Where there is power, there is resistance.” – Michel Foucault
“How do you know I’m real? I’m not real. I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So we’re both myths. I do not come to you as a reality; I come to you as a myth. Because that’s what black people are. Myths. I came from a dream that black man dreamed long ago. I’m actually a present sent to you by your ancestors.” –Sun Ra (from: Space Is the Place, 1974)
Afrofuturism is a philosophy of history, philosophy of science and a cultural aesthetic that re-imagines the identity of African and re-examines history to create bold new possible worlds. It combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentrism and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies. As a movement, Afrofuturism originates to the mid-1950s with Sun Ra and the music of his Arkestra. Sun Ra, born Herman Blount, was a black musician, poet and philosopher from Alabama. Sun Ra died in May of 1993. As a term, Afrofuturism was first labeled in 1994 by Mark Dery in the essay Black to the Future. Dery is a white American author, cultural critic and lecturer.
The big concept of Afrofuturism is in imagining the future for people of color. This imagining has taken shape into many different visions: from the mystical and futuristic novels of Octavia Butler that placed black people in science fiction adventures to the comic book like artwork that splashed over the album covers of funky music by George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. In total, this space allows for the re-imagination of identity alongside the evolution of technology and science. Above all, though, Afrofuturism allows for the thought about alternate realities for people of color. In his 1994 essay, Mark Dery identified a niche throughout science fiction that examines “African-African themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriate images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.”
Artists and academics go to the past for inspiration; the pinnacle of the African Kingdoms of yesteryear inspires the visions of the future. The ancient kings and queens of the world were of color and their kingdoms thrived for hundreds of years pre-Western contact. The kingdoms of Egypt and the pyramids of the pharaohs are proof of the resiliency, intelligence and sophistication of people of color. It is only in modern times that this intelligence has been questioned, as an entire race of people were considered less than human by the rulers of the white world and these people were forced into bondage and slavery for hundreds of years. It is no wonder that Afrofuturism exists, imagining a world that people of color were not forced into slavery but rather continued on from the elegance and beauty of the old African kingdoms.
In its essence, Afrofuturism is a way of seeing people of color move through the world that does not have anything to do with Western impulses. In this respect, we can think of it as retrospective world-building, a universal tool of the historical imagination and a method of constructing history itself, of inventing it, of fashioning novel versions of “what happened here” and “what will happen here”. It is a means of reviving and revisiting former times, a world where people of color can be anything they wish and dream about. History is not something that lives in a book alone, it is something that continues to be done, with every moment and every movement. The historical narrative of the world has favored Anglo-Saxon conquest, victories, and struggles. For people of color, sometimes stepping into fiction and the make believe help make living the present possible. This fascination with other worlds dates back to Prince Hall Freemasonry of the 18th century.
Black freemasonry dates from before the war of independence of the United States, when freed black abolitionist and leather worker Prince Hall was refused admittance to the St John’s Masonic lodge in Boston, Massachusetts. Hall and 14 other free black men were initiated into freemasonry in 1775 by a British military lodge based in Boston. In 1784, after the British had left America, the grand lodge of England issued Hall a charter to set up an African lodge in Boston. Over the next two centuries, Prince Hall Freemasonry grew its members and became one of the world’s largest fraternity for black men. Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Sr., Richard Pryor, and Sugar Ray Robinson were all active members.
For people of color who were living in the U.S. South in the 19th and 20th centuries, life was very hard. One of the few places African Americans could have unlimited access to books in Birmingham was the Black Masonic Lodge. For young Herman Sonny Blount, intelligent and a bit of a loner, this would be his library. Born in 1913, Blount had an awakening of spirit and mind as a result of the lodge and its books. Its collection on Freemasonry and other esoteric concepts made a strong impression on him. Blount would take this information and fuse it into his other worldly persona Sun Ra, where he spent years developing a diverse portfolio as a musician with his legendary Arkestra band (jazz, blues, proto-electronica).
(In fact, the number of jazz greats who were freemasons is interesting: Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, WC Handy, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Paul Robeson were all masons).
In Sun Ra, Blount blended cosmological ideas with ancient Egyptian mysticism. In 1971, Ra served as an artist-in-residence at California’s UC Berkeley and taught the college course African American Studies 198 (also known as Sun Ra 171, The Black Man in the Universe, or The Black Man in the Cosmos). The teachings of his course inspired his one and only feature film, the cult classic Space is the Place (released 1974). In this film, Ra engages in a cosmic card game to determine the fate of the black race. “Space” is unambiguously posited by Ra as a utopian refuge for African Americans. The film features comedy, musical performances and a blaxploitation aesthetic.
Sun Ra’s academic course included readings from theosophist Madame Blavatsky, French philosopher Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, black American writer and poet Henry Dumas, and the Bible. Sun Ra would write biblical quotes on the board and then would permutate them – rewrite and transform their letters and syntax into new equations of meaning. His lecture subjects included Neoplatonic doctrines, the applications of ancient history and religious texts to racial problems, pollution and war, and a radical reinterpretation of the Bible in light of Egyptology.
The current rise of Afrofuturism in the United States (and globally) runs parallel with an increasing awareness among well-educated people of color and the growing Diaspora; pop culture in all its forms have created a rich atmosphere for the promotion of alternate ideas surrounding black people (the new superhero film Black Panther, the megahit Get Out, among others). It is here that such media and content can grapple with the current realities of the world, ie, racial injustice, representation, environmental degradation, political uncertainty, and conflict between people of color and police. Niama Safia Sandy, an art curator and anthropologist in New York, grew up infatuated with history and her imagination for the future of people of color was sparked when she saw that the mainstream space was lacking the identities and the visions of people like her; “I got tired of going to museums and gallery spaces and not seeing representations of my people,” Sandy said during an interview with ThinkProgress. “I felt so strongly that it was time to contextualize the images of black people from around the world and to give credence to where we came from, how we got here, and where we are going.”
Where are the Black Blade Runners? Where are the Black Shamans and Black Astronauts now? The movement lives on, began by Sun Ra and his Arkestra and continues strong with the likes of Solange, Beyonce, Rihanna, Erykah Badu, FKA Twigs, Ibeyi, and others. Afrofuturism is more than art; it is a challenging aesthetic that continues to upend the mainstream presentation of reality. “Race is a technology,” says media and cultural studies professor at the University of California at Riverside John Jennings. “The black body is an extension of the Colonial mindset, if you think of the way that black bodies and black culture has been chopped up, commodified, and sold. These things are related, Black Lives Matter and speculative arts about a future for black people. It’s connected because a black future is a radicalized notion in America. It scares people sometimes, but that’s why it’s so important that we have these images to inspire us.”
Let the future be bold and black, and to be bold and black is to stand and rise, and to be beautiful.
“I am black; I am in total fusion with the world, in sympathetic affinity with the earth, losing my id in the heart of the cosmos…I am black, not because of a curse, but because my skin has been able to capture all the cosmic effluvia. I am truly a drop of sun under the earth.” ― Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks