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

The Mecca, the Dreamers and the Double-bind: A Book Review

By Jo Manby

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Text Publishing Company, Australia: 2015)

This is a timeless book that will not age, like the works of James Baldwin, Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison. ‘This is required reading,’ Morrison herself has said, in a quote that foots the cover of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bestseller, Between the World and Me.

Between the World and Me is written in the form of a letter addressed to Coates’ teenage son, a veritable prayer that is drenched in love and born out of struggle. It should make America sit up and take notice.

Front cover of the book titled Between the World and Me by ta-Nehisi Coates

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Fanteland and the Coastal Coalition

To mark International Slavery Day (23rd August), Jo Manby reviews:

The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, by Rebecca Shumway (University of Rochester Press: Rochester, NY & Woodbridge, Suffolk 2011) (Reprinted 2014)

The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade diverges from previous accounts of the relationship between Fante political history and the Atlantic slave trade, which have tended to focus on and to amalgamate Akan ancestry; the period of the gold trade (fifteenth to seventeenth century); or the era of British colonial rule, within the context of Ghana’s Gold Coast.

Instead, the focus here is on the development of ‘Fanteland’, a location of specific language and culture, the eighteenth-century political unification of Ghana’s coastal people, and the creation of a coalition government, which Shumway refers to as the Coastal Coalition.
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Book Review: The Empire of Necessity

 

Sin it is, no less… it puts out the sun at noon
– Herman Melville on slavery

 

Book review: The Empire of Necessity: The Untold History of a Slave Rebellion in the Age of Liberty by Greg Grandin (Oneworld: Great Britain, Australia & New York 2014)

Review by Jo Manby

This gripping book reads like an adventure story subtly underpinned by historical detail. It centres on a mutiny on board the slave ship Tryal whereby all its crew were killed, bar one.

On board, slave-rebels initiated a 24-hour deception, fooling the unsuspecting Captain Amasa Delano into coming aboard the apparently troubled, becalmed ship with water and supplies, finally leading to the descent of Delano’s own crew into barbaric slaughter of the slave-rebels.

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Where Land and Tide Meet

Book review: Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool by Jacqueline Nassy Brown

Review by Jo Manby

Some of the books we acquire at the Resource Centre are new – others, like this one, new to us. Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool was published in 2005, and at the time, was heralded as revealing a new type of anthropology in which ‘place emerges with a cultural agency of its own’ (Anna Tsing).

Photograph of Liverpool waterfront

Source: Hajor via Wikimedia Commons

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Slavery and Racism Collections: Telling the whole story

As a race relations collection we inevitably have difficult stories to tell – of oppression, violence and inequality. How can collections such as ours do this both respectfully and powerfully?

Last week I went along to a talk given by Dr Richard Benjamin, Director of the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool. If anyone knows about telling difficult stories respectfully, he surely does. Based in Liverpool, once a major port of the transatlantic slave trade, and looking out over the dry docks once used for unloading slave ships, the Museum is already an emotionally charged piece of history, even before we think about its objects and exhibitions.

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Only 12 Years a Slave?

Image of a pair of glasses on a book

The Roving Reader Files

 

Have you seen Steve McQueen’s Oscar and BAFTA-winning film 12 Years a Slave? If yes, you’ll know two things: one, it’s based on the true story of abducted free Black American Solomon Northup in the 1840s, and two, it’s not a barrel of laughs.

So to cheer you up, as an addendum to my last post, I’d like to highlight a couple of people featured in The Skull Measurer’s Mistake who made a stand against the kind of abuse Northup was subjected to – Granville Sharp and George Cable.

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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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