As the summer comes to a close and a new school year begins, I take this time to reflect. As I embark upon my own personal and academic journey, I can’t help but think of all the great projects and adventures that many of my friends have taken, are taking, and will take. So I felt it only right that I share a conversation that I had with a fellow Afrofuturist/Comic Book/Graphic Novel/African American Studies scholar.
Almost three years ago in Atlanta, GA at the National Council of Black Studies (NCBS) conference, I met a bright young scholar, Schetauna Powell, whose work would align with my presentation on Janelle Monae and Afrofuturism. We chatted for a while and found we had a lot in common. Fast forwarding to this summer, Schetauna and linked up again via FB and as a result have a great conversation, that I just had to share with my BGN community. Check it out below:
So this past Spring you recently completed your MA in Pan-African Studies (Congrats!!) what did your research entail?
Before I was accepted into the PAS MA program on scholarship, I had studied Studio Arts and English at the University of Houston. I was always interested in working creatively when I was younger and very passionate about expressing myself through writing and drawing/painting/sculpture. While I was working my way through the English Department at UH, I took an American Lit. class that focused on a comparative analysis of journey narratives. Two books that I found the most interesting was Huckleberry Finn by Twain and The Road by McCarthy. Within the assignment we were asked to look at the parallels between the two books. Quite frankly it astonished me to find that the perspective of the two narratives were so similar. In essence a novel written in 1884 had the same perspective as a sci-fi novel written in 2006. In some ways it emphasized to me how the American ethos had not really changed dramatically. I really enjoyed this class because it allowed me to see that link, and it introduced a new way of understanding sci-fi narratives as a continuation of logic from the past, projected into the future. This was my thinking at the start of my program and I decided that what I really needed was to find Black voices within sci-fi so that I could compare them against the mainstream white voices that I came across so often in movies and books.
During the early stages of my research I focused on the end of the world narrative because that was the analogy that fit my view of the world at the time. I really wanted to find Black voices that spoke on the chaos and destruction that is a mainstay of the “post-apocalyptic” novel and see the solutions they presented within their narratives. During my search I found a multitude of sci-fi novels by Black authors about the end of the world. Samuel Delany Dhalgren , Octavia Butler’s Parables, and Nalo Hopkinson’s Black Girl in the Ring just to name a few of the BIG names in Black Science fiction. However the longer I looked the more I realized that this subject “the end of the world” was a key part of Black Cultural tradition.
My research focused on the Eschatology of Black Culture, and I ended up taking my MA Exam over the basic qualities and characteristics of Afrofuturism and why Octavia Butler’s works reflect Afrofuturist perspectives and ideology.
What sparked your interest in Afrofuturism?
After finding Eshun’s article through JSTOR I began to switch my gears from the general study of Black sci-fi to studying more about Afrofuturism. The true initial spark I really couldn’t say because I have always been interested in the knowledge and information that exists within an Afrofuturist epistemology, I just did not have a name for it! When I discovered the word “Afrofuturism” I realized that I had been reading from scholars and artist that contribute to the field for a long time at that point: Basquiat – I studied his life and works during my time in art school because I admired his work and was moved by his life story; Toni Morrision – among all of her books, her Dantesque trilogy Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise were styled to be like a descent into hell was one of my earliest reads during my journey to discover Afrofuturism. The fact that it was designed as a spiral into hell and combined magical realism into her stories connecting the lives of African American characters to our history and political moments made her works an early interest for my research. I had even dared to comprehend Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic during a paper I was writing about Olaudah Equiano during my undergrad years! Little did I know that Gilroy’s book that had much to with aspects of Afrofuturist discourse. When I discovered the word “Afrofuturism” it became clear that these thinkers, writers, and artists were not magical anomalies within the universe, that they belong to a group of people within Black Culture who are very well versed in the knowledge of the past and how that connects to the present moment; they use their creative ability and this knowledge to dream creatively about the future.
As we know Afrofuturism was formally coined in 1993 by Mark Dery, but has theoretically existed since the early 1970s, how do you feel Afrofuturism has evolved? And what would you like to contribute to this field?
Of course when Mark Dery coined that phrase in 1993, effectively defining Afrofuturism as an aesthetic that represents African American themes and concerns in context to the technological future, a true understanding of Afrofuturism was limited and based on thematic affiliation Black artistic works (comics) had to each other in the late 80’s and 90’s. Even back then the connection hadn’t been made to the beginnings of Afrofuturism within jazz through Sun Ra. Since then scholars such as Lisa Yazek in her article “Afrofuturism Science Fiction and the History of the Future” have shown that the history of Afrofuturism runs deep, referencing Black Sci-fi novels such as Blake written by Martin Delany in 1859. The fact is that energetic, young scholars (such as Alondra Nelson who began the first listserv about Afrofuturism) have worked to expand the discussion of Afrofuturism past that of an aesthetic with no apparent historical connection or theoretical grounding, into a respectable and exciting field since its name day in the 1990’s.
Today we know Afrofuturism as an epistemology that connects the Black experience from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade to technology and the technological age. Afrofuturist are interested in the changing relations between society and science as it pertains to the African Diasporian experience of the “modern” world through slavery/colonialism, Jim Crow apartheid, and (in contemporary times) Structural Racism. The early Afrofuturism of our ancestors as displayed in the written works of “The Comet” by W.E.B. DuBois, “Black No More” by George Samuel Schulyer, and “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison has evolved from works that were very pessimistic in imagining a future for Blacks into contemporary narratives filled with hope. Today’s Afrofuturist writer, scholar, and artist reimagines power dynamics that have traditionally held Black achievement at bay.
Afrofuturism is a field that is just as young as I am, filled with intellectuals vying for a different world than the one we are thrust into everyday. As an artist and a scholar I would like to contribute to this collective act of reimagining the future.
Also you have self-identified yourself as an “artist-scholar” how would you define this positionality?
I have been in college since 17, and I have always wanted to be an artist. However, as I was taking classes, I found that navigating the College of Art meant to divorce yourself from an ideology and just focus on technique. In order to legitimize myself as a scholar and to soothe my own curiosities about life I really needed more. Eventually I found my way to the English Dept. at UH. Within this college I was forced to understand and defend my views about life, and in essence defend or change my political stances through class discussion. I truly found my voice during my education in English, however I had hard time merging my political stances within my artistic works because this was before I discovered the Black Studies department. Often times I found myself trying to “reinvent the wheel” by trying to develop a Black aesthetic or trying to fit what I wanted to represent into a white mold. I really didn’t even know what that meant: “black aesthetic”. During my early college years I studied examples of European art movements. Through my extracurricular interest in anime I learned a lot about Japanese and Asian aesthetics and culture. To cut a long story short, I struggled to create art that I liked because I had never been introduced to artists that I felt intimately connected to.
However difficult it was for me to find my way, I also encountered the practical necessity to write. During graduate school the “publish or parish” mandate was impressed upon me. I found it frustrating to be an artist in graduate school, but I also appreciated the information I was learning and teaching to others. It came to be that after going through the MA program and learning about Afrofuturism that I began to see that being an Afrofuturist artist in graduate school was not a dilemma, but a blessing. Afrofuturism is a practiced field. It is still very young and is in need of artistic practitioners to create reimagined futures. However, these reimagined futures are very dependent upon a scholarly knowledge base if they are going to be useful and relevant. Thus through Afrofuturism I found a symbiotic relationship of myself as the artist and myself as the scholar.
With all the past and recent fatal and violent events taking place towards Black women how do you see Afrofuturism playing a role?
Every movement needs an imagination. Even the Civil Rights movement had a dream. I know that it is terrifying thinking about #SandraBland or #RekiaBoyd; the entire #blacklivesmatter movement; and the fact that Black men and women, both young and old, are killed mercilessly for doing little to nothing wrong. There are so many more lives and names that are added every day to that list, and the roster has been kept since the 12 century. Afrofuturism is a knowledge base that is constantly looking for strategies to renegotiate social dynamics that give power to white brutality on black bodies. Afrofuturist art and literature does not shy away from the brutality the modern age has brought upon black people. By connecting the experience the Black Diaspora has had in the modern world, Afrofuturists recognize that modern conveniences are available today because of the mass genocide of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the unchecked rape and torture of Black women, and the unapologetic theft of Black culture, and the intentional sabotage and poisoning of Black communities. In an environment of violence, death, and terror, it is important to know that there are people thinking about the current moment and how to combat these problems for the sake of Black futures.
More than that, Afrofuturism is an epistemology that connects Afrocentricity, Black Women’s Studies, African Studies, and Black Cultural Studies together in a symbiotic relationship. This is a field whose practitioners are largely women. The comics and stories being produced depict Black women who are not afraid to change themselves and their communities in the face of danger, for a better world. While imagining a different future will not bring back those we have lost in a seemingly never-ending war, having a model by which the community can use, even fictional, is essential to creating an environment that protects the emotional, mental, physical and spiritual safety of our brothers and sisters in struggle worldwide. Models designed to help our people understand how to achieve this imagined future for a healthier world for Black bodies and minds are essential.
Tell us about any future projects in the works.
Currently I am working on my own graphic novel “Olivia T. Bates and the Experimental City”. Set around the life of an 8 year old African American girl in a distant future, the novel explores the greatest experiment of humanity – civilization. Within this future Oliva occupies, great countries such as the United States and England have devolved into city-states; human beings can customize the racial attributes of their children through a risky in vitro procedure; and cultural capital is more important than money. Within the city-state of the US, where Olivia is located, the city has been split into “New City” and “Old City” as a result of an unstable economic environment wherein those who control the concentrated wealth have created a technological utopia.
The actual story is divided into three Books. Currently I am creating character designs for Book 1: This Life on Earth which is an origin story of Oliva Bates. It explores the circumstances of Olivia’s birth and life’s purpose, introduces key characters such as a hacker who goes by the tag THEINVISIBLEMAN, and gives the reader a feel for the environment. Outside of the graphic novel I have also begun to work artistically through my business Artivism Community Art Supply. I created this business back in 2008 with the intention of utilizing my artistic skill to highlight Black culture and bring attention to current issues the African Diaspora face. Artivism Community Art Supply is an organization dedicated to the promotion and creation of Afrofuturist artwork and knowledge. A small business, ACAS seeks to contribute to the development of young artists and help them grow in the knowledge of Black culture, arts, and experience. Overall, through collaboration with other Afrofuturist artists and scholars I look forward to producing art and building community.
As the discussion of Afrofuturism grows so does the work and artists who are continuing to blaze the trail. Hence, it is very important that we uplift and share each other’s stories! You never know what may come of it and plus it helps to foster future relationships and friendships.
Feel free to connect with Schetauna on Facebook or Linkedin and follow her as she and her work grows!