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

Developing the ‘Honour’-Based Violence Collection: The Beginning

Becki Kaur has recently submitted her PhD, which explores how professionals working in the domestic abuse sector understand, explain, and address ‘honour’-based violence. We’re excited to have her working with us on a six-month project to develop the library’s resources on this very important topic.

I’ve heard some people say that, by the time it gets to the end of their PhD, they’ve fallen out of love with their research topic. In this respect, I consider myself fortunate. Although the nature of my area of research – ‘honour’-based violence – is (to put it nicely) deeply unpleasant, I feel as passionate about raising awareness of the subject as I did when I started my research journey four years ago. So, when the opportunity arose to work with the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre (AIUC) to help develop ‘honour’-based violence-related resources, I didn’t have to be asked twice! Continue reading

Radicals and Renegades

Cataloguer and book reviewer Jo has been taking a good look at our Politics section…

At this early stage of the twenty-first century, we are living through a period of global turmoil and social change. Revolutions in communications, technology and the reach of surveillance unfold at a gathering pace, interwoven with an upsurge of political revolutions and coups-d’état.

photograph of the occupy wall street protest

© David Shankbone (www.flickr.com/photos/shankbone)

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Glorious Occupations

Next in her series of library indepth posts, cataloguer and book reviewer Jo looks at my favourite section – Arts, Media and Sport

Filled with the brilliant colours and sounds of visual art and music, the swish of fashion and dance, the flash of camera and moving image, the million tongues of literature and the rising cheer of the sports arena, the Arts, Sport and the Media section divides into six subsections.

Books form the art media and sport section on the shelf

© University of Manchester

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One for the Crime…

Next in her series of library indepth posts, cataloguer and book reviewer Jo takes a look at our Criminal Justice section.

Analysis of the section title ‘Criminal Justice’ brings me to wonder whether the two concepts (crime and justice) are exact opposites of each other. Are they mutually exclusive? Why not simply ‘Crime and Justice’?

Just as in the well-known phrase, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, so one man’s crime can be another man’s justice, and indeed vice versa. How else could you explain miscarriages of justice, judicial decisions based on prejudiced information or opinion, vigilantism, or the ramifications of political protest, whether violent or non-violent?

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One Way Ticket to the World

Next in Jo’s series of posts on our library – the Immigration section:

image of books about immigration

A topical subject at the moment, immigration.

Beneath the headlines, however, is a complexity of economic, social and political movement and motivations for movement, a tangled network of transnational relationships that criss-cross the globe and a morass of successive legislation and policymaking underpinning it.

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Contesting Culture

Next in her series of library indepth posts, cataloguer and book reviewer Jo takes a thoughtful look at the Culture and Identity section.

Working at the Centre, we’re often dipping into books and other publications as we go about our day-to-day duties, but it’s impossible not to, at some point, take a book out and read it thoroughly – the subjects are so interesting.

One I read recently from cover to cover was Isabel Fonseca’s Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, an ethnographic study of the Eastern European Roma whom she lived among for several years as she travelled through Albania, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria (among other countries) in the early 1990s. The book traces their migratory patterns, the origins of their indomitable spirit and their ability to survive the dual impositions of being forbidden to settle at the same time as being forbidden to roam.

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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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So, Who is Nelson Mandela?

Image of a pair of glasses on a book

The Roving Reader Files

 

Do you like coffee table books? I know I do.

Sometimes there’s nothing nicer than picking up an outsize tome packed with illustrations, and relaxing with it over a coffee. Some are very light reads, others more substantial.

Cover of Illustrated Long Walk to Freedom

Strolling among the shelves of the Centre, I came across one of the more substantial kind – The Illustrated Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (published 1996). Having seen the 2013 film based on his memoirs, I spent a happy couple of hours absorbed in fascinating pictures, trying to assess how accurate the cinema experience had been. Who was Nelson Mandela? If I wanted to get to know him, I’d surely meet him in these pages.

Or so I thought…

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A Quick Peek at Archives+…

It’s all hands on deck here this week as we get ready for the reopening of Central Library, incorporating us and our Archives+ partners. No time to write a proper post this week, so I thought I’d share this from the Archives+ blog – a few sneaky peak pictures from inside!

www.manchesterarchiveplus.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/a-quick-peek-at-archives

Central Library reopens this Saturday (22nd), which is also the first day of the Manchester Histories Festival – there will be loads going on, so come on down and see for yourself, and don’t forget to visit our library on the Lower Ground Floor!

The Skull Measurer’s Mistake

Image of a pair of glasses on a book

The Roving Reader Files

 

This title caught my eye: The Skull Measurer’s Mistake. Skull measurer? Mistake? What could this mean? We know it’s not great to measure our waists inaccurately, as we burst out of our clothes if they’re too small. But skulls?

Image of book covers

Once I’d picked up Skull Measurer (published 1997) I was hooked. The rest of the title tells you why: and Other Portraits of Men and Women Who Spoke Out Against Racism. Concisely and deftly Sven Linqvist navigates the intellectual currents around the ethnic stereotyping that characterised popular imagination on both sides of the Atlantic during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and those who opposed it.

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Education for All?

Over the coming months our cataloguer and book reviewer Jo will be profiling sections of the library. First up, the Education section…

image of teaching resources on shelf

The Education section is of primary importance in some ways since the driving force behind the original founding of the Centre and the Trust was the commemoration of the life of Ahmed Iqbal Ullah, the 13 year old Bangladeshi student murdered in a racially motivated attack in a Manchester school playground, 1986.

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Black Ivory, Black Settlers and the Phantom Book Rescuer

Image of a pair of glasses on a book

The Roving Reader Files

Books are like stray animals  –  they’re looking for a good home…

The shelves of the Centre bear evidence that someone out there agrees with me. The other day I came across two books, inscribed by the hand of a kind-hearted individual who, it seems, scoured public library book sales for any waifs or strays needing tender loving care and rehabilitation.

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‘A New System of Slavery’: A tale of three homes

Image of a pair of glasses on a book

The Roving Reader Files

I often wonder how books find their way into the Centre. Sometimes it’s simple, but sometimes it’s not so straightforward. I’m always intrigued when individual items bear marks which give a little glimpse of their story. Here’s an example.

A New System of Slavery. The Export of Indian Labour Overseas 1830-1920, by Hugh Tinker, was published by Oxford University Press for the Institute of Race Relations, in 1974. It was the first comprehensive survey of how and why populations from the Indian subcontinent were resettled around the British Empire, providing the indentured labour that produced plantation crops after slavery was abolished in the nineteenth century.

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Basil Davidson: The University of Manchester link

Image of a pair of glasses on a bookAs an addendum to my last post, did you know that Basil Davidson once walked the hallowed corridors of Manchester University?

He was appointed a senior Simon Research Fellow for the academic year 1975/76, doing library research for another book on the Centre’s shelves  – his  Africa in Modern History: The Search for a New Society, published in 1978. How intriguing that he may have spent many hours on campus, in the Main Library and perhaps the Dover Street Building  (where the Department of Sociology was then based).

Nice to know Manchester played its part in helping Basil restore to Africans their history and culture, don’t you think?

If anyone bumped into him and has any memories to share, do let us know…

Black Star: Documenting Britain’s Asian Youth Movements

image of AYM posterCome what may, we are here to stay!

I imagine if you came across the Asian Youth Movements in Manchester, Bradford and other towns and cities during the 1970s and 80s they would have made quite an impression on you. I knew very little about this fascinating bit of recent history until earlier this month when we welcomed author Anandi Ramamurthy to launch her new book Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements.

In a nutshell, during the 70s and 80s young Asians joined together to protest against the racism and inequality they experienced in their communities and from the government. These grassroots organisations held rallies and marches, protested against deportations and produced leaflets, newspapers and posters to spread their message.

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Who is the Roving Reader?

Image of a pair of glasses on a book

She can be found here every week, settled in some quiet corner of the library brandishing a notepad and a quizzical look, or roaming around the shelves, picking up books seemingly at random, letting out sudden exclamations or shaking her head sagely…  we never quite know what she’s up to, but she’s agreed to report back on her findings as our very own reader in residence.

Look out for her guest posts, in which she’ll reveal hidden stories, make unusual connections and share her insights into using the collection for research.

What’s so special about our collection?

Images of arts books

Since taking up my post at the AIU Race Relations Resource Centre back in June, people keep telling me what an important collection this is.

A couple of quiet summer months gave me an opportunity to explore the library and build up my own picture of why this place is so unique. That’s one of the reasons I’ve started this blog – to share interesting ideas and items from the collection as I uncover them. But for now here are a few initial thoughts…

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