Far Beyond Those Distant Stars: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and an Afrofuturistic Approach to Religion | Roger A. Sneed

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“Because fictions don’t reproduce a previous reality, they may produce a new reality. They are not bound by an original that precedes them.” –Paul Ricoeur, Lectures on Imagination, 14:19

“You cannot destroy an idea! That future, I created it, and it’s real! Don’t you understand? It is REAL! I created it and IT’S REAL!” –Benny Russell, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Far Beyond the Stars”

 

Introduction

Biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann notes, “Suffering is central to the prophetic consciousness.” (Bruggemann 2001, xv) As he cites Frederick Asals’ work on Flannery O’Connor, he intimates that the prophet must be “prepared for pain” and that the prophet’s function is “to rend the veil that lies between life and pain.” Bruggemann’s understanding of biblical prophetic texts as “acts of imagination that offer and purpose ‘alternative worlds’ that exist because of and in the act of utterance” is instructive to me, especially as I reflect on the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Far Beyond the Stars.” Between 2012 and 2016, I found myself watching this particular episode as a catharsis against the near-constant news reports of Black men, women, and children in America being murdered by police officers and others who felt that they had the power to judge the worthiness of our existences in “their” neighborhoods. Having been a lifelong fan of Star Trek, I have, on occasion, turned to episodes of the various iterations as a way of winding down from a long or particularly stressful day. However, this was different. The waves of Black bodies being gunned down by so-called law enforcement officers—along with corresponding videos of these executions—filled me with despair. Particularly after Trayvon Martin’s murder and the subsequent acquittal of his murderer, I turned to this particular episode of Star Trek. After the fifth or sixth viewing, I asked myself, “Why this particular episode? What about it resonates so strongly with me, and why does it serve as an emotional catharsis to the pain of witnessing the depravity of white supremacy?”

As I thought about why I repeatedly watched this episode, it occurred to me that “Far Beyond The Stars” operates as a prophetic utterance against white supremacy. The essay that follows is an examination of this episode as an Afrofuturistic proclamation against white supremacy and a validation of a religious imagination that is informed by the black science fictional imagination as it is articulated in and through Afrofuturism. The primary goal of this essay is to use the black science fictional imagination as is found in Afrofuturism as a means by which we may move towards a different black religious construction.

Blackpain and the white supremacist imaginary

African American life has been the record of bearing all forms of pain. What Orlando Patterson calls “social death,” and what Debra Walker King understands as a “culture of pain” has framed and continues to frame black life in America (Patterson 1982; King 2008). To be black in America is to experience in some form or another, the debilitating, insidious, and destructive nature of white supremacist thinking and action. White supremacy is a pervasive, death dealing, nihilistic force that is interwoven into every institution in American life.  As King points out, black people are subjected to both overt and symbolic forms of violence (King, 34). Currently, the nation has seen a wave of overt violence against black bodies. The list of names has grown almost daily: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott, Korryn Gaines, Philando Castille, Tyre King, Terence Crutcher, Keith Lamont Scott, and, as of the writing of this essay, Antwon Rose are among the hundreds of black people who have been victims of extrajudicial murder at the hands of police officers and those who took it upon themselves to act as vigilantes. However, it was not just those individual black people who experienced pain and death. Black people experienced the communal pain and the constant reminder that black bodies are not safe, and that no amount or measure of middle-class “respectability” can save one from police violence and any other form of physical violation.

Black people also know that our bodies and spaces are subject to virtual violence. For example, comedian Leslie Jones, star in the recent version of “Ghostbusters,” was harassed on Twitter to the point of temporarily driving her away from the social media platform. Not content with barraging her Twitter account with racist vitriol, a hacker hacked her account and posted nude pictures of her along with racist images. Such incidents prompted other Twitter users to start supportive hashtags like #LoveForLeslieJ. Leslie Jones’s experience of racist abuse is not an isolated incident. Shawn King, a writer for the New York Daily News and a prolific presence on Twitter, argues that anti-black racism is rampant on that platform. Black people individually and collectively experience the pain of white supremacy and its imaginings of blackness as dangerous, docile, and subject to domination and death. Debra Walker King’s concept of blackpainis not merely a response to discrete incidents. Rather, it is a response to the systemic and institutional deployment of white supremacist thinking and action. She notes, “blackpain exists outside of time…it is time—mythic time—and a memorial to the wounds and traumas some Americans wish to deny and discard.”(King, 21) Further, King contends “we must disrupt the pervasive marking of race that codes black bodies in pain as an ordinary event of everyday life.”(21) King’s work is an attempt at disrupting that pervasive marking. Further, we may see Black Lives Matter, black protests in Ferguson, the University of Missouri, Yale University, and other cities across the nation as well as other interventions via social media as attempts by Black people as means of addressing blackpain. I contend that the power of Afrofuturism is to disrupt that pervasive marking of race and the destructive coding of Black bodies and existence as inferior.  Afrofuturist productions exist outside of ordinary time. For example, “Far Beyond the Stars” takes place in both the 24thand 20thcenturies.

Star Trek Literature and Deep Space Nine

Whereas many of the black voices that have articulated our collective attempts to deal with what King calls blackpainmake substantial use of black literature, I want to turn to televisual science fiction, particularly the sixth season episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “Far Beyond The Stars.” I found myself watching re-watching this episode and exploring it as a therapeutic intervention against blackpain after reading about the now near-daily occurrences of police brutality against black bodies. Through the medium of science fiction television, this emergent personal ritual of watching this episode allowed me to achieve some form of catharsis, to scream, to rage, to cry. Of course, as a devout “Trekkie,” I had seen the episode when it initially aired in 1998, and multiple times after the series made its way to Netflix.[1]In constructing this essay, I sought out texts that attended to race, religion, and Star Trek in general and Deep Space Nine in particular. Certainly, the literature regarding Star Trek is continually growing; however, much of the work that explores Star Trek and religion focuses primarily on the Original Series and The Next Generation.  However, there are essays and book chapters that attend to Deep Space Nine and religion.Star Trek and Sacred Ground: Explorations of Star Trek, Religion, and American Culturecontains an essay that interrogates representations of religion in Deep Space Nine. Peter Linford’s “Deeds of Power: Respect for Religion in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” articulates the different approach this series took to religious belief. However, this essay is more of a critique of the series’ approach to religious belief than an exploration of the effects of such presentations for the viewers.  Further, essays that attend to religion in Deep Space Nine often elide the implications of the franchise’s first African American lead also functioning as a savior/prophetic figure. Also, these essays do not explore the intersections of Afrofuturistic thought, religion, and Star Trek in general or Deep Space Nine in particular. For example, Murray Leeder’s contribution to the edited volume, The Star Trek Universe: Franchising the Final Frontier(2015) attends only to religion as presented and critiqued in Star Trek: The Original SeriesandThe Next Generation. Jeffrey Lamp’s essay “Sisko The Christ” in Star Trek As Myth: Essays on Symbol and Archetype at the Final Frontierexplores Benjamin Sisko’s role as the Emissary to the Prophets as analogous to a messianic figure, but the essay does not present any analysis of Sisko as a descendant of African American functioning as a savior figure. A promising treatment of the possibilities offered via Deep Space Nine in general and “Far Beyond the Stars” in particular is found in the fifth chapter of Roberta Pearson and Maire Messenger Davies’s Star Trek and American Television. This chapter focuses on the world-building inherent in “Far Beyond the Stars,” particularly the alternate world created by Benny Russell that the viewer knows as the Star Trek universe. The purpose of this chapter is to illustrate how Star Trek functions as a “narrative trendsetter;” in this case, “Far Beyond the Stars” functions as a narrative critique of racism and white supremacy.(Pearson and Davies 2015)

Akin to this piece is Micheal Charles Pounds’ exploration of the episode “Explorers” in the third chapter of The Black Imagination: Science Fiction, Futurism, and the Speculative.(Jackson and Moody-Freeman, 2011) Like the work that follows, Pounds’ essay seeks to situate the episode “Explorers” as reversing Eurocentric narratives. According to Pounds, “After ‘Explorers,’ the Star Trek experience is revised and identification expanded by acknowledgment of its African origins as real and indispensable to appreciating the spirit of adventure and exploration that is the franchise touchstone and our shared legacy.”(Pounds 2011) Of the essays and book chapters that have addressed Deep Space Nine, Pounds’ essay is one of the few that explicitly connects the figure of Captain Benjamin Sisko to racial representation and interpretive strategies. Further, this essay appears in a volume specifically designed to address what the editors call “the Black imagination.” The essay that follows builds upon that presentation of the Black imagination.

A Brief Introduction to Afrofuturism

“Far Beyond The Stars” is an example of science fiction’s prophetic power in general and the power of Afrofuturistic literary, visual, and musical texts in particular. This prophetic power compels the viewer to think critically about the agency of black imaginations as we strive to create new worlds and new frontiers. Here, I think of Paul Ricoeur’s discussion of productive imagination and George Yancy’s discussion of the “agential black body” (Taylor 2006; Yancy 2008). The Black body can only have agency if that body can imagine alternate possibilities/realities. It is that imagination that moves us towards action. This is what I will call black productive imagination. The episode “Far Beyond The Stars” and its critique of racism—especially in and through Avery Brooks’ direction and acting—showcases the power of black productive imagination. Further, I argue that this episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nineshows how the Black body’s Afrofuturistic imagination can disrupt the death dealing attempts of white supremacy.

The term “Afrofuturism” itself was coined by Mark Dery in “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.”(Dery 1994) In the years since this piece was published, the term has persisted and taken hold in a way in such a way so as to become the primary way in which we describe African American, African, and other diasporic African science fiction works.

An example of the productive use of the term is found in Ytasha Womack’s Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Culture(2013). Describing herself as an Afrofuturist “before the term existed,” Womack argues

…any sci-fi fan, comic book geek, fantasy reader, Trekker, or science fair winner who ever wondered why black people are minimized in pop culture depictions of the future, conspicuously absent from the history of science, or marginalized in the roster of past inventors and then actually set out to do something about it could arguably qualify as an Afrofuturist as well.[2]

Her description of the Afrofuturist is far-ranging. Such a conception of the Afrofuturist has been used to read black science fiction literary productions back into African American literary history. Sheree Thomas’ edited volume Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction From The African Diaspora(2000) includes W.E.B. DuBois’s apocalyptic short story “The Comet” as a pioneering work in black science fiction. While Thomas herself does not employ the term Afrofuturism in the volume’s introduction, I think her intention to foreground the voices of diasporic African writers as producers of science fiction is clearly within Womack’s broad description of the work of the Afrofuturist.

Like dark matter, the contributions of black writers to the [science fiction]genre have not been directly observed or fully explored. For the most part, literary scholars and critics have limited their research largely to examinations of work by authors Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler, the two leading black writers in the genre. (Thomas 2000)

This particular claim may be interpreted as an implicit critique of Dery’s assertion that there are not many African Americans who produce science fiction. By presenting an array of literary work that spans a century, Thomas shows that Afrofuturism extends far beyond Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler. This collection of literary works by Africans in the diaspora is more than simply a descriptive collection. It is a form of resistance to a literary white supremacist imaginary that renders black bodies as “spectres.”

I argue that an Afrofuturistic consciousness yields a vision of blackness that is not bound by whiteness. Further, I think that it is not bound by a conception of a Christian God who stands over and against us. Nor does that God stand “with”us. As Anthony Pinn has articulated in several of his works, part of the enduring problem that black liberation theology has not adequately addressed is the problem of black suffering. The vision of God that I argue Afrofuturism might lead us towards is closer to Victor Anderson’s conception of God as articulated in Creative Exchange. He claims “…God names the totality of the World itself, which is the union of life in all of its concrete actualities (finitude) and ideal potentialities (transcendence).”(Anderson 2008, 134) While Anderson seeks to ground this conception of God within institutions such as the Black Church and black families (in all their multiple iterations), I argue that, like Octavia Butler’s Lauren Olamina, God is not to be found in those institutions. Rather, if God is“the totality of the World itself,”then as the fictional Earthseed religion that Olamina creates argues, God is change. Change is God. We shape that change, and that change shapes us. As James Cone argued in his early seminal works, God is black. To that, I add that God is black insofar as that blackness itself is part of a universe shaped by and shaping change. Further, to limit the encounter with God to institutionalized religious organizations is to rob us of the creative possibilities inherent in the encounters with God-as-world. Ruby Sales, a veteran of the modern Civil Rights Movement, put it quit succinctly during the plenary session at the 2015 meeting of the American Academy of Religion when she noted that there is a distinction between “black religion”and “the Black Church.”She contended that the difference between black religion and the Black Church is that the Black Church as it emerged out of black religion became an institution that reinscribed hegemonic narratives, to wit, the primacy and authority of the (male) black preacher, while black religion is and has been an organic response by black peoples not only to racist oppression, but also to the possibilities of blackness in this world (Sales, 2015). To this point, I turn to black imaginations as shaping that change and shaping God.

As Anderson “suggest[s]that God names the totality of the World itself,”I counter with a suggestion that we as human beings name (and shape) God. We imagine and re-imagine the divine. For the Afrofuturist, this requires a prophetic imagination that sees blackness in multiple dimensions. We bear witness to the dehumanization of black bodies but we do not live in that dehumanization. We see ourselves as agents of change and that change shapes us. Thus, God-as-world understood via Afrofuturism is indeed black. It is that blackness between the stars that encompasses all known reality. It is that blackness from whence we came. As we understand, the universe is constantly expanding. God-as-world is then understood as constantly changing. This, of course, is at the heart of process theology. God is in process, as is all creation.

Returning to Womack’s description of Afrofuturism, television science fiction may also perform the function of disrupting other iterations of white supremacist imaginaries. She mentions “Trekkies,” or fans of the Star Trek franchise asking why and then writing or envisioning black peoples in the future. Further, Womack articulates that Afrofuturism is “often the umbrella for an amalgamation of narratives…[and]values the power of creativity and imagination to reinvigorate culture and transcend social limitations.” This umbrella involves more than literary productions. We point to musical productions like those of Sun Ra, George Clinton and Funkadelic, and Janelle Monae as representative of musical Afrofuturism, but we can also point to comic books and other forms of visual art as well as television and film as presenting Afrofuturistic visions.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

As Gene Roddenberry’s creation, Star Trekrepresented a utopia in which humanity had finally overcome the major obstacles preventing it from flourishing:  war, disease, famine, racism, and greed had eventually vanished from human experience. The United Federation of Planets and its exploratory/military wing Starfleet represented a utopian ideal in which humans will eventually explore “the final frontier” for exploration’s sake rather than for expansion or conquest. In the Original Series, much of the conflict and drama derived from contact with “the alien of the week,” or a sentient computer gone mad, or a human who had violated Starfleet’s non-interference directive, popularly known as the Prime Directive.

When Star Trekwas revived as a weekly television series in the late 1980s, Roddenberry wanted the crew of this new Enterpriseto be, for lack of a better word, perfect. Captain Jean-Luc Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) was as close to a perfect character as one might find in fiction. Picard’s stern demeanor was coupled with a keen intellect and cultured interests in classical music, art, literature, and archaeology. His preferred beverage itself bespoke a character steeped in cultured tastes. Picard’s standard order to the replicator was “Tea, Earl Grey, hot.” Star Trek’sreplicator is itself an indicator of Roddenberry’s utopian vision. In the series, the food replicator virtually eliminates hunger, as it is a technology that can, upon command, produce virtually any food or beverage programmed into the computer. As with its groundbreaking predecessor, the voice of human reason and progress in Star Trek is in the form of a white, heterosexual male. It is those characters that provide the narrative thrust of the series, delivering the show’s creed at the beginning of each episode. James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard present the face of the putatively multicultural, 150 world United Federation of Planets. It is a formula that was turned on its head by the time Deep Space Ninemade it to the airwaves.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine(or, DS9for short) was itself quite a departure from what had come to be understood as the traditional mold of Star Trek. Instead of a voyaging starship called Enterprisecaptained by a single, white-identified male and a supporting diverse crew of spotless morality, this particular iteration of Trek was led by an African American male captain who had a son, a female first officer (who was a former terrorist), and a host of culturally diverse and morally ambiguous people on a backwater space station. The first episode of Deep Space Ninebegins with Commander Benjamin Sisko, then the first officer of the U.S.S. Saratoga, losing his wife in the Battle of Wolf 359, a catastrophic and apocalyptic battle between Starfleet and the implacable, cybernetic race called The Borg. After the battle, Sisko, now a widower raising a son, is posted to the newly-acquired space station Deep Space Nine. The Cardassians, who had occupied the nearby planet Bajor for fifty years, had stripped and abandoned the station, leaving it for the Federation and Starfleet to take over.[3]It is at this posting that Sisko encounters aliens known as the Prophets (“Emissary” 1.1). The Prophets are non-corporeal entities that exist outside of normal space-time and live within a wormhole that connects the Alpha Quadrant to the distant Gamma Quadrant. The Bajorans—a highly spiritual humanoid race—worship these Prophets. By the end of the series premiere, the Prophets have designated Sisko as their Emissary (1.1). By extension, the Bajorans come to revere Sisko as the Emissary of the Prophets. This is a position that Sisko initially rejects, reflecting the secularized skepticism of Starfleet, the Federation, and, by extension, the larger Star Trek mythos.

One of Star Trek’s enduring problems has been its presentation of non-human cultures as being virtually monolithic. In this case, the problem has been the presentation of Bajorans as having one singular religion. Since the introduction of the Bajorans in the Next Generation episode “Ensign Ro,” the writers never introduced more than one religious orientation for Bajorans.[4]

While the Original Series and The Next Generation were inconsistent in their presentations of religious belief in the 23rdand 24thcenturies, Deep Space Nine was consistent in wrestling with questions that related to religious faith and belief. As mentioned above, the first episode of the series is a radical departure from the previous series’ in that the main character not only meets an alien entity that may be a deity, he himself becomes known as a representative of those entities. While the series in its first few seasons takes pains to show that Sisko is not at all comfortable with the title and role of Emissary to the Prophets, over the course of the series—and definitely by the fifth and sixth seasons of the series—he embraces his identity as part of his destiny.[5]  It is Sisko’s relationship to the Prophets that functions as background to “Far Beyond The Stars.”

In Mark Scott Zircee’s proposed draft, this particular episode was supposed to focus on Jake Sisko, Benjamin’s son. In the original proposal, Jake would have traveled through time to the past. However, Ira Steven Behr turned the script down, and then later suggested that the episode focus on the elder Sisko and deal with racism. Zircee, Behr, and Hans Beimler worked together to produce the final script. While it may appear problematic that the script was written by white men, the showrunners opted to ask Avery Brooks to direct the episode. As the production commentary on Memory Alpha note, “usually, when an actor directs, their character has a very small role.” Instead, not only did Brooks direct the episode, his character played the prominent role in the episode. According to Behr, it would have been inappropriate to have a white director directing a narrative that centers on black experiences of racism and white supremacy (Memory Alpha).

In the episode, Captain Benjamin Sisko is feeling the weight of the Federation’s two-year old war with the Dominion.[6]As he’s talking to his father, who is visiting the station, Benjamin sees a man dressed in 1950s attire walk in front of his office. Soon, he begins not only seeing images fromthe 50s, he finds himself inthe 50s. Further, he is no longer Captain Benjamin Sisko. Instead, he is Benny Russell, a science fiction writer living in New York City. From that point forward, the story takes place in 1950s New York as though that setting constitutes “the real world.” Benny writes for a sci-fi magazine called Incredible Tales. He becomes entranced by a drawing of a space station and takes it home. After an encounter with racist street cops, Benny meets a black street preacher who tells him to “write the words” that will set men free, to show people “that which is to come.” In a sense, this street preacher is exhorting Benny Russell to write an apocalypse, a revelation of that which is to come.

Eventually, Benny writes a story called “Deep Space Nine.” Despite everyone in the office loving the story, the editor refuses to publish the story because the story’s protagonist—named “Benjamin Sisko”—is a black man who commands the station. To the editor’s thinking, no one will accept a story in which the captain of a space station is a black man. It would appear that the editor is correct, as shown when Benny tells streetwise Jimmy that he’s writing about black people in space and Jimmy derisively dismisses him and the story—in fact, it is the only time the word “nigger” has ever been uttered in a Star Trek series. Benny’s girlfriend, Cassie, is more concerned with the two of them settling into a quiet life in which she runs the restaurant where she works and Benny could write for a black-owned newspaper. Nevertheless, Benny writes six more stories about Deep Space Nine and Captain Sisko. Further, he begins to see the people in his world as the characters he has created. For example, as his co-workers are reading his story, he sees Kay Eaton as Bajoran Major Kira Nerys, and the aforementioned racist street cops take the form of representatives from the authoritarian Cardassians and Dominion. Further, as Benny writes more stories, his realities begin to blur. He is becoming this Benjamin Sisko, and fears that he is losing his mind.

In order to get his first story published, Benny agrees to a compromise and makes the entire story a “dream.” However, this compromise is not enough. Mr. Stone, the unseen owner of the magazine (who represents the intangible forces of oppression and structural iniquity and inequality) pulps the entire magazine’s run and fires Benny. Benny has a nervous breakdown in the office. He tells those around him that they cannot destroy an idea and that those people in the story exist.

“You can pulp a story, but you cannot destroy an idea! Don’t you understand, that’s ancient knowledge. You cannot destroy an idea! That future, I created it, and it’s real! Don’t you understand? It is REAL! I created it and IT’S REAL!” (6.13)

When Benny wakes up in an ambulance, he notices that he is wearing a Starfleet uniform. The Preacher has now appeared beside him, and tells him that he can now rest easy, and that he has walked in the path of the Prophets, for which “there can be no greater glory.” Benny asks, “Who am I?” to which the Preacher responds, “Don’t you know? You are the Dreamer, and the Dream.” Benny looks out the windows of the ambulance, and sees stars streaking by, the signature visual effect that represents to the viewer a starship at warp speed. It is at that point that the episode shifts permanently back to Captain Sisko and “our universe.” Sisko awakes in Deep Space Nine’s infirmary, and the doctor tells him that he has been unconscious for only a few minutes. Only a few minutes have passed during the period in which Sisko was living the life of Benny Russell, and in “our universe,” Sisko had merely experienced some “unusual synaptic potentials.”[7]In the episode’s final scene, Sisko talks with his father and vows to continue fighting the Dominion, and his father surprisingly quotes the Bible:

Joseph:
…The question is, what are you going to do?
Sisko:
The only thing I can do. Stay here and finish the job I started.
(a beat)
And if I fail…
Joseph:
“I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith.”
Sisko (looking at his father in surprise):
I’ve never known you to quote the Bible.

The episode ends with Sisko musing, “somewhere, far beyond all those distant stars, Benny Russell is dreaming of us.” (“Far Beyond the Stars” 6.13)

Benjamin Sisko’s journey in this episode obviously mirrors Benny Russell’s journey. However, I contend that, as Sisko notes at the end of the episode, Benny Russell is dreaming of us. Russell’s inspiration to take a drawing of a space station and build an entire galactic Federation that emphasizes mutual understanding and cooperation and is free from racism, hatred, and so forth is constituitive of black science fiction writing. Black science fiction writers have long used the medium as a way of critiquing the oppressive structures that deal death and misery to black peoples. It would not be surprising that a black science fiction writer in the 1950s might create a future world in which racism no longer immediately governs the lives of black people. In the case of Benny Russell, he re-frames the implacable, insatiable desire for domination that comprises white supremacy in the form of the Dominion. If we think of black imagination as active resistance to the death dealing forces of white supremacy, then I read Russell’s creation of Deep Space Nine as defiance—we black people will not only survive and flourish well into the 24thcentury, but we will also rise to command the most important outpost in the Federation as well as one of the most powerful ships in the quadrant. Like Afrofuturists in “our” world, Russell uses the medium of science fiction to re-frame the lives of black people in his world. For example, instead of a being a struggling restaurant waitress, Cassie is now Kasidy Yates, a fearless freighter captain. Jimmy, the wayward youth cut down by the soulless minions of white supremacy, is now Sisko’s son Jake, who, in the world created by Russell, is a successful writer in his own right.

For Black people to write themselves into a future is to adopt and adapt an eschatological hope that does not rely on an otherworldly afterlife. While the future of which Benny Russell dreams is neither a religious heaven nor an unblemished utopia, Russell nevertheless functions as St. John the Divine, receiving and relating a revelation at the end of oppression. As such, when the “spirit” in the form of the Preacher urges Benny to “write the words that will lead us out of darkness,” Benny is, like St. John, outlining a vision of the future in which the descendants of the oppressed receive vindication. Here, the “new Heaven and new Earth” are humans of all races pushing out into the stars, and transforming Earth into a virtual paradise. I read Russell as presenting Deep Space Nine as a gospel of liberation that stands as fulfillment of James Cone’s theological project. When the Prophet speaks to Benny and urges him to “write the words…that will lead us out of darkness,” I see the Prophet as the indwelling, inspiring spirit that empowers the oppressed person to engage in prophetic utterances. Further, when the Prophet (who in the “real” world of the Federation, is Benjamin Sisko’s father) tells Russell first that hope and despair are often hand in hand and then that there is no greater glory than to walk in the path of the Prophets, I read these statements as science fictional representations of divine wisdom. This is the prophetic imagination in action. The dreamer understands that their work is itself part of the dream. As Bruggemann noted in the introduction to The Prophetic Imagination, “I suspect that whatever is ‘prophetic’ must be more cunning and more nuanced and perhaps more ironic.”(Bruggemann, 2001)  Here, Bruggemann is talking about the work of the prophetic in an increasingly secularized world. It cannot take on a thoroughly oppositional approach to the “world;” rather, the prophetic must approach the world imaginatively. I would add that the prophetic must also approach the world with passion. The re-presentation of divine wisdom through human voices must be driven by a kind of passion that allows for cunning, ironic approaches to the world. The work of the dreamer is cunning in that it is subversive. Benny Russell uses the medium of science fiction to subvert white supremacy, to throw its racist imaginary into turmoil. The United Federation of Planets, Deep Space Nine, and the multiracial, multicultural crew are the indictments against the white supremacist imaginary and show an eschatology in which the white supremacist imaginary has finally been rendered inert.

The scene in which Sisko/Russell “breaks down” is often criticized as being “overplayed” or, in the case of the A.V. Club review, “half-crazed poetry, the sort of broken heart madness that Brooks is so good at.”(Handlen, 2013) These critiques are often subtle dismissals of the pain at the core of black experiences in this nation. Further, while many of the reviews and analyses of this particular episode acknowledge the torturous history of race in this country, they do not adequately connect that pain, that blackpainto Brooks’s reading of that scene. Simply put, critiques of Brooks’s performance—particularly the breakdown—emanate from a white culture that cannot fathom blackpain. Avery Brooks’s performance throughout the entire episode and the climactic breakdown in particular is a powerful dramatization of the blackpain that has framed black life in America. This acting choice itself is a shout against the death dealing and nihilistic forces of white supremacy. This is black productive imagination in action as it speaks truths to power through dramatic acting. Once again, I read Brooks’ performance as prophetic in itself. The breakdown at the climax of “Far Beyond The Stars” is prophetic in that it “calls out” the racism in a society that claims to be threatened by black imagination and can only respond by inflicting pain upon black bodies.

This particular scene in the episode itself characterizes what Star Trekin particular was able to do. This episode as a critique of racism is able to do so via the medium of science fiction. As a form of American mythology, Star Trekwas able to critique and affirm the American experiment. It is Brooks’ experience of directing and acting in the lead that frames this essay’s argument about a black imaginary. In discussing his directing and acting in this episode, Brooks said:

If we had changed the people’s clothes, this story could be about right now. What’s insidious about racism is that it is unconscious. Even among these very bright and enlightened characters – a group that includes a woman writer who has to use a man’s name to get her work published, and who is married to a brown man with a British accent in 1953 – it’s perfectly reasonable to coexist with someone like Pabst. It’s in the culture, it’s the way people think. So that was the approach we took. I never talked about racism. I just showed how these intelligent people think, and it all came out of them(Memory Alpha).

It is that unconscious expression of racism that could not imagine a future in which a Benjamin Sisko could be the captain of a space station. As Brooks notes, that unconscious racism is so deeply rooted that otherwise “intelligent” people will consider a black man crazy if he can “see” a future in which black and white people aren’t ruled by racism. In the episode, after Benny has come back with six sequels to the initial Deep Space Nine story, the editor Douglas Pabst asks him “Have you lost your mind?!?” to which Benny replies, “Lately, I’ve been asking myself the same question.”(6.13) Black imagination as disruptive imagination may likely be “crazy,” but it is crazy insofar as it works against a status quo that serves a white supremacist imaginary.

The story that Benny Russell wrote involved characters set in a universe that we “know” to have been created by Gene Roddenberry in the 1960s. However, for Benny Russell’s characters and story to work, he would have had to create and outline for the reader the underlying political structures and history of the United Federation of Planets. By the internal logic of the episode, it was not Gene Roddenberry who created Star Trek; rather, it was Benny Russell, who, in Sisko’s words during the episode’s coda, “was dreaming of us.” Once again, returning to the prophetic imagination, the writers and actors may be asking, “What if Star Trek had been created by a black person?” This science fictional imagination acts as a meta-narrative, daring the viewer to see a fictional universe that we “know” to have been created by a white male through a different lens. This is a return to Womack’s articulation of Afrofuturism in which a cultural worker sees black experiences either absent or misrepresented, and “set[s]out to do something about it.” Thus, Afrofuturism as we see it in “Far Beyond The Stars” functions as a deep corrective of the overwhelming whiteness at work even in the supposedly multicultural Star Trek fictional universe.

The episode itself is a metanarrative critique of racism in American popular culture. In terms of fan rankings of the various Star Trek series, Deep Space Nineusually occupies a position lower than that of the Original Seriesand The Next Generation, but higher than Voyagerand the much-maligned prequel series, Star Trek: Enterprise. As I noted earlier, the “mold” that the Original Series set and the Next Generation followed privileged white heterosexual male experience. Indeed, Captains Kirk and Picard are held as paragons of Starfleet captains. When DS9 began, Sisko was not even a captain; this would be the first Star Trekseries in which we would see the lead earn the rank. While Star Trekhas been critical of racism among humans, the franchise itself has not wholly been free of it. This, of course, is part and parcel of the problem with science fiction. While we may indeed dream worlds and existences beyond our own, those imaginations are not completely free from hegemonic narratives. The androcentric problem at the heart of the Star Trek franchise is the androcentric problem at the heart of science fiction, namely, the conceit that white heterosexual male experience and narratives are the narratives that matter. Black lives may have mattered, but they did so only insofar as they supported white heteropatriarchies.

It is here that I return to Afrofuturism. I will quote part of a piece about Afrofuturism that appeared in the Nassau Weekly, a Princeton University student-run publication:

“Afrofuturism wants you to step back and see the slave ships as space ships. As author Nalo Hopkinson said, African people were snatched up from their homes by invaders, forced to cross an entire ocean, and deposited in a foreign place where their abductors tried to take away their culture, language, and history. That kind of thing sounds more like science fiction than reality. And of that culture, language, and history, Hopkinson says, “We remade them. Where we could not remake them we conjured them. We rebuilt ourselves as people anew.”Thus, the African American story is rewritten as one of supreme victory—and one that is ongoing.”(Nassau Weekly, 2015)

I contend that what we need to be able to contribute to black theological and religious conversation is more dreaming. What are the worlds of which we dream? Are they the worlds in which only words and phrases like “systemic evil” and “microagression” and “neoliberal” reign supreme, overdetermining our every intellectual move and turning our waking moments into nightmares? Or can we dream of worlds in which raced, sexed, and classed human bodies are artifacts of a less enlightened past? When I say that we need more dreaming, I am thinking of us who find ourselves drawn to science fiction and find ourselves referring to those worlds envisioned in the works of Octavia Butler, Janelle Monáe, George Clinton, and the like. I think that a narrative such as the one found in “Far Beyond the Stars” casts dreaming as a subversion of what we call reality. To dream, as Benny Russell does, of Deep Space Nine and Captain Benjamin Sisko, and to write down those dreams is to follow the voice of the Prophets and present narratives that lead us out of the darkness of the white supremacist imaginary.

Further, the black imaginary at work in this episode draws on the role of the Prophet as a reimagining of deities. As mentioned above, the series features non-corporeal entities that exist outside of linear time, yet interact in time with Captain Sisko. In this particular episode, the Prophets are represented by the figure of the black street preacher who appears at several points to exhort Benny to continue writing the words.  I contend here that this episode may yield a reimagining of “God” in which the motivating spirit or non-corporeal entity urges humanity towards shaping change. As mentioned in the synopsis of the episode, Captain Sisko is close to despair, wondering if he should leave Starfleet. His experience as Benny Russell, as a vision given to him by the Prophets gives him the strength to continue his role in the war against the Dominion and himself function as an agent of change.

Black imagination as shaping God and God shaping black imagination is that prophetic moment in which we, like Benny Russell, tell the world that what created is real and white supremacy cannot destroy that. Black imaginations, like the blackness from whence they come, are disruptive as they are prophetic. The futures we create participate in the life of God-as-world. We live and we develop our blackness in community. We do not submit to terror. Rather, we create these futures, “far beyond all those distant stars,” these futures in which black lives not only matter, but they rise, and they are real.

 

Works Cited

Anderson, Victor. 2008. Creative exchange: a constructive theology of african american experience. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Bernardi, Daniel L. 1998. Star trek and history: race-ing towards a white future. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Bruggemann, Walter. 2001. The prophetic imagination, 2nded. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.

Butler, Octavia. 2000. Parable of the sower. New York: Grand Central Publishing, reprint edition.

—. 2000.Parable of the talents. New York: Grand Central Publishing, reprint edition.

Dery, Mark. 1994. Flame wars: the discourse of cyberulture, ed. Mark Dery, 179-223. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

“Far beyond the stars (episode).” Memory Alpha. http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Far_Beyond_the_Stars_(episode)

Geraghty, Lincoln. 2007. Living with star trek: american culture and the star trek universe, London: I.B. Tauris.

Handlen, Zack. 2013. Star trek: deep space nine: “far beyond the stars.” The A.V. Club, 14 November. http://www.avclub.com/tvclub/tktk-103947.

Jindra, Michael. 1999. Star trek to me is a way of life: fan expression of star trek philosophy in Star trek and sacred ground: explorations of star trek, religion, and american culture, ed. Jennifer E. Porter and Darcee L. McLaren, 217-230. Albany: State University of New York Press.

King, Debra Walker. 2008. African Americans and the Culture of Pain. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Lamp, Jeffrey S. 2010. The Sisko, the Christ: a comparison of messiah figures in the star trek universe and the new testament in Star Trek as myth, ed. Matthew Wilhelm Kapell, 112-128. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co., inc.

Leeder, Murray. 2015. Supernatural trek?: star trek and the re-enchantment of the world in the star trek universe: franchising the final frontier, ed. Douglas Brode and Shea T. Brode, 1-14. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield.

Linford, Peter. 1999. Deeds of power: respect for religion in star trek: deep space nine in Star trek and sacred ground: explorations of star trek, religion, and american culture, ed. Jennifer E. Porter and Darcee L. McLaren, 77-100. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Nassau Weekly. Ferguson is the Future. http://www.nassauweekly.com/ferguson-is-the-future/

Pearson, Roberta and Maire Messenger Davies. 2015. Star trek and American television. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pounds, Micheal C. 1999. Race in space: the representation of ethnicity in star trek and star trek: the next generation. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press.

—. 2011. Explorers—star trek: deep space nine, in the black imagination: science fiction, futurism, and the speculative, ed. Sandra Jackson and Julie E. Moody-Freeman, 47-80

“Religion in star trek.” Ex Astris Scientia. http://www.ex-astris-scientia.org/inconsistencies/religion.htm.

Taylor, George. Ricouer’s philosophy of imagination. Journal of French Philosophy, vol. 16, numbers 1 and 2. Spring-Fall, 2006.

Thomas, Sheree R., ed. 2000. Dark matter: a century of speculative fiction from the african diaspora. New York: Warner Books.

Womack, Ytasha L. 2013. Afrofuturism: the world of black sci-fi and fantasy culture (Kindle Locations 89-92). Chicago Review Press. Kindle Edition.

Yancy, George. 2008. Black bodies, white gazes: the continuing significance of race. New York: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers.

LA Times. “‘Star Trek’: Nicholas Meyer Explains His Roddenberry Regret,” 10 July.http://herocomplex.latimes.com/movies/star-trek-nicholas-meyers-explains-his-roddenberry-regret/

Star trek: deep space nine: far beyond the stars. Directed by Avery Brooks

Audio recording, “Racial Injustice and Religious Response from Selma to Ferguson” (2015 AAR Plenary Panel)

Endnotes

[1]For a discussion of fan devotion to Star Trek, see Michael Jindra’s essay “Star Trek To Me Is A Way of Life: Fan Expression of Star Trek Philosophy,” in Star Trek and Sacred Ground: Explorations of Star Trek, Religion, and American Culture, edited by Jennifer E. Porter and Darcee L. McLaren (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999).

[2]Womack, Ytasha L. (2013-10-01). Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture(Kindle Locations 89-92). Chicago Review Press. Kindle Edition.

[3]In the first episode, it is clear that Deep Space Nine is decidedly not an ideal posting, which again distinguished this series from The Original Series and Next Generation, where being posted to the respective series’ U.S.S. Enterprise held significant esteem. The course of the series saw the station itself change from an unimportant space station to a commercially important station, and then finally, a vital station on the front lines of an intergalactic war.

[4]Later in the run of DS9, the writers introduced the cult of the Pah-wraiths, however, I would not characterize this as another religious orientation. Rather, this is a response by some Bajorans to a sentiment that the Prophets had abandoned them.

[5]Several episodes, designated as “The Emissary Trilogy” demonstrate Sisko’s evolution from actively resisting the title and role of Emissary to him actively embracing it.

[6]At this point in the series, the station Deep Space Nine has transitioned from being a “backwater space station” to one of the most important outposts in the Alpha Quadrant (the region of space that contains the species that populate the Star Trek universe).

[7]Sisko’s unusual brain activity and the attendant visions he experiences in “Far Beyond the Stars” is connected to a prior episode of the series. Season five’s “Rapture” saw Captain Sisko receiving visions from the Prophets as a result of a “plasma shock.” The “synaptic potentials” mentioned in this episode are repeated in “Far Beyond the Stars” and works to connect Sisko’s experiences in this episode with the Prophets.

 

 

Roger A. Sneed is the Dorothy and B.H. Peace, Jr. Associate Professor of Religion and Chair of Religion at Furman University. He is currently working on a manuscript tentatively titled “The Dreamer and the Dream: Afrofuturism and Black Religious Thought,” to be published by the Ohio State University Press.

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