A review of "AFROFUTURISM" by Ytasha L. Womack

AFROFUTURISM, by Ytasha L. Womack.(2013) Lawrence Hill Books: Chicago. $16.95

AFROFUTURISM, by Ytasha L. Womack.(2013) Lawrence Hill Books: Chicago. $16.95

AFROFUTURISM, The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, from Ytasha L. Womack (a multimedia artist) will have you wanting to step on a star ship, meet androids, robots, extraterrestrials, and travel through time. Here one finds the cosmic and science fiction muse as a means for new rights, freedoms, and chances to save the world. There is acknowledgement here of the past that we have shared and hope to move beyond, but there is also hope, optimism, and wonder. This book which inspires dreams came at a good time with us needing to acknowledge the 500 year anniversary of Utopia (1516) from Thomas More this year. Afrofuturism reminds that not all of us have lost our capacity to dream. The mind has also been set free here with Afrofuturism acknowledging Star Trek, music, fantasy and influential writers like Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler. These progenitors have inspired many new artists, cosmic musicians, and writers. There is also as always the wonder of the unfathomable cosmos out there. It is not clear when this movement began, but there are now many eloquent voices and fantastic art and music that has resulted.

Womack quotes another early on to define the subject that has morphed since her book from 2013 which answers: "What is Afrofuturism? Afrofuturism is an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation. "I generally define Afrofuturism as a way of imagining possible futures through a black cultural lens," says Ingrid LaFleur, an art curator and Afrofuturist. LaFleur presented for the independently organized TEDx Fort Greene Salon in Brooklyn, New York. "I see Afrofuturism as a way to encourage experimentation. reimagine identities, and activate liberation," she said.* (Page 9: Ingrid LaFleur, "Visual Aesthetics of Afrofuturism," TEDx Fort Green Salon, YouTube, September 25, 2011)

Womack adds:

Whether through literature, visual arts, music, or grassroots organizing, Afrofuturists redefine culture and notions of blackness for today and the future. Both an artistic aesthetic and a framework for critical theory, Afrofuturism combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs. In some cases, it’s a total reenvisioning of the past and speculation about the future rife with cultural critiques.
— (Page 9)

The Cosmic muse and the wonder of existence has inspired many with hope, dreams, and sometimes a few nightmares. We can join those who have gone there before us. There are writers like Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, N. K. Jemisin, and others before and since. There have been tribute anthologies for Butler and Delaney since this book. Jemisin has been shortlisted for awards. There is also coverage of some to the science fiction shows that have Afrofuturists. Star Trek which has black characters in all of its series is acknowledged in part. There is also mention of the impact of musicians like Sun Ra, George Clinton and Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am who have been inspired by the cosmic music. Some have explored and communicated with other planets in their own way.

This accessible book explores some interesting subjects like Human Fairy Tales, Motherhood on Mars, Modern Mermaids, Moonwalkers in Paint and Pixel, Time Traveling, The Surreal Life, the Future World, and Agents of Change. This book though does not have whole chapters on the writers mentioned or Star Trek which always had black characters. One can find such subjects elsewhere if they look at a library, bookstore, or on the web. Hard to imagine that the first bi-racial kiss took place in Star Trek almost fifty years ago. Women only gained the right to vote in 1919. The Civil Rights Movement continues, but without very powerful and famous spokespeople.

It can still shape one's life. Even with a black president there is still need for social change. There is likely to also be a need for social change with a woman president. This book has a wonderful prose style and abounds with hope. It is inspiring and multi-ethnic in many of its pronouncements. There is though the grim reminder of some of the things people experience on the street. From a white perspective there are encounters with those who are playful, but also some who send warnings and threats. There are those who are inspired by Bruce Lee who would have you move out of their way. There are people who are not interested in sitting next you on the bus. There are those who are inspired to spit on the ground in disgust when you pass by. Even in San Francisco.

One wonders about people self policing themselves. Most are busy or on their way somewhere, but there are some idle who prey on others, usually out of necessity. The idea that there are new Blackulas out there seems very racist to me. Vampires were spawns of the devil and usually evil. Maybe there needs to self policing, but Blackula seems like an example of Blacksploitation (There was an old movie from 1972 that I don’t want to watch). Despite laws against segregation some choose to remain among their own kind though.

Truer to this subject, an inconvenient truth to reminded of for those who found this exploration too hopeful, is the idea of a new Blackenstein (There was an old movie from 1973 that I would watch). This potentially reconfigured entity is not the spawn of the devil. Rather the result of the failings of the Socially Concerned, Social Programs, and Social Engineering. Here is a pariah, an outsider, a stranger, who has not found a place in society. Here is an example of the failing of a social and Wealthfare System that does not always work for everybody. It is interesting to note that many consider Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to be the first science fiction novel. Her’s also was an outsider with unmet needs. Science Fiction has had a hard time following this classic. There could be a Movement sequel to it, but it might not be best in science fiction. Maybe Blackenstein would be more happy on a space voyage, in the future, or a Utopia. I don't think it is accurate to say we put him on Star Trek. It is strange that we live in a society where people cannot ask for what they need. It is also sad that we cannot always trust strangers. There are also not always places where people can go when they need something.

This might have been a necessary urban and sociological digression for some. Not everybody is with the race into space though. Realists have made fun, even though they have used cosmic metaphors and symbols. Some still think it is escapism.

Even as late as last year, luminary Toni Morrison wrote in the modern and sordid God Help the Child (2015) in the same chapter:

The moon was a toothless grin and even the stars, seen through the tree limb that had fallen like a throttling arm across the windshield, frightened her. The piece of the sky she could glimpse was a dark carpet of gleaming knives pointed at her and aching to be released. (Page 83).... Outside the sky would be loaded with more stars than she had ever seen before. But in here under a filthy skylight and no electricity she had a problem sleeping. (Page 92).... How happy living here under stars with a perfect man made her, how much she had learned traveling, housekeeping without modern amenities, which she called trash-ready junk since none of it lasted, and how Rain had improved their lives (Page 94)

Things have not changed for the better for everybody. There is though some starlight in eyes of a woman character in this book from Morrison. This year is the 500th anniversary for the original Utopia which we might find dated and not still hopeful 500 years later. The idea of Utopia though is really one of freedom to dream and create a better society. Afrofuturism which is multiethnic in many ways can help point the way to new Utopias.

We can still dream of traveling through space or to other times. Maybe the outsider or unfortunate can find a place here. Maybe the generous can make the world a better place after all. Maybe by going, rather than us all staying on this planet, we can help move the world forward by setting an example. New social experiments could await us. Fun and inspiring now to fly through Womack’s jazzy and hopeful language: "Afrofuturism is a great tool for wielding the imagination for personal change and societal growth. Empowering people to see themselves and their ideas in the future gives rise to innovators and free thinkers, all of whom can pull from the best of the past while navigating the sea of possibilities to create communities, culture, and a new, balanced world. The imagination is the key to progress, and it's the imagination that is all too often smothered in the name of conformity and community standards." (Page 191)


NK Jeminsin recently won the Hugo award for this year