In Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Dana, a black woman living in 1970s California, repeatedly finds herself transported back through time and space to a pre-Civil War plantation in Maryland. There, she meets two of her ancestors. One is a white slave owner. The other, the legally free woman he’s keeping as his sex slave.
Using science fiction, the novel delves into complicated ideas about race, power, and identity as Dana finds herself flung back and forth between the past and present. In the process of telling Dana’s story, Butler powerfully explores the logic behind a truth that black sci-fi buffs have known forever: Time travel has never really been for black people.
Time travel really isn’t for black people.
As fun as the idea of being able to go back in time and change the course of history sounds, let’s be real—the farther back in time you go, life becomes objectively worse for black people (see: Jim Crow, segregation, slavery, etc.) Typically, writers don’t bother to get that deep into the implications of time travel and keep their stories focused on white people. This fall, though, two television shows on different networks are tackling black time travel head-on.
NBC’s Timeless is an action thriller about a trio of heroes chasing a villain through time, while Fox’s comedy Making History follows two modern-day men who go back to 1775 and try to incite the American Revolution. For both of the shows’ black leads, the past can be a terrifying place, and they’re none too shy about pointing that out to the audience.
In Making History, Yassir Lester plays Chris, a history professor who quickly finds out that his blackness renders all of his knowledge more or less irrelevant the moment he tries to interact with the 18th century. To avoid getting shot in a pub, he quotes Cuba Gooding Jr.’s “show me the money” speech from Jerry Maguire to a group of drunken white men. They love it—because, you know, white people.
Timeless takes a more serious route in addressing the fact that the American past was fraught with danger for black people.
“I am black,” Malcolm Barrett’s character Rufus explains when pressed about why he’s hesitant to hop in a time machine. “There is literally no place in American history that will be awesome for me.”
It could be easy to write Timeless and Making History off as merely two networks’ attempts to shake up their programming schedules. In reality, though, the shows are contributing something much more complex to the way that we explore race through media.
Sci-fi heavyweight Philip K. Dick is famous for asserting that the media plays a large role in shaping peoples’ realities by letting our imaginations work through concepts that might otherwise be too difficult to address.
Timeless and Making History may not turn out to be scathing critiques of historical and modern race relations; we’ll have to wait until this fall to find out. But in drawing attention to what it would mean for people of color to go back in time, they’re encouraging other forms of sci-fi (be they books, movies, or TV shows) to be more thoughtful in the way that they incorporate race into their worlds.