What is Afrofuturism?
edited: Wednesday, February 27, 2002
By Mark A. Rockeymoore
Posted: Wednesday, February 27, 2002
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A discussion on the genesis and evolution of the Afrofuturistic imperative.
What is afrofuturism?
At first thought, perhaps, an oxymoron.
On second thought, a vision of fluffy, puffy afros crowning multi-hued afronauts - juxtaposed atop a sterile, ivory vision of technological progression - is born; space ships and colonization, galactic empires and trans-planetary corporations. Further speculation inevitably conjures up nightmares of oppression at an almost unimaginable scale as the vagaries of the human soul are pit against the relentless drive of technology. Wondrous conceptions exist: Herbert's Dune, Asimov's Foundation and Brin's Uplift War come immediately to mind.
Or perhaps the term gives rise to more contemplative dreamscapes, in which the future approximates the past in a more organic, holistic understanding of the human condition.
Civilizations have coexisted before, in synch with the Earth's natural rhythms, each another and the biosphere. Examples abound: Kemet, Sumeria, Mesoamerica, India. Terraced gardens amidst the rainforested mountain ranges of the equator. Pre-Saharan expanses of irrigated plain in northern Afrika. Cultivated forestland and ceremonial mounds in mid-latitudinal America.
Ancient monuments of cyclopean conception witness the passage of time, the world across. Only ruins of these civilizations remain, yet they provide a model of truly integrative theocratic dynasties that ensured the existence of poverty-free, moral based societies girded by certain knowledge of humanity's inherent divinity rather than its original sin.
The future meets the past in the crucible of the present.
There exists, deep within the ebony recesses of the net noir, a diverse community that skirts the quantum-dusted fringes of the new afrikan technotronic space, awash in a blaze of neon, shining sites proclaiming knowledge born, revolution and reinvigorated ancestral memory; space that serves as enclaves of exploration for three generations of diasporic afrikans as they interact and explore the issues shaping the melanated perspective.
There is a tradition of black emancipatory thought, inextricably linked to western civilization and its evolution, that has proffered various works of a speculative nature pertaining to the physical or spiritual omnipresence of the Afrikan archetype within a western framework. A serialized novel like Schuyler's "Black Empire" would be one example. Even recent contributions - especially those that press those boundaries and explore the possibilities of human interaction, sociologically or biologically - such as Octavia Butler's "Mind of my Mind" or Nalo Hopkinson's "Brown Girl" serve to exemplify this worldview.
According to afrofuturist Alondra Nelson, a colleague named Mark Dery was the first to use the term afrofuturism in his edited collection "Flame Wars", among other places. He defined the term thusly: "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 "Afro-futurism."
Since that moment in time, afrofuturism has expanded to embrace the entire, colorful world. As expressions of the possibilities that afrofuturism heralds, these examples and definitions cover but a fraction of the whole. There are also the soulful intonations of Sun Ra, DJ Spooky, Busta Rhymes, the Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy and others who straddle the razor's edge of the digital divide; the visual and aural artists redefining the way we think about ourselves by adding layers of contextual blackness in a multi-media format, accessed by varying levels of understanding and acceptance.
It is questionable whether or not afrofuturism possesses specific traits or characteristics because its expressions are as diverse as the Afrikan diaspora and the experiences shared by those who compose it. The only framework that can possibly contribute to an understanding of what afrofuturism is would be the overarching cultural system within which it has gestated. Because afrofuturism is transnational - disdaining place and localized adaptations for a more holistic global extent - this 'overarching cultural system' can only be defined as Marimba Ani's global white supremacy system. In this view, cultural icons like Nat Turner, Akhenaton, Nkhrumah, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Martin, Malcolm and countless others were the afrofuturists of their day.
Afrofuturism is the antithesis of futurism. Countless science fiction novels, comic books and movies laud the inexorable nature of progress and, by extension, the global white supremacy system as well as the understanding that this system espouses a future that progresses in stages or flights of mental evolution, shuttling from mechanical to molecular to digital to cellular modalities, at which point science and magic become almost indistinguishable to the uninitiated and the god-concept is finally subsumed. The most inclusive of these extrapolations do indeed challenge the social structure of white supremacy but most retain the hierarchical dependencies of left-brained, materially oriented thinking. This tendency does seem to evolve as western society adapts to the wider availability of information as well as the increased exposure of xenophobic populations to ethnically diversified surroundings and traditionally holistic cosmogonies.
Of course, there has always been the pagan tradition of ancient Europe, personified by the Kemetian-taught Druids - not to mention the mysticism of the east, of yin and yang, also kemetian-taught - that has informed the european weltanshau, from the prehistoric mythos of the celtic Tuatha de Danaan and the kemetian-derived greek pantheon of gods and goddesses, to the present day wiccan and new age revolution.
The interplay of race, culture and time coalesce in the moment, revealing the barest, most tantalizing glimpse of what afrofuturism could be and perhaps has always been.
Afrofuturism is not science-fiction. It is not a mechanical, technology driven vision of the future because an afro ain't never been about anything constricting or orderly, in the hierarchical sense. Rather, an afro is free-flowing, loving the wind. Changing, shifting and drifting on the breeze, bending this way, puffing out or just plain swaying gently from side to side, following the whimsical inclinations of the melanated person upon who's head it is perched. An afro can be taken from, it can be added to, yet it still retains its own natural structure, its own spiral and bouncy nature. It is flexible, yet patterned. It is about synthesis and holism. It is about accepting the kitchens and working the waves on the crown. It is about dreading, locking and following the patterns of nature where they lead, yet following a laterally delineated order. It is about the interplay between dominant and recessive genes. It is about diversity. It is about knowing purposes and determining the placement of diverse variables within their proper context.
Afrofuturism is about knowledge. It is about intuitively understanding the harmonics of the Earth and solar system, their electromagnetic interactions: the effect of a butterfly in Brazil upon a hurricane in France, the weather patterns of the Earth, the living cycles of our days and nights and the stilling of the mind. The rotation and evolution of the galaxy and the oneness of the universe. The true , inner connectivity between each being on this planet. The simplicity of knowing truly, what love is. It is about the science of relationships, of clearing the mental and spiritual debris from one's life in a healthy, systematic fashion. Of cleansing the body, not only our own, but that of the earth that we, as a culturally diverse people, have helped to subjugate. It is about shattering the walls separating the sciences and realizing the oneness of all creation. Knowing, and loudly declaiming its presence and purpose in the larger scheme of creation. Afrofuturism simply is!
It is also a one-world philosophy. Not only because of the secret history of Afrika's primacy in early human cultural and physical evolution, but also because it is a sane alternative leading to a sustainable future. Afrofuturism is inclusive, yet it is very much aware that each thing, person, institution and body politic has its place and time and that each must fulfill its inherent purpose. This aspect makes afrofuturism more than a political or literary/artistic discourse since it approaches the metaphysical in its insistence upon realizing the fullest expression of each and every aspect of its existence. It becomes a way of life, a way of thinking holistically.
As far as its adherents are concerned, they are - again - as diverse as is the Afrikan diaspora. Perhaps they can be characterized as possessing an interest in current affairs and technology, or perhaps they are more interested in ancient afrikan sciences and the historical evolution of the various ethnic groupings of biological Afrikans spread across the world, to include western Europeans, Asians, Native Americans or Australian Aborigines. Or perhaps they cannot be characterized at all, being too diverse.
To clarify that statment in the context of this discussion, current studies in genetics and race are recommended to the discerning reader which suggest that - racially, in the true st, biological sense of the matter - we are ALL Afrikans, not only because of the fact that at some point in the not-so-distant past certain segments of Afrikan society migrated to different parts of the world for different reasons and lost or forgot who their cousins were, but also because of the fact that we are all internally Afrikan, or black, the color of carbon, the basic building block of life; not to mention the key of life and the brain itself, neuromelanin and its external manifestation, melanin. Blackness is within and without.
Regardless of the individual afrofuturist' area of interest, her perceptions of the world contribute fundamentally to his understanding of the present moment. These perceptions are subject to the controlling factors of education, experience and intuition, any of which can and must be present within any afrofuturist framework.
The 'understanding of the present moment' that is formed by an afrofuturist can perhaps be characterized as possessing a critical focus upon true , universal equity and proper utilization of all resources - biological, mineral and ethereal - guarding against complacency and rigid structure delineated from a centralized source, preferring to consult and accept guidance from numerous, yet symbolically related bodies of information before taking action or forming conclusions. All things exist in a state of flux. Of motion. Understanding the applicability of that statement to all things and how to express that understanding as it pertains to the furtherance of the natural order is fundamental to an afrofuturist understanding.
The kemetian tree of life cosmogology, precursor to the Jewish Kaballah, explores the relationship between humanity and the cosmos through the triumvarate of philosophy, science and spirit. Through the processes of historical diffusion and localized adaptation, the basic precepts of these all-encompassing 'behavioural texts' have girded the underlying truth of the 'universalizing religions', to include Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, all of which have sent varying shafts of ethical light into the darkness of human ignorance, allowing for the cultivation of the higher emotions for a relatively few adherents. The alchemical sleight of hand, as it were, transforming base materials into the spirit-gold of ethical enlightenment.
The 'understanding of the present moment' is also affected by the individual afrofuturist's conception of future possibilities. In fact, the subjective exploration of these possibilities is also a necessary condition for considering oneself an afrofuturist. Nat Turner, Akhenaton, Nkhrumah and all of the ancestors mentioned earlier have possessed this gift, this ability to transcend their cultural milieu and dream the dreams of the soul, the quantum realities of an infinite creation, of universe overlapping universe and endless possibilities, allowing them to deepen their understanding of the present moment and giving them the divine right and strength to make their visions manifest through their own actions and through us, their descendants.
The moment is the real, the domain of the afrofuturist. The future and past are fluid and ever-changing, possessing the ability to morph instantly into social texts capable of accentuating the diverse realities of the melanated mind during fabulous flights of intution, delving into the nature of perception and birthing successive moments from the contemplation of those that have passed and those that are yet to come.
Outside of the constricting vagaries of time and logical progression, only the now is real. The afrofuturist domain lies somewhere external - yet integrally connected - to physical incarnation, to include the dreams and desires of progenitors and progeny alike, unto infinite generations, to encompass the geo-physical perfection of the pyramids as well as current ground-breaking, world-shaking research being done by melanated scientists the world over as they chafe beneath the shackles of the global white supremacy system. Afrofuturism simply is and always will be, regardless of the social and political context of its practitioners, for it truly is a necessary expression of blackness, the key to life, both within and without.
Copyright February, 2000