The Future is Ours: Afrofuturism in the AIU Centre

By Hattie

As part of Black History Month 2019, we hosted an event with writer, poet, and director Elmi Ali called ‘The Afrofuturist Toolkit’. During the workshop the participants explored the theories behind Afrofuturism and created some of their own work envisioning the future of society. Ali’s overarching message was that Afrofuturism can take any form and is all around us, demanding a space in the future for Black people defined by themselves. “It looks to the past to define and make sense of the future.” According to Ali, ‘ism’ can be understood to mean “how something could be”.

group of people participating in a workshop led by Elmi Ali

‘Afrofuturist Toolkit’ workshop with Elmi Ali – BHM2019

To coincide with this BHM2019 event, the AIU Centre library purchased an important book by Ytasha L. Womack on the topic of Afrofuturism, which has led us to discover other Afrofuturist elements in our library!

Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (2013) by Ytasha L Womack  (Arts, Literature, Sport and Media: AR.8.00/GOO)

So, what is afrofuturism? In the words of Womack, Afrofuturism is ‘an intersection of imagination, technology, the future and liberation.’ She states that Afrofuturists ‘redefine culture and notions of black-ness for today and the future.’ As far as ‘isms’ go it may be a lesser-known one, but there’s a lot to unpack – it combines historical, speculative and science-fiction with fantasy, Afrocentricity, magic-realism and non-Western beliefs.

front cover of book featuring a futuristic woman's face in blue and the title in orange

Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture

This book provides an accessible but thorough insight into Afrofuturism, from a personal perspective as well as academic. It’s equally as enjoyable for those who have no previous knowledge of the topic as it is for scholars looking to expand on what they already know. Womack covers the origins of Afrofuturism (the term was coined in 1994) but claims to have been an Afrofuturist “before the term existed”; she states that others qualify as one too if they, like her, found themselves wondering why Black people are minimised in pop culture depictions of the future.

The various chapters discuss the ideology and foundations of Afrofuturism in relation to several areas of 21st Century culture in the US (and elsewhere). These include Cosplay, the internet, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU), film theory, and on a deeper level she draws parallels between alien abduction narratives and the transatlantic slave trade.

an inside page at the beginning of chapter 5, showing a black and white illustration of a futuristic action figure

Chapter 5 – The African Cosmos for Modern Mermaids (Mermen)

The connections between Afrofuturism and the history, religion and astrology of Africa stem mostly from Ancient Egyptian beliefs. Afrofuturist artists and individuals combine this historical inspiration with modern technology and arts. Womack has such a depth of wisdom on the roots of Afrofuturism that any readers with or without an existing knowledge of African deities and goddesses will learn a lot. This book is engaging throughout; it never stays theoretical, historical or factual for too long, but instead throws popular cultures references into every chapter, such as an analytical comparison of the costumes of Azealia Banks and Tina Turner to African water deity Mami Wata.

Ultimately Womack urges society to reassess how it views the future, which is inevitably also the present and the past. Although there have been ground-breaking developments in the representation of people of colour in the future (such as the film Black Panther), Womack’s plea is as valid as ever. She asks us to consider why, in an age in which universities and museums are striving to uncover the neglected Black histories and repatriate stolen items, popular culture, media and academia still won’t envision Black people existing in the future. Or in her own words:

When, even in the imaginary future – a space where the mind can stretch beyond the Milky Way to envision routine space travel, cuddly space animals, talking apes, and time machines – people can’t fathom a person of non-Euro descent a hundred years in to the future, a cosmic foot has to be put down.’

Back to Black: Art, Cinema and the Racial Imaginary (2005) by Richard J. Powell, David A. Bailey and Petrine Archer Straw 

This is a fantastic publication on the Black Arts Movement, created as part of Africa 2005, ‘a year-long celebration of contemporary and past cultures from across the continent and the Diaspora which embraces the diversity of arts, heritage and audience’. The book features a collection of essays on topics including Black identity and image, Black cinematic narratives including Blaxploitation, documentary photography, influential art and music, and Afrofuturism.

front cover of book, black with title in large shiny gold writing

Back to Black: Art, Cinema and the Racial Imaginary

                                                               

The title of the chapter of interest here is ‘Afrofuturist Cineculture in an Age of Cultural Revolution’, written by Kodwo Eshun. One thing that caught my eye was the mention of Sun Ra, ‘America’s most important postwar-avant garde composer.’ Ytasha Womack had mentioned Sun Ra several times in her book too, describing him as Afrofuturism’s ‘founding pillar’ who wanted to use music to heal. Kodwo Oshun writes about ‘myth science’, highlighting the common combination of ‘revisionist visions of ancient Egypt with a sustained interest in extraterritoriality and electronic technology’.

inside page of book, gold with white writing

The main body of this article discusses Sun Ra’s role in the 1974 film Space is the Place. It describes a scene in which Ra appears to a group of Black youths in Oakland and explains how neither he nor they are real:

“I’m not real. I’m just like you. You don’t exist, in this society. If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So we’re both myths.”

Whether or not you agree with Sun Ra’s opinion here, this quote from the film really summarises what Elmi Ali, Ytasha Womack and Kodwo Eshun have all said. Afrofuturism is about imagining and creating a space for Black people in the future of a society that currently excludes them, by any means possible.

The more I think about the concept of Afrofuturism, the more books and collections jump out as relevant. Please let us know your thoughts on this topic or any links you can see in our library!

Nine books on a counter in the library, all relating to Afrofuturism

Library display of Afrofuturist material in the AIU library

Exhibition Reflection: ‘Journeys to Manchester’

By Hattie

On the 18th June 2019 we launched ‘Journeys to Manchester’, an exhibition exploring the lives of people displaced by conflict, persecution or natural disaster who have settled in Manchester. The main purpose of the exhibition is to highlight experiences and realities of migrating to a new country, using quotes from oral histories of individuals involved in our projects. It was important to us that we included cherished memories of people’s countries of origin and the discovery of cultural differences once in the UK, rather than only portraying the traumatic experiences that have become synonymous with being a refugee in mainstream media.

Display panels of the Journeys to Manchester exhibition

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Then and Now: Revisiting The Lou Kushnick Interviews

By Hattie

The majority of our archival material here at the AIU Centre relates to the UK, more specifically to Manchester, emphasising our focus on race relations within our local communities’ history and heritage. However, I have recently taken on the task of getting to grips with the ‘Lou Kushnick Interviews’, which are all the way across the Atlantic ocean from Manchester in their subject matter. While they may focus on US history rather than Manchester’s, there is one quite major connection between the interviews and our city. Lou Kushnick, the founder of The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource centre, came to Manchester from the US in 1963 to study, and decided to stay. He became a lecturer in American Studies at the University of Manchester and these interviews formed part of his various research endeavours, conducted both in this city and back in the US. They now form part of our archive, and can be browsed along with Lou’s various papers and documents.

There are 95 interviews in total, each around an hour in length. Some span over multiple recordings, and some are shorter and straight to the point. The interviewees are mostly American politicians, academics, lawyers, union members and activists. If you are interested in US political and social history, or US racial inequality within housing, employment, education and welfare, the Lou Kushnick interviews will fascinate you. As a past student of American Studies myself, they certainly fascinated me.

A photo of a diagram drawn in pen linking each interview to its relevant theme

Note-taking and brainstorming while listening to the Lou Kushnick Interviews

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How equal is Great Britain? How far have we come since the Race Relations Act of 1976?

By Hattie

At the beginning of this year we were (and still are!) very pleased to announce that our collection of publications from the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) were made available digitally, meaning numerous pamphlets, reports and policies are now online for you to look at – Click here to view the collection, and click here to read a blog post about the digital process! I have decided that these are especially worth a look this month, as it was 42 years ago in November that the CRE was first created.

One document I came across was the ‘Training Handbook for Social Services Departments’ working in multi-racial areas (see below). The Handbook explains that the CRE was formed under the Act of 1976, with the hope of eliminating racial discrimination within England, Wales and Scotland. This 1976 legislation replaced the previous 1965 Race Relations Act,  which failed to address racial discrimination within housing, employment and the legal system. Almost half a century later, racial discrimination still exists in our society – which causes me to ask: Did the 1976 Act succeed in its aims? How is racial discrimination characterised now in comparison to how it was perceived in the 1970s?

A cropped section of a training handbook called Working in Multi-racial areas

A cropped section of the handbook showing the duties of the commission for racial equality

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Manchester Movement Histories

A couple of weeks ago I (Hannah) wheeled a precariously-laden trolley of archive boxes over the road to the Friend’s Meeting House, to be the source material for a day-long research workshop for undergraduate History students. Reblogged from History@manchester, here are Dr Kerry Pimblott’s reflections on what was a hugely inspiring day for all of us.

History@Manchester

By Dr Kerry Pimblott

The key to a more just future lies in a real reckoning with our collective pasts.

At least that was the thinking of the eminent scholar-activist, W. E. B. Du Bois. Writing in February 1905 – at the height of what many consider ‘the nadir’, or lowest point, in American race relations – Du Bois stated,

We can only understand the present by continually referring to and studying the past: when any one of our intricate daily phenomena puzzles us; when there arises religious problems, political problems, race problems, we must always remember that while their solution lies here in the present, their cause and their explanation lie in the past.

Du Bois’s call to ‘look-back-to-move-forward’ rings no less true today than it did over a century ago. Last week it was this dictum – in a new nadir typified by the twin tragedies of Grenfell…

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Historians count…

Image of a pair of glasses on a book

The Roving Reader Files

 

I’ve previously raised a cheer for those individuals who do all the donkey work so the likes of you and me can put our feet up reading books by people about other people – writers of biographies and secondary sources. Well, the other day I was struck by a monumental question: what on earth motivates them?

Rummaging around in the Centre, I unearthed Historians and Race. Autobiography and the Writing of History (published 1996). Would this help me find the answer?

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Up from History

Our cataloguer and book reviewer Jo takes a look at our large and ever-popular History section.

 

In our new position on the Lower Ground Floor, next to City Library, in the newly refurbished Central Library, we have retained the same subject sections for our books but the layout of our collection is much more light, airy and spacious. Following on from Education, I’ve been taking a fresh look at the History section.

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