Monday, June 6, 2011

Alondra Nelson & Afrofuturism

[Lecture notes for African American Literatures and Cultures Institute. Topic: black scholars and new media.] 

Although my interests in sci-fi and culturally distinct uses of electronic devices goes way back, it was during my first year of graduate school that I discovered Alondra Nelson's writings and online discussion group, which led me to start developing clearer ideas related to the convergence of technology, race, and culture.

Cultural critic Mark Dery coined the term "afrofuturism" in 1993, and during the late 1990s, Alondra began shaping a wide-ranging series of conversations that developed the uses and understandings of the concept. “AfroFuturism has emerged as a term of convenience to describe analysis, criticism and cultural production that addresses the intersections between race and technology,” she wrote. “Neither a mantra nor a movement, AfroFuturism is a critical perspective that opens up inquiry into the many overlaps between technoculture and black diasporic histories.”

In the fall of 1998, while still a graduate student, Alondra founded an online discussion group called "Afrofuturism," which served as an "incubator" for ideas initially related to "science fiction metaphors and technocultural production in the African diaspora," which "expanded from there into a freewheeling discussion of any and all aspects of contemporary black life."

In September 1999, as part of the Downtown Arts Festival at New York University, Alondra organized a series of panel discussions under the title "AfroFuturism|Forum, a critical dialogue on the future of black cultural production" with several different contributors, including Beth Coleman, Kodwo Eshun, Tracie Morris, and Tricia Rose to name a few.

Over the years, the afrofuturism online list serve grew and grew. Eventually, some folks moved in various directions. Also, just as important, the emergence of new technologies (i.e. blogs, youtube, facebook, twitter, etc.) led people to explore and share ideas in different spaces, through different modes and mediums.

For her part, Alondra has continued to move in multiple directions with concepts related to race and technology. And science. Around the time that she was exploring ideas about afrofuturism, for instance, she was also researching the Black Panther Party's involvement in health activism. Her book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination, which will be published in October, certainly coincides with concepts related to the convergence of race, science, and technology.

These days, she tweets using the handle Social Life of DNA, where she makes observations, posts, and retweets articles about "tracing DNA spillover in interaction." Interestingly, we can see strands of afrofuturism embedded in Alondra's current projects.

Related content:

Scholarship on afrofuturism

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