Afrofuturism: The Second Race for Theory

Written By

Africology and African American Studies Department, Temple University

Editors’ Note: This article is a transcribed, edited version of the keynote address from the Present Encounters: Digital Humanities Meet Afrofuturism symposium hosted by Temple University Libraries on April 21-22, 2022. 

I was so glad when I got this email from Synatra inviting me to talk about this because I’ve been in conversation with the Black speculative movement over the last eighteen months about the subtle shifts that have gone on in relation to how knowledge is getting produced around the topic of Afrofuturism. At that time, I was also working on The Black Angel of History: Myth-Science, Metamodernism, and the Metaverse, an exhibition at Carnegie Hall. In his 1964 address at the Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm X stated, “I, for one, believe that if you give people a thorough understanding of what it is that confronts them, and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own program; and when the people create a program, you get action.” One of the things we kept in mind when developing the contemporary Afrofuturist movement was integrating community spaces. When we do it internationally, I said, “we’re not going to go in there with an American-centric colonizer aspect. They can figure out what they need for themselves. They just want to know what tools are available.” And they have; usually their own local knowledge systems will help enforce that. in Johannesburg, South Africa during the Fall of 2018 activist Naledi Chirwa said, “Yeah, for us, Afrofuturism is the politics of the stomach. You know, who gets to eat and who does not eat.” One of the things that I share with some of my colleagues is that American intellectuals sometimes can be unique in their approach to when we are talking in the abstract. One of my previous colleagues from Guyana said, “You can always tell an American scholar when they talk about some things internationally, because it’s different from us. Sometimes the way we talk about our ideas determines if you have a roof over your head or if you get to eat or not.” And so, sometimes what Americans talk about is not very practical, in terms of its application.

A Time Beyond our Lifetimes: The First Race for Theory

The term “200 year present,” coined by sociologist Elise Boulding, is particularly salient because right now, at this moment, there are people that were born 100 years ago, and there is a child being born right now in the hospital that will be alive 100 years from now. Additionally, sociologists typically explain that nations, or sometimes societies, usually have about a 200-year kind of lifespan before they go through some type of massive change. If you go back 200 years here in this country around 1820, you will find enslaved Africans revolting. About ten years from now around 2030 I speculate my digital humanities people will go and collect the data and these archives that exist now. That’s the beginning of where you start having yearly meetings of what they would have called Black meetings of scholarship. Since 1830, there has never not been a year where Black people in the US did not have some type of religious or political meeting to talk about what was going on in the country. The last 100-plus years of transnational struggle, during which time Black intellectuals have been dealing with archiving (i.e., reassembling institutional knowledge), there have been roughly three phases. The first phase, the concept of the encyclopedia Africana, starts around 1901 when W.E.B. DuBois was in conversation with Edward Blyden, who was thought to be a multifaceted genius in the 19th century and influenced a lot of DuBois’s thinking. During the period, what Rayford Logan called the Nadir or the Age of Imperialism around 1880 to 1921 or so, other cultures at this time were putting together encyclopedias during the Industrial Revolution as a way of archiving and reassembling knowledge to make sense of what was going on.

Forty years or so after that period was the anti-colonial Black Power era when modern Black studies emerged primarily driven by people who were either activists or scholars that came of age between 1955 and 1975. Then the term “Africology” emerged in the late 20th century toward the end of the Cold War during a period where a lot of people were beginning to be influenced by the arrival of the postmodern scholars and influential thinkers that came to America after World War II and were exposed to people like Jacque Derrida, Michel Foucault, and others in the late 20th century. This eventually led to a certain type of intellectual conflict in terms of nomenclature and how people thought about theory. There was an article written by Black feminist scholar Barbara Christian entitled “The Race for Theory” (1987) wherein she observed that in the area of literary criticism a lot of theoretical writing was becoming incomprehensible in terms of the ability for people to understand it. During this postmodern era between 1987 and 1993, Jean-François Lyotard and Derrida were collapsing the idea of grand narratives. Lyotard’s writings on the postmodern condition, Molefi Asante’s theorization of Afrocentricity, Michele Wallace’s manifesto on Black feminism, and others published works kind of set a trend for a generation from around 1977 to through the late 1980s. During this period there was also a rise of public intellectuals like bell hooks, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, and others who knew that they were at the end of a certain kind of knowledge production that had really solidified from 1945 to about 1988. 

At this point, intellectuals began shifting from the anti-colonial Black Power era in terms of knowledge production on the eve of Web 1.0, which would go online by the mid-1990s. This is evident in Asante’s The Afrocentric Idea (1987), Gates’s The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism (1988), and Cornel West’s Prophesy Deliverance! (1987), and Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) and some of the other Black British intellectuals at that time. Despite flaws in The Black Atlantic that leave out Afro-Latinos, people still reference Gilroy’s work, as well as his work There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and the Nation (1987). This period was also the beginning of what would be called the “culture wars,” a term first publicly introduced by paleoconservative US politician Pat Buchanan. He explained at the 1992 Republican National Convention, “My fellow Americans, this campaign is about philosophy… It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.” 

The Africological response to this period and discussions of Black futures was explored through a few works during this time. Mark Dery (1994) coined the term “Afrofuturism” in dialogue with author and literary critic Samuel R. Delaney, writer, musician, and producer Greg Tate, and hip hop scholar Tricia Rose. Additionally, C. Tsehloane Keto’s The Africa Centered Perspective of History and Social Sciences in the Twenty-first Century (1993) was one of those thin 100-page books that you could only find in Black bookstores. Keto explains, “As a futurologist she or he can speculate, engage beyond the next century… to create in sharp contrast a time map on which to trace the events of the past, create history through action in the present, and plot the path of possible future action” (1993, 120-122). Asante also published Malcolm X as Cultural Hero and Other Afrocentric Essays (1993) in which he deals with space and time. Then also, the first scholar using Afrocentricity in relation to the world wide web was Anna Everett in her essay The revolution will be digitized: Afrocentricity and the digital public sphere (2002), in which she establishes an Africological perspective in relation to the Web 1.0 era.

The Second Race for Theory: The Challenge for Africology and Africana Philosophy

According to Moore’s Law, approximately every eighteen months knowledge doubles because of transistors and so forth. But now the pandemic has progressed us to what some call Moore’s Law+ because so much of our knowledge production has moved to online platforms. It accelerated our sense of time and beingness and displaced our sense of time and beingness for about two years. However, myself and other scholars lean toward the artificial intelligence (AI) explanation which blows up Moore’s Law in terms of the way knowledge accelerates now. It is faster than even under the 1960s model of Moore’s as society has shifted from Web 2.0. toward Web 3.0 since 2018.  For example, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have introduced new modes of artmaking using blockchain technology. During this second race for philosophy in this Black speculative field there are roughly three to four competing ideas with Afrofuturism 2.0. Afropessimism, which is largely attributed to Frank Wilderson (2020), asserts that Black people do not function as political agents. Critical theory scholar Kara Keeling and communications scholar Amber Johnson explore queer temporalities in relation to Black speculative cultural production and racial capitalism. Poet and author Sofia Samatar and historian and political theorist Achille Mbembe use the term Afropolitan as a transnational lens with which to discuss Black ex-patriots and their global lived experiences. Finally, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum considers the differences between Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism to locate a specific continental African sensibility using an indigenous African mythos. Africanfuturism usually addresses three main issues: what does it mean to be human, question of freedom, and justification. 

Now, Africology and Afrofuturism 2.0 deals with a global Black or African speculative imagination. It is to the left of the ideological left because it emanates from an alternative geography of reason that centers Africa instead of Europe, and it has these different components organized around Afrocentric meta theory, which deals with agency, location, or dislocation; Afrofuturism 2.0, which is a transnational theorization influenced by the merging of social media, digital aesthetics, and file sharing, the African Union, which establishes the African diaspora as the sixth region of the continent, platform capitalism, blockchain and biotech, and existential threats. Additionally, Afrofuturism 2.0 deals with five dimensions that include metaphysics, aesthetics, theoretical and applied science, social science, and programmatic spaces. Finally, Astro-Blackness assesses a political commitment to Black consciousness connected via digital platforms that transcend the nation-state that has been occurring for the past two decades. 

Theory and Praxis: The Structure of Artistic Revolutions

The Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM), established in 2015 with the Unveiling Visions: Alchemy of the Black Imagination exhibition at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, provided a platform for Afrofuturism 2.0 in practice. Legacy examples of this praxis include the Harlem Renaissance, Négritude, the Black Arts Movement, and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. At this moment, there has been a trilogy of curated events that illustrate where the BSAM is and the direction in which it is moving. At the beginning of the pandemic when we had to move so much of our work and creative production online, I collaborated with graphic designer Stacey Robinson and Africana studies scholar Tiffany E. Barber on the Curating the End of the World digital exhibition (Google Arts and Culture, 2020), a commentary on the end of one way of production and beingness that included CT3 (Robinson, 2017), a digital photographic collage that really captured the essence of the BSAM. The exhibition The Black Angel of History: Myth-Science, Metamodernism, and the Metaverse (Carnegie Hall, 2022) signals the end of the Web 2.0 phase and transition into Web 3.0. One of the graphic illustrations from the Black Angel of History exhibition includes images of graphic novelist and media and cultural studies scholar John Jennings, Keto, and myself in which I am explaining Keto’s concept of the global pluriverse as an opportunity to proceed equitably in terms of technology and innovation. In that same graphic, Jennings describes his concept for critical race design studies, a commentary on that lack of training around how to draw Black characters in the graphic arts, especially in terms of skin tone and hair texture. 

Jennings, myself, and others have discussed a commitment to inform our BSAM praxis through scholarship. I have collaborated with several scholars to publish three edited volumes (Anderson and Jones, 2015; Anderson and Fluker, 2019; Brooks, Anderson, and Taylor, 2020). Another aspect of BSAM is that it is poly-temporal and facilitates the creation of imagination survival programs internationally in such countries as Brazil, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Cameroon, Ghana, and Canada. Methodologically speaking digital humanities is focused on data analysis, data capture, and data structure. However, for the Africologist, what is key is the orientation toward the data, as in the case of “Afrofuturist Intellectual Mixtapes: A Classroom Case Study” (Thompson and Carrera, 2021)—in which Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness (Anderson and Jones, 2015) contributed as a primary text—and Afrofuturism and Digital Humanities: Show Me and I Will Engage Differently (Carter, 2022). Additionally, I regard Cosmic Underground: A Grimoire of Black Speculative Discontent (Anderson and Jennings, 2018), the Afro-Canadian project Cosmic Underground Northside: An Incantation of Black Canadian Speculative Discourse and Innerstandings (Vercetty and Hudson, 2021), which includes contributions from Black Caribbean folks, and The Comet – 150 Years W.E.B. DuBois: Afrofuturism 2.0 (Kelly, 2021), which includes a Black European perspective, as the speculative message from the grassroots. 

Looking Ahead Afrofuturism 3.0

The explosion of African creatives, such as founder of ART X Lagos Tokini Peterside, who utilize cryptocurrency, blockchain technology, and NFTs to create an alternative economy signaled the transition from previous Americo-centric discussions of Afrofuturism and projected the direction of Afrofuturism forecasted by creatives like digital artist and cultural critic Nettrice Gaskins and others in the areas of the metaverse, blockchain technology, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Nigeria and South Africa are actively using blockchain as a sort of social protest due to the issues surrounding government corruption and receiving wired funds which are often stolen before reaching their intended recipient. /blackFreelancer, for example, is a global blockchain network of creatives of African descent who invest in cryptocurrencies, get employment, and showcase their creations. Furthermore, a Harris poll taken during the summer of 2021 showed that 23% of African Americans as opposed to 11% of white Americans own cryptocurrencies. With all of this in mind, I am looking forward to working on the development of an initiative for Afrofuturist studies within the Africology and African American studies department at Temple University as an opportunity to explore the intersection of Afrofuturism and digital humanities. With that, my presentation comes to an end. Thank you very much for the invitation that you all extended to me to address you at the conference today.

(presented April 2022, published May 2023)


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