The term Afrofuturism was coined in 1995 by cultural critic Mark Dery in his essay “Black to the Future.” It is an African diaspora cultural and literary movement whose thinkers and artists see science, technology, and science fiction as a means of exploring the black experience. For a culture whose past has been rubbed out, this is a chance to imagine a possible future. Tracing Afrofuturism back to its roots, several familiar names stand out.
One of those is W.E.B. Dubois, who with his 1920 short story “The Comet” may be the father of Afrofuturism. In “The Comet,” a valued black bank messenger emerges from a vault deep beneath the city to discover that he and the beautiful daughter of a white millionaire are the only people alive after poisonous gasses from a comet’s tail have killed the entire population of Manhattan, Harlem included. Written in, what was for DuBois, middlebrow prose, the story’s ending brings these two handsome people almost together as man and woman: “Silent, immovably, they saw each other face to face, eye to eye. Their souls lay naked to the night.” The story toys tantalizingly with sex across the color line, the great American fictional taboo. Suddenly, rapture is pierced by the honk of a car horn as the millionaire father and fiancee arrive from the uncontaminated suburbs. “I’ve always liked you people. If you ever want a job, call on me,” says the father as he hurries his daughter away from desecration and the city.
Another name is Zora Neale Hurston, most noted for her seminal work Their Eyes Were Watching God. Although hers is not a name usually, or ever, associated with science fiction, her goal was the same as Afrofuturism: to find the truth of African history through the veil of the fantastical. Using her ethnographic training, Hurston wrote Mules and Men (1935), which chronicles Hurston’s journey across Florida as she documents Negro folklore. She starts in her “native village” of Eatonville. The book is told from a first person perspective as she explores the tall tales, legends, and myths of the African culture filtered through the American experience. This is to demonstrate how Hurston attempted to refute the accusation that Africans did not have a history because of the common misconceptions of an oral culture.
As a contemporary movement that is still ongoing, Afrofuturism can be viewed as an extension, in both themes and intentions, of the earlier Black Arts Movement (1965-1975), which drew influence from the works of DuBois and Hurston. Co-founded in Harlem by writer / activist Amiri Baraka, the Black Arts Movement inspired African Americans to establish their own publishing houses, magazines, journals, and art institutions, adding diversity to the literary canon with the portrayal of new ethnic voices in the United States. With these two works, “The Comet” and Mules and Men, viewed as proto-Afrofuturism, the Black Arts Movement and Afrofuturism share a common literary antecedent. Forty years later, however, speculative fiction is still a genre of literature for which African Americans have received little recognition.
Although Baraka would never be considered a writer of speculative fiction (an umbrella term that encompasses science fiction, fantasy, and horror), he has contributed to the genre. In 2000, the first of two anthology books, entitled Dark Matter, was released and contained a short story of Baraka’s entitled “Rhythm Travel.” The story puts the future within the present, as two friends discuss the creation of a “Re-soulocator” that allows a human being to travel within music to any time and place it’s being played (162). What’s little known about Baraka is that although he rarely delved into speculative fiction, his overarching philosophy during the Black Arts Movement was strongly influenced by the pulp radio serials and comic books of his youth.
Le Roi Jones, before he became Amiri Baraka and a black nationalist, was part of the New American Poetry scene otherwise known as the “Beat” generation. There was a proclivity of the New American poets to utilize popular culture, such as movies, radio, television, music, theater, pulp fiction, and so on, both “as a source of anti-highbrow emblems and as a formal resource for poetic diction, phrasing, visual arrangement, movement, and so on” (Smethurst 37). Baraka’s early writing was very much influenced by Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, both of whom wrote spontaneously and championed the immediacy and the authenticity of human experience. With that in mind, Baraka makes it clear in his autobiography that speculative fiction constitutes part of his cultural heritage as a twentieth-century child and was incorporated into his work much the same way as the other Beat writers.
Growing up in Newark meant listening to the radio and imagining life’s possibilities in the terms it provided. “The radio,” he says, “was always another school for my mind” (Baraka 26). The shows that captured his imagination conjured up adventure and strangeness: The Shadow, I Love a Mystery, Inner Sanctum, Escape. The real lesson of these radio shows was that the enemy to human happiness, whether the cold-blooded killer or the invading alien horde, could be identified, opposed, and even defeated. As Baraka puts it, those shows “taught us that evil needed to be destroyed,” a lesson he took to heart and made the driving force of his life as a writer (27). Regardless of the influence radio may have had on him, Baraka’s distaste for the stereotypical earlier material shone through in his poem “In Memory of Radio,” which appears in his first collection of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, published in 1961. The poems in this collection express disaffection with conventional social values and mores. The third poem in the collection, “In Memory of Radio,” is not the elegy that the title implies. The poem presciently questions middle-class tastes, popular culture, and America’s seeming unquestioning acceptance of technology. Baraka uses the framing device of the radio, the height of technology at the time, to demonstrate how easily a culture and the imagination can be swayed. Although nostalgic for the icons of his youth, this free verse poem is Baraka’s forced rejection of his old heroes and moral order and a reconceptualization of the poet as hero.
Baraka is concerned with the insidiousness of radio, as the medium commanded human attention and created a distance from reality, inducing apathy towards greater concerns. The central image in the poem is a super-hero from pulp magazines and radio shows called the Shadow. Under the cloak of invisibility, the Shadow hunts down and roots out evil in the world. The words he uttered after he transformed himself from Lamont Cranston, a millionaire playboy, to the Shadow have become a part of popular culture and are quoted by Baraka verbatim: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” Popular pulp fiction and radio characters were originally envisioned as champions of the common man, role models that sowed the seeds of resistance to social injustice. The irony, however, is that such a hero would persuade the masses to rely on external forces rather than acting on their own behalf.
Like much of Beat literature, Baraka’s poem offers a critique of mid-century American culture and society. Icons like the Shadow and the Lone Ranger often appear in his work because “they can act individually to impose a strong moral order on a disordered world” (Jacobus 97). The problem is that he’s lost faith in his old heroes. The choice of the Shadow as an emblem of the old guard is remarkably telling, considering the character’s background. A disenchanted WWI vet, Cranston drifts through Asia, eventually becoming a brutal warlord and opium smuggler. It is only after he is kidnapped and reformed by a group of Tibetan monks that he decides to be the Shadow. Again, the Other reared its ugly head, as a white man of valor is corrupted by the eastern influence, only to be redeemed by their mysterious mystic ways. In Baraka’s poetic quest for a moral order, he discovers the flaws in his old idols, realizing that his love for radio shows is actually “evol” and is ultimately compelled to create for himself, and on his own terms, a new order of “his own black gods, and to preach a destruction of the old order as a means of preparing for the new” (97).
This trend continued just three years later with the publishing of “Green Lantern’s Solo” in The Dead Lecturer. This poem is concerned with a higher power he calls “One Mind, or Right, or call it some God” that is far beyond human understanding. This previously-mentioned moral code eventually — according to a running theme in Baraka’s early poetry — leads to the destruction of individuals and entire empires, so he’s searching for something else. Green Lantern, meanwhile, personifies the existential hero who takes matters into his own hands but is ultimately left alone. As an intergalactic cop that patrols an entire sector of the universe, he has an incredible amount of power and responsibility to everyone — not just the rich, white people of Earth. This power and concern for the greater good, however, sets him apart and keeps him alone.
“The poem” according to W.D.E. Andrews, “elaborates the internal tensions, the self-questioning which makes individual action in the real world impossible” (74). Baraka draws parallels between himself, as the poet, and Green Lantern in this poem. He has a concern for the greater good but realizes that waiting for a powerful being to intervene solves nothing. Baraka is empowering the masses by asking society to evolve away from needing heroes and take action. Here, however, Baraka criticizes himself and the intellectual crowd. He speaks of “the lyric poet/ who has never had an orgasm” and “My friend,/ the social critic, who has never known society.” Having referred to himself in “In Memory of Radio” as “the poet,” he is lumping himself in with the academics that critique but do not take action. Green Lantern and other pulp heroes take the kind of action that Baraka admires but are a product of an antiquated culture and way of thinking. In the end, the Shadow and Green Lantern are just someone else’s fictional creations.
The goal from that point on would be to create meaning through his own creations. His story included in the Afrofuturist anthology Dark Matter, “Rhythm Travel,” was written in 1996 and evinces the results of his changed perspective on heroes. Dark Matter also includes DuBois’s “The Comet.” “Rhythm Travel” is a short story, only three pages long, and written in the unorthodox second person. It’s almost stream-of-consciousness, as the present tense prose forces the reader into a position of entering into the home of someone familiar and being confronted with mad science. The unnamed scientist has created “Rhythm Travel” and has used it to travel back in time to the antebellum South.
The audience surrogate is skeptical at first, rolling his eyes at the many names the scientist has conjured up for his device. One of the scientist’s first inventions is a cloth that allows him to “disappear” and “be unseen,” harkening back to Baraka’s childhood fascination with the Shadow (162). Like any good comic book mad scientist, however, he uses the cloth to “rob all the mammy-jammas clean” in order to fund more of his inventions (163). It’s obvious, however, that Baraka’s favor is with the scientist, as he writes him only with the best of intentions. No one is hurt during the robberies, and he even claims that he “can teach people how to make and use” the rhythm travel (163). His inventions are meant to better mankind, or at least African-Americans.
When he travels back in time to a plantation, he makes the slaves smile by singing along with them. The story ends, as well, with him wanting the audience surrogate to try the rhythm travel. Not only will this device allow people, but specifically African-Americans, to understand their past, it will help them create a better future. Knowledge is power, and it can be taught and passed on to others. The progression is complete, as Baraka has crafted a character that — although his race is not verified — is intended to be African-American, due to his diction (“mammy-jammas” and referring to an early version of his device as a “Perfect Nigger”) but has the power of a super-hero. This power will not, however, be used to help people from a benevolent distance but allow people to help themselves.
So what does Afrofuturism hope to accomplish? Its ultimate goal is to flip preconceived notions about science fiction on their head. In many ways, it is an extension of the Black Arts Movement beyond the 1970s. Speculative fiction in any medium (books, radio, comic books, television, film, etc.) has been a main artery for recasting the imagination. Baraka has never specialized in science fiction or fantasy but has appropriated their tropes in order to analyze the role of the artist and individual in African-American culture. The explicit nature of “Rhythm Travel” brings his childhood love of serial pulps and comic book heroes full circle, as he subverts their influence into an inspiring new concept.
Andrews, W.D.E. All is Permitted: The Poetry of LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka. African-American Poets: Robert Hayden Through Rita Dove. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003. Print.
Baraka, Amiri. “In Memory of Radio.” Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. New York: Totem in Association with Corinth, 1961. Print.
Baraka, Amiri. “Rhythm Travel.” Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. Ed. Sheree R. Thomas. New York: Warner, 2000. Print.
Baraka, Amiri. The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones. Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill, 1997. Print.
Baraka, Amiri. “Green Lantern’s Solo.” The Dead Lecturer: Poems. New York: Grove, 1964. Print.
Dubois, W.E.B.. “The Comet.” Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. Ed. Sheree R. Thomas. New York: Warner, 2000. Print.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. New York: Perennial Library, 1990. Print.
Jacobus, Lee A. Imamu Amiri Baraka: The Quest for Moral Order. Imamu Amiri Baraka. Ed. Kimberly W. Benston. N.p.: n.p., 1978. N. pag. Print.
Smethurst, James Edward. The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2005. Print.