“Cast your vision, young hoodoo, as far as you can see. Determine the challenges the tribe will face. Prepare the tribal soul to meet them.” This is how novelist and performance poet Arthur Flowers describes his “speculative work,” which he sees as “everything I do.” If we as Black creatives are casting visions in a world that attempts to confine or limit the Black imagination, then the visions we generate take on a potency.
On June 28, Fiyah co-sponsored a reading with Ancestral Futures, Poets and Writers, the AfroSurreal Writers collective, and their guests. The event was live-streamed by Audrey T. Williams and organized by Desi Lenc, Dera R. Williams, Rochelle Spencer, and award-winning horror writer Sumiko Saulson. We spoke to the reading’s participants–Dera R. Williams, Kelechi Ubozoh, Sumiko Saulson, LaMar Mitchell, Kyla Marshell, Raina León, Desi Lenc, Jeneé Darden, Thaddeus Howze, Alan Clark, Tara Christina–and special musical guest Arthur Flowers about Afrofuturism and creating new narratives.
Fiyah: What initially drew you to Afrofuturism as a creative? Does the same thing still draw you to it now or has your view of it evolved?
Saulson: I’m a horror writer, and came to Afrofuturism later in the game. I had written some Black-centered sci-fi horror and fantasy, and eventually branched off into strictly sci-fi Afrofuturistic short stories. Since I started out in horror, I often write cautionary stories, so my Afrofuturism can be a bit on the darker side. However, most of it is redemptive–it is about future revolutions and revolutionaries, and constructs for change.
Flowers: I believe in nommo, the power of the word to forge new realities. I am a practitioner of literary hoodoo in the griotic school of Afro am lit. I was trained by Babajohn Killens, the great griot master of Brooklyn, who trained his legions not only how to write but how to be writers. Taught us to be visionaries. What he called being long distance runners. What I call the long game. Shaping generations into the people we would have them be. I aspire to the prophetic. Like the Babajohn taught me.
Ubozoh: Reading Octavia Butler’s Fledging was my first entryway to Afrofuturism as a creative. As a former goth raised in the south, the idea that there were black vampires with complex relationships to space and time and rebirth, was astounding. I finally saw myself in the narrative.
Darden: I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s watching She-ra, Transformers, superhero cartoons and reading fantasy. I’ve always had a fascination with the idea of magic, powers and the surreal. But, I didn’t really see any characters that looked like me. Afrofuturism inspired me to include Blackness in my own imaginative work. Also, Afrofuturism gave me a community. When I was a kid, being a nerd wasn’t cool. Now I’m around other Black nerds with a wide imagination. My views of Afrofuturism haven’t changed because I’m evolving and still learning about the artform.
Christina: What initially drew me to “Afrofuturism” as a creative was that it was the first place I didn’t feel “weird” as an author. I felt like I could write anything and as “odd” as it sounded, it was welcome within the Afrofuturism community. It’s a place where I have seen Africans across the diaspora freely express a wide variety of characters, where the superheroes and villains looked like and encompassed the wide variety of us as a people. I have felt welcome, challenged and respected as a Black woman and author within the community without having to explain myself.
Octavia Butler and Tananarive Due drew me into the world of Afrofuturism, the community drew me in as a creative and I feel like my view of the field has just expanded. There’s such a wide variety of amazing authors out there that I did not know existed until I jumped in as a creative.
Fiyah: Why do you think Afrofuturism is a good framework to discuss the idea of Black Futures in?
Saulson: You can address current issues without making the audience quite as defensive when you tell stories about the necessity for change, that are in the future or on other planets.
Howze: When we are discussing Black Futures, perspectives which elevate the sensibilities, cultural wisdom and point of view of people of color towards a more inclusive future should always be at the forefront of any conversation about anything, let alone the future. There it should be thought of as the norm.
Marshell: We’re a very aspirational people. Aspirational and imaginative. Less than ideal conditions necessitate projecting yourself into another realm. Since we couldn’t ever go home, I think the future became a safe haven for us.
Darden: We’re seeing the power of Afrofuturism during this time of racial justice protest for Black people. Part of organizing is imagining a better future. Activists are speaking on their hopes for a Black future that is inclusive, healthier, safer and where Black folks are empowered with more rights. Activists and artists are using technology to mobilize people in ways we’ve never seen. And the writer being referenced often during these days of unrest and a pandemic is Octavia Butler. She saw this coming. Anyone from her era who was paying attention to what was going on, saw this coming. In her books, she envisioned Black women leading the way and a world that challenges “gender norms.” She wrote of us dismantling the history we’ve been taught through a white supremacist lens. Humanity began in Africa. Black people are the past. We are the present. Black people are the future.
Ubozoh: Representation matters and this framework (Afrofuturism) only strengthens my appreciation for our collective relationship to the divine, space, time and science fiction. It allows us to unlock those sleeping folktales of our ancestors and integrate that with the vision of what the world could be as well as what to do with what the world currently is; an avenue to process deep grief through magic.
Fiyah: How are you currently employing the idea of Afrofuturism in your own work?
Williams: My current project centers around moonwater goddesses which came to me in a vision and I have been working on it off and on in between other major projects. Sometime later I discovered the sea goddesses in Bahia, Salvador, Brazil called lemanja´ who resembled my imagined characters. I can see myself going to Bahia and staying in a cottage by the sea where the spirit and inspiration of lemanja´ will lead me to shape this story into what it should be
Clark: In my work ‘Babylon’ A Sci Fi Soap Opera graphic novel series, I employ many thoughts and theories of where I see mankind heading and what actions may be suited to approach potential future problems, problems we see blooming today. I address the prospect of beyond race/ beyond sex/ gender. When humans can play in a variety of other bodies as people rent out their bodies as shells for cred. ( A new form of bodywork) and people can virtually upload themselves into others. Or when you can change the pigmentation of your skin to resemble any hue of the rainbow creating an entire caste of people who are fighting against race ideologies and racial history by somewhat believing they can abandon their pigment and the history that comes with it. The advancement of gene therapy creates a continental drift between those that can afford advance resequencing/ clone faxed organs, and those who can’t afford to survive. How you’ll need these advancements to adapt to the changing volatile world. Along with what happens when cities and states begin going to privatize security protection and how that affects poor people.
Marshell: I’m putting myself in the headspace and the physical space of my ancestors to imagine their lives, and, what their own ideas of the future–my now–would be. I’m also imagining my own role as an ancestor and trying to speak to the descendants I’ll never meet.
Howze: When I work with Afrocentric themes, my goal is to place how I see the future into my work. A future or a story where characters are richer, more nuanced and more focused than minority characters tend to be in mainstream work. I want to see my own inner world reflected in my writing; it’s a view I rarely see.
Fiyah: What are some great, current examples of Afrofuturism that are out there?
León: Check out the Alexis Pauline Gumbs trilogy, Spill, M Archive, and Dub, which are all crafted in deep relationship to foundational Black feminist texts. She writes into surrealist and futurist power as oracle and world-builder. The works are, in my opinion, prophetic in a way that reminds me of Octavia Butler’s work.
Saulson: There are graphic novel adaptations of Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Parable of the Sower which I highly recommend. Nisi Shawl’s Everfair.
Flowers: I was influenced toward the prophetic by exposure to Dune in my impressionable youth. The whole idea of running game generations long fascinates me still. Then I read works like The Last Legends of Earth, game millions of eons long. Works by folk like Sheree and Troy and Andrea Hairston. Reality breakers. Most of my prophetic game I’ve extracted from a space opera but when I try to write scifi it comes out literary, magical realism mostly with what I like to think is an Afrofuturist flavor.
Mitchell: As the months and years go on, I am continually seeking out MORE Afrofuturist art. I think there are two Hollywood films that could possibly push the medium/genre forward: Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You and of course, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. I see a rise and boom in Afro-anything, and especially futurism, and is imminent and long overdue.
Fiyah: You get a year off to vacation somewhere and work on the Afrofuturism project of your dreams. Is it the project you’re currently working on or something new? And where do you decide to go?
León: Is it the project you’re currently working on or something new? And where do you decide to go? It is my novel in progress and I take a year to follow a generational diaspora route, from Kenya to Ghana to Haiti to South Carolina to Louisiana to Illinois and then to California. In that time, I would also be interested in learning origin stories from indigenous peoples in Africa, Australia, and the United States, specifically around relationships between humanity and the elements. I want to know what peoples dream-know about the times before time.
Saulson: It would be something new. The projects I am working on (right now, there are two of them) are a sci-fi horror novel with a multicultural cast, and a paranormal romance that centers around Polynesian characters–although one character is Black and Polynesian, it really isn’t Afrofuturism. I would pick up TMZ 2525, a short story I put out two years ago, and adapt it into a novel. It is an afrofuturistic work about genetic technology and colorism. I would have to work out how to get people to think about colorism in a constructive way in a fictional future where people are using tech to make everyone culturally homogenized, and an underground is fighting back.
Mitchell: I would work on the biopic (film) version of some historic Afrocentric icon, like maybe Queen Hatshepsut or Taharqa or King Piye. It would definitely be a screenplay, and I would definitely write this opus in a place like Africa (of course, duh!) or Japan. And if for some strange reason those two were unavailable, I’d write my little Afrocentric historic epic in Greece of all places, the supposed fathers of civilization. My ultimate middle finger to the history we’ve been taught.
Flowers:: I see Afrofuturism as a realworld expression of that vision. I try to live and work on a transcendental plane and my ongoing concern is if Im just delusional. Afrofuturism affirm me. Make me feel like Im not alone. Most venues this would not be a fruitful dialogue. Afrofuturism give me a place to make my stand. Define me as part of a cultural and literary movement adept at planting seeds of future realities. Folk who have figured out how to get paid for being visionaries. How to make the mythical work real world. A viable counterreality running subversive long game. Gathering folk around the sacred fire and providing the visions without which the people would perish. Mythmakers and fellow travelers. My kinda people.
Fiyah: Drop your social media, websites and other relevant links so people know where to follow you.
Clark: Alan_t_clark @instagram, Phantomelectrik.com, Alanclark.org , Alan Saint Clark on Facebook
Twitter: @1TaraChristina; Medium: @TaraChristina
Darden: IG and Twitter: @CocoaFly; https://www.nomadicpress.org/store/whenapurpleroseblooms
León: personal website http://www.rainaleon.com; consulting work: https://storyjoyinc.com/; Classes at SF Grotto: https://www.sfgrotto.org/events/pobiz-what-you-never-learned-about-the-business-side-of-poetry-with-raina-leon-august-1/; Classes at The Speakeasy Project: https://www.thespeakeasyproject.net/accountability; IG and Twitter: @rainaleon; Facebook /rainaleon
Mitchell: Facebook @ Khalifa Mitchell
Marshell: Instagram: @khellonmars. Twitter: @kylamarshell. Website: kylamarshell.com
Saulson: https://sumikosaulson.com/ ; Twitter: @sumikoska; Instagram: @sumikosaulson; Tik-Tok: @sumikoska; Facebook: @sumikoska
Williams: www.DeraRWilliams.com, Twitter: @dwillwrite