In a special podcast, former Boston Review Black Voices in the Public Sphere fellow Nate File talks with Tananarive Due, Rasheedah Phillips, and Celeste Winston about Afrofuturism. In a wide-ranging, cross-disciplinary conversation, File and his guests cover Afrofuturism’s history, aesthetic significance, and how it informs current efforts to further justice and equality. We encourage you to listen to the audio, but you can also find the transcript below.
About the Contributors:
Tananarive Due is the award-winning author of several novels, short story collections, and a civil rights memoir. In 2010, she was inducted into the Medill School of Journalism’s Hall of Achievement at Northwestern University. She is a professor at UCLA, where she teaches classes on Black horror films and Afrofuturism.
Rasheedah Phillips is a queer Philadelphia-based public interest attorney, mother, interdisciplinary artist, and Black Futurist cultural producer whose writing has appeared in Keywords for Radicals, Temple Political and Civil Right Journal, The Funambulist Magazine, Recess Arts, and more. She is a 2020–2022 Vera List Center Fellow at The New School.
Celeste Winston is assistant professor of geography and urban studies at Temple University. Her work aims to generate evidence of and for more livable and equitable geographies. She is currently working on a book project, How to Lose the Hounds: Maroon Geographies and a World Beyond Policing, exploring connections between slavery-era and more contemporary Black flight from and place-making beyond racial police violence.
Nate File: There’s a short story written by W. E. B. Du Bois from 1920 called, “The Comet.” It’s about a Black man named Jim living in New York City. One day a comet smashes into the earth, killing everyone in sight, except for Jim. He wanders the decimated city and to his surprise, he runs into a white woman named Julia. They believe they’re the only survivors, the only two people on the planet still alive. Suddenly their differences in race and class don’t matter anymore, and they even consider how it may be up to them to procreate and save the human race from extinction.
But then, a crowd of white men emerges. They accuse Jim of coming onto Julia and wonder aloud if they should lynch him. It turns out only New York City was hit by the comet, and there are many survivors. Jim and Julia go their separate ways.
“The Comet” is considered one of the first major pieces of Afrofuturism. Typically that phrase is used to describe science fiction which centers Black characters, most popularly with Marvel’s 2018 film, “Black Panther.” Afrofuturist works are radical by their very nature; how else can you describe something that envisions Black people not only surviving far into the future, but in many Afrofuturist works, building groundbreaking technology, solving the world’s greatest challenges, and even leading the Avengers?
In this way, Afrofuturism is positioned as constructive, not simply escapist: a growing cohort of lawyers, academics and artists argue that looking at the world through an Afrofuturist lens is essential in the fight for Black liberation and a more equitable future for everyone.
Tananarive Due: Afrofuturism is one of the most exciting tools right now. Artists have to expand our idea of who we are, who we were, and who we can be.
NF: Tananarive Due is an author and a professor at UCLA, where she teaches classes on Black horror films and Afrofuturism. Her first exposure to Afrofuturism came via the deck of the Starship Enterprise, where Black actress Nichelle Nichols first starred in 1966 as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in the Star Trek franchise.
TD: So, we weren’t represented in the future. We weren’t in the Jetsons, we weren’t in Star Wars. It was a pure act of imagination even to imagine Black survival into the future, much less Black thriving in the future, which is what Nichelle Nichols represented on the bridge, holding her own with the rest of this crew.
NF: It was unprecedented for a Black actress to hold such a prominent role on a major television show. And Lieutenant Uhura’s presence meant so much to Black people watching, that when Nichols considered leaving the show during the first season, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., met with her and urged her to reconsider.
TD: It’s a bit of a famous story. He said, “we need you.” I’m paraphrasing. She expressed some frustration to him; she felt the role was a bit limiting. He actually encouraged her to stay in that part because it was so necessary to have a Black woman on the bridge of a starship in the 1960s; this was bigger than her, bigger than her career, this notion of representation.
Even in the midst of the jailings, and the sit-ins, and the demonstrations, and voting rights activists being murdered in the south, the NAACP put a lot of resources into its Beverly Hills Hollywood branch, because it so deeply believed in the importance of representation.
NF: Uhura left such an impact on Due, that iterations of the character still inspire her today, over fifty years after the character’s debut.
TD: Which would explain why I had such a deep and visceral reaction to seeing young Uhura in the new Star Trek: Strange New Worlds series. She was on camera maybe two or three times in the pilot. And every time I just saw her, and they called her Uhura, there were tears in my eyes.
NF: The term “Afrofuturism” wasn’t created until the 1990s, but this genre of film and writing grew over the late twentieth century under the banner of Black speculative fiction, led by writers like Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany. But Due and her peers tend not to distinguish much between Afrofuturism and Black speculative works anyway. To them, it doesn’t matter if characters ride horses or spaceships, the presence of alternative realities and conditions for Black people is the binding feature of these pieces of art.
TD: As a creative tool, Afrofuturism can be such a sharp way to bring into focus these issues that we’re facing. We don’t have telepaths and aliens in real life, but the hierarchies exist. The path toward destruction exists in real life, and it really is a brilliant fun-house mirror through which to look at the way the world actually is. “Get Out” is a brilliant example, by Jordan Peele.
There may not be any such thing as an actual coagulate procedure that can transplant one person’s brain into another person’s body. But the reason Jordan Peele tweeted that “Get Out” is a documentary is because so many aspects of it are true, even if they’re not real. That feeling of walking into a room and you’re the only black person in the room is true. The way people trip over themselves to try to appear that they’re not racist in your presence, even though your presence clearly has made them uncomfortable or hyper aware, is true.
NF: Afrofuturist works often articulate such sharp critiques and emotions surrounding real life conditions, that freedom movements are directly inspired by them.
TD: I do believe very strongly that art has a huge impact on the world. It’s just not often in a straight line and artists often have no idea who they’re inspiring and how. You look at Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” and the music video is Afrofuturism. He’s floating, he’s flying, someone cocks their finger and it’s a gun. It has this kind of fantasy imagery with a smile at the end of the video that creates the hope for the song, “Alright,” which became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement.
And then Octavia Butler’s work. You have people who are creating real life Earthseed communities based on Parable of the Sower, trying to come up with new leadership models and a different vision of what a community can look like.
NF: Afrofuturism and its sister genres proved to be incisive and poignant about the real world, even as they were set in the distant future or entirely fictitious countries. As Afrofuturism expanded from an artistic niche to leading iconic, culture-defining films, Afrofuturist writers, filmmakers, and other artists found wide appeal as they created stories which spoke to what it means to be a Black person in America.
TD: One of the aspects of Afrofuturism that I teach at UCLA and I think is very true about it, is that we’re holding the past, present, and future in one space. Right? So, you can’t tell a story about the future in some ways, without also telling a story about the past. One example I like to use is in the film Black Panther by Ryan Coogler.
You have all of this advanced technology with vibranium, you have telepathy powered craft that’s unlike anything that exists. But at the same time, they’re using spears. And some people were critical of this, or sort of ashamed of history saying, oh, well, why, if they’re so technologically advanced, why are they using spears?
Well, that’s the beauty of Afrofuturism, its homage to the past while you present a future. And, why does Thor have a hammer? It’s a visual representation of the past, present, and future in one frame.
And, to me, that is what Afrofuturism is and does. And the reason that’s liberatory is that we get to shake ourselves from erasure. We get to shake ourselves from this idea that we do not exist and that our accomplishments have not existed except for a couple of blips. Maybe if you were lucky, in a history class in high school when the teacher talked about slavery, everyone looked at you.
NF: What if Afrofuturist visions could be used outside of the arts? What if dreaming of alternative Black futures in law and design are means to creating the conditions that finally serve Black people’s wants and needs? That’s happening right now in places like Philadelphia, where lawyers and organizers use Afrofuturist tools to inform housing policy.
Rasheedah Phillips: It’s not like law or policy naturally lends itself to this kind of language or this vision. And so, you do have to seed it; you have to facilitate it. You do have to create the conditions by which you can start to change the language very slowly.
This is life work. It’s not a strategy that has a specific timeline.
NF: Rasheedah Phillips is a lawyer, and the Director of Housing at Policy Link, where she leads advocacy for increased tenant housing and land rights. She is also an interdisciplinary artist and fellow with The New School’s Vera List Center in New York City. She recently held an exhibit there called Time Zone Protocols, an Afrofuturist re-examination of Westernized time constructs and how they affect Black people.
RP: I have been a fan, a reader, a writer of science fiction since I was very young and have always liked things having to do with time and time travel and science fiction in general.
But it wasn’t until I came across Octavia Butler’s work when I was an adult that I really began to understand the intersections of science fiction and reality, or even encounter the works of Afrofuturism.
I remember very vividly. I was in law school actually and was having a really rough time dealing with law school. I was a young, single parent, trying to make it through. I had just graduated from undergrad and felt really lost. And a friend who knew me and knew my deepest longings and understandings around what was happening to me in law school, she gave me a copy of the book, Kindred. It just immediately changed me. There’s no other way to put it.
NF: Kindred is about a Black woman who is summoned back in time from her modern-day life in Los Angeles to the Maryland antebellum slave plantation where her ancestors live, including an enslaved girl and the plantation owner’s white son. She must repeatedly save the life of the boy to save her own future life. The connections between the past and present resonate powerfully throughout the novel. The book made clearer to Phillips some of the fundamental issues that her legal clients were facing in real life.
RP: I started working as a lawyer in Philadelphia, working at a place called community legal services, where I was serving low income communities who were having legal issues and being confronted with the construct of time within the legal system and how oppressive it was for very specific people. As a lawyer, time moves for me when I’m representing someone, when I’m representing someone in eviction court, it’s all about the manipulation of time. It’s all about going in and making sure that someone gets more time in their home.
NF: One persistent issue Phillips faced with her clients was how records of eviction kept people from getting new housing. She met people who had been evicted decades ago, but still couldn’t access apartments today because of that history. So, last year, Phillips and other legal advocates helped push for the successful passage of the Renters’ Access Act, which limits how far back Philadelphia landlords can view a person’s renting history as they consider their application.
RP: We developed a law and policy that creates protections for people with these records, saying that, as a landlord, you’re cut off from looking at certain kinds of records.
You can’t go back more than four years because going back more than four years, it’s not going to tell you anything. It’s not going to be predictive of whether or not this person is going to be able to be a good tenant. And so it requires landlords to give a holistic view to an application and consider all factors, not just some record that’s locked into the past and that does not tell you any information about the present, but that continues to cut people off from being able to access healthy and safe futures.
That’s, in a nutshell, what the law does. But it was very much informed and guided by this understanding of time and how time works in the legal system, how it works for people who are trying to access housing and how that kind of a timeline keeps people locked out of housing opportunities, which is locking them out of their futures, in a sense.
NF: Without safe, affordable housing, a person’s future becomes incredibly limited. But there are any number of other factors which can limit a Black community’s future—like over-policing, or gentrification. Phillips understands that access to housing alone doesn’t secure someone’s future. The conditions of their neighborhoods matter too.
Several years ago, the city of Philadelphia, its housing authority and development partners announced a major redevelopment plan for the predominantly Black Sharswood neighborhood. Existing housing and two high-rise projects were going to be cleared for low-income and market rate housing, a shopping center, and other projects.
Some living in Sharswood were excited by the city’s investment in their neighborhood. But others were disappointed and angry; many of them had lived their whole lives in this North Philly community and were sad to see it changing and gentrifying so significantly without much of their own input.
In response, Phillips and her partner rented a storefront in Sharswood to open what they called the Community Futures Lab. For nearly a year, it functioned as a communal space for Sharswood residents. They held workshops to discuss the futures they wanted for their neighborhood, supported each other, and reflected upon their memories of the area before it changed for good.
RP: The key thing that we did there was the relationship building. And that is the key to all of this stuff in so many ways. The opportunity for the community to come into a space and have conversations—to be able to access information and be informed and have informed conversations. We were able to use that space to organize residents in that community or help support the organizing that was already happening in the community.
And then use it as sort of a lab space, as an experiment space, to think about and envision policies and things that some people would think is wildest dream stuff, stuff the city is never going to think about. Though it may feel impossible, we wanted to create the foundation for it to become possible.
Folks being able to engage with a process around housing policy that they’ve been left out of for many years or decades, to actually produce real policies that were built, in some ways, through that space, things like Right to Counsel in Philadelphia for tenants, a lot of the conversations around what folks need in order to shift the power imbalance that was happening in places like eviction court.
Everybody’s not going to have the same vision, but to have a space where we can work through those visions and start to create some shared visions that we can push for. Lots of beautiful things came from that.
NF: Some of the Afrofuturist concepts that Phillips uses as a lawyer, an artist, and an advocate aren’t always quick, easy sells to people looking for immediate solutions to social problems. But Phillips urges patience and creativity to seed these principles.
RP: You know, it’s not like I started off being a lawyer and being like, “Hey, I’m about to bring this Afrofuturism and y’all better get with it.”
It did not, it still doesn’t, work like that. I do have to make the case or bring it in, sneak it in, like with the Renters’ Access Act. It’s not like the law itself has any Afrofuturist language.
When I sell it or when I am talking to other advocates about it, or when we’re talking about the vision for how we’re building it, that’s where it comes in. So, you have to figure out ways. There’s starting to be some shifts in how people can understand these constructs and these concepts, but it’s slow work. It’s life work. It’s reality shifting and shaping work. And it takes community, it takes relationships. It takes a lot of folks being on the same page.
When I’m thinking about developing Afrofuturist tools, the vision in my mind is Black people, and what Black joy looks like or what Black futures look like. I’m not at all thinking, like, I need to convince this white supremacist that this is the right vision of the world. I’m building that vision with the folks who will be part of that community.
NF: During the era of slavery in the Americas, there existed a practice which is now called marronage. It describes how enslaved people would escape their captors and create their own autonomous communities. To these maroons, this was in one sense, an act of dreaming and envisioning. They were creating conditions for the freedom filled future that they one day hoped to fully realize outside of their small, fugitive communities. And as Temple University geographer and maroon scholar Celeste Winston tells us, acts of Afrofuturism are tied to the kinds of practices that Black people have used to move toward liberation for centuries.
Celeste Winston: Something about Afrofuturism that I think is pertinent to the work of marronage is that there’s this argument that aesthetic traditions aren’t just visual, they’re not just musical, but rather they are themselves entire theories of social change.
The art itself or the stories, the music, it all is communicating a vision for a Black freedom future. And it also is a kind of a method of getting to that future as well.
NF: Winston is currently writing a book about the legacies of maroon communities in the United States and how people currently living on the lands of former maroons carry on their legacy through anti-policing and abolitionist organizing. She notes how the stories told about marronage in these communities nurture these dreams of a different future.
CW: There is this kind of folklore around marronage that has shaped the black communities that I’ve done my research in. In Montgomery county, Maryland, where there are stories that people tell themselves, and through those narratives of Black freedom making and flight from slavery, there’s this tradition that has enabled the generational transfer of the freedom dreams that shaped earlier maroons.
NF: Winston traces former maroon sites to present day towns that use restorative justice models instead of relying on police, or even reject the authority of police altogether. Those practices are informed by marronage.
CW: Those kinds of transferals have in multiple places been deemed necessary because of the ways that the same kind of violences that animated the slavery-plantation economy still exist today.
NF: Winston’s work is focused on educating people on the Black freedom struggles of the past and encouraging them to dream of the strategies that will achieve a better future.
CW: It’s often more difficult to get people to look toward Black histories of struggle and resistance as models today. And so that’s what I get people to start thinking through; if we can accept that police were pre-dated and influenced by the creation of slave patrols, then what can we ask about Black communities that can give us the answers for organizing our world differently?
There’s not so much a common sense around looking to Black pasts, doing the work of Afrofuturism, looking to Black pasts to build out a future of liberation. But I think just kind of sitting with the questions, getting people to envision the kind of world that they want to live in and also to really look toward existing Black practices of freedom; that’s what I try to do.
NF: My favorite Afrofuturist movie is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
It’s an animated movie about Spider-Man, but its lead character is not the Peter Parker that most people know. It stars Miles Morales, a Black teenager from Brooklyn, who wears Jordans and a hoodie when he fights supervillains.
A wormhole opens in Miles’ world to other parallel universes, and he meets the spider-heroes of other dimensions, a washed up, pudgy Peter Parker, a teenager named Gwen, a sentient pig, and others. They band together to fight a supervillain named Kingpin, a man whose experiments opened the wormhole in the first place and threaten to destroy everything.
Near the end of the movie, Miles is at his lowest. He’s the newest Spider-Man of the group and doubts his ability to live up to the name and responsibility that comes with it. The others think he’s a liability, and they tie him up and leave him behind to fight Kingpin on their own.
But then, Miles’ father, a Black policeman who doesn’t know about his son’s powers, comes to talk to him and apologize for their strained relationship. He can’t see Miles but talks to him through a door.
Miles’ Dad: Look, I know I don’t always do what you need me to do, or say what you need me to say. But, I see this spark in you, it’s amazing! It’s why I push you. It’s yours; whatever you choose to do with it, you’ll be great.
Miles believes in himself for the first time. He bursts out of his restraints and joins his friends for the big fight. They win, of course, and the alternate Spider heroes return to their home dimensions. As the movie comes to a close, Miles reflects on the strength he’s gained. Not only as a superhero, but as a young Black person finding their way in the world.
Miles Morales: I never thought I’d be able to do any of this stuff. But, I can. Anyone can wear the mask. You could wear the mask. If you didn’t know that before, I hope you do now. Because I’m Spider-Man. And I’m not the only one. Not by a longshot.
Afrofuturism makes us feel like we can wear the mask, or at least feel like there’s a future where we might be able to. If we can’t see what that liberated future looks like, our efforts can only take us so far.
Editors’ Note on Music Licensing:
Curved Mirror / “Helix Nebula” / courtesy of www.epidemicsound.com
From Now On / “Clearer Views” / courtesy of www.epidemicsound.com
Sarah, the Illstrumentalist / “Purple Clouds” / courtesy of www.epidemicsound.com