On Imagining: Ancestral tools, travel guides, and community building for the end of the world
“What can I do? One must begin somewhere. Begin what? The only thing in the world worth beginning: The End of the world, of course.” — Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land
“I’m trying to speak — to write — the truth. I’m trying to be clear. I’m not interested in being fancy, or even original. Clarity and truth will be plenty, if I can only achieve them. If it happens that there are other people outside preaching my truth, I’ll join them. Otherwise, I’ll adapt where I must, take what opportunities I can find or make, hang on, gather students, and teach.” — Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower
I came to the Afrotectopia Imagineer Fellowship tired. It was a deep emotional and spiritual exhaustion, compounded by the weight of an ongoing global pandemic, a summer of protests in response to the ongoing circulation of Black death, Zoom fatigue, and an increasing sense of academic disillusionment. In my interview for the Fellowship, I told Afrotectopia founder Ari Melenciano, “I don’t want to just think like an academic; I want to imagine like a human being.”
Our imagination dictates our purview, our potentiality. In a talk on Storytelling While Black & Female, Saidiya Hartman said, “So much of the work of oppression is about policing the imagination.” For months, I felt as though I lacked the capability to envision, to see my life, my work, my identity, this world as otherwise. For so long, I was jaded, stuck.
Just two weeks into the fellowship, I emailed a professor and excitedly wrote, “Already I feel invigorated, and ready to (re-)engage with courses and academia this fall.” Each week, I met with nine other young, visionary, Black Imagineers from around the globe with backgrounds as far-reaching as community organizing, tech, and poetry. Each week, they challenged me to dream bigger, care deeply, work collectively, and destroy the world as we know it.
I am a historian and geographer by training, and yet I spent the months leading up to the Fellowship feeling temporally and spatially bound — constantly swallowed by the enormity of the present. But the fellows encouraged me to rearticulate our many pasts, critically reflect upon the present, and begin to blueprint the worlds I want to see. The Fellowship gave me the language to articulate my hopes and fears, the vision to “see what comes next, past the edges of what seemed or seems possible,” and the connections necessary to bring these worlds to life.
The Way Back: Past Manifestos, Ancestral Tools
We’re guided by our ancestors. The futures we seek to achieve are informed by the pasts they waded through and the contemporary apocalypses they survived. We pay respect to their experiences, honor their knowledge, and absorb their truths. We recognize that someday we’ll be nothing but our descendants’ ancestors, our present realities informing their future imaginations, creation myths, and origin stories. Then these tools will belong to them.
Inspired by Saidiya Hartman’s critical fabulations, Antoine Williams’ Black Fusionist Society, and the concept of a group poem, the Imagineers invented an ancestral toolkit, a multisensory guide designed to help navigate the present and future based on the wisdom of the past. I found inspiration in queer historiographical reimaginings, in films like The Watermelon Woman and Born in Flames, and books like The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions — all of which depicted the world not as it really was, but instead imagined the possibilities of what could have been.
As adrienne maree brown writes in Emergent Strategy, “We are living in the ancestral imagination of others, with their longing for safety and abundance, a longing that didn’t include us, or included us as enemy, fright, other.” The work of Saidiya Hartman’s critical fabulations is not about inventing a history, then, but rather about reading along the archival grain, imagining the potentialities of what could have been in the world if the historically marginalized and suppressed were given the opportunity to document and disseminate the stories of their lives.
As a historian who so often relies on a limited archive and a drowned archaeological record, I want(ed) so badly to re-imagine radical pasts that we can make use of in the present to shape our future worlds. The Imagineers conceptualized a historiographical and ancestral toolkit — filled with food for nourishment, natural (and local) medicinal knowledge, oral traditions, resources to archive a personal history, space for celebration, land to steward, tips for self-preservation, shared language, and more — to better document, articulate, and reimagine the past. As Cheryl Dunye writes, “Sometimes you have to create your own history.”
The Way Forward: A Travel Guide for the End of the World
For the past several years, I’ve carried around two copies of The Negro Motorist Green Book, as well as the American Traveler’s Guide to Negro History. When I had a car and ventured into a new locale, I pulled them out of my glove box and imagined what places — if any — might’ve been accessible to me decades ago. I’d drive by former Black safe havens to see what had become of them. Some were renovated and repurposed, some were still in operation, but most were leveled, defunct, dispossessed. Now, I prop my travel guides on my desk, flipping through them every once in a while when I need inspiration, when I’m thinking about Black mobility, when I want to be anywhere else except my desk.
As we imagined our way through the Afrotectopia syllabus — conceptualizing Future Cities, Culturally Relevant Pedagogies, Radical Black Technocultures, and Manifestoes — I returned again and again to my travel guides. The travel guides were designed to offer guidance and support the safe passage of Black travelers during the Jim Crow era; in flipping through the guides on my desk while listening to NPR updates about a growing Covid-19 death toll, catastrophic California fires, and daily Black Lives Matter protests, I wondered: Could we produce a travel guide for the end of the world?
I sat with José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia for weeks, reading the first page over and over again: “We are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality… Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” I ruminated on Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, wherein she challenged us to recognize that, “Persisting isn’t always safe, but it’s often necessary.” Likewise, in our fourth week of the fellowship, Tsige Tafesse from BUFU came and spoke to us, asking us, “Are you willing to survive for this cause?”
A travel guide for the end of the world should ultimately be designed with survivance in mind, and should be informed by the endurance of those who preceded us. Our true, fabulated, and invented pasts will orient us, enliven us, inspire us, and help us survive the calamities in our purview, and those we can’t even begin to imagine yet. It will be iterative and expansive; and like in Parable of the Sower, it will be the generative seed that will allow us to root ourselves, sustain ourselves, and, ultimately, terraform.
Over the past six weeks, I’ve read capaciously, interrogated critically, laughed from my belly, and imagined enormously. I’ve found in my nine peers — and, of course, in Ari — a deep sense of kinship, one filled with shared visions, broad skillsets, global perspectives, invaluable life experience, and such incredible Black genius. This Fellowship leaves my mind reeling, full of ideas and collaborations and goals I hope to one day pursue; but, more importantly, and perhaps most simply, it gave me permission to simply imagine.
Following a viewing of Jacolby Satterwhite Dances With Himself, and in the midst of an imagining session, I pulled out a piece of paper and frantically scribbled down a note:
How do I re-perform all of the bodies of my past? Taking fragments of my life — journal pages, home videos, photographs, essays. Turning them into a piece of performance art. Understanding that my body is always in motion, always evolving. Recognizing that I will never be complete. A process of becoming content with duality, fragmentation, being constantly in motion. Embracing scars, flaws, moles, scrapes, hair, teeth, nose, features. Allowing things to remain the same. Encouraging things to become different. Knowing that this is hard, that this story might break me as it makes me. Swimming; naked; bleeding; crying; putting these fragments together (again); peeling back layers; existing wholly in this phase of corporeality.
I’ve been thinking a lot about collaborations lately. My vision for the reiteration(s) of my life and this world does not exist in a silo; rather, this renewed capacity to envision was gifted to me by my collaborators throughout the duration of the Afrotectopia Imagineer Fellowship. I’m inspired by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s notion of “study” in The Undercommons, wherein they write, “Study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice… The point of calling it ‘study’ is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities is already present.”
In re-imagining the past and envisioning the future with my peers, I came to the realization that the most profound facet of the Fellowship was that it made me wholly present, deeply captivated, and, simply, want to be here. As we all lean forward and engage in this participatory exercise of world-building, I challenge us all to take time to find joy in the simple miracle of all of us being here, together, existing wholly in this phase of corporeality. It’s simple and it’s plain, but I return again and again to Larry Mitchell, when he writes, “We gotta keep each other alive any way we can ’cause nobody else is goin’ do it.”