Wednesday, February 17, 2016

It's hard to stop rebels who time travel: Celebrate Black History Month with Afrofuturism

Afrofuturism: you've probably encountered it before, whether you knew the term or not. Did you watch the animated series Static Shock as a kid? Are you a fan of comic book and film heroes Luke Cage, Black Panther, Blade, or Falcon? Love Janelle MonĂ¡e's albums Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) and The ArchAndroid? All of these works incorporate images and symbolism of Afrofuturism. But what is it?

"Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth century technoculture -- and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future -- might, for want of a better term, be called "Afrofuturism." The notion of Afrofuturism gives rise to a troubling antinomy: Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?"

This is a quote from Mark Dery's 1994 "Black to the Future" essay, where he coined the term. Dery interviewed science fiction writer Samuel R. "Chip" Delaney, musician and writer Greg Tate, and cultural critic Tricia Rose in an attempt to develop a definition for this term. Their conversations touched on books, music, comics, technology, and, yes, even fanfiction.

Want to get your hands on some Afrofuturist works at Mount Holyoke and in the Five Colleges? Maybe some of the works of Samuel R Delaney are up your alley. Or maybe you'd prefer Octavia Butler. If anthologies are more your speed, try Dark Matter : A Century of Speculative Fiction From the African Diaspora or the sequel anthology, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. The anthology Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (available as an ebook) is another good source of Afrofuturist visions. You can search using Afrofuturism as a keyword, in our library catalog, to turn up even more examples.

Did you know that W.E.B. DuBois wrote science fiction? You can find Afrofuturist themes in his stories "The Comet" (see the anthology Darkwater : Voices From Within the Veil) and the recently discovered "The Princess Steel." The latter was found in the W.E.B. DuBois Papers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and you can read about the discovery and the story in a recent issue of Proceedings of the Modern Language Association.

To get another angle on Afrofuturism in culture, check out works by or about Sun Ra in Five Colleges collections. Sun Ra started out in jazz music and led his band, The Arkestra, from the 1950s until his death in 1993. He influenced music, art, and fashion with his experimental music, personal philosophies and narratives about himself.

Let's close with Cindy Mayweather, a decidedly Afrofuturist heroine:

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