The Ships Landed Long Ago: Afrofuturism and Black SF
Who put us in a race and for what purpose are we racing?—Rammellzee
From the 1950s onwards, sf in the US magazine and paperback tradition postulated
and presumed a color-blind future, generally depicting humankind “as one race,
which has emerged from an unhappy past of racial misunderstandings and
conflicts” (James 47; see also Kilgore). This shared assumption accounts for the
relative absence of people of color from such sf: if race was going to prove
unimportant, why even bother thinking about it, when energies could instead be
devoted to more pressing matters, such as how to colonize the solar system or
build a better robot? And so questions of race remained as marginalized as black
characters—at best, it seemed, Chewbacca’s Jim to Han’s Huck. A year after
Star Wars, DC Comics put Superman in the ring with Muhammad Ali and then
concocted a convoluted narrative that culminated in the speedy declaration of
Ali’s victory by a technical knockout as, stripped of his superpowers, the well-whupped
Man of Steel refused to hit the canvas (until a split second after the referee
announced the result).
The exclusion of people of color from sf’s
future had already been noted by, among others, Gil Scott-Heron, whose 1970
track “Whitey on the Moon” (1970) contrasts the corporate profiteering of the US
space program (so close, ideologically, to much of the Campbell-Heinlein
tradition) with the impoverishment of black urban communities: “I can’t pay no
doctor bill (but Whitey’s on the moon)/Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still
(while Whitey’s on the moon).” The space race showed us which race space was
for. This sense of exclusion even registered in white-authored sf. For example,
in “Survival,” a 1971 episode of UFO (1970-73), Commander Straker (Ed
Bishop)—the white, American head of SHADO, a secret military organization
charged with defending Earth from alien invaders—believes white Colonel Paul
Foster (Michael Billington) to be dead and so offers command of the vital
moonbase to Lieutenant Mark Bradley (Harry Baird). Initially, this West-Indian
officer turns down the promotion, saying that Straker has done his duty by
offering the job to the next most senior man, even though he is black, and that
he himself has done his duty by refusing it. When Straker demands an
explanation, Bradley indicates his skin color. Straker—perhaps forgetting that
the series is set in 1980, less than a decade in the future—responds, “Don’t
give me that. Racial prejudice burned itself out five years ago.”“How would you
know?” Bradley demands.
Whatever their intentions, sf’s color-blind
future was concocted by whites and excluded people of color as full subjects;
and because of the particularities of US history, the most obvious omission was
that significant proportion of the population descended from the survivors of
the West-African genocide, the Middle Passage, and slavery. This is not to say
that the dominant US sf tradition did not occasionally attempt, with varying
degrees of equivocation, to consider issues of race and prejudice in
contemporary and future worlds. For example, Allen De Graeff’s Human and
Other Beings (1963) collects sixteen such stories, published between 1949
and 1961, by Raymond E. Banks, Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Fredric Brown,
Theodore R. Cogswell, C.M. Kornbluth, George P. Elliott, J.T. McIntosh, Frederik
Pohl, Mack Reynolds, Eric Frank Russell, Robert Sheckley, Evelyn E. Smith,
William Tenn, and Richard Wilson.1 It is not insignificant, though,
that only one-third of these stories addressed the position of African Americans
with anything like directness; only two or three of them could be seen to have
black viewpoint characters, despite the growth of the Civil Rights movement in
the 1950s and such high-profile events as McLaurin vs. Oklahama State Regents
(1951), Sweatt vs. Painter (1951), the announced desegregation of the US Army
(1951), Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954), the murder of Emmett Till
(1955), the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56), and the desegregation of Little
This problem, too, is perhaps best addressed by
a marginal black sf character from the 1970s. In 1972, Marvel Comics launched
Luke Cage, Hero for Hire (later Luke Cage, Power Man). Long before
Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s wonderful Truth: Red, White and Black
(2002) reworked the Captain America origin story (reasoning that if medical
experiments had been conducted on US soldiers in the 1940s they would have been
on black soldiers), Luke Cage opened with Lucas, a black prisoner imprisoned for
a crime he did not commit, consenting to be the subject of an experimental
treatment in order to help sway a parole board. When a racist guard sabotages
the procedure, Lucas undergoes a remarkable transformation. His already muscular
physique becomes hypermuscular, his body mass increases in density, and his skin
becomes as hard as steel. He busts out of prison, punching his way through its
walls. Back in New York, he tries to clear his name while working as hired
muscle, Shaft-like detective, and raging black Robin Hood. He finds himself
embroiled with various white superheroes: Iron Man, who, as billionaire Tony
Stark, financed the experiment that created him, and the Fantastic Four, whose
skyscraper headquarters belongs to an entirely different world from his run-down
office over a Times Square movie theater.
In a comic whose unabashed linking of
discrepancies of wealth, prestige, and access to technology with skin color
provides no more analysis of the situation than one would find in most
blaxploitation movies of the period, it nonetheless powerfully articulates the
alienated black identity that W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon described in terms
of double consciousness and colonized subjectivity. We never know Lucas’s
surname, and the one he adopts alludes to an imprisonment he feels even though
no longer incarcerated. From the moment Lucas becomes Luke Cage he is always
Luke Cage. For all that he must conceal a past from which he cannot escape, he
has no conventional off-duty secret identity to protect, no mask to put on or
take off. He is always visible in the role he must play to survive. Moreover,
despite his superpowers, he does not feel that he is a superhero. Rather, as he
muses in issue 2 (1972), superheroing is “one line ’a work where powers like
mine seem natural,” the one chance this big, black man has of passing.
(Contemplating a change of sobriquet in issue 17 , he rejects “Ace of
Spades” as “too ethnic.”) As his superpowers consist of hitting things really
hard, while withstanding being hit really hard, he embraces this stereotype of
black masculinity, occasionally chiding himself for betraying his intelligence
(although fortunately his performance of black male rage is so convincing that
his opponents, and perhaps his readers, rarely notice that he also outsmarts
them). In issue 9 (1973), Cage makes his way to Latveria, where Doctor Doom’s
robot slaves, led by the alien Faceless One, are in armed revolt. The Faceless
One seeks Cage’s help: “The plight of these machines is heart-rending, Cage.
Other countries have, in the past, imported slaves ... but Doctor Doom
manufactures his! Surely you can comprehend their feelings?” Cage replies:
“Don’t play that song for me, darlin’—I can dig it right enough!—But jivin’
don’t hook Luke Cage, an’ you couldn’t care less ’bout American history!”
Just as Lieutenant Bradley points to white
ignorance of black subjectivity, the oppressor’s ignorance of the oppressed’s
life, so Luke Cage points to the problem of sf that uses the indirection of
metaphor or allegory to consider issues of race and prejudice. Just as the
Faceless One elides all experiences of slavery, thus stripping both fictional
robots and real African Americans of specific identities and histories, so the
satirical sf tale in which the alien or the android is the subject of prejudice,
whatever its merits, also avoids direct engagement with the realities of
racialized hierarchies and oppressions. This is evident in the brief discussion
of race and sf offered by Scholes and Rabkin in the 1970s:
because of their orientation toward the future, science fiction writers
frequently assumed that America’s major problem in this area—black/white
relations—would improve or even wither away.… The presence of unhuman races,
aliens, and robots, certainly makes the differences between human races seem
appropriately trivial, and one of the achievements of science fiction has been
its emphasis on just this feature of human existence.… [Its] tacit attack on
racial stereotyping … has allowed science fiction to get beyond even “liberal”
attitudes, to make stereotyping itself an obsolete device and the matter of race
comparatively unimportant. Science fiction, in fact, has taken the question so
spiritedly debated by the founding fathers of the United States—of whether the
rights of man included black slaves as well as white slave-owners—and raised it
to a higher power by asking whether the rights of being end at the boundaries of
the human race. (188-89, emphasis added)
While Scholes and Rabkin are clearly involved in the important struggle to get
sf recognized as being worthy of academic study—their book was published by
Oxford University Press—and thus might be merely over-egging the pudding in the
battle for acceptance, this passage is nonetheless redolent of the criticism of
the genre that accepts the genre’s own self-image, promulgated in the pulps and
some fandoms, as somehow being in the vanguard of literature because of the
supposedly more objective stance enabled by its affiliations to science,
particularly the longer and broader perspectives opened up by the contemplation
of cosmic space and time. The problem with such a gesture, of course, is that
rather than putting aside trivial and earthly things, it validates and
normalizes very specific ideological and material perspectives, enabling
discussions of race and prejudice on a level of abstraction while stifling a
more important discussion about real, material conditions, both historical and
contemporary. And by presenting racism as an insanity that burned itself out, or
as the obvious folly of the ignorant and impoverished who would be left behind
by the genre’s brave new futures, sf avoids confronting the structures of racism
and its own complicity in them.
Edward James, in his rather more nuanced essay
quoted above, found “the message that humanity is one race” perpetuated without
any fuss or foregrounding in a sample of stories from 1990. “We may trust,” he
concludes, “this is a hopeful sign” (47). Slavoj Žižek’s critique of
multiculturalism suggests that this is unduly optimistic. Multiculturalism, he
a disavowed, inverted, self-referential form of racism, a “racism with a
distance”—it “respects” the Other’s identity, conceiving the Other as a
self-enclosed “authentic” community towards which he, the multiculturalist,
maintains a distance rendered possible by his privileged universal position.
Multiculturalism is a racism which empties its own position of all positive
content (the multiculturalist is not a direct racist, he doesn’t oppose to the
Other the particular values of his own culture), but nonetheless retains this
position as the privileged empty point of universality from which one is able to
appreciate (and depreciate) properly other particular cultures—the
multiculturalist respect for the Other’s specificity is the very form of
asserting one’s own superiority. (44, emphases in original)
Sf’s color-blind future is multiculturalist in this way—as is evident when
Commander Straker, who has profoundly missed the point, tells Lieutenant
Bradley, “I don’t care if you’re polka dot with red stripes, you’re the best man
for the job.”2
The term “Afrofuturism” is normally attributed
to Mark Dery, coined in an interview with Samuel Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia
Rose that appeared in South Atlantic Quarterly in 1993, but even without
this term to hand, Mark Sinker was outlining a specifically black sf in the
pages of The Wire the year before. To many readers of SFS, Sinker’s
pantheon of black sf—which included Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, as well as
Sun Ra, Public Enemy, John Coltrane, Anthony Braxton, Miles Davis, Wayne
Shorter, Jimi Hendrix, Afrika Bambaataa, Ishmael Reed, and Earth Wind and
Fire—might not sound much like the sf we know. But sf is “a point of cultural
departure” for all of these writers and musicians, because “it allows for a
series of worst-case futures—of hells-on-Earth and being in them—which are woven
into every kind of everyday present reality” (“Loving the Alien”). The “central
fact” of the black sf they produce “is an acknowledgement that Apocalypse
already happened,” that, in Public Enemy’s words, “Armageddon been in effect.”
Taking in contemporary music and sf, Sinker
positions hip-hop in “the grand syncretic tradition of bebop, not ashamed to
acknowledge that technological means and initial building material are always
simply what falls to hand: but that meaning is nonetheless a matter of energetic
and visionary redeployment, not who first owned or made this or that fragment”
(“Loving the Alien”). Although cyberpunk has typically been discussed in terms
of European avant-garde detournement or Burroughsian cut-up, its parallels and
affinities with bebop and hip-hop3 have generally gone
unacknowledged. Sinker does more than merely point to this omission, however.
Just as Thomas Foster argues that cyberpunk “didn’t so much die as experience a
sea change into a more generalized cultural formation” (xiv), so Sinker suggests
that the black, urban, proletarian experience central to the development of
these musical forms speaks directly to the experience of the global underclass
created by the intertwined logics of capital, Empire, and race: more-or-less
concomitant with the growth of hip-hop, cyberpunk, the “radical leading edge” of
“white SF,” was “arguing that the planet, already turned Black, must embrace
rather than resist this [relationship to technology]: that … only ways of
technological interaction inherited from the jazz and now the rap avant garde
can reintegrate humanity with the runaway machine age.”
While Extropians, Transhumanists, and other rich
white guys can reimagine white flight not in terms of suburbs, gated
communities, or “off-world colonies,” but of libertarian, pro-market, digital
disembodiment, the overwhelming majority of the global population can only play
in the ruins they leave behind. In musical terms, this is signified by Detroit
Techno, which “yearn[ed] for [the] impossible SF futures” projected by
Kraftwerk’s semi-ironic celebration of “the excellence of robot-being,” but
whose consumers could only find “purely temporary paradisiac freedom, beyond sex
rules or racial boundaries” in the “wordless total immersion culture of
beat-pleasure.”4 In sf terms, this utopian impulse is suggested by
the dance-party in Zion while tunneling Sentinels prepare for a final onslaught
that will universalise the Matrix. Blackness as a signifier of the multiethnic
underclass, as well as an increasingly commodified image of resistance, is
signalled by the presence in The Matrix (1999) and its sequels of Keanu
Reeves, a Lebanon-born Canadian Asian-Pacific, passing as white, cast instead of
a black man (Will Smith), who fights like a Chinese (specifically, Jet Li), and
desperately wants to be as black—as cool—as Laurence Fishburne.
Just as the Sentinels seek to eradicate the
Zionites, so western culture generally constructs “Blackness … as always
oppositional to technologically driven chronicles of progress” (Nelson 1). This
is evident, for example, in such a quintessentially sf story as Tom Godwin’s
“The Cold Equations” (1954). While much of the criticism of this story has
focused on its construction of a newer and higher frontier as a space of
transcendent masculinity, and of femininity as that which must be ejected, the
one colonized person who fleetingly appears in it—the Gelanese “native girl who
does the cleaning in the Ship’s supply office” (445)—has gone largely unnoticed.
While the manly colonists do all they can to allow the white girl, Marilyn, an
existence in their space, however briefly, the “native girl” is utterly
Afrofuturism, described by Dery as “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” (736), is not restricted to images of exclusion
from white technological progress, because only within a certain ideological
field is black experience the opposite of technoculture. Just as the futures of
“The Cold Equations” and UFO exclude the experience of the subaltern from their
self-perception, so Mark Bradley and Luke Cage’s resistances to certain
interpellations indicate—even if they struggle to imagine—a much more varied and
complex set of relationships between domination and subordination, whiteness and
color, ideology and reality, technology and race. In this context, it is not
insignificant that much Afrofuturist writing focuses on real-world black access
to and use of digitial technologies, or that the second @froGEEKS conference
should shift its emphasis from 2004’s “From Technophobia to Technophilia” to
2005’s “Global Blackness and the Digital Public Sphere.”5
It is not the intention of this special issue to
incorporate Afrofuturism into sf. Afrofuturism is every bit as irreducible to sf
as Bradley is to SHADO’s white hierarchy, or black Americans to Latverian robot
slaves, or Luke Cage to the buck stereotype. Rather, it is the contention of
this issue that sf and sf studies have much to learn from the experience of
technoculture that Afrofuturist texts register across a wide range of media; and
that sf studies, if it is to be at all radical, must use its position of
relative privilege to provide a home for excluded voices without forcing
assimilation upon them. Resistance, as the Borg never said, is utile. It would
be easy, in a postmodern multiculturalist age, to fall into the trap of merely
celebrating Afrofuturism as resistance (and thus practicing the “disavowed,
inverted, self-referential” racism Žižek describes). In the era of digital
sampling—and the shift of emphasis from the diachronic to the synchronic
encouraged as much by late capitalism as by the linguistic turn—it is easy to
lose track of history. The future proposed by Marinetti and the Italian
Futurists was young and masculine, obsessed with speed and the foreclosure of
the past. In its frequent emphasis on bridging the digital divide, Afrofuturism
tends towards the typical cyberpunk acceptance of capitalism as an
unquestionable universe and working for the assimilation of certain currently
marginalized peoples into a global system that might, at best, tolerate some
relatively minor (although not unimportant) reforms, but within which the many
will still have to poach, pilfer, and hide to survive. It is the hope of this
issue to bring together Afrofuturism and sf studies in anticipation of a
Isiah Lavender’s idea of the “ethnoscape”
proposes a new way of looking at sf. In producing an estranged world, the sf
author can formulate an imaginary environment so as to foreground the
intersection of race, technology, and power; likewise, the reader of any text
can transform its contours by a similar foregrounding of the text’s treatment of
these discourses. Focusing on the ethnoscape transforms the perceived object.
Afrofuturism can help sf studies to recognize the ethnoscapes in both the texts
and practices it studies, as well as in those it constructs itself. Each of the
articles in this issue performs a similar task.
Darryl Smith considers short fiction by W.E.B.
Du Bois, Amiri Baraka, and Derrick Bell, signifying on the image of the
singularity or spike, inverting it, so as not to contemplate the Tip of white,
posthuman, post-historical transcendence but the Pit of black, material, human,
and historical being. Bould examines a group of African-American novels from the
1960s and 1970s that postulate a now that cannot be gone beyond, and that
respond by trying to imagine a black revolution against white power. Inverting
the utopian form, they bring the reader right up to the brink of historical
rupture that makes utopia possible from this side, but are stopped short by the
immensity of the ontological cataclysm their revolutionary action must provoke.
While not always superficially resembling sf, these novels are in the vanguard
of the current tendency Jameson notes of “finding visions of total destruction
and of the extinction of life on Earth … more plausible than the Utopian vision
of the new Jerusalem” (199).
Sherryl Vint considers two novels, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and
Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), that initially retreat from the future
so as to better understand how to approach it. Critical treatments of the
neo-slave narrative have typically neglected the significant use made of
fantastic devices so as to trouble and confront the history of slavery in the
New World (which includes its ongoing legacies). Kindred can perhaps be read as
an early third-wave feminist inversion of Marge Piercy’s late second-wave
Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). In broad terms, Piercy’s naturalist
slumming with Connie Ramos tends to dematerialize difference through a
future-orientation that can reach no further into the past than Connie’s
present, and makes all of future history hinge on her agency. Butler (whose
novel is set, in part, in 1976) insists that present and future are inextricably
caught up with the past. As Vint demonstrates, Morrison’s gothic confinements
and hauntings suggest the importance of not being trapped by history, while
Butler’s time travel argues against any precipitate flight from a history that
has not yet been adequately resolved. While Butler is an author who has moved
freely among fantastic genres, this essay reconceptualizes her work as
always-already neo-slave narratives.
A similarly deep engagement with the history of imperialism and colonialism is
evident, Jillana Enteen reveals, in Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber
(2000), a novel that tells a cyberpunk story from the point of view of the
colonized even as the colonized play the colonizers in a planetary romance.
Hacking and splicing genres as deftly as it does language, telling its
contradictory tale(s) in North American English and Trinidadian and Jamaican
creoles, Midnight Robber activates both sides of history, digging deep to
imagine a future. Examining sonic Afrofuturism, Nabeel Zuberi reveals an even
more tangled historical weave in the refusal of Afrodiasporic culture, and music
in particular, to dematerialize into nothing more than disembodied digital bits
in the circulation of globalized information-capital. For William Gibson, dub
might have been merely “a sensuous mosaic cooked from vast libraries of
digitalized pop” (104), but as Zuberi demonstrates, culture is embodied—and
history is bodies. And maybe that color-blind future can still be told so long
as it is motley, mottled without hierarchy, rather than blanketed in whiteness,
and so long as it is told by those and for those who are propelled towards the
Pit rather than those who clamber over them to the Tip.
The articles in this issue bring to our
attention generally neglected texts, some of which might conventionally be
considered as of only marginal interest to sf, while also casting relatively
familiar texts in a new light by considering them alongside non- or marginally-sf
texts. Collectively, they not only draw attention to the ways in which sf has
traditionally been constructed to privilege white American pulp-and-paperback
and European literary traditions but also, inextricably, to exclude black voices
and black experience.
I would like to thank Raiford Guins, who set the ball rolling and later put me
in touch with Rone Shavers at a crucial juncture; the patient and sympathetic
editors of SFS; and my anonymous reader, my hero for hire, whose reports
were prompt, precise, detailed, and insightful.
1. Davin offers details of numerous other
stories that addressed issues of race and discrimination, and demonstrates some
of the complexity of the genre’s liberalism in this regard. His conclusion,
however—that sf in the period he studies (1926-1965) was not racist—is
predicated on a rather naïve conception of racism that in fact replicates the
exclusionary structure of sf’s color-blind future. Recent anthologies of
interest include Hopkinson and Mehan, and the two edited by Thomas.
2. Bradley, unfortunately, accepts this
reassurance and the promotion, becoming, in effect, one of Anthony Joseph’s
“post-earth negroes who believed inner:disembodied: blacknuss” and who
claimed that black as a concept of being was only ever relevant on Earth, and
even then it was suspected as the mindset of a con that put afros down and kept
negroes terra bound to suffer/when we coulda been interplanetary from way back.
Instead of the industrial revolution, we could’ve had niggers in space! They
said black was dead.... But black people didn’t want to hear that shit! ’cause
in their folly these fools grew lame limbs and underneath and otherwise they
appeared impervious to funk. (37-38)
3. Bebop’s reliance on chord progressions and on
altering or combining chords from two tunes (so as to ditch melodies unsuited to
its fast pace, enable improvisation, and avoid copyright payments) provides a
model for hip-hop’s scratching and sampling aesthetic.
4. Key Afrofuturist writings on music include
Ellington, Eshun, Lock, Miller, Rose, Szwed, Weheliye, and Williams.
5. See, for example, Eglash; Everett; Kevorkian;
Kolko, Nakamura, and Rodman; Nakamura; and Nelson, Tu, and Hines.
Davin, Eric Leif. Partners in Wonder: Women
and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2006.
De Graeff, Allen, ed. Human and Other Beings. New York: Collier, 1963.
Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate,
and Tricia Rose.” South Atlantic Quarterly 92 (1993): 735-78.
Eglash, Ron. “Race, Sex, and Nerds: From Black Geeks to Asian American
Hipsters.” Social Text 20.2 (Summer 2002): 49-64.
Ellington, Duke. “The Race for Space.” 1962. The Duke Ellington Reader.
Ed. Mark Tucker. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. 293-97.
Everett, Anna. “The Revolution Will Be Digitized: Afrocentricity and the Digital
Public Sphere.” Social Text 20.2 (Summer 2002): 125-46.
Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures In Sonic Fiction.
London: Quartet, 1998.
Foster, Thomas. The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory.
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.
Godwin, Tom. “The Cold Equations.” 1954. The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution
of Hard SF. Ed. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. New York: Tor, 1994.
Hopkinson, Nalo and Uppinder Mehan, eds. So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial
Science Fiction and Fantasy. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004.
James, Edward. “Yellow, Black, Metal and Tentacled: The Race Question in
American Science Fiction.” Science Fiction, Social Conflict and War. Ed.
Philip John Davies. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1990. 26-49.
Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and
Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, 2005.
Joseph, Anthony. The African Origins of UFOs. Cambridge: Salt, 2006.
Kevorkian, Martin. Color Monitors: The Black Face of Technology in America.
Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2006.
Kilgore, De Witt Douglas. Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia
in Space. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.
Kolko, Beth E., Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert B. Rodman, eds. Race in
Cyberspace. London: Routledge, 2000.
Lock, Graham. Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in
the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton. Durham, NC: Duke
Miller, Paul D. (aka Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid). Rhythm Science.
Cambridge: MIT, 2004.
Morales, Robert, and Kyle Baker. Truth: Red, White & Black. New York:
Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet.
London: Routledge, 2002.
Nelson, Alondra. “Introduction: Future Texts.” Social Text 20.2 (Summer
─────, Thuy Linh N. Tu, and Alicia Headlam Hines, eds. Technicolor: Race,
Technology, and Everyday Life. New York: New York UP, 2001.
Rammellzee. “Iconic Treatise on Gothic Futurism.” 6 May 2007. <http://www.
Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary
America. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1994.
Scholes, Robert, and Eric S. Rabkin. Science Fiction: History, Science,
Vision. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.
Scott-Heron, Gil. “Whitey on the Moon” (1969). Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.
Flying Dutchman, 1970.
Sinker, Mark. “Loving the Alien.” First published in The Wire 96
(February 1992): 30-33. Pulsation.com. 5 May 2007. <http://www.pulsation.com/documents/loving_the
Szwed, John F. Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra. New
York: Pantheon, 1997.
Thomas, Roy, et al. Essential Luke Cage, Power Man, volume one. New York:
Thomas, Sheree, ed. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the
African Diaspora. New York: Warner, 2000.
───, ed. Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. New York: Warner, 2004.
Weheliye, Alexander. “‘Feenin’: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular
Music.” Social Text 20.2 (Summer 2002): 21-47
Williams, Ben. “Black Secret Technology: Detroit Techno and the Information
Age.” Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life. Ed. Alondra
Nelson, Thuy Linh N. Tu, and Alicia Headlam Hines. New York: New York UP, 2001.
Žižek, Slavoj. “Multiculturalism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational
Capitalism.” New Left Review 225 (September-October 1997): 28-51.
Isiah Lavender, III
Ethnoscapes: Environment and Language in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo,
Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, and Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17
Abstract. -- In this
essay, I start from some of the central concerns of Afrofuturism to investigate
the ubiquity of race in sf. I map out a novel way to think about the various
environments that sf provides as well as a way to think about characterization
in sf semblances. I argue that social interactions, technology, and physical
surroundings all contribute to the systematic nature of a racialized
environment—what I term an ethnoscape. Sf ethnoscapes can both fabricate racial
difference and reconceive it. The concept of the ethnoscape helps us unpack the
racial or ethnic environments that sf can posit or assume. I explore Ishmael
Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972), a marginally sf work, as a fabulist ethnoscape;
Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1990) as a counterfactual ethnoscape;
and Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 (1966) as a linguistic ethnoscape.
Darryl A. Smith
Fiction: Signification and Singularity in the
Metapocalypse of Du Bois, Baraka, and Bell
Abstract. -- This essay
presents the argument that black speculative fiction can be construed generally
as a dialectical riposte to the broader sf megatext. Specifically, I argue,
black sf can be understood as refiguring in apocalyptic terms the so-called
Spike (or Singularity) as posited by an important quarter of the Anglo-European
sf tradition through the critical inversion of this idea by African-American sf.
Consideration is also given to the relevant discourse on the posthuman within
the genre. To these ends, I focus on the speculative fiction of W.E.B. Du Bois,
Amiri Baraka, and Derrick Bell, paying particular attention to both explicit and
implicit expressions of this inverted Spike in each, which tend to disrupt
dominant paradigms of reality. I draw substantially on the critical
signification theory articulated by Ralph Ellison and substantially elaborated
by Henry Louis Gates, Jr
Come Alive by Saying No: An Introduction
to Black Power SF
Abstract. -- This essay considers a group of novels from the 1960s and
1970s about African-American revolution, by Barry Beckham, Nivi-kofi A. Easley,
Sam Greenlee, Chester Himes, Blyden Jackson, William Melvin Kelley, John O.
Killens, Warren Miller, Julian Moreau, Chuck Stone, John Edgar Wideman, and John
A. Williams as examples of black power sf. It focuses in particular on their
inability to imagine a post-revolutionary future, and the strategies they adopt
in place of more conventional sf techniques of extrapolation—such as refusal,
immanentization, veil-rending, and pornotopianism—in order to narrativize the
problem of what Walter Mosley has characterized as breaking the chains of
“Only by Experience”: Embodiment and the
Limitations of Realism in Neo-Slave Narratives
Abstract. -- This essay positions Octavia Butler’s Kindred and
Toni Morrison’s Beloved within the slave narrative tradition, focusing
specifically on issues of embodiment and authenticity. It argues that the
fantastic elements in these novels demonstrate the limitations of realist
representation and official discourse for capturing the subjective experience of
slavery, while simultaneously revealing the importance of understanding such
devices in relation to literatures of both the fantastic and the
African-American canon. Both novels reveal the degree to which the consequences
of slavery continue to disturb American culture, largely because this history
has not been acknowledged and accepted. Through their emphasis on embodiment and
the healing made possible by overcoming mind/body dualism, Butler and Morrison
challenge the liberal-humanist model of subjectivity and argue for a model of
self-in-connection consistent with the self expressed in nineteenth-century
“On the Receiving End of the Colonization”: Nalo Hopkinson’s ’Nansi Web
Abstract. -- In the 1980s, cyberpunk helped to revitalize interest in
science fiction among academic and popular audiences. The genre offers a
singular vision of the imminent production and deployment of technology in the
service of capitalism writ large. In this essay, I argue for a broader vision of
cyberpunk, including the novels of authors situated “on the receiving end of the
colonization,” particularly Nalo Hopkinson, whose future visions render visible
current socio-economic inequities and increase the cultural repository of ideas
that inspire technological development. Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber
(2000) fashions unconventional scenarios premised on technological development
and provides unorthodox versions of future societies. Hopkinson combines English
with Trinidadian and Jamaican creole, “hacking” a language that recalls the
histories of the middle passage, slavery, and imperialism. Her characters break
and create code, “hacking” in speech as well as through their conceptions of
community. Centered on a feminine Artificial Intelligence commanding a planet
and its inhabitants, Midnight Robber challenges the genre conventions of
cyberpunk, revealing its ideological underpinnings, and complicates popular
accounts of the intersections of gender, technology, and corporate presence.
Is This The Future? Black Music and Technology Discourse
Abstract. -- As a dispersed assemblage of ideas and aesthetics, sonic
Afrofuturism operates across the porous borders between and among music, sf, the
academy, journalism, and the blogosphere. In this article I am interested in the
value of these rhetorics for media studies. In particular, how can writing that
focuses on the materiality of music inform our understanding of the
technological changes associated with digitization? I will argue that music
forms, commodities, and practices provide ample evidence of the continuities as
well as discontinuities in the mediascape. Today’s popular music culture is
marked by the mediations of the past, even as recorded sounds take on more
informational characteristics. I also seek to ground the technological sublime
of Afrofuturist poetics in the widespread social practices associated with
records, sound-system dances, and music networks. Underpinning the sonic
imagination in techno-centric writing and music-making are the quotidian
practices of music cultures, the more “worldly” fictions behind “sonic
fictions,” to borrow Kodwo Eshun’s suggestive adaptation of literary and visual
sf for music recordings. This paper examines the material possibilities of
techno-discourse for transnational media studies through a discussion of digital
sampling, and points to the limitations of technological utopianism in relation
to writing about music and black bodies.