Afrofuturism: decolonizing the imagination

Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness (2017) © John Jennings

July 21, 1969: in front of 500 million spectators, Neil Armstrong descends from the Eagle capsule. A few seconds of suspense, and that’s it: Man has walked on the Moon — science fiction that becomes reality! But the future is not quite bright enough yet: it is a white man walking on the Moon, and it is science fiction written by white men, for white men, that is being accomplished.

Amidst civil rights demonstrations and the turbulent end of apartheid, some dissident voices were heard at the same time. In 1970, musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron sang, with a bittersweet irony:

Commenting on the piece, literature and film professor Mark Bould notes that “the race to space has shown us which race space belongs to”. Jazz pianist Sun Ra, who has just come down from Saturn, offers with his Arkestra a programme that sums up the title of the film in which he is the protagonist and which has left its mark on the imagination: if Afrodescendants want to regain their freedom, then Space is the place (1974). Twenty years later, in an article on African-American speculative fiction writers, cultural critic Mark Dery coined a term that became famous: “African-American voices have other stories to tell about culture, technology, and things to come. If there is an Afrofuturism, it must be sought in unlikely places, constellated from far-flung points.

Thus was born this protean philosophical and aesthetic movement which, since its inception, has never ceased to redefine itself. United around the same ambition, that of rewriting the future in the light of a re-reading of the past, artists, activists, philosophers and academics have contributed to bringing the genre to life and to defining concepts around which to articulate critical reflection.

New Frontier, same struggle

Afrofuturism doesn’t wedge wars in space: its fight is in the realm of the imagination. It all starts from the realization that enthusiastic discourses on the technologically increased future are not neutral.

The fever that animated America during its expansion was largely instilled by the founding myth of the Frontier, the boundary between civilization and wilderness that had to be constantly pushed back to the West. Once the Ocean was reached, it was time to find a new unifying story: it was the conquest of space, this “New Frontier” designed by John F. Kennedy in 1960. After fighting the native redskins, hordes of Hollywood Caucasian heroes attacked native people with green skins and tentacles. This is where Afrofuturism kicks in: a different perspective on these stories shows that they continue to legitimize the reification of the Other — or, should we say, of the Alien.

Once this bias is discovered, a whole new field of struggle opens up. The new space to be conquered is no longer composed of planets but of stories, those at the heart of our popular culture. Afrofuturism, in this sense, is much more a prism for reading the world than a successful aesthetic current.

The comic Truth: Red, White & Black, by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker, for instance, offers a critical re-reading of the genesis of the superhero Captain America. The defender of America with the starry shield is, according to the original comics, an American soldier of the Second World War on whom experiments were conducted that improved his physical faculties. Robert Morales and Kyle Baker suggest another version: if medical experiments had been conducted at the time, it is likely that the “volunteers” would have been Afrodescendants. They imagine, therefore, that the superhero erected as the paragon of the American nation should logically be black.

I theorized Afrofuturism at a time when I was witnessing the creation of ideologies that would put the mass imagination in a straitjacket for decades to come,” Mark Dery told me in an interview for French media Usbek & Rica. “That was in 1993, before the web really existed. Already, you could see the first faltering steps of the white geek elite that Wired magazine was dubbing as the new myth makers, the evangelists of the gospel of technological progress and the utopian possibilities of Silicon Valley. I realized that all of Wired’s covers showed white geeky guys. And when they put a black one on the front page, it was to talk about gangs in cyberspace!

“Everyone will be monitored”

However, Mark Dery only mentioned a trend that preceded his discovery: Reynaldo Anderson, founder of the Black Speculative Art Movement, focused, during the conversation we had, on reminding me that a black speculative fiction already existed 150 years earlier. One of the first writings of the genre would be Blake, or the Huts of America (1859–1862), a novel by Martin Delany that describes the journey of an escaped slave who foments a rebellion, a revolutionary counterpart of the too docile Uncle Tom.

This literature is not science fiction,” Reynaldo Anderson observes, “because it is a product of different strengths. European science fiction is closer to a reflection on certain concepts that emerged during the Enlightenment. Black speculative fiction has emerged as a rebellion against the slave trade, the industrial revolution and scientific racism — reminding us that the black body has often been the subject of scientific experiments.”

The concerns of Afrofuturism are therefore not science fiction’s, with a black layer on it. “Think about it,” Reynaldo Anderson points. “At what point in history was the black body not monitored in the United States? During slavery, during the industrial period, we were under surveillance. The whites, on the other hand, have never been under surveillance. But now, with technology, radars, cameras, everyone will be monitored, systematically and automatically.”

To deconstruct the dominant discourses, Spaniard Miguel Llanso, who produced all his films in Ethiopia, explores “the relationship between people and objects. It is a good entry point to analyze the structure of our world and our culture. If you have glasses on your nose, no one notices them. But if you change the way you use them, if you start eating your glasses, then they become visible. In my movie Crumbs (2015), a character prays to Michael Jordan. The audience will wonder: what do you mean, is Michael Jordan a god? But the idea is to make them wonder: after all, what is a god?

Black Panther, mainstream afrofuturism

To fight in the realm of imagination, the Orwellian tip-ex of revisionism which we see in 1984 lacks subtlety. “The point is not to deconstruct everything. The images are there, you have to live with them,” argues Mawena Yehouessi, the artist behind the Black(s) To The Future project. “On the other hand, it is possible to superimpose other images on them, to hack or reconfigure them. We can have with these images a more horizontal relationship — we can be negotiating with them, which is something.”

© Marvel

But the struggle is being fought with more or less finesse. The year 2018 marked a major new turning point in the history of Afro-futurism: thanks to the theatrical release of Marvel Black Panther’s blockbuster, adapted from Jack Kirby’s comic book, “afrofuturism” reaches mass culture. A worldwide success, a casting and a production team almost exclusively afro-descendant: all in all, it is already a step forward. But where Black Panther could have brought the fundamental concepts of afrofuturism into the public debate, the blockbuster was above all a rather disappointing recycling of a trend that was becoming fashionable. The film is finally quite Manichean, with stereotyped characters cleared of any radical discourse.

In a review written for the Boston Review, academic Christopher Lebron points out where the problem lies. “Black Panther presents itself as the most radical black experience of the year. We are meant to feel emboldened by the images of T’Challa, a black man clad in a powerful combat suit tearing up the bad guys that threaten good people. But the lessons I learned were these: the bad guy is the black American who has rightly identified white supremacy as the reigning threat to black well-being; the bad guy is the one who thinks Wakanda is being selfish in its secret liberation; the bad guy is the one who will no longer stand for patience and moderation — he thinks liberation is many, many decades overdue. And the black hero snuffs him out.

Afrofuturism 3.0 and heirs

By flirting too much with the intangible, you end up dissolving yourself. Theorized in a porous way, freely taken up by artists and thinkers with divergent motivations and interests, the genre is divided between several poles. The most popular inclination of Afrofuturism is more akin to a sleek and colourful aesthetic, which mixes ethnic motifs and cutting-edge technology.

For example, Janelle Monae has become one of the muses of afrofuturism and whose success is based in part on a very strong visual identity. If she draws a parallel in her texts between androids and afrodescendants, pointing out that yesterday’s black slaves are tomorrow’s androids, she is frequently accused of lacking depth in her remarks. On the other hand, some Afro-descendant artists are irritated to be associated with afrofuturism as soon as they propose an artistic creation.

© Janelle Monae

This tendency to reduce Afrofuturism to a simple aesthetic trend worries its theorists, but this is perhaps the characteristic of a genre that evolves to adapt to its times, in a continuous game of back and forth between the present and the future. “The relationship to temporality is very important,” according to Mawena Yehouessi. “Although Afrofuturism is thought about as a mode of projection, it is in fact much more ambiguous: it is constantly going back and forth between past, present and future. It is about importing elements from the past into elements from the future, and about thinking the present from the future. It is an archaeology of the future as well as past prospective.

We need to name the different stages in the evolution of Afrofuturism,” says Reynaldo Anderson, who published a manifesto for Afrofuturism 2.0. “I think Mark Dery described very well what he saw when he proposed the term afrofuturism. Now, Afrofuturism 2.0 proposes to give an explicitly philosophical framework, and to constitute itself into a movement. Movements can define paradigms, concepts”.

And, as the father of Afrofuturism 2.0 points out himself, every movement has an expiry date. According to him, the second stage has only a few more years to go. A myriad of new trends are emerging, such as African Futurism or Ethno-Futurism, and may well unite under the banner of Afro-Futurism 3.0, with the common feature that they are mainly driven by artists and thinkers from Africa.

Afrofuturism is limited because it comes from an African-American perspective,” says Nigerian CJ Obasi, director of Hello, Rain (2018). “Anyone, as long as they are African, can tell a story of African futurism. You don’t need to understand science fiction to understand the elements that make up this genre. There is a lot to show in Africa; we have not even discovered the surface of the incredible myths and legends that we can tell. This is the beauty of Afrofuturism: science fiction highlights inventions that come out of nowhere, while Afrofuturism tries to make people understand who they are. And to understand who you are, you must understand who you were.

French Writer Michael Roch is also part of this search for identity: “The Caribbean people are completely new; the new generations are lost because they are extremely mixed, and because they lack reference points. We have no common mythology, no heroes to relate to, no national novel.

This explosion into a thousand places and a thousand stories is reminiscent of the deconstruction enterprise that is swarming in Jacques Derrida’s wake. Perhaps after having tried to influence the great dominant discourses, the mission of Afrofuturism (1.0, 2.0 or 3.0) today is to examine and reinvent all the micro narratives that make up our fragmented world, which still bears the stigmata of centuries of oppression.

This article was initially published in French publication Esprit.

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French journalist writing on literature, culture, tech and technocriticism. Personal website : Twitter : @NicolasCelnik

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