Afrofuturism & “space is the place”

Sabine Mohamed

Heidelberg University & Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity

December 2018

“Speculative Fiction that addresses African–American themes and addresses African–American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and, more generally, African–American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future—might, for want of a better term, be called ‘Afrofuturism’.” (Mark Dery 1994)

This reading list focuses on the theme of Afrofuturism, vampires, and aliens as a way of engaging questions on how to deal with temporality, the human, and imaginations of a future to come or otherwise. Afrofuturism, as Mark Dery has termed it (even though the movement famously predates its naming), focuses on the past, present, and future conceptions from an African-American perspective mediated through speculative fiction and techno-culture aesthetics. It proposes “histories of counter-futures” (Kodwo Eshun cited in Morris 2012: 153).[i] This reading list offers a set of readings that engage—in a similar vein—the search for counter-futures in the Americas and on the continent.

Forms of imaginations of a counter-future can be seen, for example, in Octavia Butler’s work. In her final book Fledgling (2005) she reimagines notions of enchantment within the vampire genre through figures of racially hybrid and matrifocal vampire species named Ina that consume blood in order to survive. Her main protagonist is Shori Matthews, who appears at first sight like an 11 year old African-American, half Ina, half human. Butler questions not only the vampire genre (bloodthirsty killer versus prey), but moreover the model of the nuclear family through the introduction of mutualism—a complex arrangement and symbiotic interdependence between Ina and their human companions—as well as race through hybridity (see also Haraway on mutual companionship, 2006).[ii]

The movement of Afrofuturism in the late 1990s shaped the art world through the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as Science Fiction and Fantasy genres through the writings of Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany and Tananarive Due (and many more influential writers) and most importantly addressed matters of representation. Of course, these artists and writers were preceded by the likes of Sun Ra, who in his music and visual media arguably constituted a form of Afrofuturism or black futurism as far back as the 1960s. This year, especially, has been marked by a re-emergence of science fiction, Afrofuturism, robots and imaginations of out-of-space in mainstream American cultural productions. One of the cinematic highlights in 2018 was the Marvel comic movie Black Panther, where an aesthetics of technologies and heritage, imaginations of African societies and diversity as well as “a place untouched” by colonialism was envisioned. It spoke to musical productions, including Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer and Jay-Z’s Family Feud, where a future run by (queer) women of color and techno-science is likewise imagined and mobilizes ideas of black to the future.

Here a few recent books, articles, and videos that relate to this notion of counter-futures, not in strict lines of afro-futurism but align themselves to such counter-futures.

Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates (since 2016)

It was only in 1966 that Black Panther was the first black super hero to appear in mainstream American comics. Half a century later, Ta-Nehisi Coates, together with illustrator Brian Stelfreeze continues that legacy, as well as embarks on a new era for the Marvel character Black Panther.

Afrofuturism (2010)

Short interview with Alondra Nelson on Afrofuturism, epistemology and black experience, as well as Techno-science and speculation. She was also the editor of the influential special issue on Afrofuturism in Social Texts (2002).

Intruders by Mohale Mashigo (2018)

Mohale Mashigo’s short stories in Intruders (2018) engage Afrofuturism and speculative fiction located in a South African context. At the Johannesburg Review of Books you can also find a short piece by Mashigo on Afrofuturism and why she claims it is not for Africans living in Africa.

Sylvia Wynter: On being Human as a praxis by Katherine McKittrick (2015)

Katherine McKittrick’s edited volume on Sylvia Wynter (2015), is filled with rich contributions shedding light on the question of the human, futures, species and racial violence, tracing and counteracting in different ways the often so violent man-as-human paradigm.

Improvised Lives by AbdouMaliq Simone (2018)

In his new book Improvised Lives AbdouMaliq Simone invites us to think about the poor and working people in urban districts in the Global South by attending to an urban politics of “an active refusal of inhabitation in its present terms” (2018:125). He proposes ‘rhythms of endurance’, backgrounds and the generic to navigate, and to enable a nuanced understanding of becoming and conditions ‘that allow the disparate to ensemble’. And to do so despite or actually because of the condition of the uninhabitable. It is, at its core, a call to open up a wide range of possible futures.

Stolen Life by Fred Moten (2018)

This is Fred Moten’s second book in the trilogy of consent not to be a single being, where he discusses blackness and black life as a refusal of social death. For him “…blackness is the consent of not to be one: not just to be more+ less than one but the mobilization of that indiscretion and incompleteness against “or otherwise being.”” (2018:242)

White Rebels in Black: German Appropriation of Black Popular Culture by Priscilla Layne (2018)

Priscilla Layne’s book can be divided in two parts. The first addresses how white Germans appropriate black culture in post-war Germany as a way that “blackness is posited as always already outside of and in opposition to German culture, foreclosing the possibility of being both black and German” (2018:2). The second part addresses black Germans’ perspectives on the intersection of race and gender in Germany and how the influence of Afrofuturism shapes understandings of becoming and identification.

Urbane scholarship: studying Africa, understanding the world by Elisio Macamo (2018)

Elisio Macamo’s text, Urbane scholarship: studying Africa, understanding the world (2018), reflects on why we need to look at African urban settings to understand urbane scholarship and the world at large. Similar to Simone, he argues that “taking the other into account becomes the condition of possibility of life in African urban settings.”(2018:7). This is in the vein of the counter-futures and of the unseen: “urbane scholarship describes a research field constituted by elusive objects hiding away from our conceptual gazes and constantly resisting our grasp. In this respect, engaging with the urban is to constantly reflect on what makes it possible for us to know.” (2018:7)

The Resonance of Unseen Things by Susan Lepselter (2016)

Susan Lepselter’s book is neither based on the continent nor is it about black Americans, but it is about the American uncanny, about conquest and imaginations of captivity. It is about American nationalism and its identity formations in settler colonial America, set amidst a network of UFO-believers, and how they narrate alien abduction and secrecy, and the ongoing resonance with the historical residues of genocide.

Further reading:

Eight great reads to get into Afrofuturism.

Nine Afrofuturist reads if you are homesick for Wakanda.

[i] Morris, Susana M. “Black Girls Are from the Future: Afrofuturist Feminism in Octavia E. Butler’s “Fledgling”.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 40, no. 3/4 (2012): 146-66.

[ii] Donna Haraway. “Encounters with Companion Species: Entangling Dogs, Baboons, Philosophers, and Biologists.” Configurations 14, no. 1 (2006): 97-114.