Take Me From My Plight
On Afrofuturism, the Afterlife, and a Black Future
To be Black is to be beyond constant persecution. To be Black is to exist in a tepid state of death. And the dead do not have holidays; the dead do not celebrate.
‘Inna lillahi wa ‘innaa ‘ilayhi raaji’oon, Allaahumma’-jurni fee museebatee wa ‘akhliflee khayran minhaa.
“Some first day of Eid, huh?”
My friend’s remark was made with a wry twist to her mouth. It was July 6th, 2016, the first day of Eid al-Fitr. Eid is the holiday after Ramadan, marking the completion of the early dawn to sunset fasts. It’s meant to be a three-day celebration, but I felt emptier than I had the entire preceding month. I stared at the stretch of road where Philando Castile had been shot by Jeromino Yanez earlier that evening.
I don’t remember where I was when I heard that he was shot and I don’t remember who offered to pick me up, but I do remember running out the door with video of the shooting playing in the background. Every time I accidentally saw that video, while scrolling through social media or watching the news, I remember watching and wishing that this would end different, that he wouldn’t die, even though I had already protested his murder.
At that corner, where the sign welcoming you to the state fairgrounds stood across the street like a mockery, the anxiety of the crowd gathering around me was in direct juxtaposition to my celebrations earlier that day. It’s amazing how you can go from waking up happy that you can finally eat under the sun to driving to your governor’s mansion with cold rage enveloping your body. I didn’t think that I would go through the 4th precinct occupation for Jamar Clark only to occupy another street, but that’s where I found myself. There is something unsettling about watching an occupation begin; knowing that this is going to be a site of pain, physically and mentally, while also knowing that there’s nothing you can do as an individual to prevent it. We didn’t move as a unit, but we didn’t move as ourselves either.
Social media hashtags have prompted conversations around #BeingBlackAndMuslim, dissecting the ways in which the combination of these two hyper-visibly identities reduced us to a kind of invisibility. Often, the conversation oriented around struggling to secure joy when the two components of your identity were under direct attack. While that conversation had existed off the internet for me, it became more clear that night. I felt like a small child that had been caught doing something forbidden, like slipping my hand into the cookie jar. I’d spent that day taking pictures with my friends for #BlackOutEid and eating good food. We had taken time in community to celebrate our Muslim and Black identities, but the world had righted itself with a reminder.
We can anticipate a break for months. We can plan it by the moon and mark it on our calendars, as we’d done tracking the days until Eid, but we should have known better. To be Black is to be beyond constant persecution. To be Black is to exist in a tepid state of death. And the dead do not have holidays; the dead do not celebrate.
What was the point of being Black and devoted, when betrayal was inevitable?
Less than a year later, I sat in almost the exact same spot while the sun set, a brilliant blood red. The Islamic Calendar is a lunar one, so the dates never match up the same to our Gregorian based calendar, which meant it was still Ramadan now and not Eid. I broke my fast with granola bars and water that I snatched from a plastic bag circling around. I hoarded about five for myself, because there was no way I had the strength to sit at this vigil without properly breaking my fast.
There is a hadith that narrates, “When Ramadan comes, the gates of Paradise are opened, the gates of Hell are closed, and the devils are chained up”.
It was Ramadan and the grand jury had announced its ruling on the Philando Castile case. It seemed like my entire community had been holding its breath. We had gotten an indictment, which was more than Jamar had received, but even while chained it seemed that the devils had managed to exert their influence over the jury seeing the case. Jeromino Yanez had been found not guilty.
I gathered my things to pray maghrib, telling my friends to block me from the vulturous cameras that flocked to our grief. With my forehead pressed to the ground in sujood, I reflected on questions I received when I first converted. My Eids had been marked by death or protest; my Ramadan couldn’t escape either. What was the point of being Black and devoted, when betrayal was inevitable?
The first gift I ever remember receiving from my grandparents was a children’s Bible. It was small and green with cartoon animals on the color; I carried it with me and read it daily. My grandmother taught me how to pray before bed. Standing over me, she’d recite the Lord’s prayer line by line and I, having never seen it written, would listen and repeat solemnly into the space between my folded hands. It was like a bad game of telephone, but these were the roots she had clung to. My grandmother taught me to thank God for anything and everything before she even told me the name of her hometown.
Within America, there’s a focus on inheritance. Not inheritance of tradition, but wealth. It makes sense, since a principal of nature is ensuring that your successors have the ability to succeed. And within a capitalistic economy, we are told to measure love and understand success in dollar signs. Generational wealth is the champion of this country. There have been countless articles written on its importance and what happens to a group who have been barred from gathering it, such as Black people.
I’ve been told that Black families don’t understand the importance of generational wealth. A quick Google search can bring up article after article on how to train your family to understand the necessity of assets and how to accumulate them. But this race to make it within an economy that’s disturbed global forces and dehumanized us erases the ways in which Black families have engaged to ensure the prosperity of future generations. It ignores how the world has been cataloged and re-imagined for generations.
What my family gifted me can’t be translated into money. My father can’t gift me mass sums or a formidable trust and I don’t blame him. I’ve stopped being upset at someone’s inability to give me what was never ours to have. We’ve been barred from the accumulation of resources, either by our status as the resource (and how does cattle hoard money? secure land?) or by our status as, still, less than. We’ve yet to move past the zoological terms that defined us from the start; though they may be slicker in presentation, hints rather than outright accusations, they exist. Striving to acquire wealth without taking into account what’s already been given is aspiring to a system which will never equally measure the gold in your hands.
Our elders and our ancestors passed down what they were able to their children. My grandmother gave me language that predeceased her and is meant to outlast me. In the whispered prays while Vicks was rubbed on my chest and temples; in the time-worn pages of a holy book, where we traced our lineage within its margins; we conceived, through an Afrocentric plane, the original template for the future: the afterlife.
Riding off its strong cultural aesthetic, Afrofuturism has remade its way into recent public spheres. The term, coined in 1993 by Mark Dery, refers to a philosophy of history and science which combines various genres, such as science fiction and Afrocentrism. Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man is often regarded as giving Afrofuturism its first light. While Ellison doesn’t outline a utopic future for Black people in America, he pushes against the traditional approach to understanding Black men. However, Invisible Man has raised questions about how we relate to the idea and visibility. Like Toni Morrison once said, “Invisible to whom?”
It was the work of Black women, such as Octavia Butler, which removed Afro-futurism from the patriarchal interpretations and understandings of visibility that its early inspiration suggested it could be caught in. Within sci-fi specifically, Afrofuturism removed itself from the colonization inspired narratives of white science fiction writers to explore alienation and otherness in relation to Black existence. Space was conceived as a freeing agent with regards to Black people, placing us into the context of alien life. In recent climate where the reaction to racial discussions has been promotion of a colorblind and ahistorical narrative, Afrofuturism’s demand to account for history has found continued relevance.
Afrofuturism stands as a framework that recognizes Black suffering and critiques present day afflictions, while demanding for the interrogation and reexamination of the past. This portion of its philosophy is directly taken from Afrocentrism, which aimed to do the same with regards to world history. From the sci-fi overtones in Janelle Monae’s Electric Lady to Missy Elliot’s distinctive, metallic style, Afrofuturism has cemented its place in popular culture. But, it would be remiss to mistake a name with a concept’s birth. As stated before, Afrofuturism is inspired by a variety of genres and did not come into existence on its own. In some ways, Afrofuturism is the result of generational wealth which narrated this stage of life as ontological death and posted the question: in what reality can Blackness prosper?
Before there was science fiction and dreams of worlds existing alongside, but outside, our own, there was the afterlife. Interactions with Afrofuturism that refuse to engage with concepts of the afterlife are firmly set in a stage of in-completion. Faith in the afterlife is often questioned and ridiculed, because how do you have faith in what you don’t know? But how else do we build an alternative Black future, because for as long as Blackness has existed as a concept it has never been truly connected to hope, joy, and prosperity. Here, we will always be regarded in a stage of in-completion.
For Black people, we wake up every day in a world where we don’t know on what stage we’ll be permitted to function today. The basis of our society is anti-Blackness, which serves to dehumanize us.To even begin to conceive a Black future is to directly challenge what shapes our fundamental existence every single day. In that sense, we have always navigated life having faith in something that exists outside our perception. It is similar, in some ways, to the concept of al-ghayb, the Unseen, within Islam. The Unseen refers to all knowledge that is concealed, all the layers of the worlds that we don’t know, and which are only known by Allah.
When I say “afterlife”, there’s the assumption that it’s tied to a specific faith set. However, there’s no requirement for the afterlife to operate with the same name throughout time or communities. After all, my family calls theirs Heaven and I use Jannah. When I left the Church, I didn’t stop believing in something that existed beyond myself. I remember when I received a text from my mom, telling me that my grandma had passed away. I looked out the window while a van full of myself and my friends continued our windy drive down the backgrounds of Kentucky, where we found ourselves after a blizzard on our way to Selma, and I still imagined that there was something for her.
We need to recognize spirituality and religion as languages that people had to process with. For many, it was through religion that they knew how to articulate there was something greater beyond their suffering.
The artists who popularized Afrofuturism did so separate from a religious lens. But, we need to reorient our understanding of how religion came to function for many people. We need to recognize spirituality and religion as languages that people had to process with. For many, it was through religion that they knew how to articulate there was something greater beyond their suffering. It’s why I never discounted the Bible my grandmother gave me. I don’t believe in it; I never did, even while I went to youth group every Wednesday night. But even when I was young, I could tell that this was the language she had to combat daily life.
In Islam And The Blackamerican, Dr. Sherman Jackson details Black religion, which is loosely defined as a folk-oriented, holy protest against anti-Black racism. It follows no strict code and it is not unique to any faith, but he regards it as the most widespread religion of the Black community. Black religion looks at understanding how a community utilizes spirituality to combat anti-Blackness, without forcing them into narrow categories. Under Black religion, it is not the manner of articulation that makes a difference, but the base of what is being said that’s important. This understanding can be carried over into the afterlife. As long as one is envisioning a world in which there is reconciliation for Black suffering and promises of true indulgence, then it is a vision of the afterlife. The only common understanding must be that it doesn’t exist here.
During the occupation of the governor’s mansion, I spent nights talking with friends about what we needed beyond this. I read about Dr. Sherman Jackson’s concept of Black religion after the occupation and I could see our conversations reflected within it. It was Black youth who poured everything into those streets and made it into some bastardized version of a home.
In the day, I’d sit people down before me and carefully twist or braid their hair beneath the sun. I watched people shower in the rain and I prayed on the same stretch of ground where police would later brutalize my friends.The occupation wasn’t religious, not in the traditional sense, but it was upholding of Black religion. Throughout it, I relied on the history of my ancestors and Black American Muslims who came before me, developing the original tenets of the liberation theology that would drive movements before I was born.
To only see hardship within an identity that you don’t hold is a projection of your own self.
But there, I saw people stuck imagining the future as something that benefits a mythological Black monolith. It’s similar to those who call for Black capitalism and the accumulation of wealth as relief now, forgetting (or excusing) that capitalism calls for a system of stratification. Despite the influence of Black, queer women in the development of Afrofuturism, we bring that same mindset into our conceptualization of the afterlife. There’s a call for a distillation of “secondary” identities. Blackness, as primary, is granted permission to continue existing. We need to understand this is a restricting bias. To only see hardship within an identity that you don’t hold is a projection of your own self. The inability to understand how my concept of, and relationship to, Black identity cannot be separated from womanhood and queerness is a testimony to your own shortcomings.
When I took my shahada, the declaration of faith, I hid it from my family. I didn’t want to answer questions about why I would do this; I didn’t have the words to explain why I needed an articulation of something greater than this. After they found out, I was asked how I could become a, well, you know if I was queer. I was asked how I could testify to any God with under-lying accusations of dishonesty. Nobody wanted to hear how, in the days following Philando’s death and the occupation at the governor’s mansion, I relied on prayers to mark time. I could watch the hours go by on my phone, but they meant nothing to me. I could only translate the beginning of each day with the pre-dawn prayer, fajr, and I could only recognize the sun-set with maghrib. At the occupation, while many were conceptualizing a future that had no room for me, I had no voice with which to dissent. I needed to locate something beyond.
Visualizations of the afterlife often fall into the trap of being caught in the white context of religion, from only understanding paradise in relation to Abrahamic religions to interpreting its ideals through another’s gaze. Paradise, to many, becomes high fences and fields of fair flowers; it’s a promise of white hands stretching towards you as if that now suddenly means savior, when in your life strange white hands only ever meant harm. But who really says that my people will not be the ones to pull me out of shallow depths, mimicking the entirety of my early adulthood? Who says that paradise is yet another gated community? There is nothing forbidding us from bringing our hoods in. After all, what is broken about our street corners except for the definitions and systems imposed upon them?
Within the architecture of the Black future, my queerness, my poverty inspired habits, everything about me and mine that makes us undesirable, has been included since the original blueprint.
The afterlife is a plane that can be imagined for the poor and the “ugly”. There is no reason we have to continue picturing it with the same barriers that exist here. I don’t take stock in visions of paradise where the queer and trans people who have planted themselves firmly into my life will not be permitted entrance. Within the architecture of the Black future, my queerness, my poverty inspired habits, everything about me and mine that makes us undesirable, has been included since the original blueprint. It is not my fault that people, here, continue to erase us from it; nor does it make me a fool to continue pointing out this erasure.
There is nothing guaranteed in generational wealth. Money can be spent, unwisely, wasted away on trivial items that don’t gather value. Assets can liquidate, the entire market can crash and burn, if we will it. Similar to the imperfections found within a designed concept of wealth and value, there are imperfections within human understanding of the afterlife. The limitations presented are not inherent flaws of the afterlife, but errors of human perception and conception. I have struggled to name a gift in a language that has never loved me; there are no words to truthfully articulate what it is we will continue on to. There is only the parting hope of past generations and a fading kiss on my forehead, intended for generations to come.
‘Inna lillahi wa ‘innaa ‘ilayhi raaji’oon, Allaahumma’-jurni fee museebatee wa ‘akhliflee khayran minhaa. We are from Allah and unto Him we return. O Allah take me out of my plight and bring to me after it something better.