What happens when an enslaved person is given the tools to express her desire for freedom after being captured? When a young child taken from Senegal to Boston and renamed after the slave ship on which she was brought is then taught to read and write in not her own language and history, but in the language and history of Europeans? You get what the first black person to publish a book of poetry in America, Phillis Wheatley, wrote in “On Imagination.” Written a few years before she was granted her freedom, her poem, filled with allusions to Greek mythology and personifying Imagination as if it is a goddess of fertile creativity, is reminiscent of Fred Moten’s concept of the “fantasy in the hold.” This dream or possibility of movement while still in bondage, while still held back where you currently are. But also the tensions between exploration in a ship (whether on water or space) to other places and being shipped as a commodity. Is it the awe of coming to a new world, or is it violent abduction? Maybe both, like being raptured by a god common in Greco-Roman myths.
Wheatley’s poem portrays Imagination as a powerfully creative guiding spirit that breaks boundaries and hybridizes a particular experience of the world with the alien world it encounters to discover new meaning. Her use of Winter throughout the poem clearly shows her awareness of oppression of her mobility as an enslaved person and imagination is her muse for liberation. At a time (she wrote it in 1773) when Enlightenment principles taught that reason, often attributes to white, hetero-masculine power, governed over all other faculties of human expression, Wheatley celebrates the Imagination as a feminine, fertile power moving as part of a spacecraft traveling beyond limits placed on it. In the quote above and the rest of the same stanza (From star to star the mental optics rove,/Measure the skies, and range the realms above./There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,/Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.), she describes Imagination exploring beyond the sky to different stars and even different worlds in what she calls, “the mental optics.” Remember this is 1773 and she is an enslaved black woman and yet she is imagining traveling in a spaceship. If that isn’t Afrofuturistic and the mind of a Black speculative writer, I don’t know what is.
Imagination, like her, is a genius in bondage and struggles to be free. Imagination was what allowed Wheatley to see and be aware of the fullness of the cosmos and through which she could envision new spaces.
It is a surreal feeling to know that you could go to war and fight for your country, survive the war and instead of coming back as a celebrated hero, be assaulted and lynched by the people whose freedom you fought for them to have. That was the reality of many black veterans who returned from World War I and World War II, a history that is not taught. For fear of black people becoming to “uppity” and demanding their rights after coming back from war, there were white people who needed to make examples of black veterans and keep them in their place, that they owed nothing to these soldiers who went off to fight a fight for them.
The Arch. The Ark. The Archive. The Arcane. The Archon. The Architect. The Archangel. The ArchAndroid.
The Chief Holder of a Culture’s Knowledge for Future Recollection.
The Cybernetic Helms(wo)man of the Ship Sailing to a New Horizon.
Last weekend, I attendedSummoning the Archiveat NYU. Attending it inspired me to think of the “archive” in relation to communities of color and Afrofuturism. A few archivists/librarians/curators of color have existed in speculative fiction. For example, remember the bluesman Peter Wheatstraw from Ellison’s Invisible Man who carried discarded blueprints in his cart? How about Akomfrah’s data thief in the Last Angel of History? Or the Puerto-Rican librarian at Columbia University, Nydia Ochoa, who helps Sierra (breaking the rules of the institution as Sierra is not a student) find out more about her cultural heritage in Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper? Or Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi, which follows a museum curator who braves the outside world because of her dreams that life can exist out there?
Remember this song from Ludacris and Mary J. Blige? “Runaway Love” came to my mind last week when the stories of the Missing DC girls started to spread throughout media. One particular story highlighted a young girl who ran away because she felt mistreated in foster family.
Much too often the mistreatment of young black girls are ignored and neglected. Black girls stories go untold. Society, including black culture does not see them as being as much in harm’s way as young black boys. But young black girls are in danger too, including suffering from the risk of sexual assault committed by grown men, boys and even authority figures, abusive and neglectful families, and also receiving higher rates of suspension, expulsion and harsher punishment from schools and police than their white counterparts. For example, this story of Ashlynn Avery, who was attacked by her suspension supervisor for falling asleep in class and then violently arrested.
Recently I received a copy of Octavia Butler’s Kindred graphic novel, which was adapted by Damien Duffy and John Jennings. Reading the story in graphic novel form gave me a chance to see aspects of the book that I didn’t pay as much attention to as before. One was the mechanism by which Dana traveled back in time. On her second trip back to the past, Rufus mentions to Dana that he had seen her in the water right before she came traveled back to the past to rescue him. Rufus tells Dana that he saw her with his eyes closed and that he had stepped into a “hole” in the river where he saw her in a room full of books. He also heard both Dana and Kevin before the second time Dana came back. Rufus, although problematic, has inklings of visionary insight, but does he because of his connection to his future legacy in Dana (Rufus only has black descendants as he only had children with Alice) or because he was at the edge of imagining a different society but the slaveholding, racist, sexist, generally oppressive society around him impeded that?
I’ll be honest. These past couple of weeks has made writing for me difficult. I was lacking encouragement to keep writing my fantasy novel and wavering back and forth between if being a writer mattered. But attending events like Writers Resist in Queens and reading my own work, reading from Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to a Slave is The Fourth of July,” and listening to the various other writers in the room helped to reinvigorate me.
Oppressive systems and tyrannical leaders gain power off of our silence, our complacency, our acceptance of how it imagines the world should be. Stories have helped to motivate people to keep going when times were dire. To believe in a different possibility of the world. Douglass, an abolitionist who was able to break through the chains of slavery through reading and writing, said that knowledge was the pathway to freedom. His desire to learn to read and write gave him the tools to fight the oppressive institution of slavery and determine a different future for himself. Enslaved people learning to read and write was a threat to the social order of the day. They gave the enslaved tools to question authority and to imagine something else, which is a danger to the status quo.
Recently I’ve been reading Tracey Baptiste’sYA book, The Jumbies, which is a supernatural fantasy book that takes place on the island of Trinidad. I won’t give away what the book is about; instead I suggest for you to go read it, but I will tell you that one of my favorite characters is the witch because she is truth teller. Here is a poignant passage I resonated with and that I believe is relevant for now:
“Everybody thinks they need magic. Everybody wants answers. Get rid of this boil. Help me find money. She doesn’t love me anymore. Why won’t my cane stalks grow tall as my neighbors? Everybody wants a fast, easy solution. Maybe if you took care of you’re skin, you wouldn’t have gotten the boil in the first place. Maybe if you worked harder you would make more money. Maybe that person isn’t the right one for you. Maybe if you found a better way to farm, your crop would come up better. But nobody wants to hear those things. They want a bottle. Instant success! Something to drink, or sprinkle, or spill on the ground. They want magic from nothing. Magic doesn’t come from nothing. It comes from somewhere. And it isn’t so extraordinary. It’s just work. It’s just using your head and your heart.”
In many ways, the indoctrination of an instant gratification culture obsessed with instant power, wealth and fame is part of the blame to how we got to this point. Let us learn, as Baptiste teaches us in The Jumbies, that to create true change and to fight back, we must trust our true instincts, understand our connection to the earth and that doing real magic takes work.