Reading List: Afrofuturism/BSAM

C Michelle
Dec 2, 2017 · 8 min read
Image credit: John Jennings

In recent years, Afrofuturism has resurfaced with the help of movements like that of the Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM) with visual artists, academics, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and the like, forwarding the cultural aesthetic beyond is physicality and materiality to center the movement as a theory and way of knowing. Afrofuturism is understood as many things, but should always be grounded in the Diaspora, as it a space for resistance and liberation for oppressed African peoples. Anything other than that, is ahistorical and does not account for the ways African descent people looked to Africa to visualize and verbalize a future centered in African cosmology, spirituality, and epistemology. This is in no way rejecting the works of Black people in Africa, but seeks to recognize the contributions and the foundational work of Black folks in the United States and elsewhere.

For visual artists and academics like myself, I employ Afrofuturist theory in my own work and am interested in utilizing the philosophy in the classroom and curating exhibits. While I don’t claim to know everything about Afrofuturism, I have gathered 9+ texts that have been helpful in my understanding. Some other texts that I have used were previously discussed in my other reading list on Black Feminism, Queer Theory of Color and Beyond, so be sure to read that one as well for a more full understanding and comprehensive reading list.

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1. Introduction: Future Texts” in Social Texts (2002) Vol. 20, no. 2 by Alondra Nelson

In the introduction to the special issue of Social Texts (you should read the entire thing as well), Nelson frames Afro-futurist thought and genre, verbalizing the language that intersects African Diasporic culture with technology and science, fields that are often rendered raceless. Nelson and others in this issue challenge that assumption with analyses that centers on race as a critical facet of the cultural production of Afrofuturism. She is critical of the dominant technological voice that envisions a raceless future produced by the information age and Internet clinging to erase Blackness. In doing so, she formalizes and brings forth online voices that were working together in the late 90’s under “Afrofuturism” to push back against this ideology. Works featured includes an interview of Nalo Hopkinson, prose, poetry, and visual art. Also, be sure to read her notes — they are helpful in finding other texts, thinkers, and broadening your praxis.

2. “The “Robot Voodoo Power” Thesis: Afrofuturism and Anti-Anti-Essentialism from Sun Ra to Kool Keith” in The Black Music Research Journal (2008) Vol. 28, no. 1 by J. Griffith Rollefson

Image: Cover of Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagonecologyst (1996) from amazon.com

Rollefson’s article opens with a quick history of Afrofuturist work from the 1950s to present, citing the works of Ralph Ellison to Sun Ra to CeeLo Green, before jumping into his main argument that Afrofuturism’s third approach is to collapse the binary of black magic and white science; in which he use’s Kool Keith’s blurring of the two symbols through voodoo and a robot to give Afrofuturism power to critique. Rollefson first gives a definition of Afrofuturism with a historical and cultural context, then fleshes out Nelson’s “Afrofuturism” and Paul Gilroy’s “anti-anti-essentialism” via the “Robot Voodoo Power” thesis, and lastly traces the musical trajectory of Sun Ra’s “Myth Science”, George Clinton’s “P-Funk” and Kool Keith’s “Robot Voodoo Power” to conclude the project of Afrofuturism as both artistic expression and a method of inquiry.

3. “Feeding Off the Dead: Necrophilia and the Black Imaginary (an Interview with John Akomfrah)” in Border/Lines (1993) Issue no. 29/30 by Kass Banning

Image: John Akomfrah from a YouTube still by the British Arts Council

Kass Banning interviews Black British filmmaker and co-founder of the Black Audio Film Collective, John Akomfrah about several of his films: Handsworth Songs (1986), Testament (1988), Who Needs a Heart? (1991) and Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993). Due to Afrofuturism’s diasporic nature, Akomfrah states that his work is interested in trans-Atlantic memory, using Malcolm X as symbol of transnationalism and the connection between all African peoples in his film. In the interview, Akomfrah delves into the presence of black bodies and death in Black filmmaking, citing there is morbidity in the quest for identity, often stylizing the past with the dead. He further complicates mourning and melancholia through his notion of Black necrophila (Kobena Mercer 2016).

“Queer Afrofuturism: Utopia, Sexuality, and Desire in Samuel Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah” in Utopian Studies (2017) Vol. 28, no. 2 by Clayton D. Coleman

Image: Samuel R. Delany’s cover of Aye, and Gormorrah from amazon.com

Published in the Utopian Studies journal, this article by Clayton D. Coleman is a contemporary reading of Queer Afrofuturism in the work of Delany’s Aye, and Gomorrah centering it in a racialized context. Coleman argues that spacer bodies expand Afrofuturism through representations of queer utopia, sexuality, desire, and posthumanity (330). This article is a great precursor not only to Delany’s work, but the ways in which queering spaces and bodies, disrupts white hetero-patriarchy and presents futures for all. Coleman uses several sub-headings to organize the paper, including “(Re)Presenting Queer Utopia: Marking Place By Claiming Space”, “Queer Sexuality: The Use Value of Loose Swinging Meat”, and “Queering Desire: “Qualifying the Old Longing””, problematizing the private and public of queerness.

5. “Make Me Wanna Holler: Meshell Ndegeocello, Black Queer Aesthetics, and Feminist Critiques” in Journal of Lesbian Studies (2014) Vol. 18 by Matt Richardson

Image: Meshell Ndegecello from meshell.com

Matt Richardson’s essay examines female masculinity and queer femininity through explore Meshell Ndegecello’s music and public persona. A sorely understudied queer aesthetic, Richardson challenges our thinking of masculinity linked with penis and the fluidity of Black gender, by doing a close reading of Ndegecello’s lyrics. Though she does not identify as a (Black) feminist, Richardson attempts to take on her lyrics as work of Black queer feminist thought.

6. “Black Girls Are from the Future: Afrofuturist Feminism in Octavia E. Butler’s “Fledgling” in Women’s Studies Quarterly (2012) Vol. 40, no. 3/4 by Susana M. Morris

Image: Octavie E. Butler’s cover of Fledgling from wikipedia.com

Published in Women’s Studies Quarterly, Morris complicates the United State’s infatuation with vampires by delving into the ways in which Black women’s science fiction projects such as Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling (2005) as Black feminist Afrofuturist epistemology. Morris subverts the whiteness that has become associated with contemporary renders of vampires in shows and books like The Vampire Diaries and Twilight Saga, through transgressive manifestations of identity, kinship, and intimacy. Defining Afrofuturism through Kodow Eshun’s Futher Considerations on Afrofuturism, Morris sees Butler’s text as Afrofuturist due to her complication of histories and centering people of color in the future. Due to her reconfiguration of speculative fiction, Butler serves a reminder of the Afrofuturist feminist cohort we should all know.

7. Wangechi Mutu: Feminist Collage and the Cyborg (2009) by Nicole R. Smith

Artist Wangechi Mutu is probably one of the most recognizable contemporary Afrofuturist visual artists, with her collaging of cyborg and human renderings. Nicole R. Smith’s these analyzes Mutu’s artistic creations through Donna Haraway’s critical work on cyborg theory, and questions her work for strategies for feminist artists. While this text is longer than the other suggestions, its a great analysis of cyborg theory from a contemporary lens of Black feminism.

8. “Fabulous: Sylvester James, Black Queer Afrofuturism and the Black Fantastic “ in Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture (2013) Vol.5, no. 2 by Reynaldo Anderson

Image: Do Ya Wanna Funk cover art by Mark Amerika

Reynaldo Anderson is a prominent figure in BSAM as well as a professor in Missouri, actively historicizing and adding to the body of Afrofuturist scholarship. Examining the visual performance and queerness of disco singer Slyvester James in the formation of the Black Fantastic, Anderson is informed by Black queer subjectivity. In this essay, Anderson attempts to make sense of the ways that disco and Black queerness is left out of Afrofuturist history by adding to the scholarship with his analyses of James’ queering of gender, space, and music.

9. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2001) by Sheree R. Thomas

Image: Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction From the African Diaspora cover from amazon.com

Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction From the African Diaspora is one of a series of anthologies of Afrofuturist texts edited by Sheree R. Thomas. Featuring essays, reviews, and stories by Afrofturist writers and scholars from over a century, pondering and verbalizing Black history and futures, through a myriad of topics. This text is a wonderful piece for any one interested in Black literature and thought.

Other texts and documents

Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison is considered one of the first Afrofuturistic texts (Kodow Eshun, Lisa Yaszek and others have stated this in Afrofuturistic scholarship) before we had a word that described the futuristic cultural production by the African diaspora.

“Islands of Identity: Inside the Pictures of Carrie Mae Weems” in Carrie Mae Weems: In These Islands. South Carolina — Georgia (1995) is an exhibition catalogue that documents Weems’ photographic manipulations and cheap ceramics that reconstructs Black history.

The Quest (1997) by Detroit based musical group Drexciya, outlines in their linear notes the mythology of Drexciya, an underwater world of half human-half-fish, born to pregnant Africans thrown overboard during their journey in the Middle Passage. This is the inspiration for mine and other artists’ underwater world work.

Thinking Gender, Imagining Reparations (2017) was the 27th Annual Thinking Gender Graduate Student Research Conference which several participants including Afrofuturist scholars Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley and Nalo Hopkinson imagines futures for femme and queer Black bodies through writing and song.


Originally published at www.patreon.com.

C Michelle

Written by

Freelance social media manager. Artist. Writer. PhD student (on leave) + future curator. Contemporary African Diaspora art.

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