Given the frequency with which we see black people in the United States being killed or attacked by police for protesting, it’s no surprise that a packed house turned out on Thursday night at Civic Hall in New York City to attend the panel Afrofuturism: Imagining the Future of Black Identity. Right now, there is a palpable hunger and desire to know more about Afrofuturism as a lens to better understand our lives and their possibilities beyond our present circumstances.
At the outset, Afrofuturism was described as a black perspective on “the politics, aesthetics and cultural aspects” of science, science fiction and technology. Slate culture writer Aisha Harris guided a discussion about what the term means between author Ytasha Womack, Nigerian artist and designer Walé Oyéjidé, and lawyer and Arizona State University professor Michael Bennet. It quickly emerged that what Afrofuturism is, and how its lens may be turned on the global world, is very personal. In the way that film noir functions as a genre, or jazz as a musical style, Afrofuturism is a philosophy that can be simultaneously obvious and vague in its identity, bounded and porous in its edges. It can include Sun Ra’s Space is the Place, Greg Tate’s cultural criticism, and even sociologist Alondra Nelson’s work on DNA and race.
To Womack, one of Afrofutrism’s central functions is to explore “race as a technology”, utilized for specific reasons. The deployment of this technology has created racism (indeed, as one audience member pointed out, technology itself can be racist – as news broke on Thursday that Apple’s Siri defined “bitch” as “black slang” for “woman”.) But just like technology, Afrofuturism can be upgraded. Indeed, as the story of Rachel Dolezal pointed out in the summer, race is a fiction – which has only existed as we presently conceive it over the past few hundred years, since European colonialism and American chattel slavery began peddling its mythology. But despite being a fiction, its effects are so real in our lives that it can be difficult to imagine ourselves outside our present hell. Afrofuturism offers us a way out through the black imagination.
Womack found Afrofuturism to be “a journey of self-discovery” which she encountered before she knew it had a name. The term itself was coined in 1992by the writer Mark Dery but the ideas go back much further (indeed , a century-old WEB DuBois science fiction story was rediscovered just this week), and Womack found a lot of people were “engaging these ideas but felt that they were alone” before a category tied it all together. She said she had loved both science and history as a kid, but had been taught to believe these things had nothing to do with each other.
To me, a tenent of Afrofuturism deals with black people being told they must adhere to divisions which don’t exist, and only accept a limited number of stories about ourselves, such that we have an extremely limited concept of what material reality can be. Racism can give black Americans the impression that in the past we were only slaves who did not rebel; that in the present, we are a passive people beaten by police who cannot fight back; and that in the future, we simply do not exist.
Bennett spoke about how the three most important writings to him coming up were comic books, the Bible and the writings of Delany. He said he believes Afrofuturism has become “more relevant than in the early and mid-1990s” because back then he’d feel weekly that “I was living in a science fictional environment”. These days, he says, “the rate at which I sense that now is five times a day”, considering the daily insanity of gun violence, police violence, and the violence to the environment in the age of the anthropocene.
Offering an international perspective on Afrofuturism, Oyéjidé spoke about watching Star Wars and Star Trek in Nigeria, and how he and friends “hoped to see ourselves on screen”. Too often, he said, images of the African continent only offered doom, gloom and terrorist attacks, full of “faceless brown people used as puppets”. To him, Afrofuturism offered a way out of the “present nature” of depicting black people in a limited way, and instead offers a vision of us with a “shout out to the future”.
A recurring figure and discourse of Afrofuturism that help imagine a different reality are seen when the captured slave is recast as the abducted alien. Harris noted this can employ certain tropes but also “many types of black resistance”. Seeing black people as aliens, and imagining ourselves on other worlds, is radical, Womack noted, because black people have had their imaginations “hijacked”: we have been duped into only believing one narrative about ourselves. And this creates a co-constitutive process in which we imagine a limited sense of possibility and create limited lives in this image.
But, Womack told the audience: “You’re a universal being that’s in a three-dimensional space.” Afrofuturism allows black people to see our lives more fully than the present allows – emotionally, technologically, temporally and politically.
Harris asked the panelists to weigh in on Lupita Nyong’o’s appearance in the upcoming Star Wars movie, and that it’s reported that she will not appear on screen, but simply as a voice and motion-capture model for an alien. How, Harris wanted to know, did it feel to see a black woman hidden as an alien? Did that work with Afrofuturism’s vision of black people abducted as aliens, or was it a convenient way to make a black Oscar winner disappear?
None of the panelists seemed happy about this (and no one, interestingly, brought up the black Storm Trooper controversy, or the exciting ways John Boyega has been centrally featured in the trailers). Womack said she has to see the film before making judgments, but she spoke to the general lack of black people in visions of the future, which makes black viewers believe we are “erased from the past, erased from the future, and you’re hovering in the here and now, waiting for someone to write a story with our complexion in it”.