Slavery is not confined to a strict timeline. Slavery has existed in the past, exists in the present, and is theorized to exist in the future if things do not change. Derrick Bell wrote The Space Traders in 1992 as a comment on current ideals in the minds of society members in regards to race. The science fiction short story narrates space traders coming down to earth to propose a deal to Americans. They promise to restore the now dying America to her former glory in exchange for the capture of all the black people living there. The narration tells of the debates held by different members of society, with the people in the American government mainly choosing to accept the deal. The only people who speak out in opposition to the trade are the black Americans themselves and businessmen worried about the economy should this large portion of consumers be taken away. The discussion of members of society being used as a bargaining tool is very much parallel to old America, though this narrative takes place in the future. In the end of the story the deal with the space traders is accepted and, “Heads bowed, arms now linked by slender chains, black people left the New World as their forebears had arrived” (Bell). This dramatic end to the story further connects this future world to old America, suggesting that slavery never really left. Derrick Bell makes this connection fluidly and through the disguise of entertainment, though his opinions are not masked.
Historical and Cultural Context
Derrick Bell is an African-American man who was born in 1930, and he was alive to witness and participate in the social reformation and civil rights movements that occurred in America for much of the fifties and sixties. He experienced the animosity towards Americans of his background in first person, which no doubt inspired his work. Derrick Bell was the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School, where he educated others on the issue of the continuation of racism in modern America. He published the concept of critical race theory, which is “a body of legal scholarship that explored how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions, even many of those intended to redress past injustices” (Bernstein). This concept takes the laws made in America back in the early 1900s and showcases how they continue to be in effect today, thus prolonging the end of slavery and racial oppression. Bell’s work is currently used in law schools as a part of coursework, a testament to the good work he produced. To give deeper meaning to Bell’s publications, it is important to understand the history of slave ownership in America. Slaves were first brought to America in 1619 to aid with the production of crops on large plantations in the early colonies. The use of slave labor continued well into the 18th century, leading up to the Civil War. Slaves were a large asset in regards to profits and economic success in the colonies, as their cheap labor kept production high. However, there were a lot of debates over the ethics of using people in this way, which ultimately led to conflict in the form of the Civil War. In an article describing the history of slaves, “Berlin ends the examination of slaves and slavery with their fiery demise in 1865 and the immediate efforts to enact emancipation, leaving it for others to ponder how the power struggles of these ‘generations’ affected the generations to follow” (Wheaton). Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to free slaves in America, legally forbidding the enslavement of others. As this quote from Wheaton emphasizes, the generations to come would continue to face adversity reminiscent of slavery in America. The end of slavery as it existed in early America did not fully extinguish the idea that people of color are lesser, and the afterlives of slavery very much affects black Americans today through events such as police brutality, for example.
Themes and Style
The Space Traders uses science fiction to capture the audience’s attention. Derrick Bell is able to relate serious implications about racism in America through exaggeration by fictional characters in a dystopian America. Science fiction is a widely popular genre, entertaining people with creatively impossible themes like the aliens in this story. Because aliens coming to America to make a deal in which resources are traded for the lives of black Americans is theoretically impossible, it adds a distance between the story and reality. This distance allows the reader to enjoy the narrative without feeling attacked or even guilty of the ideals shared through the actions of the characters, but allows those ideas to be inferred with additional thought.
Derrick Bell’s The Space Traders is categorized as an Afrofuturism piece of writing. This genre of writing is science fiction, but specifically focuses on African American culture. As Lisa Yaszek wrote in an article describing the art of Afrofuturism, “In early Afrofuturist stories, slavery produces misery, but it also produces technoscientific genius. In later stories, the stories of slavery and colonization – the story of modernity’s bad past – becomes the source of inspiration for imagining what might be truly new and at least slightly better futures” (Yaszek). This genre allows the past trials of African people to come to light with modern twists. For example, in The Space Traders, Professor Golightly kept referring back to his past in an effort to explain the current situation with the trade. He was able to draw the parallels between the old slave trade and this new deal with the creatures from space. In this case, the imagined future for African Americans was a dark one, as Derrick Bell took a this story as an opportunity to show a worst-case scenario type approach to America’s future. This style of writing engages the plot with real facts about black history and present day events, such as modern day slavery.
In reality, “There are more than 45 million children, men, and women in slavery today” (Burkhalter). Bell was unfortunately correct in his predictions for the future. Ending his story with all of the African Americans boarding a ship bound in chains showed a clear and tragic image of slavery. Slavery is in fact still in existence in 2017, and is even more prominent now than in the past. Slavery today is commonly seen in the context of sex slaves and child labor, and people are suffering every day from this manipulation of power. Bell’s suggestion for the unfinished timeline of slavery continues today, and his implication of inequality among races also continues to be relevant.
Derrick Bell’s claims are made more reliable due to his use of ethos. He has a lot of credit as an author because of his professional background of being a professor at Harvard Law School. His years and years of researching and educating others on matters of race makes him a reliable author for this genre of narrative. Most of Derrick Bell’s lifetime was spent during the heart of the civil rights movement, giving him further credit as a first person witness to the struggle for African American rights. This abundance of ethos strengthens Bell’s inferred claims in his short story The Space Traders.
The concept that ideals rooted in slavery continue to be relevant in the present day is something that is widely acknowledged by scholars and everyday readers alike. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva wrote an article titled The Structure of Racism in Color-Blind, ‘Post-Racial’ America where he discusses the evolution of American attitudes towards people of color. His overarching argument is that racism is still common today. People like to pretend that they don’t acknowledge the color of other people’s skin, but the harsh reality is that people do notice and make prejudices against those with darker skin. In Bonilla-Silva’s words, “…the ‘new racism,’ or the set of mostly subtle, institutional, and seemingly non racial mechanisms and practices that compromise the racial regime of ‘post-racial’ America, has all but replaced the old Jim Crow order.” This idea brings the harsh reality of today’s society to light, inspiring the reader to reflect on his or her own’s subconscious. Derek Hook and Caroline Howarth co-authored a piece titled Future Directions for a Social Psychology of Racism/Antiracism. In it, they share scientific hypotheses for why race continues to be such a relevant source of argument in society, and ways to experiment on citizens to draw more concrete answers. For example, a psychological phenomenon occurs where people subconsciously stereotype others, which is a personal experience that happens in an individual’s mind. Hook and Howarth seek to explore why this occurs, and how it stems from ancient thought patterns. Derrick Bell’s ideas are not excessively radical, though some reviews of his piece, such as The Sci-Fi Story that Offends Oversensitive White Conservatives and Space Traders for the Twenty-First Century, suggest that some people took offense to the message he shared. The Sci-Fi Story that Offends Oversensitive White Conservatives publishes the idea that “Bell has a rather dark view of human nature,” suggesting that this story focuses on the dark side of human nature and fails to recognize the good that humans have done. The objective of this story was not to highlight humanity’s goodness, rather, it was to criticize some of the unfair thoughts that exist in society. Bell’s claims are all rooted in some truth, though that truth might be darker than readers want to admit. Other readers thought there was a scary reality to Derrick Bell’s fictional tale, but enjoyed the message all the same. Derrick Bell brilliantly portrayed some insightful analysis of the reality of the afterlives of slavery, and his message makes an impact on everyone who read it.
Adrien Katherine Wing, Space Traders for the Twenty-First Century, 11 Berkeley J. Afr.-Am. L. & Pol’y 49 (2009). Available at: h p://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/bjalp/vol11/iss1/6
Bell, Derrick. The Space Traders. 1992.
Bernstein, Fred A. “Derrick Bell, Law Professor and Rights Advocate, Dies at 80.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Oct. 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/10/06/us/derrick-bell-pioneering-harvard-law-professor-dies-at–80.html.
Friedersdorf, Conor. “The Sci-Fi Story That Offends Oversensitive White Conservatives.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 8 Mar. 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/03/the-sci-fi-story-that-offends-oversensitive-white-conservatives/254232/.
Hook, D., & Howarth, C. (2005). Future directions for a critical social psychology of racism/antiracism. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 15(6), 506-512.
Hughey, Matthew W, Embrick, David G, Doane, Ashley “Woody”, & Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. (2015). The Structure of Racism in Color-Blind, “Post-Racial” America. American Behavioral Scientist,59(11), 1358-1376.
Wheaton, P. (2006). Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (review). Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 9(3), 513-515.
Yaszek, Lisa. Race in Science Fiction: The Case of Afrofuturism. virtual-sf.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Yaszek.pdf.
Burkhalter, Holly. “It’s the 21st Century. Yet slavery is alive and well.” Washington Post, 27 June 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/democracy-post/wp/2017/06/27/its-the-21st–century-yet-slavery-is-alive-and-well/?utm_term=.3fc3f86fcdfa.
Ferla, Ruth La. “Afrofuturism: The Next Generation.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 12 Dec. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/12/12/fashion/afrofuturism-the-next-generation.html.
Gay, Roxane. “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 July 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/opinion/hbo-confederateslavery-civil-war.html?_r=0.
Hitchens, Christopher. “The Man Who Ended Slavery.” The Atlantic, May 2005, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/05/the-man-who-ended-slavery/303915/.
Derrick Bell, The Space Traders, critical race theory, science fiction, future slavery, undefined timeline of slavery