Review: Afrofuturism

Afrofuturism by Ytasha L. Womack

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Recently, Noah screenwriter Ari Handel told The High Calling that the reason a film based on the Hebrew Bible featured an entirely white cast was that “this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people.” The concept of the white male as supposedly universal subject is disgusting enough, but such a precisely vague statement only brings to mind the various Old White Dudes screaming themselves red over people of color or women asking to be treated like people in the sf community. (I haven’t heard of anyone specifically protesting queer folk getting involved, but it’s only a matter of time.) Handel and men like Dave Truesdale are implying the same thing: marginalized communities and speculative fiction have nothing to do with each other.

Which really makes you wonder what kind of speculative fiction these cats have been consuming to get such a bizarrely narrow notion of the genre. Speculative fiction is the fiction of ideas. It is explicitly a genre where you can take the world around you and change it as you so please. It’s where we can imagine a better world. After all, you have to imagine, say, an America with a black president or equal marriage rights before you can execute them. What do marginalized communities and speculative fiction have to do with each other? Everything.

Which is exactly what Afrofuturism is about. The Afrofuturism movement posits that the experience of black people, especially African-Americans, is inherently science fictional, due to the mix of , technology, rewritten, erased, or lost history, and invisible barriers that intersect on the black body and black cultural experience. Sounds a bit like alien abduction, doesn’t it, asks Mark Dery in “Black to the Future.” Art curator Ingrid LaFleur characterizes Afrofuturism as “a way of imagining possible futures through a black cultural lens” (9). It both allows black people to grapple with the fallout of the African Diaspora and their own realities while also imagining new frontiers free from the pressures of living in a race-divided world. Afrofuturists create new mythologies (Sun Ra’s Space is the Place and Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins’ 1902 Of One Blood); transplant prejudices (the oppressed androids of Janelle Monáe’s music); and reclaim scientific history (the Dogon of Mali have had advanced astrological knowledge for centuries). It covers film, music, literature, and technology.

And it’s well catchy.

Afrofuturism, however, is not as awesome as the movement itself. Afrofuturism itself is a pretty scattershot survey of what’s going on in Afrofuturism at the moment, examples, and some theory. But not necessarily in that order. After running through her own evolution as a black nerd, Ytasha L. Womack starts listing things off loosely and keeps going, occasionally circling back. Womack traces the birth of Afrofuturism to Alondra Nelson’s black sci-fi AOL Listserv from the nineties, but also highlights Sun Ra as the original Afrofuturist. It becomes quite clear later on that this is the movement reclaiming applicable material from throughout history, from Hopkins’ novel to Nicki Minaj’s “Starships,” but I really wished that there was some kind of chronological structure going on here with a little bit of historical context to smooth things along. It’s roughly topical, but there’s plenty of information spilling over from one chapter to the next. It’s the sort of thing that makes you wonder if this was originally several articles covering, more or less, the material.

Sloppy through the structure may be, this is clearly due to Womack’s love for her subject. I, for some reason, had been anticipating a lot of analysis of media properties that included black characters, but Womack, rightfully, focuses entirely on the art of black artists, almost bypassing Star Trek altogether (save for the always excellent Nichelle Nichols and Martin Luther King Jr. story). I already have a list full of films, books, and music to consume from this little volume. I’ve even made a playlist of songs mentioned, if you’d like. But this is just an introduction, meant to get you interested and motivated to seek out and, if applicable, create Afrofuturistic works. Which makes it practically required reading for sf fans unfamiliar with the movement, despite its flaws.

Bottom line: Practically required reading for sf fans unfamiliar with Afrofuturism, despite its sloppy structure.

I rented this book from the public library.

4 thoughts on “Review: Afrofuturism

  1. Growing up in the Caribbean and reading local/regional authors, there has always been a focus and realism. Any reference to the fantastical was just a folklore and not taken seriously on a literary level.

    Honestly, it took two authors for me to realize that not only do ‘marginalised’ groups have a place in speculative fiction, but they can be central to those narratives.

    1. Karen Lord author of Redemption in Indigo and Best of All Possible Worlds

    2. Nalo Hopkinson, who apparently helped Neil Gaiman with the West Indian folklore he would have needed to write Anansi Boys.

    Great review! I’ll check out Womack’s book.

    • I had no idea about Hopkinson collaborating with Gaiman on Anansi Boys! That’s so awesome. (And, you know, the way to do your research.) Thanks for sharing about how you found diversity in speculative fiction. I’ll have to investigate Karen Lord.

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