Arie Altena

Afrofuturism. Other Ways of Navigating the World that Facilitate Resilience

Interview with Ytasha Womack

Arie Altena

This text was published in The Noise of Being Sonic Acts 2017.

In recent years, there has been a resurgent interest in Afrofuturism. As a term, Afrofuturism was coined 25 years ago to point to a specific black science fiction imagination found in the novels of, for example, Octavia E. Butler and Samuel Delany, as well as the use of extraterrestrial myths by musicians such as Sun Ra, Parliament, and Funkadelic. Ytasha L. Womack is the author of the award-winning book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (2013) and a leading Afrofuturist scholar. She defines Afrofuturism as a way of looking at the future or alternate realities through a black cultural lens, positioning it at the intersection of black culture, the imagination, technology, and mysticism. Womack considers that it can be both an artistic aesthetic and also an epistemology. Most of all, she is very excited that so many people around the world have an interest in Afrofuturism, using this imagination as a way of better celebrating our shared humanity and striving to build a better world.

AA What do you consider to be the value of speculative science fiction?

YW The value of speculative fiction is that it provides alternate futures for people to consider. It can deliver other ways of looking at issues that we are dealing with today. It creates an opportunity for people to contemplate alternatives to the existing reality. Talking about the future – and even distant pasts – gives people the chance to feel empowered in the present regarding the decisions they make. It makes them feel that what they do can shape a better world.

AA Is there a significant difference between Afrofuturism and other genres of speculative imagination?

YW In one respect, Afrofuturism is significantly different. Often, the conversations about the future do not value the perspectives that might have come from African descent or the African continent. Afrofuturism is an opportunity for people from those cultures to actively give a voice to their thoughts about the future. It provides an opportunity to feel empowered around decisions about the future. Afrofuturism also highlights a set of insights and concepts that are not intertwined so comfortably with existing science fiction narratives. This specifically concerns Afrofuturism’s perception of time – where the past, future, and present can overlap – and its valuing of feminine aesthetics and the feminine aspect of humanity. It looks at concepts that have come out of what we call Black Cultures around the world and how these ideas could play out to shape experience. The ideas in Afrofuturism are often universal but are placed in a context that, for some people, involves a mind shift because these people may not engage with science fictional ideas from a central Western perspective. Thus, Afrofuturism helps them to shape ideas about the future or get a new understanding of the past. This is why Afrofuturism is so valuable.

AA Can you give an example of how time and space are conceptualised differently in Afrofuturism?

YW Several African cultures have looked at time a little differently. Our Western understanding of time is, well, very Western. It is a perspective that we have been socialised in or that we have chosen to accept. But there are other perspectives on time, and they are rather fascinating. Afrofuturism takes these other perspectives and builds a society around them. What would the world look like if we conceive of time and space differently? Rasheedah Philips, who is part of the Black Quantum Futurism collective that developed a same-titled theory, merges African traditional concepts of time with African diasporic perspectives on time and also some indigenous perspectives on time. The Black Quantum Futurism group looks at how that would transform things today in everyday urban communities and spaces. It is a worthy exploration because it expands our mind regarding how we can build and develop a fully integrated society. Another example would be the conception of time by musicians whose work broadly falls into the category of Afrofuturism. They often see music as a means for time travel or as a portal to time travel. In music, you can bring time forward from the past, or you can bring a time back from the future and expand it into the present. In my book, there are musicians who talk about the difference between listening to a sound that takes you back to a time and actually being in that time. Some weren’t sure whether there is much of a difference. I also had conversations with them about the desire in music, especially in African diasporic music, to bring the past forward. There is a desire in this music to bridge times. Many of the rhythms in Cuban music, for example, are probably relatively ancient. After the separation caused by the transatlantic slave trade, there was a desire to maintain practices from Africa and keep them in a state of resilience. Music offered a way of maintaining a time and of giving new birth to a time that, in one respect, you could say they were removed from – but were they? The transatlantic slave trade created a gap, and music is seen as a way to bridging over those horrors and atrocities as a way of diminishing that gap in some way. One of the values of Afrofuturism after the transatlantic slave trade is the idea of using the imagination to transform one’s circumstances. Afrofuturism at the time was about pushing the boundaries of humanity, bridging time and space to redefine oneself in a time when people of colour were not always seen as being human.

AA How is Afrofuturism now different to Afrofuturism of the past?

YW The issues are relatively different now in the twenty-first century. There’s a host of new technologies and new freedoms. Technologies give people the ability to connect globally, to communicate and express themselves, and build bridges with audiences. They offer great possibilities to define oneself outside the box actively. But is there a box? The opportunity in this newly found space, where you have new freedoms, becomes, who are you? If you are creating yourself outside an active space of resistance, who are you? Afrofuturism becomes interesting and relevant to some people because of this opportunity to define oneself and one’s community, referencing things that ancient people may have done and utilising them in a way that makes sense now. To many people, the present feels like the future. That can be exciting and frightening at the same time. Granted, there is a host of challenges in the US, but there are also new-found freedoms; there is a choice of defining yourself outside the gaze of others. I am not saying everything is perfect. People fought very hard for others to have these freedoms. But people now are able to reflect on the question, ‘who am I?’ What is important? What do you keep from the past? There were periods of trauma, but what is the value that came out of these things? What do you move forward and what do you leave behind? Afrofuturism creates a space to look at these ideas without having to hold on to the trauma. (Though some Afrofuturistic works are explicitly about trauma.) I think there is a desire of people to define their experience as people of African descent, as people of the African continent, without being defined by a trauma that took place. What does that look like? How does that feel? And how do you engage with that? How do you live that and not get lost in tropes and imagery that have come to define people of African descent? The transatlantic slave trade created the idea of race through law and violence. There is a culture that came out of this. But how do you define yourself outside of these norms and parameters, while still bringing forth things that may have come out of some of these unique situations that impacted cultures that became to be known as black? I think this is what makes Afrofuturism a bit different. There is so much enthusiasm around Afrofuturism because it offers a way to explore identity outside of trauma or without trauma being the primary narrative – specifically trauma concerning identity that is based on racialised norms. When people genuinely start exploring this, we are able to break down even more ideas and separations that some of us have been socialised to adapt to and that we believed to be a universal truth.

AA Is that also why you regard Afrofuturism to be very much a feminist space?

YW Yes. Women have made the community that has developed around Afrofuturism. There are a lot of female creators within Afrofuturism. Many of the people who’ve come to shape it from an academic standpoint are women. Afrofuturism creates a space where women are not defined by either modern or postmodern feminist norms or by more stringent Black American norms and norms around what black women should be doing. Nor does Afrofuturism always match up with some of pop-culture’s imagery of black women. There is a genuine excitement about being able to define and express yourself in all kinds of ways without having to create a universal front or collective. Still, it bonds people in their desire to capture and chronicle culture or, at the very least, in their desire to help people to connect to their humanity. Women within Afrofuturism have always been hard to define because they can’t be pigeonholed easily. Describing them shatters a lot of conventions – even modern conventions – that we have about women, culture, and ethnicity. I think this is a good thing. Men in Afrofuturism are very interested in connecting with their feminine side: appreciating emotion, intuition, and nonlinear reasoning. Reason and logic are what the Western world is built upon; but within Afrofuturism, there is a very conscious understanding that you have to look at intuition, emotions, feelings, and even – in some cases – at living other lives in other times. There is a lot of ancient wisdom. You have to look at how to integrate these aspects into our knowledge and understanding of the world. People are now looking to connect to these aspects and ask themselves how they explain their experience today. Other cultures have always functioned this way, and even if we have not always had an active understanding of how they did that, it is important to consider them.

AA You say Afrofuturism is open to other ways of knowledge and understanding the world; that it breaks down barriers …

YW One of the exciting things about Afrofuturism is that it creates an opportunity to bridge concepts that we are not always comfortable with within the context of science. A fun way to look at that those concepts is through speculative fiction. I like the idea that there is a desire to actively think and use what some of us call STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts, and maths. The empowering aspect of Afrofuturism is that all kinds of people can have ideas and insights about the future, humanity, and technology and how these ideas can be integrated into society to make things better. This has a value, and it doesn’t always have to be validated by academic science. Afrofuturism gives value to other aspects of knowledge and other ways of navigating the world that facilitate resilience. I think this is important.

AA Can you give an example how that might work?

YW There are people who utilise ideas and principles from Afrofuturism to engage people in working-class communities around ideas of the future. Adrienne Maree Brown did a lot of work in Detroit with community groups, getting teenagers to think of themselves as sci-fi or pulling ideas from Octavia Butler’s books. Also, the Black Quantum Futurism collective in Philadelphia and the creators of the Afrofuturist Affair are working with working-class families and looking at alternative perspectives on time or time binding, having dialogues with them about what they would want to change in the past or about moments in time that seem to have split into alternate realities. These are really interesting conversations. I could even mention the workshops I did with Afrofuturism849, where people, such as musicians or teachers, talk about concepts of time. I think it is valid to have conversations about these sometimes-weird subject matters. It brings people together.

AA There’s an even more recent wave of science fiction from Africa. Do you see this as part of Afrofuturism?

YW I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction and looking at the art and films that come from the African continent. People are not used to seeing a futuristic Africa; therefore, it can be a bit disorienting for Westerners. I would say science fiction from the African continent is Afrofuturism. When I talk to creators from the African continent and the African diaspora, it’s clear that we’re all working with the same concepts. We’re pulling from similar cultural aesthetics and wrestling with the same conversations about humanity.

Ytasha L. Womack is an author, filmmaker, independent scholar, and dancer. She is a leading Afrofuturist scholar and author of the award-winning book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Her other books include Post Black: How a New Generation Is Redefining African American Identity, the Afrofuturist science fiction series Rayla 2212, and Beats, Rhymes & Life: What We Love and Hate About Hip Hop. Her film Bar Star City, which follows a group of intergalactic bar patrons, is currently in production. Other films include the upcoming romantic comedy Couples Night (Screenwriter), The Engagement (Director), and Love Shorts (Writer/Producer). Ytasha Womack currently lives in Chicago.

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