Saturday, June 18, 2011

Toward an Afrofuturist Approach to Examining Literary Texts

Folks have been consistently thinking through and talking about the relationships between black folks and technology, African American culture and speculative fiction, and race and science under the general organizing theme "afrofuturism" for more than 12 years now. There's no doubt that those topics have been discussed for decades, centuries even, but the use of the specific term and framework afrofuturism has been relatively speaking, new.

Mark Dery coined the term afrofuturism in 1993, and Alondra Nelson, further developed the concept noting that afrofuturism “has emerged as a term of convenience to describe analysis, criticism and cultural production that addresses the intersections between race and technology. 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.”

It’s worth noting that “technoculture” can refer to mechanical and digital technologies as well as speculative fictions such as sci-fi narratives and the supernatural associated with black folklore.

In 1998, Nelson organized an “afrofuturism” message board and then list-serve via a Yahoo group.

For years now, I have been trying to utilize AF discourse to enhance some of my examinations of literature. I have developed the following list of preliminary questions that afrofuturist critics might pose about literary texts:

1. What does the work reveal about African American engagements with technological or mechanical devices or instruments? What does the work reveal about African American involvement with speculative narratives and folklore?

2. How does the text present African American views of the future or of what Nelson refers to as “past-future vision,” that is, historical narratives or contemplations about the future?

3. How does the work undermine or downplay African American engagements with new media, technology, and speculative fiction? Or, what does the presence or absence of black people in the text indicate about past or future considerations of race and culture?

4. How does the work portray, interrogate, or situate “black nerds,” “black geeks,” and African American scientific thinkers? What do the portrayals, interrogations, and positioning suggest about representations of African American interactions with technology, science, speculative narratives, expertise, and ingenuity? How do the fictive representations complement and contradict empirical evidence?

5. What does the “design” or “wiring” of the work suggest about its construction and operation, and how does the work link to networks of other related works?

To provide examples of what I have with those questions and the overall approach, I'll eventually post some AF readings of poems and other works.

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