Present Encounters: Digital Humanities Meet Afrofuturism

Written By

Library and Archives, Philadelphia Museum of Art 1 and the Loretta C. Duckworth Scholars Studio, Temple University Libraries 1, 2

The primary impetus for the Present Encounters: Digital Humanities Meet Afrofuturism symposium hosted on April 21-22, 2022 at Temple University Libraries and, by extension, this special issue was to employ Afrofuturism as a conceptual model to develop an inclusive and accessible digital humanities practice centered around the needs of the Black studies community. Cultural critic Mark Dery explains that he coined the term Afrofuturism during a period in which cyberpunk culture was highly Eurocentric with a “deeply body-phobic vision of futurity and of technology, shot through with a loathing for the corporeal, the feminine, and ‘the Other’” (quoted in Barber, 2018, p. 139). Instead, Afrofuturism provides a multigenerational, multi-genre reconciliation the technocentric trends within cyberpunk spaces with an aesthetic and anti-racist practice that responds to a period during which there was a sort of fragmentation occurring between one’s conditions and what one creates (Barber, 2018; Lavender III and Yaszek 2020). Relatedly, sociologist and hip hop scholar Tricia Rose comments, “If you’re going to imagine yourself in the future, you have to imagine where you’ve come from; ancestor worship in Black culture is a way of countering a historical erasure” (quoted in Dery, 1994, p. 215), which underscores the political project embedded within Afrofuturism to counter the “systematic, conscientious, and massive destruction of African cultural remnants” (Samuel R. Delaney quoted in Dery, 1994, p. 191).

Interdisciplinary scholar of library and information science André Brock refers to this framework as “Black technoculture” where,

Technoculture is the set of relations between, and politics of, culture and technology… Black Technoculture proffers a third way [to engage with Blackness, the technical, and the technological]: incorporating the materiality, temporality, and meaning-making capacities of the Black digital and its practitioners as a technological mediation of the Black ‘post-present’ (2020, pp. 7-8).

Social media provides a space for Black users to develop a unique technoculture that is shaped by and shapes the tool itself, as discussed within this issue. Brock goes on to discuss the roles of Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism wherein the former focuses on the experiences of white supremacy and Black oppression and the latter underscores the moments when “Black identity performances and enactments are appreciated and evaluated in situ…From this perspective, Black technoculture asks: what if modernity’s alienation is a feature and not a bug for Black folk?” (2020, p. 12, emphasis in original). According to this model, Blackness is not treated as just data or just history or just discourse; it is a living thing in constant flux based on our humanity throughout time. Additionally, Blackness is not post-human and therefore centering around magic and cyborgs does not capture the fullness of Black identities and experiences. Black technoculture seeks to bring together the digital, no matter how mundane and banal, with identity construction and performances. Black synchronous and asynchronous communication via digital means provides a way to collectively and continuously reinvent Black culture (Brock 2020).

Brock (2018) also proposes a critical technocultural discourse analysis (CTDA) methodological toolkit and conceptual framework that decenters dominant culture hegemony in the investigation of cultural digital practices and discourse, and instead employs cultural relativism to ground itself within the perspective of the examined community. In her discussion of augmented space, digital artist and cultural critic Nettrice R. Gaskins explains,

Creators of new media applications and interfaces should consider whether cultural artforms become irrelevant and invisible or if designers end up creating new experiences in which the spatial and information layers are equally important. Artists and designers can interrogate the dynamic between creative expression and information as well as how these aspects might function differently in today’s digital culture (2016, p. 40).

Taken together, Brock and Gaskins propose an Afrofuturist digital humanities pedagogy and practice grounded in Blackness that considers the relationship between the tool, the developer, the user, and the audience (see also McPherson, 2012). This approach should also incorporate what humanities scholar Kara Keeling calls Queer OS: an inclusive approach that integrates new media studies, queer theory, and race and gender studies under a singular umbrella to generate “a society-level operating system…to facilitate and support imaginative, unexpected, and ethical relations” (2014, p. 154). Queer OS aims to work beyond the “master’s tools” to develop and/or underscore alternate epistemologies.

Symposium Overview and Issue Outline

Composed of seven presentations, a moderated panel discussion, a tour of the Temple University Libraries Loretta C. Duckworth Scholars Studio (Scholar Studio), project demonstrations, and various performances, Present Encounters: Digital Humanities Meet Afrofuturism brought scholars, students, and practitioners together within the physical space of the Charles Library and the conceptual space of Black digital humanities. Like the articles in this special issue, the work shared at the symposium examined the applications and intellectual ethea toward technology as it applies to Afrofuturism as a conceptual framework, as well as a broader practice of envisioning the future of Black people. The symposium opened at Charles Library with opening remarks by the library dean Joe Lucia and the keynote address delivered by Afrofuturist and Black speculative scholar Reynaldo Anderson,which functioned as a philosophical orientation for attendees by tracing the scholars, activists, and visionaries that underpin his research and work with Afrofuturism. His functionalist approach emphasized community building, and he underscored several publications and graphic novels alongside community education projects to provide a clear pathway for attendees to transition to the subsequent moderated panel at the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection (Blockson Collection) reading room. Illustrators Eric Battle, Damali Beatty, and Nilé Livingston discussed their work for the Black Lives Always Mattered!: Hidden African American Philadelphia of the Twentieth Century graphic novel.2 The first day ended with a final migration to the Scholars Studio for presentations and demonstrations of projects that were facilitated within the department by graduate extern Tauheedah Shukriyyah Asad, postdoctoral fellow Synatra A. Smith, and LEADING fellow jay winkler.3 These projects consisted of mapping, augmented reality, and visualizing linked open data which all recontextualized and visualized gaps in the record as it pertained to Black art, space, and culture. This portion of the symposium fully illustrated the role technology plays in the ideas and concepts discussed by the previous speakers.

The second day opened with digital scholarship librarian Jasmine L. Clark’s presentation of the Virtual Blockson project4 at the Blockson Collection reading room, which continued the discussion of the role of technology into pedagogical praxis through gamification. This presentation set the thematic tone for the day as the final presentations focused on pedagogy and gaming. After transitioning back to the Charles Library, Black speculative learning design scholar Clayton Colman introduced his approach to incorporating imagination and liberation into learning and engagement.5 His reference to Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (Butler, 2000) and emphasis on inclusivity smoothly set the tone for Black future feminist/pop culture scholar Grace D. Gipson’s presentation,6 which explored Black women in gaming, especially their ability to organize to create inclusive spaces for non-white, cis-het men. The second day concluded with closing remarks by chair of the Africology and African American studies department, Molefi K. Asante who shared his thoughts on the works presented and the need for due caution in the ways technology is used.7 For Black people, it is crucial that technology never be separated from our speculative future. The reality is that many technologies exist to mine data, extract wealth, and have great potential for harm; in this way, the closing remarks given by Asante at the symposium are particularly relevant.

Five of the presentations from the symposium are included in this issue as articles. Anderson’s keynote address has been transcribed and edited into article format to serve as a theoretical anchor for this issue and an exploration of Black speculative creativity in practice. This is followed by Smith’s discussion of a speculative curation workflow developed with the intention of sharing digital methods with small institutions with limited funding and low staff capacity. Smith’s concluding nod to Black feminism within digital humanities transitions the discussion to Gipson’s exploration of Black women forging a space for themselves within the largely exclusionary white male dominated gaming industry. Subsequently, Clark’s explanation of the Virtual Blockson project outlines an inclusive, gamified pedagogy for K-12 students through virtual reality. The issue ends with Colmon’s argument for a speculative pedagogy that transforms the classroom power structure into a space for equity and inclusion.

(May 2023)


Barber, T. E. (2018). 25 Years of Afrofuturism and Black Speculative Thought: Roundtable with Tiffany E. Barber, Reynaldo Anderson, Mark Dery, and Sheree Renée Thomas. Project Muse, 39(Spring 2018), 136–144.

Brock, A. (2018). Critical Technocultural Discourse Analysis. New Media & Society, 20(3), 1012–1030.

Brock, A. (2020). Black Technoculture and/as Afrofuturism. Extrapolation, 61(1–2), 7–28.

Butler, O. E. (2000). Parable of the sower. Warner Books.

Dery, M. (1994). Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose. In M. Dery (Ed.), Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Duke University Press.

Gaskins, N. R. (2016). Afrofuturism on Web 3.0: Vernacular Cartography and Augmented Space. In R. Anderson & C. E. Jones (Eds.), Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness (pp. 27–44). Lexington Books.

Keeling, K. (2014). Queer OS. Cinema Journal, 53(2), 152–158.

Lavender III, I., & Yaszek, L. (2020). The First Death of Afrofuturism. Extrapolation, 61(1–2), 1–6.

McPherson, T. (2012). Why are the Digital Humanities So White? Or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation. In M. K. Gold (Ed.), Debates in the Digital Humanities (pp. 139–160). University of Minnesota Press.

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