The science fiction/fantasy genre has historically been a monolithic one– same characters, same character development, few or no Black people, especially Black women. I loved sci-fi as a child, but I couldn’t connect fully with the genre. In hindsight, I know now that I couldn’t connect with it because I struggled to imagine myself in the worlds that were built. No one that looked like me existed in them, so it was difficult to imagine my place there.
As a result, I have been diligent in seeking out Black women characters who bravely take up space in these imaginary worlds. I’ve especially sought out Black women characters with the emotional depth and intensity that I see from the Black women around me, and even from myself. These one-of-a-kind characters span literature, television, and film; so don’t hesitate to learn more about them if your interest is sparked. From one sci-fi gworl to the next, let’s get into this list of inspiring Black female characters! How many do you recognize?
1. Essun, from The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K Jemisin
I had to start this list with Essun because of the expertise Jemisin writes her with. Jemisin does an amazing job giving Essun a specific kind of depth, and a deep seated resentment towards her world that Black women can relate to. Essun, like many of us, is burdened with oppression because she was born an Oregene (Oregenes: people who can move the Earth and feel its movements). Because she is born an Oregene, her options are to either serve the oppressive state while constantly experiencing discrimination everywhere she goes, or be deemed a threat and mercilessly neutralized in a horrifying manner. Essun falls in line over the course of her life, keeping her status by remaining “useful” for the government– a choice that many of us are forced to make. But this changes when she can no longer ignore the hate-filled violence that she has worked so hard to block out her entire life.
My favorite thing about Essun is her righteous fury. Jemisin does a beautiful job of demonstrating the resentment that comes with a lifetime of experiencing discrimination, and even internalizing it. Essun’s anger is a slow burn, but when she snaps man does she snap! I love that there’s no ambiguity in Essun’s anger– she is absolutely entitled to it, and no reader would dare question that. More than her rage, Essun is a woman who is tactful, resourceful, realistic, and logical– up until you threaten what she cares about the most. Essun is a survivor, and her anger reminded me that sometimes our anger is our ally– especially in a world where Black women’s anger can be weaponized. This trilogy is being flipped for the big screen soon, so you gotta read it before it’s on your TV!
2. Aneka, from Marvel’s Black Panther
When I tell ya’ll I was so excited to see that Aneka will be included in the upcoming Black Panther 2 movie, annnnnnd that she’s being played by Michaela Coel– yo! Aneka is a combat instructor for the Dora Milaje– the finest all-Black female group of warriors you’ll ever encounter in sci-fi. Aneka fights her way to the top of the Dora Milaje as captain, directly assigned to protect T’Challa. At least in the Marvel universe (I’m not sure about the movie), Aneka violates Dora Milaje protocol and falls in love with a fellow warrior, and the two ultimately separate from the group to form their own– the Midnight Angels. Aneka is highly skilled in martial arts and combat with a spear, and formed the Midnight Angels with Ayo (her partner) to serve the oppressed citizens of Wakanda outside of the royal family, who the Dora Milaje are sworn to protect.
What I love about Aneka is that she’s a warrior who finds love in the arms of her fellow Black woman-warrior (well, technically Ayo was her trainee for a while but still). Even more, Aneka’s fierceness, tenacity, and desire to fight for the oppressed no matter the cost is truly admirable. I don’t want to give away too much of her story, but whenever presented with the choice, Aneka chooses to do the right thing, no matter what. She chooses Wakanda over everything. The combination of warrior and lover that we see with Aneka is so important, especially given that it’s demonstrating the love between two warrior women dedicated to the same cause. Neither partner has to water themselves down for the other– they’re just two equally badass warrior women who don’t play about the things and people they love!
3. Mel Medarda, from Arcane on Netflix
Mel’s morality isn’t as cut and dry as the characters above, and that’s what I love about her the most! Mel is a viciously ambitious politician, and whether or not her ambitions serve the greater good is left up to the viewers’ interpretation. In Piltover, magic, and the technology designed to harness it, is being introduced for the first time through academy-trained scientists. Mel seems to agree with the use of magic, despite the fact that its applications are unclear and unstable. However, as a politician, Mel is more invested in ensuring the government owns such applications. Mel takes several questionable steps to make this happen, including keeping the scientist involved under her watchful eye. She even uses some, well… questionable means to ensure that this scientist trusts her above anyone else.
Mel is cunning, and honestly a bit manipulative– which makes it difficult for viewers to trust her. What I love so much about her character depth is that we learn that her manipulation is for the greater good of Piltover. She is analytical, and sees through people’s bullshit from a mile away. Mel is the epitome of “you’re playing checkers, I’m playing chess”, and that kind of rule-the-world intellect is admirable. Mel’s kind of moral ambiguity, political savvy, and emotional depth in Black female characters in sci-fi seemed so rare that I instantly fell in love with her. Did I mention she’s always dressed down for the Gods? Mel’s a ten and she knows it, and I adore it! She’s also an aristocrat that comes from a long line of powerful politicians, namely her mother, who is every bit as beautiful and powerful. Mel’s complex relationship with her mother, Ambessa, is revealed to fuel the means she uses to justify her ends. Arcane does a great job of representing all different types of boss women too so I highly recommend it!
4. Shori, from Fledgling by Octavia Butler
I initially had a difficult time connecting with Shori– but let’s be clear, that’s no fault of Butler’s expert storytelling! I had a difficult time connecting with Shori because she had a difficult time connecting with herself. At the start of the book, Shori wakes with no recollection of her past life– only the inclination that violence was once inflicted upon her for some reason that she can’t explain. Shori sets out on a mission to find out who she is and what happened to her family, and along the way redefines who she is, and her understanding of herself in relation to others.
I realized that this was my favorite thing about Shori: Shori gets to decide who she wants to be. Of course, there’s context– the world around her impacts her understanding of herself, but only as information she takes in. The violence inflicted against her family, she learns, is rooted in discrimination against Shori– a daywalking vampire genetically modified to have skin dark enough to withstand the sun. Shori’s recollection of her life before her injury is restored through various means, and she and her vampire family eventually receive justice for the violence enacted against them. My absolute favorite thing about Shori is that she’s born gifted. All the other vampires find her incredibly desirable and even enviable, and no human– man or woman– can resist her. She’s incredibly intelligent and a fast learner. She’s fast, strong–honestly, Shori was just born with “it”– and that is so reminiscent of the Black women I’ve met in my life. Born with that “it” factor, and somehow resented for it. Shori’s story reminded me that haters gon hate, and we shouldn’t let haters stop us. Shori certainly doesn’t.
Science fiction is expanding its definitions to include Black women, and the above characters are only a few of the characters that give me so much hope for the genre. Now of course I can’t forget some honorable mentions and classic faves worth looking into: Tara, from The Southern Vampire Mysteries novels (aka True Blood on HBO), Bonnie from Vampire Diaries, and Gaal Dornick from Foundation, Storm, from Marvel’s X-Men, and even Nyota Uhura from Star Trek, just to name a few. Know of any others? Drop some characters in the comments and we can all nerd out together!
Vanessa is a third-year graduate student studying Psychology at Rutgers University, with a passion for all thing’s wellness, research, creativity and empathy. In her spare time, Vanessa enjoys learning guitar, reading and writing fiction stories as forms of expression and vulnerability. Vanessa can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.