By Andrea Plaid
Meeting one of my long-admired-from-afar writer/thinkers, Darnell Moore, over coffee-talk about gentrification and public transportation, I asked for suggestions for people I could interview for future Crushes. He said that he knew this sistah at Stanford University who taught a class on Afrofuturism.
“Latoya’s taking a class on that as part of her Stanford Fellowship,” I said. “This has got to be the same woman teaching it…”
While Latoya’s family and I drove her back to JFK airport from her weekend stay in NYC, she was all hyped up about–yep!–her Afrofuturism class.
“With Jakeya, right? I’m planning to interview her for the Crush post…”
“Yes! That’s what I’m talking about!!”
So, y’all know what my first question was for Professor Caruthers…
In full disclosure, the R’s intrepid leader, Latoya Peterson, is completely in love with your class, especially the homework! What are you teaching our gurl in your class?
Wow, that’s really humbling!
Well, I should begin by saying this is nowhere near the first time a course like this has been taught; conceptually, Afrofuturism has grown to take up a LOT of space within academic and artistic conversations, so it’s an enormous field of inquiry. I designed the course to be taught through Stanford’s Program in Feminist and Queer Studies, so I sort of stumbled on a useful way to organize some of the themes, and I’m constantly trying to take it somewhere new. To get where we’re going, we don’t only look at texts or art that gets explicitly identified as Afrofuturist, we also look at seemingly disparate texts that tap into Afrofuturism’s concerns about existence, knowledge, time, space, survival, power, gender, sex, and the body.
May I give an example?
During a week where we talk about speculative sex and sexuality, we might read an article on the racial implications of certain works of slash and fan fiction; we’ll even grapple with that categorical distinction. Referencing queer, feminist, and critical race theories, we’ll go to images and fan fictions about imagined encounters between Lt. Uhura and Lt. Sulu from the original Star Trek series, discussing the implications, problematics, and queer possibilities that could emerge from the pairing and thinking through howAfrofuturism often deals with racialized gender transgression and narratives of sexual excess or danger?
In the same session, we’d read a text about the politics of desire in Samuel Delaney’s work, analyzing his short story “Aye, and Gomorrah,” which possibly contains a critique of how the nature of a worker’s labor (inthis case, a sex worker) comes to constitute her embodied identity.
And even though The Fifth Element is not a futuristic film written or produced by black folks, its supporting cast features a curiously significant number of black characters; one of the most striking ones is Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod. So we’d round out the class by discussing alllllll the sexual and gender ambiguity represented in the character, including how deep and amazing it is that, among other things, Ruby Rhod’s fabulously kinky blonde hair is (arguably) styled into a phallus that itself bears a hole. Within the same conversation, we’d also try and figure out where the hell Funkadelic was headed with a track like “Jimmy’s Got a Little Bit of Bitch in Him.”
There’s a lot going on!
For those not familiar with the term, what exactly is “Afrofuturism,” including its history, major motifs, and major influences?
Well, the term Afrofuturism has morphed considerably over time and is constantly expanding and evolving, thanks to academia, the art universe, and a rumbling cultural moment that is pretty hospitable to the kinds of things Afrofuturism might signify. The actual word is most times attributed to an essay written by scholar Mark Dery in 1994, but folks have been writing and thinking about it for a long time: some of the names that repeatedly come up are Tricia Rose, Greg Tate, Kodwo Eshun, Alex Weheliye, Alondra Nelson, and many many others.
I think Kodwo Eshun’s characterization as “a program for recovering the histories of counter-futures created in a century hostile to Afro-diasporic projection” feels spot on. It can refer to science fiction and speculations of future utopias/dystopias/atopias; questions around cyber-technology, artificial intelligence and the machine; and it could refer to black thoughts and inquiries about (outer) space, aliens, time travel, and the cosmos. It’s an epistemological and aesthetic approach through which black folk can disrupt, speculate, strategize, or register critiques… about liberation. It’s Sun-Ra and George Clinton, Derrick Bell and Octavia Butler. It’s Grace Jones, it’s Renee Cox, it’s Outkast. Sometimes it signifies black postmodernism, and other times it’s simply shorthand for a contemporary black “nerd” aesthetic.
Truthfully, the concept of Afrofuturism is funky and nebulous in ways that are both thrilling and exhausting,so its explosion into popular consciousness has not come without some backlash and fatigue. I’ve definitely heard scholars complain of the term’s misappropriation, over use, or referential emptiness. That critique is to be expected, but obviously I don’t completely agree!
One thread I’ve been seeing in some Black feminist’s thought-labs (s/o to Renina at New Model Minority) is the idea that “Black girls are from the future?” How do you see this in the larger conversation of Afrofuturism?
On the most surface level, I’d probably point to the overwhelming presence and creativity of black women within Afrofuturist cultural production, style, and/or political paradigms (even Beyonce digs the cyborg sometimes). But beyond that, I’d say that amid and against the experience of black girlhood as a fraught and sometimes traumatic category of existence, black girlhood – affirmed and being! – is way ahead of its time. And if we consider time as a construct that organizes the laws and social logics of “modernity,” humanity, survival, possession, citizenship, etc., then black girlhood – affirmed and being! – is always already outside of time. Maybe that’s overly abstract, but honestly, I think the profundity in a phrase like #blackgirlsarefromthefuture lies in, among other things, its collapse of past/present/future, and Afrofuturism is all about that life!
How do you see Afrofuturism as a way to shape and move current politics, especially within Black communities? What issues do you think could use an Afrofuturist paradigm to find new solutions to current problems and/or current conversations?
So many manifestations of Afrofuturism are deeply invested in non-normativity and most times it’s a liberationist project. Some of Afrofuturism’s anxious interest in the body–commodification, control, and violence, embodied citizenship, etc.–speak rather directly to some of our current problems and conversations. For sure, it jibes well with progressive activism around dis/ability in the ways that some Afrofuturist thought actively rejects a corrective approach to bodily difference. To be sure, that doesn’t characterize every Afrofuturist approach (see “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)”), but you can definitely find it. In general terms, if the dystopic thread of black speculation calls up a spirit of healthy suspicion orrighteous political rage, I think we could stand to get a taste!
Check out the rest of the interview on the R’s Tumblr!