Degrowing the Future
Part One of The Drinking Gourd’s Afrofuturism roundtable series.
“Why is the future assumed to be the continuation of growth? What if it’s degrowth?”
What is the future? Who dreams it? And whose dreams become “natural” human progression, even if the process of building that one precious utopia leaves someone lingering — beyond the wall, within the shadows, on the precipe?
When co-founding The Drinking Gourd, I aimed to create a digital and literary space for Black Muslims. I don’t claim TDG to be the first outlet to do so nor am I concerned with “firsts”. Certainly, we’re not the first Black Muslims to dream, to think of the future, or to wrestle with the legacies of what has come to be called Afrofuturism.
Afrofuturism captured my attention before. In an essay, I used it to help myself process what it meant to be Black and devoted; the futility of trying to find joy in Eid or Ramadan when my early experiences had both marked by violence. Looking at the continuation of anti-Black Islamophobia today, I see how Black Muslims may not make it into the future. Even if that future is Black.
Because I am concerned with and by Afrofuturism, with and by science-fiction, with and by speculative fiction, or any other avenue for imagining the future(s), I put together a roundtable series. Broadly, we’re discussing Black Muslims in Afrofuturism, but this is a conversation and we go wherever that leads us.
For the first of this two-part series, I spoke with Safiyah Cheatham, an interdisciplinary conceptual artist and digital archivist who co-created Obsidian, a speculative fiction podcast based in Afrofuturism. We are also joined by Zaynab Shahar, a doctoral student in comparative religion focusing on the relationship between gender ritual law and public religious space.
Let’s get into it.
Vanessa: To start, it’s important to see how everyone is approaching Afrofuturism because the term itself can conjure a variety of definitions, emotions, aesthetics, and etcetera. What does Afrofuturism mean to you?
Safiyah: Similar to Islam, it’s a lifestyle. It’s an embodied ideology, so it’s a mindset rather than an art or a social movement. It guides how we can perceive and navigate the world. I’m a little conflicted right now because I’ve been seeing a lot about Afrofuturism being Western-based but I want it to have a pan-African perspective. Recently, I saw Nnedi Okorafor, who is a writer and a filmmaker, put out a blog post coining the word Africanfuturism.
Zaynab: Where people get lost in the sauce with Afrofuturism is that it’s naming an iteration of a Black arts movement. If you think about the lineage of Black art from the Harlem Renaissance forward, each of those had names, genres — like the Black avant-garde typifying the radical Black arts movement that produced people like Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka.
To me, Afrofuturism is not markedly different from that. It’s another iteration of time and space where people are using art to not only communicate about the present but also put forth a vision of a future. When you think about it in that context, the notion of Black futurity isn’t as wild or decidedly myopic as people want to make it out to be. Because in a lot of respects, Black American art has always already been transnational; has always already been thinking about the future in one respect or another. Whether it’s the location of being in the West, as it were, or where people assume liberation might occur outside of the West. A lot of the debate about who it does and doesn’t include doesn’t tend to think of it on an existing trajectory of Black American creation.
Safiyah: I feel like Afrofuturism is nonlinear and I’m beginning to adopt from Martine Syms. She’s a filmmaker proposing this Mundane Afrofuturism, which is using the root of what Black people are doing to better their lives and their normal existence rather than the fantastical cyborg kind of futuros aesthetic kind of way. So, I also think about Afrofuturism in the most casual ways.
Vanessa: Could you give an example of what that “casual” looks like?
Safiyah: My favorite example is W.E.B. DuBois when he brought those data visualizations to Paris. The goal was to create an image of Black people taking care of themselves, being happy, being successful, and share that internationally. That’s a pretty Afrofuturist move if you’re proposing that Black people are bettering their lives in new ways (according to the time that he lived in) and broadcasting that.
“Even how we talk about literature reinforces an assumption that fictional narratives have to follow Biblical narratives, imposing a sort of natural synchronicity between the two…”
Vanessa: Whenever I read Afrofuturist work, I find myself thinking about who is not present and how it can reaffirm troubling shit. In what ways have you seen Christian hegemony play out in Afrofuturism?
Safiyah: This is a question that stumped me the most. ’Cause I feel like it’s never explicit — or maybe not never — but whenever I’m looking at a visual work or reading, you know it’s there. I feel like it’s because Christianity is all-encompassing. Things default to that if they’re not explicitly something else. When there’s no explicit indicator of other religions like clothing, language, sometimes location, we default to Christianity.
Zaynab: Even how we talk about literature reinforces an assumption that fictional narratives have to follow Biblical narratives, imposing a sort of natural synchronicity between the two as if there are no other modes of storytelling or ways of thinking about how stories come to be and the purpose of stories. One way that I immediately think about is Afrofuturism is primarily a textual enterprise. Whereas Islam, for example, is an oral-oral form of divine revelation. I have yet to see Afrofuturists really take up and take seriously oral transmission of narrative. It is very much emphasized in the published textual world, which is fine, there’s a conversation to be had about why that’s necessary. But when you default to textual, there’s a lot of things that you leave out. Like, what are the ways that orality gives way to speculation in a way that text inherently doesn’t?
Safiyah: I just read something about that. It was about Octavia Butler feeling more connected to radio than television because there’s something about the imagination when you can hear and then leave the rest to yourself. But, by textual do you also include visual arts into that?
Zaynab: Yes and no. I think everyone defines that line differently. I recognize that text is often incorporated into visual art but then visual art is attempting to combine so many different mediums that it rarely sits in one category over the other. Visual art is intentionally interdisciplinary in a particular way whereas textuality means something very specific in literary studies nine times out of ten.
“You can say that the under-resourced space forecasts what the future for everyone else is going to look like.”
Vanessa: I think the textual and oral tradition points are really interesting. Safiyah, could you talk about Obsidian? I don’t know if that was at all a consideration when you decided to make a podcast.
Safiyah: We decided to make a podcast because accessibility, one, and it’s becoming more popular. It’s more immersive. You’re more likely to grab someone’s attention when they can multitask rather than something more literary where you need to have undivided attention. And, feasibility, because when you’re telling sci-fi stories, what can you do in the visual realm of a moving image? Not much.
For some context, I went to undergrad for filmmaking, the degree was electronic media and film. I’m already more comfortable with visual storytelling and scriptwriting and things like that than I am an actual creative writer with that kind of skill or background. It came easier for me than trying to all of a sudden become a novelist or short story writer.
Zaynab: I just thought of something that came to mind in reference to this whole Christian hegemony thing. I remember my friend getting together a bunch of queer Black people to talk about Parable of the Sower. A lot of them were part of the same Black queer churchy community that’s out here in Chicago. People kept coming back to how Parable of the Sower, as a text, seemed almost prophetic and Octavia Butler as a prophet of sorts. In my head, I’m like, prophecy means different things to different religious traditions if we’re being frank about it. And then, what is to say Octavia Butler didn’t, as other Black feminists often did, read the geopolitical scene around them and come to the conclusion that this was only going to last for so long?
We’re in this moment of anthropogenic thinking where it’s like the air of the Anthropocene. People will say, oh, yeah, to Octavia Butler is a prophet. She predicted these things. If you actually go back in time for two seconds to environmental history, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) didn’t become a New York Times bestseller for no fucking reason.
Safiyah: Who is Rachel?
Zaynab: Rachel Carson was a well-known environmentalist who wrote Silent Spring which is, in many people’s minds, the beginning of mainstream journalism about the environment in nonfiction form. So, people have been writing about how a society predicated on nonrenewable resources was inevitably going to run its course for the past forty-plus years. I’m not inclined to believe that Octavia Butler was living under a rock as all that information was unfolding. I get from a Christian perspective why Parable of the Sower seems prophetic, but I also can’t help but think, science fiction writers do research. They’re responding to the crisis of the moment and if it was a crisis when Octavia Butler wrote it back then, and it’s a crisis now, how prophetic is it really?
Safiyah: I feel that critique. I also think people feel so dearly for her and want to attach this kind of mysticism to put her in the role of a seer and those kinds of storytellers who are so interconnected with the land that they can anticipate what’s gonna come.
Zaynab: It’s such an odd thing to me, at least, because a lot of Black authors (past this very weird rise of middle-class Black people who all have similar problems and can’t write very well) overwhelmingly came from poor working-class backgrounds, often rural or urban backgrounds. They’re living in the environments of what it’s gonna look like when shit runs out. You can say that the under-resourced space forecasts what the future for everyone else is going to look like.
Coal country is a perfect example of this. What happens when everything is predicated on coal and then coal goes out of style? Same with the Rust Belt of the Upper Midwest where I live, where there’s nothing but abandoned buildings. When you drive past a certain point of Chicago and there’s no grocery store, no life as it were. Is it really that prophetic or is it looking around you and realizing that the things you experience foreshadow, in many respects, what’s gonna wind up happening if survival is not put on a communal, wider, more sustainable scale?
“So much of how Black Muslims are regarded by governmental powers involves tech in the surveillance, in the spying. We have to be abreast in the same knowledge of the tech that they’re using against us…”
Vanessa: I rewrote my next question a little because originally I wrote, “Why is Afrofuturism relevant to Black Muslims?” But, I think it’s also imperative to think about why Black Muslims are relevant to Afrofuturism.
Safiyah: You know what’s crazy? Not to talk about Octavia Butler so much, but I literally just saw something where she was responding to a question about science fiction and Black people. That’s a similar question with a similar answer that I would give, but to expand on the Muslim bit. As sort of the most surveilled and oppressed demographics, I think moving towards healing and action, it’s a good mode to look towards and freeing.
Zaynab: For me, it has a lot to do with what Safiyah said, with how we think about liberation. For example, people are now bitching and moaning about us living in the era of the surveillance state. Whereas most, at least in my experience, inner-city Black Muslim communities already exist within the nexus or the eye of the surveillance state. We’re already aware that this thing exists that you figured out is a problem for you five seconds ago. You’re no longer comfortable with just us being surveilled because now you’re being surveilled on the way to the anti-Black mosque all the way across town, right?
You’re going to need the insight of people who know how to, say, dodge a camera or who don’t want facial recognition to be a thing. Because the prevailing non-Black imagination, fictional or not, is just, “Oh, if white people understand our benevolence and our humanity then somehow someway they’ll realize spying on us and doing these terrible things to us is abominable.” I think most Afrofuturists, including most Black Muslim Afrofuturists, question the notion of human that assumption departs from. We’re used to not being human in many peoples’ eyes from multiple perspectives. We know that humanism is not going to save us. We know that humanism as its conceptualized by both Western white folk, and the tragic non-Black academics who latch onto Western humanism and try to make it Islamic, is not going to save us either.
Safiyah: I think so much of how Black Muslims are regarded by governmental powers involves tech in the surveillance, in the spying. We have to be abreast in the same knowledge of the tech that they’re using against us and how to navigate or counteract that. So, there’s tech on both fronts.
“Why is the future assumed to be the continuation of growth? What if it’s degrowth?”
Vanessa: That might bring us into five naturally. Technology and Black communities’ efforts to reclaim, or subvert, it are not limited to the digital. We can think of food as technology, text as technology, and etc. I do think this era is interesting because of how quickly it grows. There’s real-time facial recognition rolling out in Black cities like Detroit and Chicago; Black Muslim youth are monitored on social media for potential signs of radicalization; Amazon, ICE, Facebook, Google — everybody has tech and everybody sucks. Given all of this, what do you think needs to happen with Afrofuturism in the coming years?
Saifiyah: I think the movies Fast and Furious Eight with God’s eye and that old Shia LaBeouf movie, Eagle Eye, do a good job of minimally uncovering all the different systems that are in place to have a crazy amount of digital know. I feel like Afrofuturism can do the same in unveiling that kind of tech.
Zaynab: Afrofuturism can question the assumptions that are laid onto technology. Look at the prevalence of the default assumption that has been running for so long; that this hyper-technical future is a natural progression in the linear evolution of human history. Afrofuturism can ask, one, what do we consider technology given what technology has already done and continues to do? And two, what do we find valuable in the future shaping of our society?
What do we want structuring our ability to do everything from communicate with each other to dispense medicine and biomedical information to growing food? I’ll give an example. Sometimes you log onto social media and you see those articles about how this far East Asian country is trying to grow food vertically. Is the answer growing food vertically or maybe not building as many skyscrapers that wind up empty in three to five years any fucking way? Why is the future assumed to be the continuation of growth? What if it’s degrowth? What if it’s the future as a forest, as Ursula Le Guin might say.
“Afrofuturism…could be a good tool to provide self-sustainable practices. Learning how to garden, make our own clothing, and take that from what a lot of corporate industries are trying to make the only option for us.”
Vanessa: That was actually something that was kind of mentioned. Safiyah, you brought up Mundane Afrofuturism. I’m thinking about Afrofuturism as stepping away from certain technologies because not all of it needs to exist. A really clear example would be facial recognition. So, I think there is value in what you were saying, Zaynab, in that the future is a forest, or in stepping away from technology. It’s been painted as the future, but that is something that’s given to it. That’s not an innate state.
Zaynab: I’ll give another example. I went to see Eric Stanley speak about his new book coming out in 2020 and he was talking about how they’re trying to implement ways of trans biomedical identification as opposed to going through the chutzpah of changing your government ID. I don’t know how it’s supposed to look specifically but he was talking about how all of these major trans rights organizations are singing onto it.
Safiyah: And you said changing….like your DNA changing?
Zaynab: You know how when you transition according to the government, you change your state ID and federal identification? The assumption with having biomedical forms of ID is that you wouldn’t have to physically carry an identification card. You could scan a part of your body or some shit and then all of your information is available to whoever.
It begs the question, why do people need to be identified in the first place? Migration existed for centuries without ID checkpoints. What are the ways of identifying each other and even constructing identity that exists outside of this state? I think about Muslim communities, like, when you change your name, you change your name. When I changed my name to Zaynab, nobody said boo about it. They were just like, all right, you’re Zaynab now.
Safiyah: There’s also a history of Black people reclaiming their names and not letting people butcher it or using a different name that you might feel more connected to yourself. There’s so much behind choosing for yourself.
Zaynab: Right. And having gone through the legal process of changing my ID card, passport, and social security card, why the fuck do I even need to? Why do I need an ID card? Do I really need a passport to get on a plane and go from point A to point B? If food and medicine and things like that were socialized, I probably wouldn’t need a social security number at all. I would go stand in the mythical line and get my free medical care and you wouldn’t need to know my social security number to keep track of me. The fluidity of how identity works in Black Muslim communities could light up a lot of those assumptions that people think are inherently necessary.
Safiyah: I have one more thing about what needs to happen with Afrofuturism. It could be a good tool to provide self-sustainable practices and what you were saying about technology not always being digital. Learning how to garden, make our own clothing, and take that from what a lot of corporate industries are trying to make the only option for us. Being able to do these things on our own will allow us to have some agency and power in how we move.
“There’s something to be said about how that’s a mystical almost process of having to step outside of where you are to better understand how to rise up against it.”
Vanessa: That’s real. And I want to be explicit about how, especially in the U.S., identification and biometrics emerged out of anti-Blackness and the need to keep track of Black people and to regulate and control Black bodies. That’s something Simone Browne talks about in Dark Matters. I also like stories as a guide. They’re gonna tell you how to farm, they’re gonna tell you how to have some agency, how to live sustainably. How to reclaim, subvert, or outright abandon technology as it is.
Zaynab: I was reading this book, I can’t pronounce the name of it in Ojibwe, but the English title is “This Is Our Territory”. It’s narratives of a particular indigenous nation from this older person to the author who then put them in a book. The thing I found interesting is that a lot of the narratives that white people call mythology were instructional. It’s like when winter comes, we migrate with the salmon, and there’s an internal logic behind it.
Storytelling in Black communities has long functioned the same way. People talk about the way hair braiding functions as a map or like people’s long-held favorite Negro spirituals. Even like being able to read the stars as Black Muslims because we’re paying attention to, when’s the new moon? When’s the full moon? Where to run along the path of moonlight. It makes me think about not just how we subvert technology but how we put practices to use that have already been operative in one way or another.
Saifiyah: The moon’s got me thinking about question four again. Where you rephrase a little bit: how are Black Muslims relevant to Afrofuturism? I think about djinn and the angels and all of the really fantastic stories of what prophets have done. There’s a lot of mysticism and otherworldly things that happen in Islam. That it is good grounds for some mysticism and Afrofuturism and those old generational oral stories that have more African mysticism. They kind of tie together. I want more stories about Islamic mysticism.
Zaynab: When it comes to Islamic mysticism, I also think about how Sylvia Diouf talks about the way that Black and enslaved Muslims organized revolts. There’s such an interesting parallel to the way that Sheikh Amadou Bomba of Senegal organized Senegalese Sufis against French colonial power and this idea of retreating inward and strategizing from a distance. Not to say that’s supremely unique to Black Muslims, but to me, this is the only way it parallels the notion of prophecy. Our Prophet (PBUH) received revelation when stepping away from society and revelation would then say, “Oh, this shit is a problem right here. All this inequality, all of this mess that’s going on in the Jahiliyyah, this needs to change.” But he received that revelation far and away from the context that he was living in.
Safiyah: He removed the tech from his life.
Zaynab: There’s something to be said about how that’s a mystical almost process of having to step outside of where you are to better understand how to rise up against it. I’d love to see more stories where Black Muslims are revitalizing that tradition. It doesn’t have to be in the forest or desert, you know? But what if the Somali Muslims of Minneapolis were meeting in this burnt-out building about how to take down all the surveillance cameras, for example. I’d love to read that story.
Vanessa Taylor is a writer based in Philadelphia, although Minnesota will always be home. Through articles, essays, fiction, and more, she focuses on Black Muslim womanhood and technology. She is a 2019 Echoing Ida cohort member and the Editor-in-Chief of The Drinking Gourd, a Black Muslim literary magazine. You can find her work at taylorvanessa.com.