Sunday, August 27, 2017

Other ways of understanding Afrofuturism

Works by Octavia Butler remain central to Afrofuturist readings

In a 2016 article, "Afrofuturism: The Next Generation," published in the Fashion & Style section of The New York Times, Ruth La Ferla describes Afrofuturism as "a social, political and cultural genre that projects black space voyagers, warriors and their heroic like into a fantasy landscape, one that has long been the province of their mostly white counterparts." La Ferla then observers that Solange, Beyonce, Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott, Janelle MonĂ¡e, and Rihanna "have given [Afrofuturism] not only a voice, but also a look." Accordingly, she points out, "You will likely know it when you see it: a high-shine mash-up of cyborg themes, loosely tribal motifs, android imagery and gleaming metallics that might be appropriate for a voyage to Pluto’s outer reaches."

Ytasha Womack's 2013 book on Afrofuturism concentrates on "the World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture."  Womack and La Ferla, like several contemporary scholars and observers, focus on Afrofuturism (AF) as a kind of artistic production. However, AF takes on other modes as well, and it's worth looking back on the emergence of the term to consider another understanding of how the concept was and is used.

Mark Dery coined the term in 1993, and in 1998, Alondra Nelson, who was then a graduate student at New York University, began organizing a Yahoo Group list serv entitled Afro-Futurism (and AfroFuturism). The group was comprised of a wide-range of people--graduate students, Djs, professors, novelists, poets, dancers, graphic designers, visual artists, and so forth.

In an early essay, Nelson explained 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." What stands out to me now is the focus on "critical perspective" and "histories." Nelson's list serv and AF provided opportunities for thinking, talking, and raising inquiries about the intersections of black diaspora and technology and speculative fiction.

This early iteration envisioned AF as artistic and cultural production, but also as a kind of critical approach or framework for interpreting those productions. So AF as critical lens, not just an artistic projection. Nelson's book The Social Life of DNA (2016) shows some traces of that thinking, as among other topics, she discusses the multiple scientific and technological approaches to genealogy undertaken by African Americans. What Nelson does in the book corresponds to an AF approach.

Between 2006 and 2013, I taught five different Afrofuturism courses. During and after that point though, I began presenting AF as a critical approach in various classes, alongside other approaches. In addition to prompting students to pursue New Critical, feminist, and Marxist readings of texts, I also encouraged them to consider Afrofuturist readings.

We'd be inclined to do AF readings of Octavia Butler, and at the same time, we'd view her as an Afrofuturist. Nearly 20 years after Alondra Nelson first organized the AF group, it's useful to look back on how the term as evolved.

A Notebook on Afrofuturism
Black Intellectual Histories

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