so thoroughly enjoy being part of this subculture and avidly devour its fiction. Though most people are definitely interested in steampunk or pretend to be for my sake, I often get the sense that they wonder why a “serious” academic like myself is interested in steampunk culture and literature – that I have crossed some sort of academic nerd line in the sand and may be slightly strange for doing so.

What this attitude misses is how speculative fiction and the subcultures that embrace it, most especially steampunk, can welcome diversity and difference in ways that rare in mainstream culture and give both energy and verve.

[Read "Queer Cogs: Steampunk, Gender Identity, and Sexuality" on Tor.com]

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Anti-Fascist dieselpunk II- The Italo-Abyssinian War–Guest blog by P. Djeli Clark

Note: This is second in a two-part series, cross-posted with permission from The Disgruntled Haradrim. Check on Part 1 about Anti-Fascism and  the Spanish Civil War here. 

After my last posting on Anti-Fascist dieselpunk and the Spanish Civil War, which owed much to Steampunk Emma Goldman’s original blog, I began thinking about the other great anti-fascist struggle also lost in the shadow of WWII. In 1935, before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini’s Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia–one of the few African territories at the time not under European colonial control. The brutal attack on Ethiopia (then also called Abyssinia), which employed poison gas and flame throwers on civilian populations, was partly strategic, and also revenge–for an Italy still smarting from their humiliating defeat by Ethiopian forces at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. While the near impotent League of Nations remained shamefully complicit in their refusal to denounce Mussolini or allow arms to a beleaguered Ethiopia, outrage was heard from throughout the black diaspora. Ethiopia had long functioned as a symbolic political and cultural historical site in black popular culture, politics and thought; and the invasion by Italy was seen by many as an attack on the entire ”black world.”

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Anti-Fascist Dieselpunk and the Spanish Civil War–Guest blog by P. Djeli Clark

Note: This is first in a two-part series, cross-posted with permission from The Disgruntled Haradrim. Check on Part 2 about Anti-Fascism and  Ethiopia on Wednesday!

I was watching Guillermo del Toro’s excellent dark fantasy realism flick, El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) the other day, and it reminded of an excellent blog article I read on Emma Goldman and dieselpunk late last year. Huh, you ask? Yes, like a Third Stage Guild Navigator, my mind “moves in strange directions.” Stay with me, and I’ll connect the dots….

Guillermo del Toro’s tragic tale, told through the eyes of an imaginative little girl named Ofelia, is set during the brutal Franco regime in the wake of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), a conflict that is almost lost in the long shadow cast by WW2. Yet like Mussolini’s brutal campaign against Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War was one of the first battlegrounds against fascism. While Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supported the right-wing General Francisco Franco, with weapons and bombing campaigns, the leftist Republican government was supported in part by France, Mexico and the Soviet Union.

Beyond nation-states, brigades of international volunteers also flocked to fight what they saw as a war against fascism. Some forty thousand men and women from fifty-two countries, many of them socialists, communists and radicals, traveled to Spain to join the International Brigades in support of the anti-fascist Republican government. Some 2,800 of them were from the United States, and served in what was called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

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