Cyberfunk

Recently, in the popular Facebook group – State of Black Science Fiction 2012 (2012 is the year the collective of authors, artists, musicians, game creators, filmmakers and fans formed) – I asked the following question:

“Why is there no clear cut definition of ‘Afrofuturism’? Is it because the term was not coined by a person of African descent, thus the examination comes from an external lens? Just wondering. Thoughts?”

I received several responses. Here are a few:

 

Mark Dery, father of Afrofuturism...yep.

Mark Dery, father of Afrofuturism…yep.

Ronald Jones: Afrofuturism wasn’t coined by a black person? 😮

Balogun Ojetade: Nope, it was coined by Mark Dery, Ronald.

Balogun Ojetade: This is why self-defining terms like Sword and Soul, Steamfunk, Dieselfunk, Rococoa and Urban (capital “U”) Fantasy are so important.

Ronald Jones: Now that is interesting! It just shows, we not only have to participate in all areas of speculative fiction, we have to claim them! Make them ours!

Balogun Ojetade: Even Black Speculative Fiction works, even though “Speculative Fiction” was coined by Robert Heinlein – a posterboy for racism – in 1941 (or so it has been said), because WE added “Black.” No one added it FOR us.

Ronald Jones: That’s right! It’s like jumping into a public pool and daring the other swimmers to say something crazy!

Pharoah Ama Khoe: We gotta stop letting other people define our culture.

Science-Is Fiction: The term is indeed problematic for that reason, but I think for the time being, it’s a good common term for people to build community around it and feels intuitive as a definition for some of the work that people are producing.

I think the origins of many terms that we use to define or identify are problematic. Even the word Africa is of suspect origin.

I think Afrofuturism has so many different definitions because people have developed it and practice and utilize it differently, and I can see the beauty in that. I think generally, people have the same idea when they hear “Afrofuturism,” but there are also particular nuances to it, just like there is to any genre.

Valjeanne Jeffers: I totally agree. I had to explain the term to a sister at the Spelman Octavia Arts and Activism event. The way I explained Afrofuturism was think hard SF…now, think of Black hard SF and/or any future imagined by someone of African descent.

I’d like to expand this to include ALL people of color.

Trina Lala: I remember we talked about this term b4…OR I looked it up after seeing it on here…the definition was elusive. I think that Science-Is-Fiction helped me understand better with her page…but then, like Valjeanne Jeffers mentioned, I had someone describe themselves as such completely out of the context of Sci-Fi…but referencing being of an African mindset with thoughts of our future……I was a bit perplexed but figured she was literally correct…LOL

I love coining my own terms and understand the power of a name as well as the ability to name oneself…it is ULTIMATELY important when one considers the energy that this holds…I coined the term Agro-Africanist for myself and others who deal with or study agriculture thru an African lens. I feel that even if one vibes with a label or term that someone outside of their culture coined, they always have the power to create another term themselves that still holds true to their understanding of that definition…WHY NOT!?

If I choose to stop identifying with the word African because it was not of our culture’s making, I would have no problem with that. It is MY choice. That is the freedom we possess, if we want it.

Milton Davis: I’m not a big fan of the term because I’m not clear on what it represents. When I hear Afrofuturism, I think science fiction that incorporates the social issues of Black people. I kind of have a problem with that, because I’m not interested in reading science fiction that imagines us dealing with the same issues 10,000, 1,000, 100 or even 10 years from now. Plus while I’ve seen music and artwork labeled Afrofuturism, I’ve come across very little literature identified clearly as such.

Science-Is Fiction, do you consider your recent book Afrofuturism? (I plan on reading it, by the way. It looks very intriguing)

Science-Is Fiction: Milton Davis thank you! I look forward to your thoughts on it.

Good question. I think my novel comfortably fits under Black Sci-Fi, experimental fiction, slip stream, or Afrofuturistic.

I appreciate your thought about not wanting to see us dealing with these same issues in SciFi so far into the future. But I think I see the future as relative, which is why Afrofuturism appeals to me. It empowers me to think of the future as being now…or the next moment…or tomorrow. It empowers me to think of time differently, much in the way that I am told my ancestors in African communities experienced time, as cyclical and non-linear. It invokes for me the thought of Octavia Butler’s time machine in Kindred, and how the concept of the future became relative to Dana when she had to ensure her bloodline.

Afrofuturism allows me to use Sci-Fi to explore things that I have experienced or people I work with experience everyday (incarceration, teen pregnancy, interactions with the foster care system), where these institutions and issues are present and accounted for in their foreseeable future.

The people in my immediate social circle and community are not so much looking 1000 years into the future because they are really unable to conceptualize even making it to the next week. So, while I don’t think Mark Dery had any of these concepts in mind when he coined the term, I think the term and how people apply it has evolved in a healthy way. And not everyone will identify with it or has to, and like with any community, there will be disagreement on language simultaneous to agreements and commonalities that allow us to recognize all of us Black Sci-Fi-entists / Spec Fictionists / Afrofuturists as having some common goals of self-expression and actively engaging our identities and the communities we come from.

But, at the same time, I agree with others and these are things that I actively renegotiate all the time as I participate in Afrofuturism.

Alan Jones: Not real worried about who coined the term. Even the words (European) and letters (Indian/South Asian) we use to discuss this are not ours; no more so than the universal language, (born in Africa) of mathematics and science belongs to them. We are all authors in this play called “Man” (or “Woman”).

Eric Wilkerson: From how I see the term used I believe it means “If you are not Black, you will not be included in our depictions of the future and its arts since you don’t include us in your mainstream vision of Sci-Fi / Fantasy.”

The word is exclusionary, which makes the art form no better than the segregation and omission of diversity in typical American Sci-Fi / Fantasy art. I’m less concerned about making totally Afrocentric art and more with doing something multicultural. Let everyone know they can and should be represented. “Multicultural Futurism” perhaps.

Just my opinion, so I hope nobody flips out.

Milton Davis: I don’t see the word as exclusionary.

While I don’t think there is a clear definition, what it does guarantee to me is that whatever the story is, it will include people of African descent in it, which we all have to admit has been, and still is, seriously lacking.

An Afrofuturism or Black Speculative Fiction story might contain all Black characters or it might contain main Black characters in a multi-cultural setting. This is a direct reflection of my life. There are times I’m in a multicultural situation, and there are times that I’m in an all black environment.

Afrofuturism, Sword and Soul, Steamfunk, Urban Fantasy and Roccoa insure our inclusion as a whole in the genres they are associated with, even though the individual project might be exclusive.

Balogun Ojetade: Thank you, Milton!

I think we are mature enough creators to write without a tit-for-tat reaction to what white writers have historically done to us in speculative fiction. The concern is with seeing ourselves in fiction as the main characters; with telling OUR stories. If what we are doing is purposeful exclusion as payback, or if we create with the idea of alienating or NOT alienating others, then others are actually in control of our work. Thankfully, such is not the case with MOST of us.

Afrofuturism 1For those unfamiliar with ‘Afrofuturism’, it is a term coined by Caucasian cultural critic Mark Dery in 1993 to describe the particular strain of science fiction concerned with black experiences.

Dery claims that “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 — might, for want of a better term, be called Afrofuturism.”

By Dery’s definition, Afrofuturism would only apply to a specific type of Black Speculative art: “Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns…”

So, Afrofuturism does not seem to be concerned with continental African themes or Speculative Fiction from anywhere in the Diaspora other than the United States.

And yes, I know, the Americas include the continent of South America and the country of Canada, but people of African descent from South America or Canada are not referred to as “African-American.”

Sword and SoulAfrofuturism also does not seem to be concerned with the past – the usual settings of Steamfunk, Sword and Soul and Rococoa – as it is defined as “Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture…” Perhaps Dieselfunk meets the requirements of Afrofuturism by this definition, but it is doubtful, as Dery goes on to say “…and, more generally, [Afrofuturism is]African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future…”

By this definition, Afrofuturism would, of course, be an appropriate term for Cyberfunk and perhaps other futuristic Black / African Science Fiction and maybe some Fantasy set in the future, like the novel Redeemer, which deals with a man forced to return to his past and turning that misfortune into an opportunity to save the life of his father, thus saving his teen self from a life of crime.

Dery created the term Afrofuturism to explore how Black people negotiate life in a technology intensive world. Interestingly, all those contemporary authors whom Dery dared to identify as Afrofuturist – Samuel R. Delany; Octavia Butler; and Nalo Hopkinson – explicitly identify themselves as Science Fiction authors. I believe that his lumping of these authors – who all write very different works – under his umbrella term, not a term coined by the creators, was the typical, ill-informed, white privileged way of making Black people monolithic.

So, what are your thoughts?

Should the creators of Black Speculative fiction, film and art define all such works as Afrofuturism? As Black Speculative Fiction? As some other term, or as nothing at all?

About Balogun

Balogun is the author of the bestselling Afrikan Martial Arts: Discovering the Warrior Within and screenwriter / producer / director of the films, A Single Link, Rite of Passage: Initiation and Rite of Passage: The Dentist of Westminster. He is one of the leading authorities on Steamfunk – a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and writes about it, the craft of writing, Sword & Soul and Steampunk in general, at https://chroniclesofharriet.com/. He is author of eight novels – the Steamfunk bestseller, MOSES: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2); the Urban Science Fiction saga, Redeemer; the Sword & Soul epic, Once Upon A Time In Afrika; a Fight Fiction, New Pulp novella, Fist of Afrika; the gritty, Urban Superhero series, A Single Link and Wrath of the Siafu; the two-fisted Dieselfunk tale, The Scythe and the “Choose-Your-Own-Destiny”-style Young Adult novel, The Keys. Balogun is also contributing co-editor of two anthologies: Ki: Khanga: The Anthology and Steamfunk. Finally, Balogun is the Director and Fight Choreographer of the Steamfunk feature film, Rite of Passage, which he wrote based on the short story, Rite of Passage, by author Milton Davis and co-author of the award winning screenplay, Ngolo. You can reach him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Afrikan.Martial.Arts; on Twitter @Baba_Balogun and on Tumblr at www.tumblr.com/blog/blackspeculativefiction.

18 responses »

  1. Reblogged this on speculativemom and commented:
    I think there are very good points here about the problematic aspects of the term afrofuturism, and especially about how Octavia E. Butler defined herself as a science fiction writer, the term afrofuturism as described by Dery would seem to exclude writers from the diaspora, and Dery’s coinage of the term may be “the typical, ill-informed, white privileged way of making Black people monolithic.” Personally I, too, prefer Black speculative fiction for a number of reasons.. Any thoughts?

    • I agree with Black Speculative Fiction when categorizing Butler’s Kindred and Hopkinson’s The African Immortal Series. Neither felt to me like the future, but cyclical, defining an alternate reality of past histories and parallel presents. I have never read Dracula defined as futuristic. Still puzzled, but this good fruit is helping to clear the fog.

  2. Really, I would simply prefer the term “science fiction” without any color labels. Science fiction embodies, or should embody, a wide range of diverse cultures and ethnicities.
    Yes, black people, especially in the west, are dealing with the ugliness of racism in various forms and many novels written by black authors rightfully address such issues. Yet, I feel that colorizing your titles may be akin to what some stores do. They put all books written by black authors in the “For African-Americans” section. Would this be a form of segregation? A sobering thought. Peace.

    • Denzel Wright says:

      I don’t think it’s productive to conflate segregation with specificity, affirmation, and curation. Whether it’s called Afrofuturism or Black Speculative Fiction, such works are a genre within the greater volume of fiction written by people of African descent, just like Steamfunk and Sword & Soul, and we should affirm them as such. That book stores place all such works in the “For African Americans” section without further categorization is a failure on the part of the book stores, not us.

  3. Now I am even more confused about what Afrofuturism is. A sample of the book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-fi and Fantasy Culture made it seem like Afrofuturism covered the black nerd culture, fantasy, comics, sci-fi, music, and literature. The blog The Afrofuturist Affair seems to do the same.

    I was hoping Afrofuturism could give me a sense of purpose, even if I don’t like sci-fi that much. I’m more of a fantasy and mythology person; I recently got into Sword and Soul with your book Once Upon a Time in Afrika and a book on African mythology, both of which were great.

    Maybe I am a black nerd, but I want to be seen as more. Ever since I found this site and others, I’ve been writing poetry about various issues facing the black community. A couple of the poems I’ve written reference Afrofuturism, Afropunk, and African mythology.

    In the past couple of months, I’ve felt a connection to the black community I’ve longed for since high school, where I felt so out of place. I don’t want to lose that sense of belonging because I don’t fit what Afrofuturism is.

    • Balogun says:

      Don’t feel confused. Just write and read and enjoy the process.

      That connection you feel is very real and whether your work is Afrofuturism, Black Speculative Fiction or NONE of the above, you are still Black. You are FAMILY. And that won’t change.

      I am glad you enjoyed Once Upon A Time In Afrika. Join us on our State of Black Science Fiction 2012 Facebook group and keep the connection and conversation going. 🙂

      • Thanks for for your words of encouragement; it means a lot! I joined that Facebook group a week or so ago; I love seeing the artwork and the little stories that go with them. I don’t go on Facebook that often, but seeing the posts from the Black Speculative Fiction are always a treat.

  4. Fujimoto says:

    What an interesting conversation. I think I would go with black speculative fiction as it sounds more broad than Afrofuturism, covering a wider variety of stories.

  5. jazintellect says:

    Great article. Personally, I’ve called my work Black Sci-Fi as opposed to Afrofuturism… More inclusive to the works of the Diaspora and sounds way less pretentious…

  6. […] on Chronicles of Harriet about the relevance and problems of the term […]

  7. Trezevant says:

    This is interesting. I’ve never heard the term “afrofuturism” until today. I’ve been getting into my writing a lot more recently so this might explain why. I guess what I write would somewhat fit under this category (or more specifically “sword and soul” which I just heard today, also). I guess I don’t have a problem with the term, no more than I do with any other term used to group large people or ideas under one convenient name. My general problem with these types of labels is it serves to exclude more so than include. But, I understand it’s what this society does. As with anything within our culture, It will be our responsibility to explain ourselves thorough our art to those outside our culture. Let it be labeled as it may, it certainly won’t change the soul of my writing. I consider my writing to be fantasy told through a black perspective with a majority (but not entirely) black character set. Sometimes I deal with the issues that we deal with today, other times I don’t, just depends. I guess my point is i don’t get caught up in the names. I’m concerned with getting my voice out there and my work published. I’ll fight to make it happen and I won’t worry about the things I can’t control, like what other people call my work,

  8. Denzel Wright says:

    Dear Milton Davis,

    I’ve been mulling over your opinion about the implications of “Afrofuturism” as a genre for almost a month to avoid jumping the gun, but I still have to disagree. A future without racism is a future without Afro Americans as we are and always have been, and I don’t find that terribly interesting. I prefer speculative fiction that confronts our issues, rather than assume that they’d be solved with the passing of time.

    To accomplish such a future would require some phenomenal series of events that would effectively end the world as we know it. Creating a Post Post-Racial Quasi-Utopia without the world building history at the very least seems like a lot of missed potential.

    On the other hand, using Sci-Fi to comment upon our condition is ripe with dystopian promise: the veritable hi-tech police state we live in, the eerily Orwellian insistence on the part of too many White Americans that suppressing Black Journalism and Black Dissent would usher in a Post-Racial Utopia, exploiting poverty and disenfranchisement to supply the Army, Navy, and Air Force, I could go on and on.

    • Balogun says:

      Thanks, Denzel!
      I am Balogun Ojetade, by the way. While Milton Davis is a dear friend and great author, I am a better DJ and cook better shrimp and grits! 🙂

      • Denzel Wright says:

        Thanks, Balogun Ojetade!

        I know this is your blog, but Mr. Davis does read and comment fairly often.

  9. This is an awesome discussion — thanks indeed Balogun for gathering & linking this up. I feel as more people discover the term Afrofuturism, and make it real, and identify with it (or don’t), there’s more attempts to rethink its terminology as more people rediscover its history. I write on Afrofuturism as a scholar, and I’m also a techno / turntablist producer, and for me Afrofuturism is a powerful and provocative term, though not the only one. I was recently at the Astroblackness conference — which goes to show there are other concepts out there. On the origins tip, it’s perhaps worth thinking about how “Afrofuturism” has (long since) grown & mutated since Mark Dery’s initial definition — which was really quite provisional to begin with, and was moreover challenged in all of three of his interviews that form the core of the article, particularly by Samuel R. Delany (the other two with Tricia Rose & Greg Tate). There are several earlier attempts to define aspects of science fictional Afrodiasporic culture and philosophy. Greg Tate and Mark Sinker both penned articles in the ’80s for The Village Voice and WIRE respectively that all but laid it out, though neither called it “Afrofuturism.” After Dery, Kodwo Eshun’s book *More Brilliant Than The Sun* used the term Black Atlantic Futurism, among others, though also resampling Afrofuturism to form what is probably the most developed philosophical and sonic architecture for thinking black sf. In the late ’90s, Alondra Nelson and Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky) founded the Afrofuturism listserv (which I was on) where an ongoing discussion developed over the term “Afrofuturism” that is almost mirrored above… the Afrofuturism.net website is from this era (it’s still up, but no longer maintained by Kali Tal, unfortunately). One of the definitions I really liked from the listserv was of Afrofuturism as “multi-hued Afronauts,” which kind of riffed off of Dr. Octagon’s mulit-coloured brain to think of a coloured future not just as monocolour but as rainbow and mixed. In 2000, Alondra Nelson put out a special issue of Social Text on Afrofuturism, though Nelson’s definition was even more limited than Dery’s, focusing more narrowly on African-American literature. I think the best definition is to be found in Ytasha Womack’s recent book (cited above), entitled *Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture*, that situates Afrofuturism as a catch-all for futurist Afrodiasporic arts, culture, and philosophy more broadly. So though Dery penned the semantics of it, he wasn’t the first scholar to discuss it nor certainly the last, and I think it is overcrediting Dery to say that he defined black culture; he merely penned a name that stuck. It’s also worth thinking on how Afrofuturism names a hybrid culture of sorts to begin with. Detroit techno producer Derrick May wrote that “The music is just like Detroit, a complete mistake. It’s like George Clinton and Kraftwerk are stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company” (liner notes to “Techno: The New Dance Sound of Detroit,” 1988). Though one can certainly think Afrofuturism alongside black nationalism, the term itself suggests a kind of futurism in which difference and alien-becoming more generally break down the binaries of white/black, as well as binary genders too, in various radical dreams towards becoming-alien, becoming-machinic, becoming-cyborg. I also like Eshun’s concept of “chronopolitics,” where he discusses the retrieval of ancient histories to reinvent the future by disturbing the monochromatic & whitewashed present — such as Sun Ra’s embodiment of an alien ancient Pharaoh. Peace.

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