Black to the future: science fiction writer Tananarive Due talks about afrofuturism and why it’s important.
Afrofuturism serves as a ideological wrecking ball to the staled and played out construction of whites-only nerd identity, and allows practitioners and followers to douse themselves in blackness, Black Cool, and black nerd stuff while building a healthy dose of pride about their own blackness and nerd identity.
Afrofuturism has been around a long time, but was as far as I know first defined by culture critic Mark Dery in his 1993 essay Black to the Future:
Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture — and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future — might, for want of a better term, be called Afrofuturism.
It takes place as much outside what you might call the official channels of speculative fiction, a multidisciplinary movement whose roots are deeply embedded in black music, from Martha Reeves & The Vandellas dancing amongst the Detroit production lines, to the ten droid commandments of Janelle Monae via Sun Ra, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Planet Rock, the funk mythology of bands like Earth, Wind and Fire and Parliament/Funkadelic, who started taking every seventies pop sci-fi and pop parascience obsession and mixing it into a gumbo of Afrocentric sci-fi theology bringing back the funk to those caught in the Placebo Syndrome:
The Mothership, as a symbol of the P-Funk gestalt, took funkateers out of the disco-dominated dance scene which smelled clean and felt rigid, and returned them to the belly of the cosmos, where it smells skanky and feels rubbery. The Mothership symbolized the possibility of a spiritual, not a physical, return to blood and to roots, to the swirling gasses and dust of galactic conception, to the smell of freshly plucked wild yams, amorphous and still covered in the funk of the earth; of a return to a cut-loose, stink-up-the- place, get your ya-ya’s out, freak on down the road domain where “Funk is its own reward”.
If in Dery’s view, Afrofuturism runs through all kinds of music created in the African diaspora, jazz, funk, reggea, hip-hop and techno, that’s only the tip of the iceberg, as Ytasha L. Womack’s Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture makes clear:
It’s not clear at first glance that Afro-surrealist poet D. Scot Miller, jazz artist Sun Ra, and rapper Missy Elliott have anything in common, but Womack brings hidden lines of connectivity to the surface, revealing a shared set of interests: a preoccupation with experimentation, with the strange, with the soulful, with black history, with black imagery, and with a black future. The book is arranged thematically to make the connections clear. Themes include alien abduction as a metaphor for slavery; the influence of African cosmologies and science; the divine feminine; time travel; space exploration; and community engagement. There are also chapters devoted to music, literature, and the visual arts. The result is an abundance of images and names packed into a fairly slim volume. While this means that Womack doesn’t always analyze individual works very deeply, the archive she illuminates is worth the price. There are enough stars in Afrofuturism’s galaxy of artists to keep the interested explorer traveling for years.
One constant in discussions about Afrofuturism is how it’s more than just an artform or art movement, but is a way of understanding and re-imagining the world:
How might something called “afro-futurism,” in all its various manifestations—in sound, in vision, in narrative, in film, in poetry—provide the grounds for a different kind of imagining in black, beyond, besides, and around the reach and pull of the statistical imagination? And, given the very biased sample with which I started, three black gay men, how might something called afro-futurism be a peculiarly and particularly queer project, a way that queerness can re-frame the black imagination?
I have no answers: but I’m excited by work being done by Kara Keeling, Tavia Nyong’o, Jayna Brown and others that will extend the labor of the black imagination, framing it in new ways, opening up new possibilities, teaching us to imagine more, imagine better, imagine in black.
It’s no surprise Afrofuturism flourishes on the internet, but also in academia, with Alondra Nelson being one of the most prominent scholars to be active in it, editing a special edition of Social Text about Afrofuturism in 2002. imilar attention to Afrofuturism has also been paid to it by the long running Science Fiction Studies, focusing on what it can mean for science fiction:
It is not the intention of this special issue to incorporate Afrofuturism into sf. Afrofuturism is every bit as irreducible to sf as Bradley is to SHADO’s white hierarchy, or black Americans to Latverian robot slaves, or Luke Cage to the buck stereotype. Rather, it is the contention of this issue that sf and sf studies have much to learn from the experience of technoculture that Afrofuturist texts register across a wide range of media; and that sf studies, if it is to be at all radical, must use its position of relative privilege to provide a home for excluded voices without forcing assimilation upon them.
Some more internet resources:
- The Shadows Took Shape, “a source for Afrofuturist aesthetics”.
- Afrocyberpunk, “exploring the future of Africa through various expressions of Afrofuturism in science and speculative fiction across all forms of media”.
- The Afrofuturist Affair, “a community formed to celebrate, strengthen, and promote Afrofuturistic and Black Scifi culture through creative events and creative writing”.
- Ytasha L. Womack’s own blog