The My-Stery: The “Label” of (Afro)futurism


I have not done this post in a while, so here it goes:

Recently, Shadow and Act reposted an essay from last year, “African Renaissance, How The Prefix ‘Afro-‘ May Arrest Imagination & Manifesto Salesmanship,” by Phetogo Tshepo Mahasha. I had a few thoughts about it that I formed during a private conversation with Cosmic Yoruba last year, but I never published them. So, I decided to do it now, especially after seeing Pumzi director Wanuri Kahiu’s TED Talk about labels:

I have a problem with the concept of having no labels, because that implies that language is not constructed of symbols and labels. To speak is in a way to give labels to everything. What I suggest is to not get rid of labels but to play with labels, go in and out of labels, add more labels, give more complex meanings, make labels more like cyborgs. We do not wants Newspeak like in 1984, we want more words. I can be afrofuturistic, science fiction and nothing at all at the same time.

Now back to the essay and the limits of the “label” of Afrofuturism. Does the “Afro” in afrofuturism limit the imagination? Well, does futurism (especially based on how it has been used before)? Is there only one meaning to afrofuturism? How is afrofuturism used? Is afrofuturism the only label available to us? Can we use other labels in addition? Aren’t all labels limited? By the way, this applies to other terms, like Afrosurrealism.

Source: Chicago Arts Magazine

For example, I identify as black, but that is also limited because I am also Caribbean and Caribbean-American (because my parents were born in the Caribbean not me) and African-American (because I was born in the United States), and Afro-Caribbean-American (because there are other racial identities in the Caribbean) and so forth and so on.

While, I can see some of his points, for example, it would become overwhelming if the word becomes overused with several companies, websites and blogs naming themselves variations of “afrofutur…..” for marketing purposes. It is one reason mine is not named something similar. I get it; in some sense it makes it easier for readers to find them, so it is somewhat marketable; however I do not think that many people would do that anyway. Additionally, there are other ideas to consider:

1) As I said before, language is limiting in of itself and people always redefine words for themselves. As Cosmic Yoruba said, words are not static. It is why many are hesitant to define afrofuturism strictly; it is why the word has spread. We like its fluidity. We know the word was originally from an African-American context, but so is black, and what others across the diaspora did was take it and apply it to their own local context, like Mathambo and Kahiu. They redefine afrofuturism as they apply it to themselves. Also, isn’t the name “African Renaissance” limiting as well — the generic term African for everyone on the continent and the European reference of Renaissance. He redefines these words here for another meaning. And why can’t both descriptions be used?

2) Another point is the way “afrofuturism” is used. Li Sumpter said that afrofuturism was more of a practice than simply a label. I always say in descriptions about my blog that I look at cultures and arts of the diaspora through an “afrofuturist lens.” I may not exactly call an artist afrofuturist, but their specific work may be afrofuturistic or I can analyze it within that critical framework/lens. He mentions the Matrix. I do not personally think the work is afrofuturist in the sense that it was placed in, but I might analyze the film from that point of view, such as the role of Lawrence Fishburne as Morpheus or Jada Pinkett as Niobe in Matrix, what that means for representation, and its connections to our own cultures (since Matrix does have a mythological background). It is the possible information we can gather looking at these works and cultures from an afrofuturist view.

3) The last point is that since we still live in the societies that we live in, when it comes to those terms, sometimes a qualifier like that is necessary because if not specified, those terms automatically are centered on a European-based or white space as Miller said in his manifesto, and even for those in a non-Western, non-US space, it is still terms that will have to confront and use. Using those terms can be a way of declaring our space, declaring our stuff from our perspectives, from our cultural viewpoints, and to form a kind of solidarity, no matter how imperfect they may be. All language has varying degrees of both imagination and limitations to them and living in a capitalistic global economy, everything becomes a selling point, despite how it may be used otherwise. But they can be expanded and we can play with those limitations.

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