Lucianne Walkowicz: So the overview of this particular panel, if you’ll notice in the program is called “Alternative Futurisms.” And this, as should probably be evident by now is centered on science fiction and the imagination. It really has a power to inspire and instruct us as we envision the future, but it’s also long been a vehicle for myths of Manifest Destiny. And so, we wanted to start today by talking about the viewpoints of humanity’s future that are alternative to some of these mainstream narratives, and how we might conceptualize life off-world in radically different ways. And so I’m going to start by throwing this out to the entire panel, probably the central concern that came up in our pre-event call, which is…alternative to what? So, if we could take a moment to talk about distinctions between kinds of science fiction and how they interface with your work. To whoever wants to take it first.
D. Denenge Duyst-Akpem: Hi everyone. So happy to be here. So, one of the things that comes up for me in response to that question is I think about bell books, centering the margins. I also think about some problems as I continue to teach her texts, and that particular one. The problems that I’m beginning to have around the—even the term “margin.” And so that’s something where I think about what does it mean to be centered, or to center oneself? And what does it mean to claim the margin, or to reject that terminology? And so for myself, I really approach Afrofuturism and the teaching of it as a kind of shapeshifter’s art. And I think that that is also something that draws people, and students in particular, to my classes and to that particular approach, where it offers a kind of inclusivity and space for people who are coming from many different backgrounds and ways of being and seeing themselves in identity to enter into that and see it as a kind of radical space for creative production.
Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Thank you. I think there are a few kind of cultural myths that Afrofuturism and some of the related works are trying to reject. And specifically in regards to science and technology, I think one of the most prominent ones is that you know, black folks are like, amodern, outside of modernity. That they exist in some sort of primitive or above or beyond or like, extrapolated away from technology and science.
And then the other thing that I’ve encountered a lot in regards to my work is this idea of being an anomaly. I found that when I perform, a lot of white folks will approach me as though I’m an anomaly. And a big part of what I want to do is say—is express that this is a perspective that a lot of black folks have, right. That I’m not a unicorn. And so I think Afrofuturism has helped me to figure out how to kind of work through that, but that’s one of the myths, I think. That there can only be one or that there’s…we represent one particular perspective or one group, when that’s not necessarily the case.
William Lempert: Yeah, absolutely thinking what you said about bell books, I’ve been thinking a lot about this book by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Moving the Center. And similar to what’s come up a lot today about who’s in the center, in a variety of ways, and who’s not in the center—who’s at the margin, but also who’s just not there at all? Who’s absent? And that’s harder to see because it’s not present and requires a critical eye.
Another quote that comes to mind, that was written by Peter Gourevitch, about the Rwandan genocide that I come back to a lot around this question is that, “Power largely consists in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality.” I think that’s powerful, and especially this panel, I think there’s this connection between creative work and scholarship. And there’s something that happens in that space that doesn’t happen in peer-reviewed journal articles alone. And that imagining the future’s very much about the image, or some sort of engagement that’s not-one way and through these very old colonial structures, and that is essential. Yeah.
Ytasha L. Womack: Hi, this is so exciting. I guess when I think about… Whenever I talk about Afrofuturism, I like to give sort of a ground-floor reference definition for it. One of the definitions I often use is to say that it’s a way of looking at the future, or alternate realities, but through a black cultural lens. And then I have to define “black,” you know, and say that that’s you know, people of the African continent and people of the African Diaspora. And then I also say that it intersects the imagination, technology, mysticism. I highlight mysticism, because that separates it from the way we usually talk about science fiction. And that it obviously intersects black culture. But that there is a lot of appreciation for the concept of the divine feminine, a lot of women creators, but also this idea of valuing intuition or the emotions as being a valued space for information—intuition is a valued space for information in the same way that logic is, and looking at that as a balance. So, if you take something like the ankh, and you think about masculinity and femininity in sort of these larger…not in a binary space per se but just sort of this concept that there are ideas we both connect with and that express, you know, very much these different ways that we can process information and come to understand ourselves.
And then this relationship with time, you know, with the future and the past and the present being various expressions of want, and these are all concepts you see coming out of Afrofuturism which also overlap in a lot of ways with Indigenous Futurism. But, what is interesting about Afrofuturism which is different from how we kind of talk about just sci-fi, and this is why the whole alternative futurisms gets really interesting, Afrofuturism at least acknowledges that it’s a perspective, alright? And so, when we start talking about this idea of “oh, science fiction,” and then there’s this general assumption that this is the way, right? And that there’s one approach to it, and a lot of times it’s very nationalistic or militaristic. And you know, it might explore various things.
So I mean, I’ve been on science fiction panels and I just had to say, “Look, I don’t speak from a marginalized space. I don’t know what that is, that’s not my background, that’s not my perspective,” and there was a gasp. Like, “Oh, my goodness. But that’s what you’re here to inform us of,” and it’s like oh gee, sorry. You know, because I don’t relate to that concept, right? And so generally speaking, the point I’m talking about, these perspectives, is to integrate and share and look at how we can integrate them…how we can overlap them, and how we can pull the best to create this sort of societies and the world that makes the most sense for us.
Akpem: I wanted to kind of respond and just, you know, affirm what you said in terms of to throw in this idea of the black abject, and the need that people have, or the larger societies seems to have, for depictions of black abjection. And so that you know, this idea that no, I’m not speaking from a margin. And I’m speaking from a point of joy, of radical joy, which is something that Wanuri Kahiu, a filmmaker who did Pumzi, the film and many others. And Rafiki which is now showing—in Kenya; it was banned and now it’s currently showing, which is awesome.
But, you know, thinking about depictions and how we are… You know, there’s a sort of consumption of the black abject. And so, Afrofuturism as a genre is the space where we can very directly go up against that in a sense. At the same time, I also reject the idea—and this is connected with you know, in terms of definitions—that Afrofuturism is a response to whiteness, in the same way that Black Arts Movement authors and practitioners were saying you know, basically Malcolm was assassinated and Baraka moved up North to Harlem and said you know, “F this,” basically. We are going to address ourselves to black people, for black people, about black people. We are not going to be responding to whiteness. And so it was art as action. And so I really root my approach to Afrofuturism very much in the Black Arts Movement in that time period. I taught about that for a long time, so I feel very connected with a number of the practitioners who are still working today.
And one of the things I wanted to say, too, about the term “Afrofuturism” is there’s also—and I guess this is a little more detailed in terms of the specifics of this, the genre, but—there are sometimes arguments about well, what should it be called? And the more Afrofuturism gets to be this phenomena, you know, as the years go by, some folks will say, “Well, I don’t want to— Afrofuturism, that term was invented by a white man. I don’t want this to be something that I’m using to define this radical practice.” Which I understand, and I think that’s why I go back to shapeshifting. Afrofuturism, black sci-fi, black speculative science. You know, all of these terminologies have space and I think they’re all connected.
One of the reasons I hold to that term, at least for the moment (giving myself space to shapeshift out of that if I should so desire), is there’s an article by Mark Rockeymoore called What is Afrofuturism? that really has moved me over the years. And he talks about the afro. So for me it’s kind of two parts. One is the form of the afro. It can’t be contained. It can’t be constrained. Spirals, moving this way and that, you know, of their own volition. And so his beautiful, poetic description of the afro for me is what roots the practice.
And then also, thinking about Malcolm, and rooted in the Black Arts Movement as well. And that particular moment in time where there was a constant speaking to the Afro-American. And so something about using the term “afro” for me also roots it in that moment.
And so, I really—for myself I think about Afrofuturism as an action. It’s a practice. I describe it as a methodology of black liberation. So it’s definitely a space where people can express and be creative, and all of that is part of it. For me, I’m very invested in it, not necessarily to say political, but just an action, a statement, a methodology.
Lumumba-Kasongo: And I think leaping on that just quickly, in the anthology Octavia’s Brood, a distinction is made in the introduction between sort of speculative fiction and visionary fiction, and this idea that this is explicitly rooted in sort of social justice ideas and that there’s no shying away from that, and sort of what you were expressing around the recognition of a perspective. Like acknowledging that is a big part of the work. Not saying that they occupy the view from nowhere. That there’s an objective perspective there, right, instead. That’s a full part of kind of visionary fictions. So I think again, kind of this distinction that you were talking about around kind of the action of it. That there’s a social justice framework for a lot of the work that falls in that category.
Walkowicz: Willi, I wonder if you could speak to this from the standpoint of Indigenous Futurism and how it functions for you in the communities that you work with.
Lempert: Yeah. I mean, it operates in a very practical way for people, because in Australia for example there is—there are no treaties… Sort of as much as treaties have been broken in North America. There are no treaties. Terra nullius established that there were no people there. And so it was considered moral.
And so the way that citizens imagine indigenous futures in Australia has a huge impact on whether communities will be funded. There was a recent effort to close half of all aboriginal communities in Australia. And it would’ve happened except there was a public outcry. So a lot hangs on sort of broader coalitions of people imagining that there’s a future for people.
But it’s very stark. Funding was cut by 40% recently, and there’s this larger way, I think especially in indigenous futurisms around temporality in which the past becomes a place for…in which indigenous people are slotted into the mythic, at best, and then it gets worse from there. Then the present is about suffering and problems. And the future is absent. And so there’s this way in which—there’s this great book Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot. He talks about how the past is a bundle of silences more than it is anything else. And the future is also silenced. That the future mostly has to do with things that have been edited out. But we focus on the things that are there, because that makes sense to do. Especially for indigenous people. Western civilization is dependent on them not existing and always has been in settler colonization. And so, I think temporality becomes especially important in that case, yeah.
Walkowicz: You know, one of the things that came up in our pre-event call was the potentiality of these frameworks for transformation. And I think that’s something, even though you each work— Well, you each work in a variety of different media…and different from each other and…wide in scope in each one of your work. And I wonder if you could speak a little to the way that transformation is realized during or at least implemented in your work. So I know, Ytasha, you had done a dance therapy workshop this summer, is that correct?
Womack: Yes. Very eventful program. I worked with teenage girls, which is always great. And the program was really based on this concept of using dance as a way to connect people with ideas about the future. And to connect them with more of a historical grounding around identity in culture and so forth. But more importantly just to kind touch on all aspect of ourselves.
So the course, it included breathing exercises, meditation, but then they also learned a little about different dances of…from different parts of the African continent and Diaspora. So they learned West African traditional dance. They’re learning Chicago-style stepping. They’re learning samba, salsa, and seeing a relationship between the music and the rhythm patterns.
But then also there would be some essay writing. They would journal. Talk about themselves. We would do group exercises where they would pick a celestial phenomenon and then do like a freestyle dance movement thinking about Andromeda or a particular star.
And what it did over time was they started to see a relationship between themselves and the Earth, and then the larger universe. And would you know, start to speak in that way and they saw the value of art and going to museums and thinking about dance and movement as being art forms that had been preserved in some respect for several thousand years. Looking at a dance like samba and looking at how old it really is. So some of the rhythms from…some of the music from the West African dances they were learning and seeing that you know, in different spaces, there was sometimes a…very different symbolism with that.
Then you say, “Well, what does that have to do with the future?” Well, they saw a relationship between themselves, people in the past, and people in the future. And that the dances that they were doing were connected to people who were doing those dances before. And that the ideas and the actions they were taking now were going to shape things for people in the future. And it also helped them to feel like they had more agency, in part because of the physical activity. They’re pushing through, you know, body limitations to do things they weren’t normally used to doing. And that made them think more about their own futures.
And so, it was, you know very holistic in that sense. But of course, you can imagine certain things come up as well that kind of had to be addressed. And so it was a very transformative experience, but for me as a person who’s a writer and a dancer growing up, most people would think there wasn’t much of a relationship.
But the natural evolution of that is to see this larger connectivity. So I did do a film called A Love Letter to the Ancestors from Chicago, which also dealt with dance as a…kind of like the body as a…the body as a portal of sorts between the future, the past and the present. Specifically around kind of house music because I’m from Chicago and I’m excited about that. But looking at freestyle dance as being part of this sort of interconnected way of reminding ourselves that we have a relationship with one another, with the universe, and with the Earth.
Walkowicz: Yeah, I don’t know if you all are familiar with the Dance Your PhD…contest. I guess it’s a contest? So this was something that started a number of years ago that I think…well, for lack of a less punny word, embodies a lot of the ways that people from scientific disciplines think about the dialogue between the arts and sciences—that it will be an interpretive relationship. And I think one of the things that’s really missing from the way folks from the science side see the arts is that they don’t realize that there’s this possible relationship that can form just through movement, through physicality.
I wonder…and whoever wants to take it first, if you can speak a little bit about some of the projects that you’ve worked on and their relationships to these sort of transformative potentialities.
Lumumba-Kasongo: I think touching on what Ytasha was talking about, actually my PhD work has helped me in some regards in thinking about transformative potentials of spaces and myself and my community in the sense that one of the areas of science and technology studies is kind of history of technology, and broadening our definitions of technology. Broadening them to think less about kind of discrete, specific objects that often kind of thrive or are tied in deeply to like masculinity or particular constructs of power, and instead thinking more about you know, “mundane technologies” or even—not even technologies as objects but as ways of doing things. And so opening up this idea that technology could be something more and that it’s part of a…it only has meaning insofar as the people around it give it that meaning, it— I think as Ytasha was saying, it gave—it felt like I had agency, right. That the things that we do in our actions were not just sort of dropped from the sky. There’s a context. There’s a broader history. There’s a relationship with other things that’ve happened before. And I think power functions by cutting people off from their past, right. By not allowing people to feel like there’s a connection and that the things that you do actually matter. And I think once I started to recognize that, that’s when I dug into my music, and explicitly talking about hardships that I had had but not in the sort of like, grand…you know, black suffering narrative but instead this is a thing that I’ve dealt with personally in my life and let me share my testimony with you. And in doing that, you know, people have come up to me after shows and said you know, “I started going to therapy because you started talking about the importance of that in your life.” Or, “I had a conversation with my adviser that I had been putting off for forever because you were talking about that breakdown.” And so I think I started to realized what I do matters, the music that I make matters, and the words that I put down should be well-intentioned, because it reverberates.
Walkowicz: If I could ask just a quick follow-up to that. How often do you engage with your students? So for example, you just taught the science and feminism course at NYU. How often do you engage with your students also through like, a musical lens? Is that all woven in together for you or is that sort of different parts of your life that you separate, or?
Lumumba-Kasongo: So I’ve kind of separated them for my sanity. Got my academic self over here, and then my musical self, but of course they sort of bleed. And it was really cool because one of my students at the beginning of the class was like, “Maybe this sounds awkward, but are you a rapper?” And I guess he had done some research. And so it was cool, we got a chance to have a conversation. We started taking about headphones and other stuff. It sort of opened up this dialogue. But I still haven’t figured out how to weave it all together but I would like to, because I think that they are…they do speak to each other.
Akpem: I love that question. Because…just thinking about that as well. It’s something that I’ve been thinking how… What are the ways that I incorporate my performative nature into my teaching practice? Kind of a funny story, there’s a shaman, multiple PhD having…his name is Malidoma Patrice Somé. Some of you may know him. He’s a Dagara from Burkina Faso. And I’ve been studying his work, following what he does, for many years and I had a chance to do divination with him last year, which was deeply transformative.
And one of the stories in his book Of Water and the Spirit, he talks about his grandfather with whom he was very close, and how Grandfather would hypnotize small children. If you ever saw a small child walking around the village just wordlessly doing a task you know, handling a task, you knew that they had been hypnotized by Grandfather. And so I think about that in the context of my teaching. You know, one of the ways that I can sort of hypnotize and, you know— And use the voice. You know, I’m trained as a jazz singer, and trained… My voice is my mother’s voice so I use it very much in terms of self-soothing. My sister is a speech pathologist, you know. She talked with me about my performance that I’ll be doing later. So I’m really, really interested in the use of voice, word force, thinking about Yoruba oríkì. The power of drawing forth a person’s essential nature through the use of voice. And so that’s something that I think about a lot. And I do engage in ritual with students and that sort of thing.
I also wanted to kind of speak to…Willi, what you were talking about in terms of Ngũgĩ, who actually was—I took a class with him as an undergrad at Smith. He was recently out of prison and in exile. And he talks about the “cultural bomb” in Decolonizing the Mind. And that has been deeply meaningful to me in terms of this idea of how it destroys a people’s belief in terms of the colonial project, in their own culture, in their own— And so thinking about that belief in one’s performance, the belief in one’s…what one has to share.
And one of the interesting things is that years ago—and I won’t say the exact year, but when I was at Smith, I was chosen for the Smithsonian Internship where they sent twelve students per year to different museums at the Smithsonian. And I was stationed at the National Museum of African Art to work on King Agyeman Prempeh’s cloth and exhibition. At the time, doing an interactive exhibit, having a play written about Agyeman Prempeh’s life, having Prempeh’s family come from Ghana doing libations and a procession. This was radical for the Smithsonian, you know. All kinds of permissions to have libations and processions and all of that. May still be, you know.
But to come back here now…you know, and I will say almost twenty years after that, it really makes me think about this idea of engaged practice. And one of the things that I was writing about and interviewing and working with the museum was, how do you exhibit African art in the Western museum context? And I had—many of my teachers were doing performances with works of art, moving through the museum, dancing to the exhibitions and all of that. And so that was really the foundation you know—Andrea Hairston, Tony Vaca [sp?], and so many others—for my understanding of what it means to activate not only a space… And so I think of myself a space sculptor. But to activate not just the physical space but the space of your body. Thinking of our bodies as vessels of liberation as much as the music as a vessel, the mothership as a vessel. And so, what are the ways that we use voice or we use other methodologies to activate that individual, and in response to works of art or otherwise.
So that, I think, you know, for me the idea of immersion, interaction, performativity, the ritual practice within the space of Afrofuturism. You know, for me, it’s all…in my work it ends up being really a collage. And at the same time when I was at Smith, I remember having a tarot reading. And I remember the woman who read my cards said, “The thing that you’re going to end up doing doesn’t exist. You’re going to create it.” And so now you know…that many years later, you know, I real— And it can be very scary. Because this performance style, this collage style, this thing…this Afrofuturism thing, a lot of it hasn’t existed till what I’ve put out there. Or that particular style. And so you know, it’s a sort of continual evolution into being, into the being that I already am, I guess. Yeah.
Walkowicz: Willi, I wonder if you could speak to your process. So you refer to yourself and what you do as collaborative filmmaking with indigenous communities. So, can you tell us a little bit about how that process works, and for you, for them…for everyone.
Lempert: Yeah. Collaboration is a word that’s thrown around a lot now. And it can mean a lot of things. Some…you know, very admirable, some not. So I’ve tried to think about collaboration for a long time, and what that really means. So for me, it involves trying to from the very beginning and through the very end, through the writing process as well, start off with not the question of “can I do this” or anything like that, but “would you like to do something together?” And at a sort of larger meta level trying to create a dynamic in which, to the extent it’s possible, instead of studying a people or…that sort of history of anthropology, of doing projects with people. Working on something and looking the same direction together.
And so, going, asking if you’d like to work on a project. And if so, what would— Then the second step for me at least is what would be the single most useful thing for me to do in this context? And then…and still leave out the research completely at that point. Then go home, think about it, and then build a project from that foundation, so that the Venn diagram of what your project is and what would be, on a daily level, productive in their point of view are not in conflict to the extent possible. And then, build the project from there. So for me it meant following the social life with film projects. So, whatever was happening was the project. I would just get in the Land Cruiser and off we were.
And, collaboration is often discussed as a sort of ethical issue. And ethics is a very sort of Western mentality, too. Because of course for indigenous scholars, it’s obligation. So ethics presents it as a sort of option that you should feel good about. But beyond that as well, I think it has profound implications as to what you find. Because I was interested in futurisms and speculative thinking from following native science fiction from many years, and those films. But what I also found is that when you approach a project a certain way, different types of things come out. Whereas generally there’s an assumption that anthropologists or white people in general are always just trying to learn more Dreaming stories, songlines.
But when things open up to more options, people are very interested in telling other stories. And what I found is people often want to talk about the future, which is something I think that they feel is perhaps silenced, especially in Australia where people are sort of symbolically understood to be the oldest living societies, set of societies. And that is taken as being sort of a window into a past, and there’s a long history of that. So, I think engaging the future’s also lot about process and understanding the history of how things have often worked in the research process.
Walkowicz: Do you think that there’s— And I think… Oh, actually before I ask this question, Denenge I wondered if you could talk a little bit to the Mars project, just building off of the sort of emerging theme of education and collaboration. You had done this project with your students to envision competing to go, or to envision being a person chosen to go Mars. And also, you have a new course in the fall this year that I think we’d be interested to hear about as well.
Akpem: So, this was— Thank you for that question. This was for Afrofuturism— I started teaching Afrofuturism at Columbia College Chicago in 2010. I knew there were other courses here and there about it. Many of them I believe tended to be focus perhaps on music in particular or specific area— This was I think one of the first courses that was looking really cross-disciplinarily at the subject. I had students in the class, thirteen different countries represented, fourteen different majors across the college. So, it was really a diverse—as far as classes you know, go, it was a pretty diverse group.
And this was—there was the announcement of Mars One planning to settle by 2023. So we were ten years out and I thought, “Okay, we gotta do something with this.” And one of the big points with Mars One, as many of you probably know, is that they were doing it sort of reality TV-style so you could you know, upload people from all over the world. And you could track the demographics—which I did, because I wanted to see you know, how many Nigerians— I’m very—you know, being from Nigeria I’m interested how many Nigerians had actually submitted an application to go. But you know, really interested in kind of the data around that as well. Who is submitting, and why, and what?
So anyway, we have all these— [accidentally rubs some of her makeup] (Oh goodness. Costuming.) ‑all of these individuals from around the world who are—I think it was in the hundreds of thousands of people who had submitted. So, I thought let’s do something similar. We didn’t use the application online, but I wanted students to have the experience of applying. I did a poll. I think there were twenty-seven students in the class? And out of that number, only two said they would actually go. So, this wasn’t based on the actual desire to travel to Mars just sort of hypotheticals.
And so I created an application. And every class session was basically completing another step in that application. Part of that was discussing your strengths and kind of— And it would be everything. Strengths, what do you have to offer? So one person in the class…young man who’s very tall. So he said, “Well, my height, you know. I can reach things. So if I’m climbing out of a Mars…you know, a cavern I’d be useful.” And then someone else said, “I’m really really short. I can fit into small spaces. So, if there’s technological things, things that need to be fixed, I can get in there.”
So, they were really thinking really practically. Someone else— I’m just kind of mentioning some of the fun ones here. Someone said you know, hacky sack. You know, “I’m really good at that. It promotes community, friendship, and it’s really good for exercise and keeping the body limber when you’re,” you know. So there were…they were really getting into it.
But really, we read a lot. Of course, always in my classes, reading a lot from a wide range of authors and thinking about what some of the problems might be. And then they created…as part of the application package, they developed a work of art that would be included to be sent off to the committee.
And so everything…I’ll be sharing in the performance later. Kelsey came up. She’s a vocal composition major so she created a Mars anthem, complete with a salute, and we all sang and she brought in a drummer. We had someone who was a combination of graphic design and also…health food? I’m not sure exactly what her major was. So she researched what astronauts eat, what some of the initiatives were for Mars, growing plants and that sort of thing. So they really just went into all their different areas. Someone else is really about design and recycling and she said you know, rather than F up Mars just the way we have Earth, let’s set up the system from the get-go so that it’s already connected directly to your pod, and when you need something it comes through and then when you need to you send it out and there’s a central—
So they all had these amazing designs and ideas, and it was just incredible. So that was exciting and then…yeah. And then this fall, I’m teaching a course on Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which is a prophetic text for this moment in time especially, down to the whole “Make America Great Again.” Yeah. So basically it’s a seminar/studio. We’re doing urban foraging with Nance Klehm, who’s very well-known especially in Chicago. We are meeting with Jessica Charlesworth who teaches in designed objects to do survival packs. So we’re looking also at disaster scenarios and thinking about what are the ways that we want to develop these packs based on current situations and what we envision to be our ideas of what might be needed. So it’s just a—it’s an exciting class and it’s a way to really kind of get in to parable and think about future, past, present, all in this moment right now.
Walkowicz: Thank you. Ytasha, I wanted to ask you since you…you may not have coined Afrofuturism but you literally wrote the book. And I wonder— You touched on this a little bit at the beginning of the panel, but I wonder if you can you talk about the way in which that as a label functions for you both as something that can be productive, but do you ever find that it’s limiting, or doesn’t allow you access to the spaces that you would like to have?
Womack: No, I don’t find it to be limiting at all. As a matter of fact, it’s been very liberating in a lot of ways. And there’s something about naming power that I think really opens the door to helping people to recognize that what they are doing exists, or to really synergize ideas. Denenge— I think in a conversation with Denenge, and I put this in the book, it was through a conversation with her that I remember first hearing the term “Afrofuturism.”
Now, in retrospect I had heard it before but I…it didn’t click then. And hearing the term, you know, I went and researched and talked to various people. And what I realized was I’ve been having conversations and engaging in Afrofuturism my entire life. It really synergized for me when I was at Clark Atlanta University in the Atlanta University Center, because everyone was creating this Afrofuturist art and work and contemplating the future, and really working with the concepts. We were even reading some of the essays, but again the term just did not really click.
And so when I had that conversation and Denenge brought up the term, and then retroactively starting to look at how there were all these relationships in music, and science, and the art that you’d see within a culture and then in my own life, it really pushed my storytelling abilities further in that I was primarily doing a lot of non-fiction. And you know, working as a journalist. And then some of the fiction I did was very…of the time. And I felt like that was limiting. Something about these narratives of talking about love found, love lost, and the present, just didn’t really make a lot of sense to me?
And when I started thinking about Afrofuturism, I felt very compelled to tell a story—the first one is the Rayla 2212 story about a woman who lived on a distant planet. She’s third-generation deep on this planet and has to kind of reconnect with Earth and find these missing astronauts who got stuck in space an time trying to travel with their minds. And for me, it really became a deconstruction around a lot of assumptions about identity. Because there’s the question of are you… You know, what perspective am I writing about her from? You know. I can’t say that she’s… You know, in my perspective of being African American or being a black woman, I can’t entirely project that onto her because those identities shift when you’re on another planet, in another solar system. Or another galaxy, you know. What does it mean to be a woman in another galaxy, you know? What does it mean to… Is she thinking in the default terms of being American in the way that I would. Probably not. But how do you recognize some of these concepts and how they might shape her perspective?
And then that became really interesting, but then that goes into the whole time travel dynamic of seeing relationships between the future, the past, the present. You know, these names, names of schools, names of months of the year and so forth. So for me, Afrofuturism really opened me up to doing a lot of writing and storytelling that I could’ve deemed as being very non-traditional and kind of stopped myself. And I think that’s one of the beauties of the term itself, is that it helps people to feel comfortable creating stories and creating works that they didn’t feel were validated in very specific spaces. And that helps to really free the imagination, or in some cases decolonize the mind. And that’s when you can start talking about futures. And people feel comfortable looking at their own lives and their own ideas and saying, “Hey, you know I think that these are ways that we could really build together.”
Walkowicz: And Enongo, maybe you can add to this as well, because I know that this has been something that you’ve actively adapted as a lens for your music career after being kind of lumped in with the nerdcore thing
Lumumba-Kasongo: Yeah. So, I reference video games and cartoons a lot because that’s the stuff that I love; that’s what I grew up with and that shaped my worldview. And so I found that as an MC who does that quite a bit, my work started to be attached to this subgenre called nerdcore, which is basically a lot of white guys who can’t rap. And they…you know, they’ll kind of have their references to Star Wars and whatever else. But I was, I think, very offended by the fact that I didn’t get to shape that narrative. That I saw this term that started to be associated with me that I didn’t even know where it came from. But I would see “nerdcore rapper Sammus,” “nerdcore artist—”
And so I think at first I tried to wrestle with it and say okay, maybe I can adopt it. Maybe— [recording skips] —black perspective that I’m trying to assert through my work. It’s not just that I love video games, and it’s not just that I’m a black girl who loves videos games. I have a particular perspective, and I think that Afrofuturism as a term for thinking about like, repurposing was a really interesting way for me to engage with the idea of repurposing this character. This character who’s a white blonde lady, and putting my face in that cybernetic power suit. And all of the work that that ended up doing. I mean, I’ve have had so many folks who have come up to me and said, “You know, I didn’t know who Mae Jemison was but I did know what Metroid was. And so I listened to your album and now I’m following her and now I think she’s amazing.”
And vice versa. You know, folks who are interested in black feminist thought or who are interested in engaging with the academy, who don’t care about video games or cartoons but they’re— My favorite story from this is a woman in Ithaca. And she started playing the video game Metroid with her daughter after her daughter started asking, “Who’s Sammus? Like I see this rapper and she looks like me and I want to know more about this video game.” So now they’ve started to play with the kind realities of that universe.
So I think that the term, as Ytasha was saying… I find that it’s not restrictive in the ways that that nerdcore was to me, because built in to the understanding of it is this idea around repurposing or shapeshifting, or a kind of movement. That it’s not sort of a static thing and that fluidity is a part of kind of essentially working within Afrofuturist frameworks. So it allowed me to reject this whole other part of music that I did not feel like I was making.
Walkowicz: You know, I want to return to something that I think has arisen in different ways in each of the panels today, which is the relationship to time. And I believe you brought it up at the beginning of this panel. That outside of…you know, to—let’s remove the position from nowhere and call it white Western futurism. It seems like in Indigenous and Afro Futurism, there is a much more nonlinear relationship to time and much more of a relationship to both deep time and history, and into the future. And I wonder if you can speak to that in the light of how we talk about well, now is the moment that we must go to space. Now is the moment that humans must live off-world. How do you think those two ideas interact with each other?
Womack: Well, it’s fascinating because you can be in…you can be very present, and still be connected to what we call a future or a past. And it’s being so present that you can really feel how they’re all interweaved, or interwoven rather, into a way to really express and be. And to see that these actions of now can impact the future and the past. And I think that’s where it gets really interesting.
So, when we usually talk about the future, it’s this linear like, “now is the time to move forward,” right? But any action that you take now, at least in this way we talk about time, it can impact the so-called future, and it can impact the so-called past. You know, it can be a healing process in both directions. And that’s where it gets really intriguing. Because there’s a…there’s just—it’s a holistic recog— It’s a holistic way of recognizing that your actions always have some sort of impact.
And so the “now is the time” thing gets really fascinating because you can look back in linear past and you can say, “Well, now was always the time, wasn’t it?” You know. Oftentimes I’ll hear people, they’ll describe you know, if you’re talking about the Antebellum South, right. And they’ll describe someone who’s a very noble figure, supposedly, and that they may have had a lot of isms attached to their philosophy and they’ll say, “Oh, he was a man of his time.” It’s like yeah, but you also had people who were fighting against slavery, people who were advocating to protect native communities. So you know, this whole retroactive “man of its time” thing, or woman of its time, it’s really really interesting.
And I’m starting to hear people say that around times that I’ve lived in, you know. It’s like, well, wait a second, you know. They’ll say, “Oh, well, you can’t indict the people of the 80s, because of their perspective on sexuality.” Okay, well where are we going with this at some point, you know? Is this just always going to be the conversation, where we don’t acknowledge that there were always a variety of voices in the so-called linear past?
And that gets into something that a previous panelist mentioned. The gentlemen over here. My apologies for not remembering your name exactly. And that was this whole concept of the narrative, you know. What is the narrative around going to Mars? Because it’s the dominant narrative that we seem to remember, sometimes almost more than the actual actions of people in the so-called past that gets really fascinating. So now is the time, now has always been the time to do any number of things. But the narratives we associate with that, and then the actions people take and why they take those actions says more about our belief around agency in our lives. And that’s why it’s so great to talk about the future, and to talk about Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurism, and bringing people to the table or making them feel comfortable about who they are so that they can have agency to make the now moment be the now moment and create these holistic spaces that help all of us.
Akpem: Yes. Yes yes yes. In terms of the narrative, I think one of the reasons that I love being in the art history department, which is a little strange but also perfect. And I kind of go in between art history and sculpture. But thinking a lot of the work that I do with students is around decolonizing the canon. And so thinking about going back to the story, what are the narratives. That is a kind of active reclamation that for me is I believe a kind of time travel and a shifting. Because we’re reframing the narrative. We’re reframing how we see the center.
And a lot of that is through the action of students themselves. You know, we do projects—just with the grad students this summer, the final offering that we gave to the other Low-Res students, and to the library (who were very amazing and receptive), basically out of the thirty students in the class, everyone brought an artist that they felt needed to be included in the “canon.” We also unpacked you know, how are you defining the canon? And then created basically a sheet with images and names and titles of books to be given to the library to order.
But just you know, small actions like that actually are not small but thinking about this idea of a kind of a healing of the past, as you were mentioning Ytasha. Which is why I also go so much back to the Black Arts Movement and this idea of an action. What are the actions that we’re taking? I look also to Rasheedah Phillips and Moor Mother in North Philly, with Black Quantum Futurism. And not only with the Community Futures Lab that they’ve set up, which is basically— And the work that’s come from that is being shown at museums and everything. And so there’s that sense of agency that people have in terms of “Wait a minute. Our neighborhood is being rapidly gentrified. What can we do?” And setting up almost like Sun Ra in Space is the Place, you know. Remember Spaceways Incorporated, that sort of storefront. And having the storefront and transforming it and saying, “Wait a minute. We can lay claim.”
I also love— I had the fortune to experience one of Rasheedah’s time travel exercises that she does, where she takes you through the steps of imagining taking something from the past physically, you know, just through her instruction locating it in a different place, sending it back; something from the future, putting it in the past. And through that sort of gesture of that exercise, what was in the past and what’s in the future, all of a sudden it starts to shift. And your relationship to it starts to shift. And the power that things have starts to shift.
So even for instance with the performance that I’ll be doing later, I was imagining it as having already occurred. And it’s also something that runners do. You know, in sports, you imagine— And this is related but somewhat different, but thinking about where we place information in our mind and in our energy field. And Wendy Walters in speaking about Blacktronic Science in Detroit, city of past, present, future. She talks about this in relationship to the creation of techno music, and traveling the digital pathways, and how Detroit is sort of situated simultaneously in all of these moments and resisting a particular location, and time is nonlinear. And so there’s so much in that that I find very inspiring as we’re thinking about how do we understand now.
In Rasheedah’s Black Quantum Futurism, she posits that now is only ever…about three seconds. I mean, there’s much more to it and much more in-depth, you know. She’s… a genius. But you know, if we think about what’s now, I mean…it’s already gone before you can even say the word “now.” So, things like that, I like to just kind of play with that in my mind. I’m not a scientist but yeah, that kind of stuff gets me going.
Lumumba-Kasongo: And just quickly to jump on some names that were mentioned. So Moor Mother’s absolutely incredible. She um…I don’t want to say just “musician” because she’s so much more than that as “M O O R Mother.” And one of the things that she says in some of her experiences, and I think this is drawing on some work from Sun Ra, is that the end of the world has already happened. That we are in the post-apocalyptic times. And I think it’s a really interesting way to think about our existence because on the one hand you know, you could sort of frame it through this sort of perspective where it’s gloom and doom, but I think in other ways it invites us to do the stuff that we would do in the post-apocalyptic time, right. To kind of come together, to figure out new possibilities, to repurpose, and to really see this as an opportunity to reshape some of the systems of power that existed before the apocalypse happened. So I think I always love coming back to this idea that the world has already ended.
Lempert: And relating to a lot of these topics, including the power of a term or its limitations, I think Indigenous Futurism has had that impact as well. It was developed by an Anishinaabe scholar named Grace Dillon who’s at Portland State University. She has this great book called Walking the Clouds. And what she essentially did is take all this work that was Indigenous Futurist, and put it into conversation and theorized it and bring it together around certain issues so that people were part of the conversation. It wasn’t fringe, something science fiction.
And one of the themes that she develops is this idea of “slipstream,” which is this way of thinking about how time works that strikes this balance of honoring that time works differently in a lot of indigenous societies. But not othering it in a way that depoliticizes it. Which could be a difficult balance.
Another thing that she talks about is the native apocalypse. And she says this powerful thing in the intro that you know, if contemplated seriously, the native apocalypse has already happened. But it’s a very nuanced and thoughtful discussion about…also how there’s a difference between post-apocalyptic and dystopian, right. Dystopia is an end point. Post-apocalyptic is a beginning point. So instead of kind of considering through health stats and everything is equal, if you start from a point of view in which communities are in a post-apocalyptic situation, then it’s like well, communities are doing really well in that way of changing the frame and comparing them in all sorts of ways that it stops making sense.
And there’s just a lot of great I think films—coming back to the creative side of things—that’re doing this. Most related perhaps to this discussion is The 6th World by Nanobah Becker, who’s Navajo. And you see some stills floating through. And I really recommend watching it. It’s called The 6th World, it’s streaming online. But long story short, it centers the Navajo nation as the leading funder in organizing kind of [an] organization that is pushing for this mission to Mars. And it stars a scientist who is a Navajo woman who’s an astronaut and the lead scientist, and sort of calls into question GMO and the way that—what Mars is becomes very different. It fits into the cosmology of Navajo… In broad strokes around The 6th World it’s not just an inert rock.
And there’s great work that’s been done on understanding perspectives on the moon landing from indigenous communities, where the moon is not just some inert rock, either. It’s a sacred space for a lot of people and going there, trampling on it, driving around, taking things from it for a lot of people is a violation of something and that’s often…you know, we had discussions about sort of personhood for places. These kind of things are not even in the discussion.
And the other piece I wanted to mention very briefly is Lisa Jackson. She has this short called The Visit. And it involves an extraterrestrial space saucer visiting Earth. And they don’t go to a Kansas farm. They don’t go to Washington DC. They go to a native reserve in Canada. And there’s not a colonial interaction. And it’s hard to think of extraterrestrial…any narratives that don’t have some sort of colonial engagement. It’s an engagement that’s…spiritual, it’s part of the sort of the coyote sign in the sky and its constellation. It’s something else. It’s the sort of otherwise that you’ve mentioned. I think that’s the power of a lot of this stuff. That it involves things that are not already known. Sort of at the edge of what could can be imagined. Which makes some people… Or some people have challenge with because it’s ephemeral in a way but I think it’s very practical and politically potent, especially through creative endeavors. That’s where the edge of what can be imagined comes into being, even more so than academic settings. Yeah.
Walkowicz: So I want to sure that we have time for audience questions but first let’s thank our panel. [applause]
And as before, we have mic runners. So just raise your hand if you’d like to ask a question.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: So, I guess I’m thinking about the discussion that we had during the first panel about modernity, and who’s allowed to be modern in these conversations. And Afrofuturisms. So I like to say “-isms” because I think I want to avoid the idea that we all have the same sort of vision of the future. And so, one of the things that I think concerns me, and I also think came out of Professor Child’s comments this morning, is the idea that some cultures are forced into a positionality of staticness. So the moon will always be a sacred place that we can never visit. And this static idea is then held as an excuse for colonial activities. And so I was kind of wondering about how you all kind of think about the idea of indigeneity as static, and Afrofuturisms and indigenous futurisms as kind of a way around that narrative about us.
D. Denenge Duyst-Akpem: Thank you, I love that. I think that’s why I keep coming back to… I feel like my role as educator and in the classroom, or in creating projects I guess with students to explore their own relationships, you know. So there’s this kind of—to keep that dynamic aspect, and incorporating especially for people who may not be— You know, I don’t teach in the performance department. So most of the people I get you know, they might becoming from who knows what department. And so to incorporate ritual or preformative or— Because that’s big issue— You know, I teach African art as well and so that’s always this idea of yes, there’s this static past that we’re looking at versus understanding it, the dynamism. So I think for me it’s sort of in the action, in the engagement, in seeing Afrofuturism as—and stating that it is a space of shapeshifting. Being really, really clear about that, that has a lot of portals and entry points. That’s kind of how I sort of deal with that. So, a little more general but…yeah.
William Lempert: Very briefly, I think what a lot of Indigenous Futurist creative filmmakers and writers talk about is that asserting something in the future, which is often silenced, is a way of breaking out of these sort of endless binaries around authenticity versus modernity that become endlessly reinscribed and they’re so baked into the entire settler colonial project and language. And so the future…by imagining and envisioning the future… Like in The 6th World it’s envisioning a future that is very Navajo and it’s very technological. Like the white people have to be saved. And their science is the one that has limitations. And the Navajo corn is what works in the end. So I think it’s an imaginative space that can to some extent break out of things. And Grace Dillon talks a lot about how the plural is essential, the futurisms, is important for the reasons that you mentioned.
Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: So I think in a teaching context, one of the questions, or one of the things that I always push back against with my students is when we talk about progress always asking progress for whom? Like forcing them to stick that in there, because it starts to dislodge all of these assumptions, I think, for them about exactly what you’re speaking about, these ideas about what modernity looks like or like I was saying earlier, what technology looks like, what technology means, what science means. So always sticking “for whom,” I think, at the end of their statements is a way that I’ve been able to trouble that.
And then in my personal work, I’ve started thinking about how I can cooperate ideas around sort of cyborg feminism? Or the idea of sitting in the discomfort between all these different aspects of ourselves, and knowing that those things can’t be reconciled. And trying to figure out how to speak to parts of myself that I’ll later contradict in other works and feeling like that’s a part of the work, and that helps to reject this sort of static ideas of what, you know, “conscious rap” looks like, or what rap from a black woman “looks like” or “sounds like,” and always trying to challenge myself in that regard. But that’s an awesome question, something to think about.
Ytasha Womack: Oh, I was just going to note that even the way we talk about the past, there’s an assumption around technologies. There’s an assumption around how people function, how they live their lives. I mean so many records from so many societies no longer exist. And many of the records that do exist, we’re trying to put in a framework of who we think they should’ve been, as opposed to who they actually were. So we read all the time about objects that are found and people don’t know what it is and they say, “Oh, it must be a religious symbol,” you know. So if someone found a television set ten thousand years from now, they’d say, “Oh, it must’ve been a religious symbol. Look at these pictures, they’re all staring at it.” Right? How would you explain what a television was, and the electricity, and plugging it into a wall if those systems don’t exist in the same ways?
So I just always question, you know, how we talk about the past. Particularly because of some of the records that we’re working with, and because we don’t always value oral histories in the same way. And you know, the arguments that one can get into about that. And when you start talking about that kind of a past, where there was more technological advancement than we really understand, even if it was just sometimes of how societies worked, that sometimes mirrors the same sort of futures we say that we’re working towards. And that’s where the storytelling gets fun. Because you can leap over these traumatic moments in cultural paradigms, and you can in some ways ague that you’re intuitively trying to tap into the ideas of what this other past could be. And you’re at least putting it into a story. And the fact that that’s challenged sometimes I think says a lot about what it means to tell a story. And how stories really function for human beings and for our ideas of…for how ideas are spread or what we think is valuable to preserve.
Akpem: And on that note I wanted to just quickly add, if I might, about Malidoma in his introduction to Of Water and the Spirit. He actually talks about introducing the elders in the village at Dagara, in Dano where he’s from, to Star Trek. He was doing this as a kind of an experiment, just to understand because the Dagara people don’t have a word for fiction. They only have a word “Yielbongura” which means “the thing that knowledge can’t eat.” And again, this is a book that I share with every student, every person that I—because you know, I think there’s so much in that, you know, to shifting.
And so he showed them an episode, and the elders looked at that and they said well, Spock is kontombili. He’s just too tall, but he’s of the seventh dimension, kontombili. So they recognized Spock as being someone who was part of their worldview. But then also with the teleportation, they thought that the Star Trek episode was from a people in the past, because they looked and they said, “We do this without all of those accoutrements. We don’t need all that…junk, and it’s so slow,” you know, “What is all this?” So in their eyes this was the Star Trek as a future vision from the West, was a vision of past, clunky process as far as they were concerned. And so as far as storytelling, that’s the kind of thing that I get really excited about sharing, because of you know, that kind of forced shift around how do you…people thinking about Africa, and even this idea of construction of Africa as backward. But then we actually have ways and methods and ideas that are so far beyond the clunkiness of the West’s future vision.
Walkowicz: Alright. We have now a longer break. And there will be a performance by Denenge immediately following. So, please stick around. There’s refreshments in the back. And let us thank our wonderful panelists again.