It is in times of crises and deep suffering that we, humans, tend to resort to the future. Our longing for the future, then, does not take the form of mere contemplation, but that of a search for a temporal space for survival—one in which we are capable, even if fictively, of transporting and preserving ourselves, our identities, and lived experiences. In the future alone, there is suddenly hope for a better existence. As we focus our gaze on what’s to come, with positivity and ambition, we somehow free ourselves, partially or fully, of our burdens and struggles as we await a more peaceful tomorrow.
Enduring the apocalyptic eras of coloniality and slavery, the Afro-diasporic are an ample example of people who have resorted to the future as a means to resist an oppressive status quo and reimagine more just realities. Through Afrofuturism, particularly, literary scholars and artists create and disseminate futuristic stories and tales that mix science fiction and technology with inspiration from African and Afro-diasporic histories. These futuristic tales make up a “complex and multifaceted cultural and philosophical current that uses African, African American, and Black diasporic perceptions of past and present as ways to reconnect people of all kinds.” Recently, Afrofuturism has increasingly become more publicized, even commercialized (in reference to Marvel’s Black Panther). As Afrofuturism leaves its nest toward a wider audience and crosses the North/South divide (i.e. becomes globalized), it becomes important to examine and evaluate how this futuristic genre of science fiction and its public interpretations interact in its pursuit of constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing narratives of being.
Through this article, I aim to contribute to a much needed and lacking critique of Afrofuturism, a literary genre that is often merely applauded, but little understood. The epistemological nuances that this piece accentuates lie the foundation for concerns and recommendations to be taken into account while both designing and consuming futurisms. As recent futuristic narratives emerge amidst the COVID-19 crisis, the critical framework that this article provides becomes also relevant in approaching and examining post-pandemic futurisms that are concerned with reimagining our being within new educational, political, economic structures.
Similarly to many other futurisms, Afrofuturism is founded upon the temporal construct of future-histories, in reference to how it uses the past to shape its futuristic narratives. It is also implicated—due to its centrality around the Afro-diasporic—within the demarcation of the indeginous and the diasporic (or the localized and globalized to be more abstract). Hence, my analysis will focus on these two characteristics of Afrofuturism, all while making links to futurisms in general.
Future-Histories: Issues of representation and decontemporalization
Futuristic imaginaries are far from being the product of imaginative thinking that is detached from reality. On the contrary, they are grounded in and shaped by past histories and contemporary lived experiences. For instance, Black Panther’s Afrofuturistic image of Wakanda or the plot of Octavia Butler’s Dawn stem their essence from Africa’s colonial past, histories of slavery, and struggles for decoloniality. Futurisms, in resorting to history, do not just seek to tell it; instead they recreate it and build upon it, entertaining powerful reflection on what was, what is, and what could be.
In a global system where futuristic epistemologies are owned and shaped by hegemonic and colonial powers, futurisms either give agency back or take it away from marginalized communities. With Afrofuturism, at least, the Afro-diasporic become finally able to tell their own stories of their own struggles and aspirations.
However, there are several considerations that need to be made with regards to futurisms’ future-histories, which can have serious implications on their promoted narratives of being and how they are interpreted by a larger public.
First, drawing from the past to build futuristic tales, futurisms risk limiting their conceptualization of what could be to what has already been. Even though future-histories, in reconstructing the future, carry powerful reflections on the past, they adopt to a certain extent existing structural frameworks and elements of dominant epistemes. For instance, through using fictional elements such as aliens and planets, Afrofuturism constricts its ability to recreate original, decolonized futures—perpetuating in the process the hegemony of dominant science fictional epistemologies. Similarly, much of the talk around post-pandemic economic, political, even educational futurisms, has been stuck within the neoliberal order, focusing on how we can recuperate a status quo rather than reimagine more just systems and structures.
Second, with their focus on history and its extension into the future, future-histories, while pass by the present, do not give the latter or the dynamics of coloniality and hegemony that it carries ample attention. In taking the Afro-diasporic through science fictional, hope-inducing journeys from the past into the future, Afrofuturism takes attention away from the present— centralizing narratives of coloniality and hegemony around the past and the future. Hence, echoing Brown and Mamdani’s culturalization of politics—whereby a cultural lens is used to analyze and explain inherently-political actions—futurisms can contribute to a certain extent to the decontemporalization of politics. That is examining contemporary, inherently-political issues of coloniality and dominance within the temporalities of the past and the future alone. Such decontemporalization can take urgency away from necessary mobilizations that need to be made now in order to build empowering futuristic narratives and structures.
Hence, post-pandemic futurisms need to de-situate themselves from the framework of future-histories, thinking beyond existing systems, structures, and elements in their reconfiguration of the future. While designing what is to come, post-COVID-19 futurisms need not center their narratives around the past-future binary alone, but to equally ground themselves in the contemporary—offering ample attention to what needs to be done now to reach a better tomorrow.
Futurisms demarcate the diasporic/globalized and the indigenous/localized
Afrofuturism centers itself around the Afro-diaspora, particularly Black and African Americans. It was founded by and for the Afro-diasporic in order to tell their own stories and histories as well as construct their futurisms. This focus comes within a very complex and nuanced relationship between the diasporic and the indigenous, a duality that Afrofuturism does not necessarily address, but one in which it is implicated. Outside of the context of Africa, futurisms exist within a similar binary, but one that contrasts the globalized with the localized. In the case of the COVID-19 crisis, post-pandemic futurisms are being conceptualized for the service of a globalized cause by a globalized community, which in relationship to the localized occupy a similar locus to the one held by the Afro-diasporic.
Existing within such demarcations presents numerous epistemic challenges to futurisms’ positionality and the narratives and counter-narrative of being that they try to promote across the North/South divide.
First, Afrofuturism’s focus on North America in its Afro-diasporic accounts and characterizations is highly problematic. While Afrofuturism plays an important role in healing traumas of misrepresentation and oppression of African Americans, connecting the latter with the Afro-diasporic as a whole is essentializing. This reduction of the Afro-diasporic to its North American manifestation is, as Zeleza writes, “an extension of a long history of shadowing the complexity and the diversity of the Afro-diasporic identity that is the product of the hegemony of North American scholarship in the field of diasporic studies.” Hence, for Afrofuturism to be authentically Afro-diasporic, it has to take into consideration the lived experiences of the diaspora inside and outside of the North American context. It has also to move beyond equating the Afro-diasporic solely with Black identity, which is a U.S.-centric construct that looks at the Afro-diasporic from the lens of the Atlantic slave trade. Similarly, futurisms, in their globalized construction, privilege the aspirations and conceptualization of the Global North—reinforcing the subliminal exclusion of the Global South from globalized discourses and its essentializing implication only in localized ones. As such futurisms’ globalized construction, despite being conflictual with the localized, is not even truly globalized.
Second, Afrofuturism presents ample evidence for how the indigenous and the diasporic are mixed within this genre. Just as Afrofuturism transcends the past into the future, it traverses the indigenous into the diasporic and vice-versa. While this might seem as purely consequential to the existing ties between indigenous and diasporic African identities, it actually sets Afrofuturism up for another issue of power and representation. Even though the identity of the Afro-diasporic is tied to that of the Afro-indigenous, the inverse is not necessarily as strong or existent. Hence, any dialogue between the two, from the perspective of the Afro-diasporic, is not necessarily representative of the Afro-indigenous, their perspectives, and their lived experiences. Existing on the more globally privileged (in the case of the Afro-diaspora in the U.S. for instance), although not necessarily locally privileged side of the demarcation of the North and the South, the positionality of the Afro-diasporic vis-à-vis the Afro-indigenous becomes epistemically complex. In this paradigm of power distribution, the Afro-indigenous and the Afro-diasporic can occupy in certain instances, to a nuanced extent and with limited choice, the respective positionality of the oppressed and oppressor. This is especially evident when looking at the use of taxpayer money coming out (directly or indirectly) of certain members of the Afro-diaspora in the U.S. to promote a specific political, economic, and militarized order on the African continent. As such, futurisms need to engage more critically with how their globalized accounts interact with localized ones, not to recreate dynamics of dominance and silencing along the North/South divide where the already-subaltern localized or indiginous becomes further subaltern-ed.
As a result, current post-pandemic futurisms need to enlarge their scope of the globalized to involve both the “Global North” and the “Global South”, preferably moving beyond such colonial binary in designing and reimagining a better future. As inhabitants of the same planet, there is value in building a shared vision for our collective wellbeing; but only if such vision is truly inclusive of the most marginalized under the umbrella of a decolonized globalization episteme. Simultaneously, post-COVID-19 futurisms ought to be co-designed by and reflect imagineries from both the localized and globalized—so as to avoid the already-proven unsustainability of the hegemonic rule of the globalized over the localized and to utilize the connectivity that ties both in driving effective social change.
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