Afrofuturism — the exhibit & the book:
a partial review

by Ralph Dumain

Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC:

I saw the exhibit Friday, April 14. It was a work of art in itself, beautifully and logically put together. Exhibits of this sort sort of present narratives, with series of images, sounds, artifacts and texts, but of course such exhibits cannot construct an all-encompassing narrative without gaps, both in factual detail and especially in comprehensive analysis, though exhibits can be framed with contextualization and explanation.

So, there is a companion volume:

Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures, edited by Kevin M. Strait and Kinshasha Holman Conwill. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2023. 216 pp.; color illus.; 29 cm.

Foreword / Kevin Young
Introduction / Kevin M. Strait
1 Space Is the Place
Afrofuturism as Space and Being / Ytasha L. Womack
Interstellar / Tiffany E. Barber
Black women change the face of spaceflight / Matthew Shindell
I came to Africa on a spaceship / Ytasha L. Womack
Notes from the cosmic underground: a history of the Afrofuturist movement and the changing world order / Reynaldo Anderson
2 Speculative Worlds
We are the stars: Black speculative narratives and the history of the future / John Jennings
W.E.B. Du Bois: documenting the present, reinterpreting the past, and imagining the future / William S. Pretzer
There’s a reason / N. K. Jemisin
Dialogues in space: Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany / Herb Boyd
Black Panther: an escape to Utopia / Herb Boyd
Black joy as resistance / Ariana Curtis
3 Visualizing Afrofuturism
Dreams rush to meet me: Afrofuturist looks and looking / Eve L. Ewing
Transforming the future through dress, fashion, and costume / Elaine Nichols
Afrofuturistic art / Tuliza Fleming
Rendering Black futures / Michelle Joan Wilkinson
On the third great day: Black artistry, activism, and community in the web3 future / De Nichols
4 Musical Futures
Just look over your shoulder: the music of Afrofuturism / Mark Anthony Neal
The Nubians of Plutonia: ancient futures in the music of Sun Ra / Steven Lewis
Afrofuturism: a design for living / Nona Hendryx
The gendered contours of Afrofuturism / Angela Tate
Sonic spaces: excerpts from an interview with Vernon Reid
Afterword / Alondra Nelson
Further Reading
Further Listening
Further Viewing

I began by looking at the bibliography and surveying the tenor of some of the essays, finally reading the abundantly illustrated book from start to finish. It is overall a highly informative and enjoyable volume, but I will quibble with certain ideological framing I find here and there within this volume—with one guilty party particularly in mind.

I have always found the exhibits in this museum excellent, but I have had a problem with some of the museum’s promotional videos and Facebook posts, the ones in which I detect dubious ideological spins (a subject for future elaboration). Thus my contention is affirmed that, combined with objective content, everything in bourgeois society ends up configured within some ideological variant of what bourgeois society fosters even when it purports to be oppositional. One might expect a certain uncritical boosterism overall, given the historical oppression inflicted on Black Americans and the current right-wing onslaught, but there is more to it. For whatever white America is up to, there is a sort of Black mainstream in the sense of the range of viewpoints presented (even including properly sanitized extreme ones), that is, a way of presenting subject matter that will not scandalize its target audience (and not the larger audience either whenever possible) and will reinforce a sort of established perspective or range of opinion, not a carbon copy of the overall white-dominated mainstream but reflective of the way the culture industry operates in the larger society.

This book is up-to-date with cultural developments including the gender issues which did not get adequate airing in the 1960s, but one can also find at various junctures a perpetuation of the illusions of cultural nationalism. This can be seen in the bibliography but also in some of the presentations. The uncritical approach to mysticism and the occult among other things is an obvious example. But the issue here is not to condemn past creators operating in their historical contexts, but to ask how does this look from a critical view in hindsight and what aspects of the ideological contents of the past need to be left in the past now, and why. The issue is with contemporary scholars analyzing primary cultural productions.

Having lived through some of this—in the 1970s—and having for example seen Sun Ra in person and heard him speak in person, and drawing some critical conclusions about his ideological complex as about everything else that passed through this period (which has no definitive end-date as nothing in culture does, but let’s say 1980 for research purposes, as it is evident that generational, cultural, political, economic, social, and technological changes became solidified in the 1980s), I ended up washing my hands of certain aspects of the cultural environment in which I was immersed, which, crudely put, included various subcultural, countercultural, and artistic influences. I wrote a series of emails in 2002 about the mystical tendencies in the jazz avant-garde of the 1960s-’70s, quite different from what various scholars—some of with whom I corresponded—had to say.

One development in more recent years is the evident ascent of the Black American creative class in the mainstream media—not that serious obstacles and distortions don’t remain. However, when one looks at the ultimate outcome of successful ambitions in carving out a “Black perspective” in the mainstream non-print media—film, streaming video, etc.—it should be evident just how the content is contoured to the prerogatives of a prospective new cultural elite on the make (objectively speaking, subjective sincerity aside). (I focus here on the USA, though Afrofuturism is a global phenomenon.) In a cynical society we become credulous at the precise point at which cynicism really needs to kick in.

Because so much of the book focuses on music, visual arts, comic art, cinema, costume design, and sundry extra-verbal creations, the lack of criticism of the ideological content, say, of Black Panther, is not so bothersome, though an extended critique is warranted. The more philosophical and theoretical assertions—particularly in section 1—constitute a more serious focus for objection.

There is only one author whose broad assertions I really find objectionable. Ytasha L. Womack in “Afrofuturism as Space and Being” (pp. 18-29) addresses African and diasporic experiences and visions of space and time, which is fair enough, but Womack also makes broad metaphysical claims. Here I extract the dubious passages out of her narrative (pp. 21-24, 27). They are somewhat out of context in that the ‘….’ are the reasonable pieces of her argument:

[. . . .] Some African and African diasporic cultures believe time can move in multiple directions. For Black metaphysicians in the Diaspora, time can be a moment of awareness, not a linear trajectory. Moreover, space is not limited to the visible world. Ancestors could go back and forth between realms of the ancestors and the living. [….]

All art is embedded with particular ideas about social practice and values, ethics, morality, and the telling of dreams, visions, and hopes. There are worldviews rooted in our artistic practices—epistemologies, as mentioned before. Lived experiences, aspirations, and relationships to space and time are evident in all artistic work. Works of art evoke a way of thinking about our universe and human life; the pursuit of art can lead to a knowing of oneself in the world.

With Black cultures at its center, Afrofuturism connects to us through radiating lines of liberation, mysticism, imagination, and technology. These ontological realities are then charged through the systems and epistemologies of art.

With Black cultures at its center, Afrofuturism connects to us through radiating lines of liberation, mysticism, imagination, and technology. These ontological realities are then charged through the systems and epistemologies of art. [. . . .] Each of these [examples] can be thought of as separate epistemologies that overlap with shared assumptions, spoken and unspoken, that point to Afrofuturistic sensibilities.

[. . . .] As a diasporic set of artistic practices that tends to be tilted against notions of European philosophy and Judeo-Christian beliefs, Afrofuturism envisions a radical future in which the contributions of African peoples are preeminent. Afrofuturism asserts that there is wisdom in Black cultures—unnamed, untapped understandings with answers for us all.

In doing so, Afrofuturism makes a few assertions: African cultures and African diasporic cultures have codified unique views about space and time evident in art, spirituality, music, philosophy, architecture, language, and ways of life; and that imagination and visioning are essential to a culture’s health and evolution. Afrofuturism views mysticism and technology as intertwined and acknowledges that systems are technologies (race included). [. . . .] Afrofuturism also values the divine feminine aspect of human consciousness as expressed in metaphysics and various African and indigenous cosmological frameworks.

[. . . .] Akomfrah reminds us that epistemologies of all kinds may exist that need to be studied and sauntered through. In this sense then, the aesthetic of Afrofuturism becomes a way to raid the epistemology of Afrofuturism. [. . . .] Afrofuturists reach deep into all times and spaces, arising with artifacts of wisdom and transcendence. [. . . .]

[. . . .] Although Afrofuturism can have a time-defying aesthetic (one replete with solar disk headdresses, space-age sneakers, or glow-in-the-dark body paint), the look is secondary to the ontology, to the is-ness of being. The aesthetic of Afrofuturism is a pathway, not necessarily its end goal. [. . . .]

Undoubtedly many figures labelled Afrofuturists have thought like this, and some scholars as well. Whether scholars ought to think like this is another matter. But on a factual level, these unqualified generalizations about Afrofuturists can be contradicted.

Womack makes universal claims not only about the aesthetic approach of Afrofuturism, but that it reflects—as a shared commitment among its practitioners—a total ontological and epistemological perspective, fusing spirituality and mysticism with science and technology, looking back to the ‘ancestors’ and African or African-derived cultures, in opposition to European philosophy (and religion), centered around Black cultures. Womack does not merely document the embodiment of these notions in multiple works, she endorses this metaphysical obscurantism as well. However, given the application of the term, with or outside of the consent of the given figures, it is not even universally true. Samuel R. Delany’s work embodies none of these characteristics, not even for the most part centered around Black cultures. Delany’s Black, gay, and countercultural sensibilities are embodied in his work, but it is all strictly secular and modern (ending up as ‘postmodern’), and in opposition to mythmaking from his very first novel written when he was a teenager.

Others have extended the boundaries of the Afrofuturism concept even farther, such as Isiah Lavender III’s Afrofuturism Rising, which reads Richard Wright’s Native Son and other classic works that do not fit the usual description through the lens of science fiction. As I argue in my review of this book, Wright’s future-orientation is in fact completely opposed to Lavender’s claims, and so also to Womack’s generalized assertions were they to be applied to Wright.

Womack’s ideological homogenization of diverse creators and obscurantist advocacy of irrationalist, retrograde metaphysical views process the aesthetic forms and contents of various Afrofuturist creations into a brand, obstructing a critical perspective that can excuse the limitations of the past—Afrofuturists’ past!—so long as those limitations are not carried forward. We can say that Sun Ra had an excuse when he espoused questionable ideas, but do you?

20 & 30 April 2023

AfroBS Dropping (review of Afrofuturism Rising)
by R. Dumain

‘Anthony Braxton: The Third Millennial Interview with Mike Heffley’:
Extracts, with Commentary by Ralph Dumain

Flying Saucers & Afrofuturism — Counternarratives Study Guide

Anthony Braxton: Selected Bibliography

Richard Wright Study Guide

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

Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe—Study Guide

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Uploaded 1 May 2023

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