Friends gather for a gala get-together on my front porch, all of us vaccinated and thus able now to be with one another after our year apart. Spring is lovely here this year, trees budding, the yard awash in constellations of blue, white, and purple: wildflowers and patches of clover. We celebrate the publication of a friend’s novel, an historical romance just out this past week from Berkley, everyone wanting to read it, cheered too by the arrival of her parents, new in from up north. When last we saw each other, F. was new in as well: a newborn, a wee lass just home from the hospital. Amazing how much she’s grown these past fifteen months. Our friend’s dad is an artist, as is another of the party’s attendees. Both draw beautiful illustrations in colored chalk on our cement walkway. I admire these on my evening wanderings about the yard come dark. ‘Tis a starry night, across which flies a ship, discernible here below only a modest dots of red and white light. I resolve to read Black Quantum Futurist Rasheedah Phillips’s book Recurrence Plot (and other time travel tales), at the heart of which is a character named after the scarab-faced Egyptian god Khepri. This character is, like me, a frequent thrift-shopper. Let us, like Khepri, donate something each time we thrift.
Do we, sounding out notes, sing for each other? We do. We sing, we write, we whistle. Sarah has arranged plants and wooden animal sculptures delightfully, shrine-like, atop a bookcase that runs beneath our front window, in the midst of which hangs a triangular shard of stained glass. I sit before it and gaze upward, through the triangle of colored light, into the sky — the “up above.” Children of my time grew up admiring skywalkers and jedi warriors, as do children of today. These figures are some of our earliest heroes. Interplanetary travel of the sort imagined by the Star Wars films provided a hopeful vision of technology’s past and future. Counter to it stood the abduction scenario of Poltergeist. With those famous spell-like opening words, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” Star Wars opens a portal to the myth-space of the ancient future past. Worlds are places we visit in starships. There’s the danger of Empire — the galaxy’s thanatopic death-drive — but we can fight it by joining the Rebel Alliance. Heroes are abducted from their home planet, swept up by destiny. Star Trek came later for me as an imagination-space, with its Federation-authorized Starship Enterprise, an intergalactic captained battleship. My first meeting with an Afrofuture occurred in my late adolescence or early adulthood, when I happened upon a copy of Funkadelic’s The Electric Spanking of War Babies among records belonging to my grandmother. The album blew my mind, partly censored cover art by Pedro Bell suggesting funk-powered intelligence and humor — psychedelic consciousness of a sort I’d never encountered before. “The kind of style that messes up the program.” The album is a warning about negative vibes.
The following are multimodal, multigenre maps of consciousness.
Across these maps run time travelers, world runners
growing and evolving together into ever-larger
circles of trust, connected
Heed her words:
Moor Mother, at the end of Circuit City when she
shouts, “You can’t
time travel / Seek inner and outer
dimensions / Without free jazz!”
or on Youtube:
“If you wanna do something / find a way to create it.”
“Singing together / is how we heal.”
Fugitive study leads me to the Dogon tribe. Place matters to Afrofuturists: Chicago is the mothership, and Philadelphia is the devil’s playground. IFA originates among the Yoruba people. Yoruba divination practices make use of an ancient binary system of 256 odus. Charles and Ray Eames’s short film Powers of Ten opens with a couple picnicking in a park in Chicago. Chicago is where police killed Fred Hampton. Chicago is where police beat the future as the whole world watched. Philadelphia is where police bombed MOVE. With our portals and our time machines, let us re-member the past. Let us return these truths to the times to which they belong.
In place of “Afrofuturism,” a term coined by white cultural critic Mark Dery, science fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor prefers “Africanfuturism” and “Africanjujuism,” terms she coined herself. She defines the latter as “a subcategory of fantasy that respectfully acknowledges the seamless blend of true existing African spiritualities and cosmologies with the imaginative.” History is that which, ever-changing even as it rhymes, never neatly coincides with itself. Only in this way can the future be other than circuit city: rote repetition of that which came before.
Octavia Butler’s Kindred is a time travel novel worth noting in light of work by contemporary Afrofuturists. The book’s protagonist, a 26-year-old African-American temp agent named Dana, finds herself suddenly and inexplicably transported from her home in present-day California (or the present day of 1979, the year the book was published) to a plantation in the Antebellum South. History kidnaps her, we might say. She doesn’t travel willingly. And when it occurs for her, travel is always to a painful and traumatic past. The book stages for readers an encounter with ancestors, leaving unventured the world of tomorrow. Kindred differs from conventional time travel narratives in other ways as well. Usually, time travel narratives feature white male protagonists who can travel to almost any period in history without sacrificing their privileged social status and position of dominance. These conventional white male protagonists can “pass” as ordinary figures from the period, while often using their knowledge of the future in order to gain power over others. For these characters, time travel is basically an exotic form of tourism, like a safari (as is explicitly the case in Ray Bradbury’s classic 1952 short story “A Sound of Thunder”). Meanwhile Dana’s appearance as a liberated black woman (in terms of clothing, skin color, manner of speech, etc) immediately places her in danger of rape and enslavement as soon as she arrives to the past.
A friend notes after the two of us watch Benedict Seymour’s film Dead the Ends (2017) that there’s a lot of amateur “social detective” work at play in recent time travel narratives. A kind of “cognitive mapping” occurs in these works — and perhaps a more successful mapping than can occur in other kinds of conspiracy narratives. The 70s conspiracy films that Fredric Jameson studied in The Geopolitical Aesthetic imagine no more than conspiracy’s revelation by story’s end. Detectives in these films are often hauled away by authorities as soon as they share their findings (sometimes literally, as with Charlton Heston shouting the famous final lines of Soylent Green), the prophets’ words met with silence, unheard by those he would save. The most hopeful film in the bunch is All the President’s Men, with Woodward and Bernstein forcing the resignation of Richard Nixon. But as the times they are a-changin’, so too are the ways artists respond to them. Artists like Benedict Seymour are reanimating detective films of an earlier era by giving the detectives in these films time machines.
Perhaps we should be True Detectives, then, and reopen The Case of the Cognitive Map. Let us assume as our suspect the aesthetic articulation of a “chronopolitics” rather than a geopolitics. At the center of this new art are amateur, unpredictable, fugitive acts of time travel. The time machine is in some sense the paralogy, the game-changer in this work, granting the social detective of the new 21st-century time-travel thriller a way to fight back against creeping fascism. The detective in Benedict Seymour’s Dead the Ends (2017) is a Marxist dialectician working on behalf of the CCC, an embattled communist organization of the future, on the far side of WWIII. He intervenes in the past so as to swerve the capitalist crisis of the 1970s toward a timestream other than the one that ends in what Marx called “the common ruin of the contending classes.” Seymour even alludes to Jameson in the film, with Jameson’s famous slogan “History is what hurts” re-spun as the onscreen pun, “Hysteresis is what hurts.” As we noted when we zoomed, though, the time-traveler undergoes a kind of narrative decentering by film’s end, 86’d by rioting communities of color.
The next “move” after Seymour’s, I suppose, would be chronopolitical art that starts with that decentering, with people of color wielding time machines of their own.
This puts me in mind of Black Quantum Futurism, a collective launched by Rasheedah Phillips and Moor Mother. Both artists are also affiliated with a larger Philadelphia-based community organization, The Afrofuturist Affair. This latter group, which “uses Afrofuturism and Sci-Fi as vehicles for expression, creativity, education, agency, and liberation in communities of color,” has published several PDF zines related to time travel, including Do-It-Yourself Time Travel and Synchronicity, Superposition, and Sun Ra.
The title of Ishmael Reed and Al Young’s anthology Yardbird Lives! jumps out, meets me, sits with me on the page. It’s a utopian exclamation, analogous in sentiment to Octavia Butler’s “Earthseed,” the science-fictional revealed religion in her Parable novels. I think, too, of Hummingbird and Green Fly’s adventures “in time immemorial” in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony. Read beside “Earthseed,” the others seem like allegories of space travel. Reed runs his Afrofuturism in a way similar to Sun Ra. Time and space travel are returned from Western futurity to their home in Ancient Egypt. In Silko’s Laguna Pueblo cosmology, travel involves movement among “the world of the people” and “worlds below.” In Frederick Douglass, we encounter a similar narrative of flight, do we not? Leaving behind the Garden-that-is-in-fact-a-Slave-Plantation, Douglass travels to another world. With Gary Snyder, meanwhile, the focus is on saving this world, the continent and world of Turtle Island, or what Snyder in another of his books calls Earth House Hold.
Literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. appears as himself in the recent Watchmen series on HBO. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo figures prominently as a primary object of study in Gates’s groundbreaking book The Signifying Monkey. Watchmen is a work of alternate history, as is Mumbo Jumbo. Both works help us remember our history, parts of which have been buried in the white political unconscious. The Tulsa Massacre, for instance, is an event dramatically reenacted in Watchmen‘s opening episode, and the US invasion and occupation of Haiti reappears to consciousness in much the same way as one reads Mumbo Jumbo. The two works rhyme with each other — “repeat with a difference,” as Gates would say — in other ways as well. Reed’s secret, conspiratorial white-supremacist Atonist Order finds its correlate, its contemporary near-equivalent, in Watchmen‘s secret “Cyclops” conspiracy. Each work also features as its hero a black detective: PaPa LaBas in Mumbo Jumbo, and Det. Angela Abar, aka Sister Night in Watchmen. Yet there are differences. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Attribution of that saying to Twain appears in print in 1970, as in “A Said Poem” by Canadian artist John Robert Colombo. But Twain’s actual words appear in The Gilded Age, a novel Twain co-wrote with his neighbor Charles Dudley Warner: “History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.” The old legends and their systems of order are in pieces due to migration, diaspora, forced separation of people from the lands of their ancestors. The crack in the cosmic egg. With these multicultural fragments let us assemble a mosaic — something colorful, like the drawing by Cuban-born artist Alberto del Pozo on the cover of The Signifying Monkey.
Butler’s version of Afrofuturism is far more pessimistic than the versions crafted by immediate precursors like Sun Ra and Samuel R. Delany. Christianity appears prominently in her work as both early influence and adversary. Think, for instance, of her use of gospel parables as structuring principles. Her narratives are “true” to the parables — grant the parables a kind of truth — even as they formulate Earthseed, a new religious movement discovered by Butler’s heroine and put into practice as Christianity’s replacement and successor.
Earthseed, the religion founded by Lauren Oya Olamina, the heroine who narrates Octavia E. Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower, resembles other faiths (including the Baptism of Butler’s upbringing) in its evangelical cast. Lauren spreads the word and seeks converts, her church being a kind of mutual aid society. Together, she and her followers form a traveling, changing community — a “team” or “tribe” of sorts, decisions made organically based on the group’s capacity to survive amid thieves, murderers, cannibals, junkies, wild dogs, and arsonists. Lauren’s view of the world is paranoid, but it’s a paranoia borne out by lived events of trauma. She “experiences” and “shares” the pain of others due to what she calls “hyperempathy syndrome.” She has an ability that makes her vulnerable, and thus cautious of who she can trust. We needn’t think of this as mere delusion. The reactions to bodily harm sometimes manifest physically, another’s pain sometimes drawing blood. However we view this aspect of Lauren’s experience, it leads her to seek followers. She wants others to believe her, offering in exchange a path toward survival.
The baby falls asleep to Parliament Funkadelic, Spaceship Earth reimagined as the Mothership Connection. “Are you hip to Easter Island?” asks singer George Clinton late in the song. “The Bermuda Triangle? Well all right / Ain’t nothing but a party.” Time to live light years in the future, in a time-space proposed by Afrofuturists. “One Nation Under a Groove.” Re-constitute the social order and make it funky: “Feet don’t fail me now!” Out of fear of its wrath, I refrain from playing Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry & The Upsetters’s “War Ina Babylon,” opting instead to play Bob Marley & The Wailers’s beautiful “Redemption Song” as the baby wakes. Afterwards, we dance around, her in my arms, me on my feet, to Jorge Ben’s Africa Brasil — on which I discover to my surprise a song called “Hermes Trismegisto Escreveu.” Later, by myself, I climb to the room above the garage and bliss out to J Hamilton Isaacs’s Circumzenithal Arc.