AfroFuturism: A Beautiful History, A Brave New World

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Rasheedah Phillips, a brilliant young lawyer, author and fellow member of the Black Science Fiction Society. She hosted an amazing event in Philly, The AfroFuturistic Affair, which is a costume and charity ball celebrating African-American artists, poets and writers of science fiction and fantasy. I’m honored to have Rasheedah guest blog about the origins of AfroFuturism, how it informs her own work and the need for stories where people of color have presence and agency.

“We have a beautiful history, and we shall create another in the future that will astonish the world.”
— Marcus Garvey

Author Rasheedah Phillips (Photo credit: The L. Park Project)

AfroFuturism is a culture that has emerged to render a portrait of the collective history, the present happenings, and the future prospects of people of color, where heretofore our stories and our roles have been skewed, misrepresented, and diminished in the mainstream social narrative. Sampling from the visual, sensual, and literary pallets of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, horror, and magic, Afrofuturism as a genre considers what it means to be of color throughout space and time, all while considering the present day influence of people of color upon the world, and our collective roles in shaping the eternally-unfolding future of humanity.

Many of us were Afrofuturists long before it had a name. The umbrella term for the Black presence in sci-fi, technology, magic and the like is a fairly modern creation, coined in 1994 by a culture critic named Mark Dery.  Although we apply this term retrospectively to encompass speculative fiction, film, art, and music created by people of color, we must recognize that the concepts and phenomenon fueling Afrofuturism have been around for as long as there have been people to observe it and communicate it.   Whether you call it mythology, ghost stories, parable, folktale, sci-fi, religious tale, or fantasy, people of color have always contemplated their origins in the same breath that they anticipated the fate of humankind. From the Dogon tribe to the Mayans, from the old negro spirituals to the tunes of Outkast, people of color have forever been passing down their accounts of what has come to pass upon our people and what is still yet to come. We will likely continue to do so until time the day that time leaves us all behind.

I find many parallels with the experiences of spec-fic author Nicole Sconiers, who featured at my recent Afrofuturism event. In a really poignant entry called The AfroFuturistic Affair: A Sci-Fi Novel Come to Life, she speaks to a certain feeling of disconnect from traditional science fiction, which overwhelmingly told the story of a future inhabited by whites and, by and large, absent people of color.

My personal journey as a sci-fi lover began at a very young age, where books like My Teacher is an Alien by Bruce Colville and The Midnight Club by Christopher Pike ensnared my imagination like nothing else could. I penned my very first fiction stories in elementary school classrooms, variations on the books I read, where I wrote about little girls who woke up inside the bodies of Barbie dolls and aliens who kidnapped students. Moving through junior high and high school, shows like The X-Files and movies like The Matrix nurtured interests in philosophy, mysteries, conspiracy theories, and the supernatural.

Something changed once I entered college, however. A student at Temple University, home to one of the first departments of African-American studies, I took classes that pried my mind open to the complexity of Blackness and its multifaceted existence across racial, cultural, gender, social, and institutional lines. Learning about Black Psychology, Blacks in Cinema, the Black Child, the Black Woman, Black Philosophy, and a myriad other topics reshaped my perspective on the world, forcing me to take a more critical approach to how I viewed the experiences of people of color as portrayed in broader culture and society.  With eyes wide open, I, for a brief period of time, rejected the mainstream, traditional sci-fi culture that I had always loved because it did not contain any reflection of my social identity as a Black woman or the culture of people with whom I shared a history and identity.

Fast forward to my first year of law school, when a good friend handed me a copy of Kindred by Octavia Butler, who, after reading some of my writings, thought I would be interested in the story. Hooked from the first sentence, reading Ms. Butler had the sort of spiritual significance that being reborn might have for a devout Christian. I felt my love for sci-fi renewed, evolved even, for I had come upon narratives that reflected my social and cultural experiences. From the Butler novels, I followed the trail to other works of Black sci-fi and felt inspired to create my own again.  As I began to develop my stories with a stronger Afrofuturistic focus, I became further introduced to entire communities and social networks dedicated to Black sci-fi and Afrofuturism.

In October 2011, attempting to pay a homage to Afrofuturism and those artists, authors, musicians and performers who incorporate it into their creations, I threw an event called The AfroFuturist Affair: A Charity and Costume Ball.  The Affair had the mission of sharing the inspiring works of Afrofuturists – the artists who are able to find one common space for their ancestors’ experiences, their descendants’ experiences, and their own experiences.

The event featured the works of authors of speculative and science fiction, two bands, several spoken word artists, two visual artists, two photographers, a DJ, and a fashion designer, all of whose work contains some element of the Afrofuturistic aesthetic and culture.  The evening was a cornucopia of Afrofuturistic visual and auditory stimulants, with authors introducing us to the near-futures they’ve envisioned, spoken word recitations, swirling tunes of jazz, funk, and psychedelic along with the flashing lights, wine, body painting, and live art.

Although the artists at the Affair ranged in topic, theory, and mode of expression their work all had in common a tribute to the past, commentary on the present, and a vision of the future, delivering of all of these segments of time to the present sensory experiences taking place at the Affair.  It was exhilarating to be around so many people of colors who shared my love of science fiction and futurism. It was energizing to mingle with those who are actively working to ensure that we recognize Black and Brown peoples who pioneered these genres, and that we remain potently represented in these genres.

Interested in the participatory aspect of invoking all of these time segments at once (and because who doesn’t love to play dress-up?), I organized the Affair as a costume ball so that all attendees, not just those featured, could explore their own ability to blend afro-future and afro-history into their outfits. Finally, all proceeds of the event were donated to Need In Deed (NID), a non-profit organization dedicated to helping children apply academics in service learning project that address problems in their communities and schools. NID’s mission of empowering students to think and act consciously about the issues impacting their communities, and to work on improving their communities through awareness and service accords with the use of Afrofuturistic works as a means of raising the awareness of communities of color in consideration of their contributions to humanity throughout the past and present, as well as their agency in creating the future. All elements of the Afrofuturist Affair event coalesced perfectly to create the atmosphere necessary for translating the energy and transmitting the message of Afrofuturism and community service.

Bending the rules of present reality through memory and vision is the mechanism by which participants of Afrofuturistic culture tell the stories of people of color. In the form of art, critical analysis, music, fashion, and literature, Afrofuturists correct the records of our histories, interrogate the present structures and institutions of modern-day society, all while building a world where people of color have agency and a presence.

R. Phillips works as an attorney at a non-profit legal organization, but her evenings are spent experimenting with time order, reversing cause and effect, turning black holes inside out to create worlds, and rearranging the cosmos to foster favorable astrological conditions for the birth of characters to populate those worlds. Some call it science fiction, but she believes that science is fiction, and vice versa ; that the worlds created within the pages are literally written into existence, brought to life, fully functioning and self-sustaining in the imaginations and minds of the reader-observer. She is currently working on finishing her first novel, Recurrence Plot.

R. Phillips has had a short piece published in an anthology titled “Growing Up Girl” (edited by Michelle Sewell), inspirational essays published in Sister to Sister: Black Women Speak to Young Black Women (edited by Beth Johnson) and “Professor May I Bring My Baby to Class” (edited by Sherrill Mosee), and various other works of non-fiction.  She is also the very proud creator of her favorite character in her personal life story, 12-year old daughter Iyonna.

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