“African-Americans are, in a very real sense, the descendants of alien abductees…Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th 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, “Black to the Future: Afro-Futurism 1.0”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. What will I do, who will I be, how will I love, will everything be okay. I’ve been thinking about the planet and how it is not doing very well. I am thinking about marches and earthquakes and The Book of Revelation. I am thinking a lot about death. I am starting to understand I’m not welcome. In my ear I hear Sun Ra whisper “space is the place.” In my other ear I hear Kanye say “we wasn’t supposed to make it past twenty-five.” This is what Black American women are wondering: What’s up to us?
I can’t read another goddamn news article. I don’t want any new hashtags or reasons to protest, I just want all my friends on a beach, their brown skin smiling with relief. I want us to feel safe and light and regular and unchained. There is no indictment again. And maybe that is the point. Maybe Black Americans were never supposed to be welcome. Maybe we were never meant to unchain ourselves from our ugly beginning on this continent. I wear the past. I drink it, even, and sleep in it and kiss it.
The lesson I am supposed to be learning from the people who brought us here in the first place is I will be obsolete. At MoCADA, where I give tours as the education director, someone says it’s funny, they never see Black people in sci-fi movies. At the museum I tell students the paintings were made last year, and they address contemporary social justice issues. I tell them what contemporary means. They still say they think the paintings are about slavery. Because Black people are from the past.
Black people are from the future, I keep saying. And jesus fucking christ do I need to mean it. I am tired of talking about Selma, about Ferguson, about the present and past. I am tired of understanding I am not welcome. My friends and I house hunt in Brazil, in Canada. I am ready to talk about the future.
Afrofuturism, despite its recent resurgence as art exhibition theme and pop music aesthetic, is not new. None of us wonder why now. It comes when we need it most, when we need to remember that even if the earth fails to be fertile for our blooming, other options await us in the sky. Why do we so innately understand the magic of Octavia Butler’s books, why are we entranced by Janelle Monae’s music video for “Q.U.E.E.N,” why does THEESatisfaction’s new album cover look like something we’ve seen before, in a dream?
In Wanuri Kahiu’s gorgeous sci-fi film Pumzi, recently exhibited in MoCADA’s a/wake in the water exhibition, the earth is ruined by ecological war. A few survivors trudge through life in a sterile spaceship. Its only hope for reinvention is a small sprouting seed in the hands of a Black woman.
I like control a lot. I like making things up. I’m constantly battling a society that doesn’t want me to have any control, any say over what happens to my body or my story. Engaging with Afrofuturism is giving myself permission. It is no coincidence that some of the most exciting Afrofuturists are women. In that it is an assertion of self, of the persistence of self, of the survival of self, futurism is inherently feminist. It envisions a world, it creates space, it welcomes. As Black women, maybe we have given up on the present. We see that we are not welcome, we see that we are not in control, so we time travel. Our future existence is wish fulfillment.
Reading through Spook Magazine’s latest issue, which explores Afrofuturism through the lens of young Black writers and visual artists, I see a deep mistrust of and mourning for the present, as well as a desire for escape. I see a complex understanding of time and space. I see a taking of the reins. Most importantly, I see excitement. Black excitement. Black assurance. Not only do our lives matter, they will remain. Like it or not. And it is that audacity, that self confidence, that freedom to dream, that I find most healing about Afrofuturism. It assumes a mysticism. As if we, as a people, have already lived in space, were born in space, and can access another world just by closing our eyes and daring to imagine it.