Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture - Ytasha L. Womack
I bought this book because of my sci-fi obsession and I assumed that it would focus on film and literature, as my knowledge of the genre (or so I thought) came primarily from a love of Octavia E. Butler. I had assumed, too, that it would also include visual and conceptual artists, having fallen in love with Site Gallery’s “Re-writing The Future” exhibition at the end of last year (the only exhibition I’ve ever returned to multiple times). What I hadn’t anticipated was how much music underpinned and provided the foundations of the Afrofuturism movement, and how I had been consuming Afrofuturist music without attaching the name to it. It was fascinating to contextualise my beloved Janelle Monae within a lineage that began with Sun Ra and George Clinton, and made its way through Grace Jones to Outcast and Erykah Badu. I am obsessed with artistic movements, and how art is informed and inspired by other artists, across genres and disciplines to form what we, usually in hindsight, deem a movement. My favourite non-fiction books are those which provoke me to write down the names of other writers or artists that I want to look up, in my journal. While reading this book I filled four pages. The range of Afrofuturists mentioned in this book is VAST, containing musicians, visual and conceptual artists, novelists, poets, scientists, comic book creators, filmmakers, actors, organisations, academic institutions, articles and blogs.
Somehow, in a relatively short book, Ytasha L. Womack has managed to cram the many Afrofuturists that make up the movement, and provide coherent critical explanations of how and why the movement, and sub-movements within it, happened. Afrofuturism is an amalgamation of black people’s pursuit of freedom, of creating futures in which they exist. Afrofuturism provides a place for black people to engage in the present, in honouring the cultural and spiritual practices of their ancestry, whilst projecting that into an imaginary future, and providing a space for themselves and others like them (both a physical space on Earth and literally within outer space). Afrofuturism has been a tool used by black activists to imaginatively comprehend what the utopia they work towards looks like, or the dystopias that they are trying to transcend or avoid. Many Afrofuturists work from an understanding that we are already living in the dystopia, that from the slave trade to the deprivation of black communities; black people, and by extension the entire world, have already been living in a post-apocalyptic world. Afrofuturism provides a place in which to grapple with this, and to provide ways out and to change, often using technology as a way to do so.
Reading this book within the context of the political and technological environment we’re in now was interesting. When it was written in 2013 Obama was in the white house, and we were pre-pandemic. In the chapter on afro-surrealism, Womack explains how the strangeness of our political situation, namely a world which had a black man in power of the most powerful country in the world, yet presiding over a still incredibly racist country and world, resulting in the lines between afro-surrealism and real life becoming blurred. When real life is so surreal, even realism becomes surreal. Similarly, in a world increasingly technological, most art, and in fact our lives in their entirety, are becoming increasingly “sci-fi”. We are currently living through a global pandemic that quarantined us all within our homes, only connecting to the world through the technology. Simultaneously, the Black Lives Matter movement has become one of the largest black rights movements in history, with protests in 50 US states and 18 countries at the last count. This movement has been fuelled hugely by social media, by the sharing of funds and petitions and information of protests. The entire time, the white men in power seem to be ignoring it happening. Seeing the UK headlines on the decades old Madeline McCann case instead of such a historic movement I thought “we are literally living in a sci-fi novel”. Now, seeing black women and femmes on my Instagram feeds using their ancient ancestral traditions of healing to provide spaces for black people, and some inviting in white and non-black people to learn and unlearn with them, I see that we are living in an Afrofuturist reality. The sharing of black history and literature across social media platforms echoes Sun Ra stood on the street handing out esoteric books on African history, physics and metaphysics to passers-by, believing that education and literature would bring the end of racism.
“All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you.” – Octavia E. Butler, The Parable of The Sower