[rumori] Black to the Future: Afro-Futurism 1.0

From: Art McGee (amcgeeATfreeshell.org)
Date: Mon Nov 04 2002 - 18:14:32 PST


Black to the Future: Afro-Futurism 1.0

By Mark Dery <markderyATmindspring.com>

"If all records told the same tale -- then the lie passed
into history and became truth. "Who controls the past," ran
the Party slogan, "controls the future: who controls the
present controls the past.""
---George Orwell

"There is nothing more galvanizing than the sense of a
cultural past."
---Alain Locke

"Yo, bust this, Black
To the Future
Back to the past
History is a mystery 'cause it has
All the info
You need to know
Where you're from
Why'd you come and
That'll tell you where you're going..."
---Def Jef

Hack this: Why do so few African-Americans write science
fiction, a genre whose close encounters with the Other --
the stranger in a strange land -- would seem uniquely suited
to the concerns of African-American novelists? Yet, to this
writer's knowledge, only Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler,
Steve Barnes, and Charles Saunders have chosen to write
within the genre conventions of SF. This is especially
perplexing in light of the fact that African-Americans are,
in a very real sense, the descendants of alien abductees.
They inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less
impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their
movements; official histories undo what has been done to
them; and technology, be it branding, forced sterilization,
the Tuskegee experiment, or tasers, is too often brought to
bear on black bodies.

Moreover, the sublegitimate status of science fiction as a
pulp genre in Western literature mirrors the subaltern
position to which blacks have been relegated throughout
American history. In which context, William Gibson's
observation that SF is widely known as "the golden ghetto,"
in recognition of the negative correlation between the
genre's market share and its critical legitimation, takes on
a curious significance. So, too, does Norman Spinrad's glib
use of the phrase "token nigger" to describe "any science
fiction writer of merit who is adopted...in the grand salons
of literary power."

Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and
addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th
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? Furthermore, don't the technocrats, SF writers,
futurologists, set designers, and streamliners -- white to a
man -- who have engineered our collective fantasies already
have a lock on that unreal estate? The African-American SF
writer Samuel R. Delany has suggested that "the flashing
lights, the dials, and the rest of the imagistic
paraphernalia of science fiction" have historically
functioned as "social signs -- signs people learned to read
very quickly. They signaled technology. And technology was
like a placard on the door saying, 'Boys' Club! Girls, keep
out. Black and Hispanics and the poor in general, go away!"
What Gibson has termed the "semiotic ghosts" of Fritz Lang's
Metropolis, Frank R. Paul's illustrations for Hugo
Gernsback's Amazing Stories, the chromium-skinned,
teardrop-shaped household appliances dreamed up by Raymond
Loewy and Henry Dreyfuss, Norman Bel Geddes's Futurama at
the 1939 New York World's Fair, and Disney's Tomorrowland
still haunt the public mind, in one guise or another.

But African-American voices have other stories to tell about
culture, technology, and things to come. If there is an
Afrofuturism, it must be sought in unlikely places,
constellated from far-flung points. We catch a glimpse of it
in the opening pages of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, where
the proto-cyberpunk protagonist -- a techno-bricoleur "in
the great American tradition of tinkerers" -- taps illegal
juice from a line owned by the rapacious Monopolated Light &
Power, gloating, "Oh, they suspect that their power is being
drained off, but they don't know where." One day, perhaps,
he'll indulge his fantasy of playing five recordings of
Louis Armstrong's version of "What Did I Do to Be So Black
and Blue" at once, in a sonic Romare Bearden collage (an
unwittingly prescient vision, on Ellison's part, of that
1981 masterpiece of deconstructionist deejaying, "The
Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel").
Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings such as Molasses, which
features a pie-eyed, snaggletoothed robot, adequately earn
the term "Afrofuturist," as do movies like John Sayles's The
Brother From Another Planet and Lizzie Borden's Born in
Flames. Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland is Afrofuturist;
so, too, is the techno-tribal global village music of Miles
Davis's On the Corner and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, as
well as the fusion-jazz cyberfunk of Hancock's Future Shock
and Bernie Worrell's Blacktronic Science, whose liner notes
herald "reports and manifestoes from the nether regions of
the modern Afrikan American music/speculative fiction
universe." Afrofuturism manifests itself, too, in early '80s
electro-boogie releases such as Planet Patrol's "Play at
Your Own Risk," Warp 9's "Nunk," George Clinton's Computer
Games, and of course Afrika Bambaataa's classic "Planet
Rock," records steeped in "imagery drawn from computer
games, video, cartoons, sci-fi and hip-hop slanguage," notes
David Toop, who calls them "a soundtrack for vidkids to live
out fantasies born of a science-fiction revival courtesy of
Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind)."

Techno, whose name was purportedly inspired by a reference
to "techno rebels" in Alvin Toffler's Third Wave, is a
quintessential example of Afrofuturism. The genre was
jump-started in the Orwellian year of 1984 in Detroit,
appropriately enough, a city equally famous for Motown and
the mechanical ballets of its spot-welding robots. The
Ur-tune, "Techno City," was hacked together by Juan Atkins,
Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May, a band of button-pushers
who went by the name Cybotron. Matthew Collin notes that
their world-view was "shaped by playing video games, by
watching Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and by the idea of a
new computer world replacing industrial society as framed in
both Kraftwerk's records and futurologist Alvin Toffler's
book The Third Wave." According to Collin, the portentous
chords and robotic clangor of their music reflected Motor
City's moribund economy, its dark passage from the
birthplace of the auto industry to its burial ground.
Atkins, Saunderson, and May appropriated "industrial
detritus' to create sparse, kinetic funk with drums like
thunderbolts, yet mournful and deeply romantic, as if the
machines were whispering a lament about what it was like to
be young and black in post-industrial America." At the same
time, they were young enough to be perversely fascinated by
the very technologies that had downsized the American dream
for factory workers in black Detroit. "'Berry Gordy built
the Motown sound on the same principles as the conveyor belt
system at Ford's,' explained Atkins. 'TodayS they use robots
and computers to make the cars. I'm probably more interested
in Ford's robots than Berry Gordy's music.'" But
Afrofuturism bubbles up from the deepest, darkest
wellsprings in the intergalactic big band jazz churned out
by Sun Ra's Omniverse Arkestra, in Parliament-Funkadelic's
Dr. Seuss-ian astrofunk, and in dub reggae, especially the
bush doctor's brew cooked up by Lee "Scratch" Perry, which
at its eeriest sounds as if it were made out of dark matter
and recorded in the crushing gravity field of a black hole
("Angel Gabriel and the Space Boots" is a typical title).

The Rastafarian cosmology, like the Nation of Islam's, with
its genetically engineered white devils and its apocalyptic
vision of Elijah Muhammad returning on a celestial
mothership, is a syncretic crossweave of black nationalism,
African and American religious beliefs, and plot devices
worthy of a late-night rocket opera. Perry -- arguably the
preeminent practitioner of the audio juju known as dub --
incarnates the Afrofuturist sensibility. Erik Davis asserts
that "what is most important about Perry and his astounding
musical legacy is how they highlight an often ignored strain
of New World African culture: a techno-visionary tradition
that looks as much toward science-fiction futurism as toward
magical African roots." Writes Davis, "This loosely gnostic
strain of Afro-diasporic science fiction emerges from the
improvised confrontation between modern technology and the
prophetic imagination, a confrontation rooted in the
alienated conditions of black life in the New World." He
quotes the African-American critic Greg Tate: "Black
people," says Tate, "live the estrangement that
science-fiction writers imagine."

Which explains the seemingly counterintuitive conjunction of
black dance music and SF imagery in hip-hop. The cultural
critic Tricia Rose argues that South Bronx hip-hoppers like
Afrika Bambaataa embraced the robotic synth-pop of Kraftwerk
because what they saw reflected in the German band's android
imagery was "an understanding of themselves as already
having been robots." Says Rose, "Adopting 'the robot'
reflected a response to an existing condition: namely, that
they were labor for capitalism, that they had very little
value as people in this society. By taking on the robotic
stance, one is 'playing with the robot.' It's like wearing
body armor that identifies you as an alien: if it's always
on anyway, in some symbolic sense, perhaps you could master
the wearing of this guise in order to use it against your

Afrofuturism percolates, as well, through black-written,
black-drawn comics such as Milestone Media's Hardware ("A
cog in the corporate machine is about to strip some
gears..."), about a black scientist who dons forearm-mounted
cannons and a "smart" battle suit to wage guerrilla war on
his Orwellian, multinational employer. Milestone's press
releases for its four titles -- Hardware, Blood Syndicate,
Static, and Icon -- make the Manhattan-based company's
political impulses explicit: a fictional metropolis, Dakota,
provides a backdrop for "authentic, multicultural"
superheroes "linked in their struggle to defeat the
S.Y.S.T.E.M." The city is a battlefield in "the clash of two
worlds: a low-income urban caldron and the highest level of
privileged society."

Icon, an exemplar of Afrofuturism that sweeps antebellum
memories, hip-hop culture, and cyberpunk into its compass,
warrants detailed exegesis. The story begins in 1839, when
an escape pod jettisoned from an exploding alien starliner
lands, fortuitously, in the middle of a cotton field on
Earth. A slave woman named Miriam stumbles on "a perfect
little black baby" -- in fact, an extraterrestrial whose
morphogenetic technology has altered it to resemble the
first lifeform it encounters -- in the smoldering wreckage
of the pod and raises it as her own. The orphan, christened
Augustus, is male, and echoes of the Old Testament account
of Moses in the bullrushes, the fay changelings of European
folklore, and the infant Superman's fiery fall from the
heavens reverberate in the narrative's opening passages.

Like his Roman namesake, Augustus is a "man of the future";
the man who fell to Earth is seemingly deathless, outliving
several generations of his adopted family and eventually
posing as his own great-grandson -- Augustus Freeman IV --
in present-day Dakota. A rock-ribbed conservative who
preaches the gospel of Horatio Alger and inveighs against
the welfare state, Freeman is a highly successful attorney,
the only African-American living in the city's exclusive
Prospect Hills neighborhood. His unshakable belief in
bootstrapping is challenged, however, when he takes a
homegirl from the projects, Rachel "Rocket" Ervin, under his
wing. A juvenile delinquent and Toni Morrison (!) fan, the
streetwise teenager opens Augustus's eyes to "a world of
misery and failed expectations that he didn't believe still
existed in this country." She calls on him to use his
otherworldly powers to help the downtrodden. When he does,
in the guise of a mountain of bulging abs and pecs called
Icon, she joins him as his sidekick. "As the series
progresses," we are told, "Rocket will become the world's
first superheroine who is also a teenage, unwed mother."

The New York graffiti artist and B-boy theoretician
Rammellzee constitutes yet another incarnation of
Afrofuturism. Greg Tate holds that Rammellzee's
"formulations on the juncture between black and Western sign
systems make the extrapolations of [Houston] Baker and
[Henry Louis] Gates seem elementary by comparison." As
evidence, he submits the artist's "Ikonoklast Panzerism," a
heavily armored descendant of late '70s "wild style"
graffiti (those bulbous letters that look as if they were
twisted out of balloons). A 1979 drawing depicts a
Panzerized letter "S": it is a jumble of sharp angles that
suggests the Nude Descending a Staircase bestriding a Jet
Ski. "The Romans stole the alphabeta system from the Greeks
through war," explains Rammellzee. "Then, in medieval times,
monks ornamented letters to hide their meaning from the
people. Now, the letter is armored against further

In like fashion, the artist encases himself during gallery
performances in Gasholeer, a 148-pound, gadgetry-encrusted
exoskeleton inspired by an android he painted on a subway
train in 1981. Four years in the making, Rammellzee's
exuberantly low-tech costume bristles with rocket launchers,
nozzles that gush gouts of flame, and an all-important sound

>From both wrists, I can shoot seven flames, nine flames from
each sneaker's heel, and colored flames from the throat. Two
girl doll heads hanging from my waist and in front of my
balls spit fire and vomit smoke...The sound system consists
of a Computator, which is a system of screws with wires.
These screws can be depressed when the keyboard gun is
locked into it. The sound travels through the keyboard and
screws, then through the Computator, then the belt, and on
up to the four mid-range speakers (with tweeters). This is
all balanced by a forward wheel from a jet fighter plane. I
also use an echo chamber, Vocoder, and system of strobe
lights. A coolant device keeps my head and chest at normal
temperature. A 100-watt amp and batteries give me power.

The B-boy bricolage bodied forth in Rammellzee's
"bulletproof arsenal," with its dangling, fetish-like doll
heads and its Computator cobbled together from screws and
wires, speaks to dreams of coherence in a fractured world,
and to the alchemy of poverty that transmutes sneakers into
high style, turntables into musical instruments, and
spray-painted tableaux on subway cars into hit-and-run art.

Rammellzee's Afrofuturist appropriation of the castoff
oddments of technoculture is semiotic guerrilla warfare,
just as his "slanguage" -- a heavily encrypted hip-hop argot
-- is the linguistic equivalent of graffiti "tags" all over
the mother tongue. In an essay on English as the imperial
language of the Internet, the cultural critic McKenzie Wark
argues for the willful, viral corruption of the lingua
franca of global corporate monoculture as a political act.
"I'm reminded of Caliban and Prospero," he writes.
"Prospero, the Western man of the book, teaches Caliban, the
colonial other, how to speak his language. And Caliban says,
'You give me words, that I might curse you with them.' Which
is what happens to imperial languages. The imperial others
learn it all too well. Make it something else. Make it
proliferate, differentiate. Like Rammellzee, and his project
for a Black English that nobody else could understand.
Hiding in the master tongue. Waiting. Biting the master
tongue." Wark's analysis resonates with Tricia Rose's notion
of hip-hop countersignage as "master[ing] the wearing of
this guise in order to use it against your interpolation."

African-American culture is Afrofuturist at its heart,
literalizing Gibson's cyberpunk axiom, "The street finds its
own uses for things." With trickster elan, it retrofits,
refunctions, and willfully misuses the technocommodities and
science fictions generated by a dominant culture that has
always been not only white but a wielder, as well, of
instrumental technologies. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. reminds us

        "Black people have always been masters of the
figurative: saying one thing to mean something quite other
has been basic to black survival in oppressive Western
cultures..."Reading," in this sense, was not play; it was an
essential aspect of the "literacy" training of a child. This
sort of metaphorical literacy, the learning to decipher
complex codes, is just about the blackest aspect of the
black tradition."

Here at the end of the 20th century, there's another name
for the survival skill Gates argues is quintessentially
black. What he describes as a deconstructionist ability to
crack complex cultural codes goes by a better-known name,
these days. They call it hacking.


Mark Dery [markderyATmindspring.com] is a cultural critic. He edited Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (Duke University Press, 1995) and wrote Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century (Grove Press, 1996). His collection of essays, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink was published by Grove Press in February, 1999. He is an occasional writer for The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice Literary Supplement, Suck, and Feed, and a frequent lecturer in the U.S. and Europe on new media, fringe thought, and unpopular culture.

Copyright (c) Mark Dery. All Rights Reserved.

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