In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Rone Shavers of the College of Saint Rose explains the literary movement known as Afro-Futurism.
Rone Shavers is an assistant professor of English at the College of Saint Rose. He is the recipient of numerous fellowships and arts residencies, and has published creative works in such diverse venues as Another Chicago Magazine, www.identitytheory.com, Nth Word, and Pank magazine.
Dr. Rone Shavers – Afro-Futurism in Literature
What is Afro-Futurism? Most think that it’s just another word for science fiction written by or about black people, but in fact it’s so much more. The term itself was first used by cultural critic Mark Dery in 1995 to identify the ways in which black bodies are often viewed as and treated like machines, from both within the black community – think about a phrase like “the human beat box” – and without. Black theorists quickly seized upon the definition and expanded it, and the term now refers to the many ways in which the question of what qualifies as a technology (as well as technological innovation) gets complicated by issues of race.
Simply put, then, Afro-Futurism is a literary, artistic and cultural movement that combines elements of science fiction, magic realism, African and other non-European cultural traditions to not only critique the present-day dilemmas of people of color, but also revive and re-interpret past historical events. Think, for example, of the music of Sun-Ra or George Clinton; the canvasses of visual artists Jean-Michel Basquiat or Rene Cox; or the fiction of Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, and Ishmael Reed. Each one of these artists can be described as Afro-Futuristic because their art celebrates a decidedly black perspective, while simultaneously drawing attention to how little people of color appear in supposedly “race-neutral,” sci-fi environments.
Aesthetically, what all these artists have in common is that they help to identify how race-neutral technology tends to get racially classified, and at times they even illustrate how people can transcend such thinking.
In other words, Afro-Futurism is a means, not an end; and it’s one that makes reference to the past in order to gently ask the question, “What color will the future look like?”