What Is Afrofuturism? Part 17: Decentering Cultural Space in Afrofuturism

Afrofuturism as an aesthetic and critical lens is known for its analyses and strategies of decentering and revising norms and stereotypes about race, gender, sexuality and class, but as Afrofuturism is expanding, there are other areas, besides the ones mentioned before, to still be worked on like issues of globalism (“the neoliberal vision of homogenising the planet”).

Is this ratchet/hoodrat stuff or futuristic? Source: Hoodfuturism

Going through the tag on afrofuturism on tumblr, conversations have been brewing about whether there is a need for a label for urban afrofuturism or hoodfuturism (here is one explanation). Some say no because afrofuturism is an all-encompassing term, whereas others say yes because it highlights specific subcultures and specific critical analyses of those cultures that may go unnoticed. In that respect, I have to agree more with later. Although afrofuturism is an umbrella term, much like blackness, there are specific identities and localities of being within it. Depending on where you are or where you come from, afrofuturism may have a different local ethno-cultural aesthetic (and issues of class may come into this as well).

This is not only a problem within afrofuturism, but overall. Dr. Yaba Blay mentioned in an interview with W. Kamau Bell on Totally Biased about the confusion between black and African-American and how Americans immediately conflate black with being specifically U.S. Black American. As a Ghanaian-American, she says, “African-American to me really reflects a type of American narcissism in a particular way.” And she is not disrespecting the label of African-American, she is highlighting a specific ethnic, cultural locality. A lot of members on tumblr have also been in arguments over this kind of American and Western centralism.

As a Afro-Caribbean-American, I can relate. I call myself black, as does Blay, but the term African-American is contentious for me. Technically, I am African-American, since my family are in the Americas (North, Central, South), but most people think of African-American as a term only belonging to those in the United States. This ignores a whole group of identities who would be considered part of the Black Atlantic and African-American, but have slightly different cultural sensibilities. This includes Afro-Caribbeans, Afro-Latinos in South America, Central America and Mexico, and Afro-Canadians. Extending it to outside of the Americas, the Afro-Europeans, Afro-Asian, and Africans themselves.

Caribbean writer Kelly Baker Josephs discussed the lack of attention to specific Caribbean sensibilities in afrofuturism in her essay (which both her and I call Caribbean afrofuturism), “Beyond Geography, Past Time: Afrofuturism, The Rainmaker’s Mistake, and Caribbean Studies.” Focusing on Erna Brodber’s fourth novel and utilizing Bajan writer Kamau Braithwaite’s Caribbean-centered cosmology, The Rainmaker’s Mistake,”Josephs places the the speculative nature and the last phrase of the book, “See you there. In the free” in an afrofuturistic context. One of her criticisms of afrofuturism is its slow growth in considering work outside of North America:

Despite the opening Dery creates with mention of Perry’s work, few critics looked beyond the “African-American themes [and] concerns” he specified in his early definition. Nelson includes work by Nigerian visual artist Gatima Tuggar and an interview with Jamaican-born writer Nalo Hopkinson in the groundbreaking special issue of Social Text, and in recent years, Afrofuturism.net has begun to include more work on and by African and Caribbean artists, but most of the cultural production listed on the site and addressed by critics is African American in origin. At the end of the interview with Nelson, Hopkinson states that her hope for the genre is that “there will begin to be more diverse expressions of people’s lived experiences of race, culture, class, sexuality, social structures, and gender, and that more of those expressions will begin to come from outside the United States.” A cursory review of work from Caribbean artists, perhaps even limited to those ontemporary with Hopkinson, would reveal that the cultural and geographic diversity she calls for does exist. As recent additions of work by Kamau Brathwaite, Robert Antoni, and Wilson Harris to lists of Afrofuturist fiction indicate, such expressions already “come from outside the United States,” they simply have to be acknowledged as contributing a Caribbean dimension to the primarily US-centric conception of Afrofuturism.”

She continues later:

“For the most part, however, the texts that are generally read as Afrofuturist are noticeably not Caribbean. And the African American inclination of theorists of Afrofuturism can constrain the ways the texts that reflect a Caribbean cosmology, even in diasporic spaces, are read. For example, Lisa Yaszek’s reading of Nalo Hopkinson’s short story “Ganger (Ball Lightning)” does not take—to return to Brathwaite’s terminology—the ananse and nam of Caribbean culture into consideration. Yaszek reads Hopkinson’s story at the end of her article “Afrofuturism, Science Fiction, and the History of the Future” as a way into her conclusion about the historical and global implications of Afrofuturism; therefore, a thorough treatment of the text was not one of her goals.

Source: NaloHopkinson.com

Still, what better way to argue that people of color have been more than “mere respondents to the new literary forms of twentieth and twenty-first centuries” and that in “recovering Afrodiasporic future story telling traditions we gain a better understanding of the important intellectual and aesthetic work that these authors have performed on both national and global cultural fronts” than by calling on the storytelling tradition that Hopkinson herself, via her title, insists she is continuing here in her futuristic fashion. Yaszek’s conclusion about Hopkinson’s work is not incorrect, just incomplete; it is limited by the geographic boundaries of her methodology, Afrofuturism. It is no accident that the other works Yaszek discusses in her essay are by American authors: Ralph Ellison, W. E. B. Du Bois, George S. Schuyler, and Octavia Butler. This context shapes the possibilities of a reading of Hopkinson’s story. My reading of Brodber here aims to demonstrate how, rather than ignore these
boundaries and pretend that Afrofuturism has already achieved its potential of addressing “both national and global cultural fronts,” one might directly push against its US partiality. Additionally, to illustrate how this critical tool may provide a useful perspective and language for examining what Caribbean writers are attempting or accomplishing in experimental, nonrealist works. With a more inclusive understanding of its applications, Afrofuturism becomes more robust in its validity as a methodological prism for those of us in Caribbean studies and in cultural studies more generally.”

Blackness as Josephs implies in her essay is mediated by geography and that locality needs to be re-emphasized to continue strengthening strategies and conversations of decolonization, and manage the erasure of local cultures within globalization. As Walter D. Mignolo says in “RE:EMERGING, DECENTRING AND DELINKING: Shifting the Geographies of Sensing, Believing and Knowing,” “…what is not fine is to expect the universalisation of western localities and sensibilities, simply because you cannot universalise the local without erasing the localities of others. That was and is the problem with the Euro-centred idea of modernity.”

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