Rasheedah Phillips, attorney in Philadelphia, USA, representing low-income tenants who are facing eviction, and other housing issues, and survivors of domestic violence seeking transfers into safer housing; science fiction writer who published her first novel, _Recurrence Plot (and Other Time Travel Tales)_ in 2014. In 2011, Rasheedah created The AfroFuturist Affair, a grassroots organization dedicated to celebrating and promoting Afrofuturistic culture, art, and literature through creative events and creative writing. She is also founding member of Metropolarity Speculative Fiction Collective. She collaborates with Camae Defstar in the Black Quantum Futurism collective that explores the intersections of futurism, literature, art, sound, creative media, DIY-aesthetics, and activism in marginalized communities.
Afrofuturism Now and Then
by Rasheedah Phillips
= What is Afrofuturism? =
There have always been traditions of Africans trying to predict, see into the future, or find out ways to contact deities to see into the future, or trying to travel into the future themselves. The stories abound. It’s the subject of astronomy, starwatching, astrolabes, all things which are very integral to the foundations of many aboriginal and African cultures, spiritual traditions and societies. History has typically labeled these things witchcraft, demonology, hoodoo, and otherwise. Language, religion, science, philosophy has criminalized these traditions, and we have very few ways and avenues through which to discuss it or think about it or reconnect with these aspects of our cultural traditions. There are numerous examples of “futurist” thinking, and Black engagement with technology and science since the beginning of civilization.
The concept of futurism, if you will, in the Black diaspora certainly predates the coining of the term Afrofuturism.
Contrary to perceptions of Blackness as divorced from technology, science, science fiction, and other realms of futurist thinking, we have a long and well-documented history, present, and anticipated future of technological development and engagement with futurist ideas behind and ahead of us.
= Do-it-yourself culture =
The DIY culture seems more pronounced in Afrofuturism these days. But it has always been present in Afrofuturism because it allows for the ability of impoverished and marginalized communities to share their own news, music, art, stories, in a world where mainstream media is generally inaccessible and regularly distorts and misrepresents these groups of people. In the Black community in particular, separate film, music, and print media outlets have always been crucial to counteracting negative images and stereotypes reinforced by mainstream media, and for the transmission of culture and storytelling.
DIY-based technologies are an affordable and accessible means of transmitting and documenting Black culture, art, stories, and events. In recent years, it has also become relatively easier to produce your own short films, tv shows, commercials, and music videos.
= Afrofuturism - a problematic term? =
The term Afrofuturism was coined by a white American critic, Mary Dery, in the 1990s. I find it problematic because through his eyes, it feels more anthropological, and the white gaze is ever-present. As Black and African people, we have always talked about the future, with or without European language and gaze. The future is known as different things in different languages, and may not look anything like what a European linear time consciousness could conceive of.
Afrofuturism remains useful as a tool for communication, as a language to connect with like minds around, to engage with as a culture, a networking tool. But other language and terms are certainly being created and utilized by other Afrofuturists thinkers, practitioners, scholars.
= Afrofuturism and time =
Other legacies are less problematic. There is something owing to 20th century Italian and Russian futurism for inspiration in the language and some of the aesthetic and philosophical concepts that Afrofuturism engages with, on the surface.
But Afrofuturism uses a completely different construct of time and engages a different notion of time consciousness and notion of the future than does the European brand of futurism, which is based on linear constructs of time and progress, and remnants of Newtonian physics updated with some Einstein relativity. Black Quantum Futurism - a term I put together inspired by concepts of African space-time consciousness, quantum physics, and Afrofuturism - has become valuable to me as a descriptor of the type of concepts and lens that I apply to my experiences and creative output.
I never intended to use Afrofuturism politically or as an engagement with the avant-garde. I’m sure some people do, but I think that’s the beauty of an Afrofuturist lens – it’s flexible and encompasses all possibilities and modes.
We aren’t “reclaiming” anything. We already do this, naturally, and we always have. Which is why you can find so many examples of Afrofuturism if you apply the term retrospectively and use it to look at art, music, literature back throughout the decades in Black American and diasporic culture.