What do P-Funk, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Janelle Monae have in common?
At first glance, not much. On the second? Everything.
I picked up Ytasha Womack’s Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture as a means to situate myself in the field before I went too far in the wrong direction. Before reading it, I equated it solely with Black world-making. Though not entirely incorrect, my definition left a lot to be desired. In the book, Womack defines afrofuturism as “an intersection of imagination, technology, the future and liberation…. Both an artistic aesthetic and a framework for critical theory, Afrofuturism combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs.” (Womack, 9) She concludes her definition by acknowledging that this often leads to reimagining the past and speculating about the future.
So, what do P-Funk, W.E.B. Du Bois and Janelle Monae have in common?
Womack explains that Afrofuturistic work is not confined within certain genres, but rather an aesthetic which is marked by a desire to be free and unconstrained, something that can be sprinkled like pixie dust. (Womack, 57) George Clinton, of Parliament/Funkadelic (more commonly known as P-Funk) took funk music to new levels, and continued to search beyond the known world, into space for liberation and exploration, using the metaphor of the Mothership—a symbol which would be utilized by Afrofuturistic artists after him. W.E.B. Du Bois, known for his work The Souls of Black Folk, also wrote fiction—one tale, Womack writes, “The Comet,” has afro-futuristic notes, as it details the conditions under which racial barriers might be overcome. Unfortunately, it only comes, Du Bois speculates, through total destruction. Popular artist, Janelle Monae, is known for her alter-ego as the ArchAndroid, Cindi Mayweather, who is meant to save citizens from a secret society “using time travel to suppress freedom and love.” (Womack, 74) The link? They all imagined more.
As a scholar who works primarily in imagined worlds, Womack’s Afrofuturism, helped me see the connections between musicians, artists, and writers that have been inspiring me all along. As a scholar who is engaged with digital humanities work, Womack offers insights for how African-American people have been using technology and science fiction to create meaningful spaces for themselves. And, as a Black studies scholar, Afrofuturism also has the ghost of Beth Coleman’s question of using race as a technology lingering in the background—Womack states that, “analyzing race as a technology morphed into…an imaginative playground for me.” (Womack, 44) Womack’s work opened doors for me, it helped me ask questions I didn’t have the words for until reading, it helped me find an entry point into a critical conversation about blackness, world-making, technology and the relationship between them all.
Womack touches on innumerable themes, my favorite of which include discussions of Afrofuturistic musicians and writers, but opens up the floor for even more conversation. Near the end of the book, she begins a discussion of another, related term, afro-surrealism, which is described as “low-tech, present-day, and sees very little difference between the dream world and the waking one.” (Womack, 168) Reading until that point, I was very certain that I was a little Afrofuturist in the making, but then I considered my own fiction, which would likely be categorized more as afro-surreal than Afrofuturistic. In the attempt to label myself, I found myself missing a critical point. Afrofuturists almost always defy categorization. Labels constrain, “afrofuturism unchains the mind.” (Womack, 15)
Afrofuturism makes space for me in unprecedented ways. As a Black woman, Womack says that “Afrofuturism is…a literal and figurative space for Black women to be themselves.” (Womack, 100-101) Alondra Nelson, a pioneer of the Afrofuturism movement, would call Afrofuturism a feminist movement. (Womack, 108) In Afrofuturism, we can move from a space where, as Black people, we are expected to have little of substance to offer, to spaces where we are everything.
Womack asks us to consider how race has limited us, and instead to imagine ourselves as limitless. How do I bring this sort of power to my own work? How do will I learn to work in the intersection of race, technology and gender? How will I create my own spaces and where will I create them? Importantly, Womack’s work is a trade book, which has done well with popular audiences, though she is no stranger to academic scholarship. I was impressed with not on the ideas her book spurred, but the manner in which she wrote this thought-provoking monograph. Accessibility has been key to approach to scholarship, and fortunately, I now have well done example. But when considering the subject matter, who wouldn’t want to know just how expansive Black thought can be?
Womack, Ytasha L. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2013. Print.
Coleman, Beth. “Race as Technology,” Camera Obscura 24, no. 1, 2009, pp. 176-207.