AfroBS Dropping:
A Review

by Ralph Dumain

Bourgeois society assimilates and reconfigures everything that worms its way into its inner sanctum. Nothing can compare to academia when it comes to diversionary abstraction. Of all the books on Afrofuturism I have perused so far, this is the worst:

Isiah Lavender III, Afrofuturism Rising: The Literary Prehistory of a Movement. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2019.

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction On Defining Afrofuturism 1
Chapter 1 Hope and Freedom Technologies 25
Chapter 2 Black Uprisings and the Fight for the Future 48
Chapter 3 Of Alien Abductions, Pocket Universes, Trickster Technologies, and Slave Narratives 77
Chapter 4 Black Bodies in Space: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God 107
Chapter 5 “Metallically Black”: Bigger Thomas and the Black Apocalyptic Vision of Richard Wright’s Native Son 127
Chapter 6 Racial Warfare, Radical Afrofuturism, and John A. Williams’s Captain Blackman 153
Conclusion Into the Black-o-Sphere 186
Works Cited 197
Index 217

I was hoping this would be relevant to my current project, but it is so only in provoking my opposition. I guess the acknowledgments should have warned me, which begin thus:

Above all else, I thank God for inspiring me to embrace writing and thinking about stuff in general and science fiction specifically and placing people in my path to activate my ambition from teachers to colleagues, family to friends, and my Miniature Schnauzer Rocco, as well as the owl who stopped by on occasion in the deep night to keep me company, as crazy as that sounds. I never dreamed of doing a second monograph, yet here I am seven years later. Thank you, God!

What Lavender proposes to do:

Throughout this book, I extend existing scholarly conversations about afrofuturism to canonical literary texts by African American writers (most from before the twentieth century) that up to now have not traditionally been thought of as SF. The book accomplishes this task through a transhistorical method that rereads these texts as if they were genre SF, highlighting the way that black experience in America and around the world has always been an experience of spatial and temporal dislocation and disorientation, not unlike the events experienced by the protagonists of genre SF.

One of the central ideas he borrows and works with is ‘networked black consciousness’. This reminds me of a very different treatise, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s The Signifying Monkey, which I have severely criticized, in that the individual posture of an author in question is absorbed into or judged on the basis of a supposed authentic folk voice. [1] ‘Networked black consciousness’ is a key component of the abstractionism that facilitates Lavender’s stripping away of foundational aspects of the concreteness, individuality, (and individualism!) of the authors’ perspectives and content it cannibalizes.

Lavender references others who have characterized the experience of blackness in a racist society a science-fictional existence. This itself is a notion to ponder; the question is what one does with it. The very term 'Afrofuturism' potentially permits unrestricted application by virtue of its morphemes: 'Afro' + 'futur'. But is it honest to expand the scope of the term without limit? Is the abstract application of an analogy fitting to analyze the actual content of a work which is not manifestly part of a genre?

I immediately turned to the chapter on Richard Wright, to see if I am not the first one to think that an incident in Wright's novel The Outsider (as well as speculation about a post-segregation USA) indeed belongs to Afrofuturism, as do remarks interspersed in other of Wright’s works of the 1950s. [2] But no, Lavender picks out the novel Native Son as his Afrofuturist novel. Lavendar capitalizes on the notion of 'race as technology', and the notion of cyborg with related variations is not entirely misguided, as there is a history of relating Black Americans to Frankenstein. [3] Lavender makes much of Wright’s emphasis on Bigger’s “metallically black” skin. Of greater interest is the revelation that Wright had read the pulps before the genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction were differentiated. [4] Lavendar addresses the specifics of Bigger’s circumscribed dystopian world, but then he expounds on all the virtues of networked consciousness.

‘Networked black consciousness’ obstructs comprehension of the meaning of the extreme psychological isolation and desperation from which Bigger Thomas suffers. Wright himself would find such a concern alien to his temperament, considering that he affirmed his rootless cosmopolitanism in the 1950s. [5]

Native Son marks an historical turning point in several respects. The engagement with depth psychology, existential crisis, the tabooed underbelly beneath the ideological rationalistic glorification of folk culture that blinded the Communist Party, the inability of the Communist Party of which Wright was a member to comprehend a layer of the Black underclass that it could not organize—and the odd sympathy or cold objectivity vis-à-vis a decidedly unromantic, unsympathetic character, to make a radical political point—all this was new, and misunderstood then and now. Bigger Thomas indeed pointed to the future: if the lumpenproletariat should begin to move, in which direction will it go? Will it turn to communism, or maybe fascism—a possibility no one could even consider?

Well, Wright provided an answer that has been ignored for eight decades. Wright wanted to save the Bigger Thomases of the world from becoming fascists. [6] Has it finally been recognized after 80 years what the Nation of Islam is?

Fast-forwarding to 1953, The Outsider presents us with a social type different from Bigger’s, a desperate man with intellectual acumen, who begins with a desperate situation and ends as a psychopath. Cross Damon exploits the Communist Party for a self-centered survivalism, and by this time he becomes a murderer. In a final showdown with the police detective who learns at last that Damon is the killer he is looking for, the detective, who because of his own outsiderness due to physical deformity, is sympathetic to Negroes, demands clarification. During the argument, Damon makes the statement—startling to sympathetic whites—that Negroes can be fascists too.

This is not the key question of The Outsider, but I bring up this one facet of the later novel to show that the concreteness and the ideas in Wright’s work cannot honestly be bleached out via a tenuous analogy with the tropes of science fiction, which in fact plays a role in exactly one incident in The Outsider, not treated by Lavender.

Well, if there is anything lacking in Wright according to Lavender, it is Wright’s naturalism. Here is Lavender’s conclusion about that:

Afrofuturism turns us toward black networked consciousness, metallic skin, a hope principle—toward a different model of consciousness in terms of both group identity (something close to race as an identity or identity category) and individual consciousness, that is, subjectivity. In short, that the “answer” to naturalism is not Marxism or reform, but afrofuturism.

This drivel is consonant with what I have picked up from the handful of scholarly books on Afrofuturism I have perused, including the companion volume to the Smithsonian exhibit. [7] Artists do what they do in the context of their time with greater or lesser intellectual discipline in assembling ideas and symbols. Scholars, however, especially in a later time, especially in examining the products of an earlier historical moment, have an additional, critical obligation, which first of all is not to indulge in obscurantist boosterism. There are multiple evidences of the Black ‘creative class’ coming into its own in the mainstream culture industry, even as the fascist white supremacist forces wreak havoc in the red states and with the Constitution at the federal level. Ultimately, corporate America owns anti-racism, while its complementary Janus-face fuels the revanchism that will destroy us all. Today’s configuration is not that of the cultural correlate of the Black power thrust of the 1960s-70s; it has its own peculiar though less constricting tendency. A metaphysical concept of cultural identity congeals as it becomes integrated into the mainstream culture industry as never before. In scholarship such as this it is the Netflixization of Black Studies.

No one more than Richard Wright is fit to throw in the face of the sort of Afrofuturism expounded by Lavender. There will be more to say about this. It will also behoove us to mark a distinction within this category of ‘Afrofuturism’ between those who commit themselves to myth-making and those who do not or even oppose it.

1 “On the Significance of The Signifying Monkey by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” by R. Dumain.

2 See my Richard Wright Study Guide.

3 Elizabeth Young, Black Frankenstein: the Making of an American Metaphor. New York: New York University Press, 2008.

4 I researched the pulps during the pandemic shutdown: The Cavalier & Related Pulp Magazines: Covers & Contents .

5 Richard Wright's White Man, Listen!.

6 Richard Wright: Letter to Mike Gold, May 1940 (Excerpt): On Bigger & Hitler.

7 Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures, edited by Kevin M. Strait and Kinshasha Holman Conwill. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2023.

23-24 April 2023, revised 28 April 2023

Flying Saucers & Afrofuturism — Counternarratives Study Guide

Richard Wright Study Guide

Science Fiction & Utopia Research Resources:
A Selective Work in Progress

Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe—Study Guide

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 28 April 2023

©2023 Ralph Dumain