GIF from Janelle Monae's music video, "I Like That."
Black to the Future II: Afrofuturism Should Be Put Into Practice as Much as It's Consumed—But How?
We close out our month exploring Afrofutures with an in-depth essay on the real possibility of putting Afrofuturism into action.
"I'll love you when there's space, and time."
—Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer
Recently, I've been immersing myself in Afrofuturist ideas, culture and art more than ever, a not-so-secret, long-term act that began as stimulation and imagination, but I hope will evolve into true nerdiness. This immersion includes, but also transcends, the desire to want to see other black people in media and art; I'm looking for answers on how to be a better human, right now—in thought, in movement and in our environments.
I'm seeking a guide on how to make dreams come true. Mandates on how to influence social change, free love, sex and liberation from all isms. Commandments on conjuring up one's true self, amidst the ashes left behind from the fires of cultural standards, systemic oppression and casual discrimination. Answers and apparitions of what the future can be like, for us.
Digesting more Afrofuturist art and media has been extremely accessible lately, more than before, because its visibility has increased. What once was a niche genre that only few can pinpoint is now a pop culture movement that inspires, empowers and amazingly, sells. There have been excellent representations of Afrofuturism across the waves of pop culture this year, from the iconic Black Panther, to the proud emotion picture and album "Dirty Computer," to young adult literature like Tomi Adeyemi'sChildren of Blood and Bone and transformative art by Lina Iris Viktor and Crowezilla. These manifestations are just the beginning of a winding list of creators who are bending the lines between fact and fantasy, urging us to find the wrinkle within our realities and step into the other side of truth and self-actualization.
The pillars of Afrofuturist expression—Sun Ra, George Clinton, Mark Dery, Octavia Butler and so many more—were belting inspirational mantras and humanitarian awakenings into the atmosphere, but for my young ears, their teachings were barely a whisper, as these visionaries aren't traditionally taught in school. Growing up in the 90s, Afrofuturism felt equally overt yet indistinguishable: sprinkled within music and music videos, but a message I couldn't quite decode, albeit intriguing and alluring.
This is in part because Afrofuturism wasn't as casually discussed as say, sci-fi and fantasy, which were predominantly white genres in media. It was something more complex and cerebral, yet far, far out: both a cure for underrepresentation of blackness in mainstream sci-fi and a never ending journey into African histories and mythologies and African American futures. In creating a space for us to imagine our identities, destinies and possibilities, it seemed as though we were also protecting the very genre we created, as Afrofuturism was a glimmering secret still writing itself into existence. Afrofuturism itself felt as enigmatic as the themes and symbols it articulated: deep messages meant to be decoded and understood by few.
I believe that the popular art and media of the moment is influenced by current social and political climates. We are living through rough times in America, and the crave for visual, audio and mental escapism is on the rise. Imagining new realities, designed by our melanin, texture, rhythm and vibration is one crucial way of navigating, or neglecting, our less than ideal present.
"The imagination is a tool of resistance. Creating stories with people of color in the future defies the norm," writer Ytasha Womack says in her book, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. So far, her book is one of few to introduce and study the history and impact of Afrofuturism in American society (there's also Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astroblackness, by Reynaldo Anderson and Charles E. Jones, and the documentary The Last Angel of History by John Akomfrah) and was published during Barack Obama's presidency, a time when our ancestors' greatest futuristic dreams were coming true: a black man leading the nation. In her exploration of Afrofuturism, the mechanism is more than an art and musical form: it's a means of projecting black excellence, racial, gender and sexual harmony into our everyday lives, by writing and illustrating futures we can aspire to.
Traveling back to my earlier thesis, Womack's book serves as an appetizer to this idea. How can we create the future, now, despite the chaotic state of our society and culture? When do our favorite lyrics, visuals and landmarks become more than instruments of expression, but instructions on social change? How can we go to Wakanda without attempting to jump into our screens and injuring ourselves? How can we ensure that we make it to the future, by preserving ourselves now?
It's important to note that Womack is also a choreographer. She is unlocking ways to express Afrofuturism through movement and dance: to use our limbs to interact with space and people in extraordinary ways outside of the structural mechanics we've been taught to identify as dance. That must be the most challenging part of being an Afrofuturist: trying to envision what is not there, what has yet to arise, amidst a world where we're forced to believe that everything tangible is our definite truth.
Our greatest activists bent their psyches to shout a reformed society into existence. We know their names: Tubman, King, X, Parks, and more. So much more. They had to deny their current realities and construct a new one for us, one that most of them didn't even have the chance to experience. We don't realize how much of activism involves imagining a different reality—how often this deed is actually a sacrifice, a way of paving a future for people we've yet to encounter, but love nonetheless, and hope they won't endure the discriminations and isms we did. "On the surface, hope rings as very altruistic—something simple that anyone can do if they just reshuffle their thinking caps or wish upon a star," Womack says in her book. "But the results of a changed mind backed by a bit of empowerment can turn a conflicted world on its head."
Conversely, Afrofuturism is closely tied to Sankofa, the stunning Ghanaian symbol of looking backwards to retrieve crucial knowledge for the present and future. It includes learning from our mistakes, time traveling, listening to ancestors and identifying with the lessons learned from our past selves and how it can influence our current and future forms. There's often ancient and traditional themes found in Afrofuturistic work that contributes to the fantastical motifs it narrates, honoring the prevalence of ancestry in African and black culture.
"Perhaps the Afrofuturist examples we love so much are filled with messages hidden in plain sight, and there's less for us to decode, more for us to harvest."
For as long as I can remember, and, growing up in a Ghanaian home, I have always felt compelled by the Sankofa symbol and all it insinuates. It stretches time, negating the linear construct of measuring life that Western teaching implies. Instead, Sankofa encourages us to imagine that our past, memories, present and future surrounds us, and all we have to do is step back into it to understand where we are and where we're going. Using this framework can liberate ourselves from social and cultural norms and visualize optimistic possibilities for our alternate, and multidimensional selves.
Writing this piece was challenging, because I haven't found all the answers to my questions. Frankly, I'm not completely certain of how to live Afrofuturistically in mind, speech, action, spirit and in love, while simultaneously transcending the horrors of waking life. To do so is to travel between two or more dimensions, one present and one aspirational, and retrieve idealistic beliefs from the latter and insert it into the former, in hopes both dimensions will finally align.
Perhaps I practice this by studying new and alternative ways to love others, to live truthfully, to fight for inclusivity and elimination of isms, to build community and bring us out of the margins, to channel my inherent powers that are often widely considered weaknesses: being woman, being black. Perhaps the Afrofuturist examples we love so much are filled with messages hidden in plain sight, and there's less for us to decode, more for us to harvest.
Perhaps the very act of imagining is a formative step to rejecting our present as finite, a survival tactic and a weapon for progress; for thinking freely is a signifier of freedom.