Nonfiction It is not a Dead Future, it is a Living Art: Afrofuturism for the Artist, for Everyone.
Originally Published @ Afrokanist Magazine, London. 2016. Shoutout to Abi. — A Beginning [to “Home Is Africa” – Horace Parlan] James Baldwin said, “Literature is indispensable to the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks at reality, then […]
Originally Published @ Afrokanist Magazine, London. 2016. Shoutout to Abi.
A Beginning [to “Home Is Africa” – Horace Parlan]
James Baldwin said, “Literature is indispensable to the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks at reality, then you can change it.”
In early 15th century, the word “literature” meant “book-learning”, and was derived from the Latin “literatura”, for “learning, a writing, grammar.” “Literature” slightly changes to mean “whole bodies of writing” in 1812, the “whole of body of writing on a particular subject” in 1860, and rethought, in 1895, to denote “printed matter, in general” – think pamphlets, the novel, and, hell, even the Bible. (Etymonline.com)
This all 100 years before Baldwin is born and 100-plus years before Go Tell It On The Mountain would be published. Looking at Baldwin’s life, it’s clear that Literature facilitated his becoming in the world as we would know him, and as he would know himself.
When you read Baldwin, you get a stronger glimpse of the world; he had words, the right amount of words, and the precise words, for everything. What he makes clear is that an analysis of the world is empty without an analysis of one’s subjectivity in the lived world being analyzed. So, when you turn a page crafted by him, part of what you’re seeing is a place from his own subjectivity.
Subjectivity is not just important to Baldwin, of course, but all artists. James Baldwin did this thing so well, though; and his passage above illuminates how we, artists, might better see our creations. This kind of affirmative subjectivity, this position from which to speak, is where AfroFuturism finds its growth and origin.
AfroFuturism is, as the name suggests, about the Future – and a future from the subjectivity of folks racialized as Black, or Afro-peoples. AfroFuturism is about children of the African Diaspora and children of continental Africa envisioning, and enacting a future for themselves – aesthetically, through cultural production, and in the day-to-day radical engagements with others. It is to find oneself belonging in a future. Google the term and you’ll see Science Fiction genre features like robots, androids, interstellar voyages, time travel, aliens, and references to Ancient Egypt.
I am a Member of the Future [to Suite II Overture & Dance or Die – Janelle Monáe]
My first explicit interaction with AfroFuturism was through the language of “android” and “cybergirl” on Janelle Monae’s epic debut: the musical catalogue and concept album, The ArchAndroid . I’ve been on board since then: Janelle charts playful echoes of free-jazz pioneer Sun Ra, one of the first Science Fiction films, Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon) by George Méliès’, and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street” in this audio-visual collection. Her music allowed me find myself in my body, and introduced me to language around systemic and interpersonal violence that Black people, especially Black women and femmes, live with everyday.
And because she taught me many things – among them, how to find my personal Funk – it was possible for me to step away from fear, away from the feeling of living slightly outside of my body, and envision myself more self-loved. Because of Janelle Monáe, I include in my very first Twitter bio: “I am a member of the Future.”
AfroFuturism is also about the Past. Afrofuturists interrogate the notion of one, singular, and indefinitely true past (or future) with questions like, what is the past and who gets to remember it? What is appropriate to remember, even? My friend, and young scholar, Zalika Ibaorimi advocates for an intentional practice of Sankofa in AfroFuturism. Sankofa is an Adinkra symbol originating with the Akan people in Ghana, meaning “go back and fetch it”. Sankofa is represented as a bird turning its beak back on its tail – don’t disregard your past, Sankofa tells us. In your present walking, be in a consistent process of memory. Sankofa also calls for us to remember that Black people have been living and actualizing AfroFuturism well before the term was coined in 1992 by white cultural critic Mark Dery, after conversations with Black scholars and writers Samuel R. Delany, Jr., Tricia Rose, and Greg Tate. Consistent with Dery’s line of analysis, most coverage of AfroFuturism takes up music and literature as its primary forms, but the practice takes various shapes. AfroFuturism is in our bodies, if we pay attention. AfroFuturism is ritual, magical realism, conjure-work, community gardening, sound art, and more.
My practice is through film, among other things; and as a filmmaker, I believe film is both a literary and visual art. It moves and breathes with real actors, on some recorded, edited tracks, while at the same time, being facilitated like a graphic novel or comic book – where the text, the screenplay in this case, is still essential.
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the 5th annual Blackstar Film Festival as a featured “Artist”. In a clip from Arthur Jafa’s short, Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death , a black woman says, “we are mundane AfroFuturists. WE ARE NOT ALIENS.” In Rigamo , a graphic-novel-turned-short-film by Che Grayson, a young Black girl finds herself with the power to reanimate the dead. In my own short film, S ee My Dreams Come True , two Ancestor children, of early 19th and 20th century, time travel to meet a contemporary Black boy artist in his dreams. Not much shimmering, glossy metal presented at all – but AfroFuturist all the same.
The Long 19th Century, and the Images That Made [to “Loveless” – 4hero ft. Ursula Rucker]
It should be noted that many forms we work with are the prime tools of the oppressor. During the 19th century, the novel, for instance, was heralded as the prime device of the Enlightenment project: meant to evoke a sense, and desire for, individual freedom via the written word. The novel, early colonial travel papers and pamphlets, became moving stages – passed hand to hand, library to library, and later, classroom to classroom – where white freedmen asserted themselves, the privileges of the Western world, and corresponding ideologies of freedom and liberty [to destroy, rape, steal, leech, disenfranchise and dominate the Black, Brown and Native Other]. With these narratives behind them, and worlds shaped for them ( global standardization of Greenwich Time, building of railroads, etc), men who racialized themselves as White and racialized other people as everything beneath that white, granted themselves title of origin and master of forms like Literature, of storytelling – a fundamental human act – and thus of Humanity. (Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents)
Early film culture, including both still photography and moving image, has origins with Daguerreotype portraits. The old copper and silver plates were regulated to gentry and middle class families of the Industrial Revolution – with occasional appearances of their Black and Brown indentured servants, and colonized African subjects.
I was able to witness some of these 19th century studio photographs featuring Black and Brown people – from famous boxer, Peter Jackson, to a young Prince in captivity from Ethiopia. Many of the portraits were taken and/or originally housed by a London Stereoscope Company. They were on display at the Rivington Place in London, in 2014, and I was there during a study abroad semester. And while seeing those photos remains powerful experience for me today (as I know some of their names, their faces, and thus can attempt to imagine them more alive – a pleasurable effect of the photograph) the lives of those people captured in portrait, I’m not sure, will ever be fully heard or amplified. Those embodied moments were stolen from them.
My people, and people like me, were but props next to the main attraction of white nation building and the free, liberal white man at its center. And film culture continued to develop without Black people in mind.
In 1950s America, small cards exclusively featuring white women – “Shirley Cards” – were used by camera manufacturers, photographers, and TV studios alike as the ideal color balance reference for capturing skin color and tone. I have been in situations where I am almost completely unseen, save my teeth and eyes, in photos next to lighter folk – flash and all. Camera technology still has serious problems capturing the full range of Black skin.
To Get Free In The World [to “what happens when eastern europe and west africa collide” – kilamanzego]
I note the above not as a discouragement to fellow Black artists, but as a reminder: if we are using these forms, they become our tools. They become our context. As such, we must deconstruct many standards of these forms, as they are wrapped in and by anti-blackness – wrapped in ways of producing and being that go against various rhythms of non-White peoples.
Our imaginations must be decolonized. This is not an easy task at all, but it’s important. Imagining is an exercise in hope, in seeing beyond current and past events – building threads, not of ignorance, but of knowing, and taking that knowing to different heights. To imagine in a decolonized way is also an act of self-love, I think. To imagine is to consider ourselves, our view of the world, and the universes we wish to construct, quite seriously. Imagining is a meditation, a letting go of norms. And ultimately, imagination is an unearthing of fears, joys, and other things we’ve swallowed and thrown together.
We must realize, or be reminded, there is an imagination in the first place. We must know there is room on this Earth for the darker people to create – and continue to create, actually, because we never stopped, despite various interruptions. And we must reclaim spaces of transformative creativity.
Take The Tradition with You [To “Lift Off” – Jay-Z, Kanye West, Beyoncé]
You may be curious about the subtitles throughout this piece, and up until now I have ignored that. Finally, though, the answer is here. As I write this, the mega-track that is Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Beyoncè’s “Lift Off” brings me home. The 03:19 mark and the 50 seconds thereafter, make me feel as if I’m dancing – like my feet could land on Stars, like I’m dancing among Moons. It is with this song, and those above, that I come alive and realize this piece. These tracks are the texture of this essay/experience. Listen when you’re done.
But before you’re done, this piece must come full circle – it must come back to James Baldwin. If Baldwin was right in saying we can change people with our literature and works of art, and thereby change the conditions that make up our world, then AfroFuturism is imperative. If you don’t consider yourself an artist: AfroFuturism is imperative. It is constructive to the way you walk and talk, the way you dream and lend space to imagination. AfroFuturism is as much Hip-Hop as it is Octavia Butler; AfroFuturism is beyond the binaries of more and less, and yet exists within them all the same. AfroFuturism keeps us close to the possibilities of ourselves and our world, the possibilities that are soon to upon us, and those we may never get to meet – except in mannerisms inherited from unknown blood relatives, or stories passed down. AfroFuturism is alive. AfroFuturism is here. It is especially up to artists to see the tradition continued and acknowledged – always with the pasts, presents, and futures in mind.