"The sister is in space"
November 26, 2014 12:20 PM   Subscribe

Black to the future: science fiction writer Tananarive Due talks about afrofuturism and why it's important.

As Troy L. Wiggins puts it:
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 in the cosmic slop and ended with 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.
It's no surprise Afrofuturism flourishes on the internet, through sites like 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" and The Afrofuturist Affair, "a community formed to celebrate, strengthen, and promote Afrofuturistic and Black Scifi culture through creative events and creative writing", as well as Womack's own blog.

Academic interest in Afrofuturism has flourished since Dery first coined the term, 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. Similar 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.
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.
posted by MartinWisse (12 comments total) 83 users marked this as a favorite
Fantastic post, going to keep me busy all afternoon.

To add to your list of musical expressions of afro-futurism, Cassandra Wilson's 1990 album "Jumpworld" is an under-rated classic IMO.

posted by pascal at 1:07 PM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Awesome post. Thanks.
posted by nubs at 2:19 PM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wonderful, cheers.
posted by dng at 2:52 PM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Looked for Le Sony'r Ra, was not disappointed. Thanks for a great, meaty post!
posted by languagehat at 3:05 PM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Speaking of being a goddamned nerd, this really reminds me of that DS9 episode (Which is a really good episode) with the sci-fi magazine and Worf wearing a fedora.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 3:49 PM on November 26, 2014

While I know this may be sort of a slightly less-funky take on Afrofuturism, it feels like the importance of Afrofuturism is also underscored in Nichelle Nichols's interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, where she talks about what her role on Star Trek meant to her, to Martin Luther King, Jr., and his family, and to a young Whoopi Goldberg.
posted by gusandrews at 3:49 PM on November 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

On a related note, I was fortunate enough to take a seminar taught by the late legal scholar and litigator Derrick Bell, who often pointed to science fiction as offering analogies and insights that could help clarify racial dynamics in the States.

I especially remember him speaking of The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. LeGuin. MartinWisse, thanks for reminding me - I'm going to reread it now.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 4:49 PM on November 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thank you for this post! Gonna make a cup of tea and dive in.
posted by missmary6 at 5:09 PM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I learned a little while ago that Sun Ra taught a course at UC Berkeley titled "The Black Man in the Cosmos" which I assume was pure piping hot afrofuturism straight from the tap - interspersed with Arkestra performances. Which sounds incredible but I think his residency was very brief and few ever got to witness this.
posted by atoxyl at 7:25 PM on November 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

also needs more detroit techno and electro (well it's probably in there somewhere but I can't read this all at once)
posted by atoxyl at 7:27 PM on November 26, 2014

Haven't had a chance to work through the links yet, but it immediately brought to mind Whoopi Goldberg crediting Uhura for her eventual career - she joked that it was the first indication that people believed there would be black people in the future.
posted by Mchelly at 11:24 PM on November 26, 2014

MeFi's Own Mark Dery!
posted by Wolof at 11:24 PM on November 27, 2014

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