“Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently consumed by the distinct traces of history, imagine possible futures?”
The question posed in Mark Derry’s 1993 essay “Black to the Future,” might be more relevant for black people today than ever before. In 2015, we are witnessing Jim Crow 2.0; a slicker, sleeker form of structural racism consisting of the legalized murders of black bodies at the hands of police, a new strain of chattel slavery known as the Prison Industrial Complex, and an inequitable public school system that breaks the spirits of many black youth, while funneling them into the prison system. As we see oppressive systems thrive and adapt throughout the centuries, we know that old ways of thinking no longer serve our collective story, and maybe our imagination will be the only thing that saves us. At its core, Afrofuturism is centered around the imagination and the possibilities of what could be. It combines a variety of cultural mediums such as science fiction, African cosmology, historical fiction and fantasy to examine and critique the current realities of black experiences while reinventing new possibilities. Afrofuturist author Ytasha Womack describes it as “a way of bridging the future and the past and essentially helping to reimagine the experience of people of color.”
“I’m playing a dark history. It’s beyond black; I’m dealing with the dark things of the cosmos.”
Afrofuturism has everything to do with being dissatisfied with the current reality of an oppressed existence, so much so that a new world must be created. In many ways the institution of race can be seen as a form of technology; a manmade construct that seeks to rank and oppress people to wield power and privilege. Thus, the very essence of the black experience in America has been a cycle of resistance against an oppressive entity, as well as a yearning for a distant land that is inherently understood, yet remains foreign and unknown. However in spite of oppression and displacement, there’s group of people who are natural creators, innate alchemists who have been known to turn scraps into jewels, while seamlessly becoming the arbiters of mainstream culture despite being classified as “Other.” So much of the black experience has been fueled by magic. From this perspective, the collective experience of the African diaspora is an epic science fiction story.
Black thinkers and artists have fused themes of Afrofuturism in their work throughout the decades to transcend current realities to imagine a freer future. People such as: Sun Ra, Parliament, Octavia Butler, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Ellen Gallagher have used this platform to deconstruct structural oppression while imagining alternatives. For example in Parliament’s Chocolate City album, before anyone knew of President Obama, the band imagined a black president:
And when they come to march on ya
Tell ’em to make sure they got their James Brown pass
And don’t be surprised if Ali is in the White House
Reverend Ike, Secretary of the Treasure
Richard Pryor, Minister of Education
Stevie Wonder, Secretary of fine arts
And Miss Aretha Franklin, the First Lady
Are you out there, CC?
A chocolate city is no dream
Afrofuturism is more than just an escape from the past and present; it can provide us an opportunity to break the boundaries of institutional oppression. It deals with an intrinsic awareness and reverence for the past that’s anchored by a deep need to transcend it.Now more than ever, people of African descent are uncovering hidden pasts, rejecting white narratives by using nuggets of truth found in the vaults of the collective histories of our ancestors. In the process, we’re reaching for alternative realities in which we define ourselves for ourselves rather than relying on an oppressive system to do it for us. The present looks grim, so hope and creativity is what we need. As stated by Sun Ra, one of the fathers of the Afrofuturist aesthetic:
“The possible has been tried and failed. Now it’s time to try the impossible.”