The Black Imagination and Possibility: Afrofuturist Aesthetics in the 90s and Beyond

What better cultural and theoretical aesthetic to interrogate the interplay of black cultural life in the 90s, the present, and beyond than Afrofuturism? The term refers to a broad aesthetic form that employs technology and various artistic forms (it combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, history, magical realism, and Afrocentrism) to link a historical African past with an imagined black diasporic future.

Attempts by black artists to explore diasporic identity, to reconcile the past with the present, and subsequently envision a future where black is situated as subject, are not new. However, this phenomenon was dubbed “Afrofuturism” in 1994 when Mark Dery, a cultural critic and early writer on techno culture, examined recurring features and themes in African American science fiction, music, and art. In his essay “Black to the Future,” as part of an anthology called Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, Dery interviews writers, such as Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose, in an attempt to explore concerns raised by African Americans writers in the science fiction genre. In the essay, he writes:

Speculative fiction that treats African American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of the twentieth-century counterculture–and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future–might, for want of a better term, be called ‘Afrofuturism.’

His coinage and definition of Afrofuturism directly relates to science fiction tropes. However, scholars, like Alondra Nelson, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose (among many others), note that the term encompasses varied art forms and genres, as they relate to black culture and its African retentions.

Important to note is that Dery merely assigned a name to this aesthetic; the form itself has been practiced in black diasporic art for years. There is general sense that the features that comprise an Afrofuturist aesthetic are embedded in black cultural DNA; for they hark in every way to a diasporic identity. In an interview, Alondra Nelson, a social scientist who writes on intersectionality of science, technology, medicine, and inequality, says of the term that it “captured what we’d always known about black culture, but it gave us something to call it, to name it…It gives us a tradition and a legacy, where all the pieces sort of fit together.”

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Dery’s article is comprised of commentary from Delany, Tate, and Rose, and these three construct the framework of what we know to be Afrofuturism today. Earlier than that, however, Mark Sinker and Greg Tate were generating conversations about black science fiction and its connection to techno culture and music, among others. In 1992, Sinker published an essay, “Loving the Alien” in The New Inquiry, in which he equates historical slavery with alien abduction as represented in literature. Tate wrote a review of David Toop’s Rap Attack called “Yo! Hermeneutics!”, which highlights a science fiction sensibility in black music. According to Nelson, Afrofuturist art, no matter the medium, is imbued with futuristic themes and capitalizes off technological innovation. In the fall of 1998, then a graduate student at NYU, Alondra Nelson and artist Paul D. Miller established an on-line Afrofuturism listserv, and launched Afrofuturism.net in 2000. Both sites were dedicated to science fictions and discussed how the genre addresses a “past of abduction, displacement and alien-nation” and inspires “technical and creative innovations.” Also, in September of 1999, Nelson organized an Afrofuturism forum at NYU, which dedicated conversation to the “future of black production.”

There is no singular definition of Afrofuturism; the aesthetic is as varied and fluid as the cultural identities it explores. To this day, the aesthetic comprises an array of media forms, including, but not limited to, textual, visual, and aural arts. However, at the heart of this aesthetic form lie some artistic and cultural product that 1. examines the past, 2. critiques the present, and 3. “imagines possible futures.” Many works by Afrofuturist artists, in some way, blend elements of the past with the future to assert opinions on sociopolitical and cultural issues concerning black people. With regards to literature, these opinions usually manifest in the dystopian genre. For example, Octavia Butler’s “The Parable Series” (1993-1998), interrogates notions of racial and gender identity in the 2020s. Her depiction of a futuristic society, depraved and plagued by an exacting, ever-widening gap between the rich and poor easily resembles a not-so-far-distant past, and perhaps even the present. Butler, among other black sci-fi writers, also often re articulated traditional African religion and customs in the futuristic contexts of her novels.

Undoubtedly, an Afrofuturistic aesthetic pervades black culture in the 90s. Primarily the music is informed by futuristic sensibilities. Scholars, like Tricia Rose, pointed out how this manifested in the form of technology and sound reproduction. In an interview with Mark Dery, she says, “Digital music technology—samplers, sequencers, drum machines— are themselves cultural objects, and as such the carry cultural ideas.” Musicians, while utilizing aural mechanisms to revamp sound, also incorporated Afrofuturist themes in a visual and lyrical context. Outkast, for example, definitely falls within this extensive lineage of Afrofuturist artists with the albums ATLiens (1996) and Aquemini (1998). Both albums pushed the bounds of production with extraterrestrial sounds and existential, imaginative lyrics.

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Afrofuturist elements can even be found in Erykah Badu’s video for “Didn’t Cha Know” as it alludes to a liminal space where the subject wanders, simultaneously reaching into the past (allusions to Africa, Kimetics, and Egyptology) and looking towards an uncertain, yet hopeful future. This musical lineage extends even further back, however, to artists, such as George Clinton and Sun Ra, and groups like PFunk, who melded their historically informed visions of the future with jazz and funk sounds. More discussion on the emergence of Afrofuturist aesthetics in science fiction and popular music pre-1990s and 21st-century can be found in John Akomfrah’s 1996 documentary “Last Angel of History.”

Undoubtedly, Afrofuturist themes pervade most areas of black culture today, perhaps more so than it ever has. Its prevalence is evident from the music of Janelle Monae and Flying Lotus, to the novels of Nnedi Okorafo and Tananarive Due, to the visual and performing arts of Adejoke Tugbiyele and OluShola A. Cole. That its popularity is growing makes sense, since we are still ironing out methods of reclaiming culture, reinventing tradition, and redefining notions of blackness. The questions posed and pondered, even before the advent of Afrofuturism as a theoretical perspective, still remain: How do black people imagine a better future for black people? What does that future look like? And, how do we get there? —Keith Freeman

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Works Cited

Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, And Tricia Rose.” Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994. 179-222. Print.

Nelson, Alondra. “Introduction: Future Texts.” Social Text. 20.2 (2002): 1-15. Web. 10 November 2015.

Soho Rep. “Afrofuturism.” Online video clip. YouTube. Youtube, 22 Apr. 2006. Web. 05 November 2015.

Representations of Black Gay Men in “Paris is Burning” & “Tongues Untied”

Both “Paris is Burning” (1990), a documentary film by Jennie Livingston, and “Tongues Untied” (1989), a semi-autobiographical docufilm by Marlon Riggs explore the communities of transgender and gay people of color and its members’ efforts to reconcile racial and sexual identities.

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Both films are groundbreaking in their portrayal of the difficulty of exploring various identities while living under the scrutiny of white, patriarchal society. Via the pageantry and pomp of the drag and ballroom scene in New York in the 80s and 90s, “Paris is Burning” explores gay Black, Latino, and transgender communities, as its members confront issues of race, gender, and sexuality. In interviews, often melancholic, the documentary participants (i.e. Pepper Labeija, Dorian Corey, & Angie Xtravaganza) often profoundly muse on lives plagued by familial, romantic, and societal rejection based on their sexuality.

Each speaks candidly about homelessness and ostracization, and how ballroom scenes offered places of refuge, kinship, and security. They too admit how
such arenas allowed them to escape realities and act out desires to attain a more affluent, Eurocentric standard of living. “Paris is Burning” has been legitimately critiqued for being more exploitative than politically challenging. Albeit a valid point, the film retains some cultural value.

“Tongues Untied” melds Tongues-untiednarrative accounts via its director, Marlon Riggs, with fictional vignettes and interpretive poetry that represent a collective yet varied and mutable black, gay identity. The docufilm focuses primarily on gay black men (e.g. Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, Craig Harris and Riggs himself) , who also openly and unapologetically confront the ugly heads of racism and homophobia. Scenes of clips from homophobic stand up routines (e.g. by Eddie Murphy) and of the Civil Rights Movements serve to combat negative stereotypes and link the struggles of black, gay men with an historical legacy of resistance. Undoubtedly, “Tongues Untied” is focused and political in its thrust, arguably more so than “Paris is Burning.” Unlike Livingston, Riggs chooses not only to depict men stymied under the weight of white supremacy, but also takes the system to task, illustrating instances of fierce opposition. One such oppositional method is the refutation of silence preluded by the film’s title. Riggs directly challenges this inclination towards silence, not in a way that begets shame (he focuses his critique on a society that promotes and demands speechlessness), but rather one that privileges the power of black, gay men’s voices. Undoubtedly, herein lies the revolutionary mark of “Tongues Untied.”

Many comparisons have and continue to be drawn between the two films, with respect to representation of gay and transgender communities. bell hooks’ commentaries on the “gaze” and “subjectivity” are good entry points to discuss this issue. Interestingly, hooks discusses “Paris is Burning” in her book Black Looks: Race and Representation. She writes,

“(…) Jennie Livingston approaches her subject matter as an outsider looking in. Since her presence as a white/lesbian filmmaker is “absent” from Paris Is Burning, it is easy for viewers to imagine that they are watching an ethnographic film documenting the life of black gay “natives” and not recognize that they are watching a work shaped and formed by a standpoint and perspective specific to Livingston.”

Livingston, albeit a lesbian woman, operates from a place of privilege as a white woman. And, her racial and social status, though it should not discredit her or deem her incapable of exploring a culture outside her own, should call into question intent and the adequacy of her representation. Yes, Livingston sought to give voice to a particular community. However, her method becomes problematic considering it does not allow “subjects” to negotiate the terms of their own representation. They speak on their experiences and struggles, joys and pains, yes. However, they relinquish substantial ownership over the telling of their stories. Thus, they do not even retain any centrality in the work as it were. That these men and trans women fell back into relative obscurity post-film further elucidates the reality of their marginalization.

On the other hand, Riggs intentionally positions black, gay men centrally in “Tongues Untied.” Worthy of consideration is the holistic picture presented by Riggs and his cohort. Inherent in the film is a clear beginning, a journey that ebbs-and-flows, and an ending that is not altogether complete, but unmistakably hopeful. In the end, Riggs, having reflected on intense pain and internal conflict, remarks, “Whatever awaits me, this much I know: I was blind to my brother’s beauty, and now I see my own.” Unlike “Tongues Untied”, “Paris is Burning” is more fragmented, and the totality of experiences of gay men of color goes unaddressed. That TU is both created for and composed by black men undergirds and reaffirms its closing remark, “Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act.” —Keith Freeman

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Works Cited

hooks, bell. “Is Paris Burning?” Black Looks: Race and Representation. New York, NY: South End Press, 1992. 145-156. Print.

Paris is Burning. Dir. Jennie Livingston, 1990. Film.

 Tongues Untied. Dir. Marlon Riggs, 1989. Film.

41 Shots…and Many Shots Later: The Police killing of Amadou Diallo and its Aftermath

On February 4, 1999, four NYPD officers gunned down Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old Guinean immigrant, just outside his apartment complex in the Bronx. Diallo was shot at 41 times; 19 bullets struck him directly. The four officers-Sean Carroll, Richard Murphy, Kenneth Boss, and Edward McMellon–were charged with second-degree murder and acquitted.

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The events surrounding Diallo’s death incited outrage in the community, for it raised already boiling concerns regarding police brutality, racial profiling, and the criminalization of black men. That night, the officers began to trail Diallo, who was then approaching his home, believing that he matched the description of an at-large rapist. After the police identified themselves, Diallo began to run towards his home, and reportedly withdrew his wallet from his jacket pocket. Then, the four officers, at Carroll’s signal, opened fire, supposedly mistaking Diallo’s wallet for a gun. Despite the officer’s fatal assumptions, Diallo was innocent and unarmed. He had no previous criminal record.

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In many ways, the shooting of Amadou Diallo harks back to the brutal beating of Rodney King. A couple details of King and Diallo’s cases are strikingly and hauntingly similar. Like with King, the violation of Diallo’s person, and subsequent snatching of his life, resultedfrom unfair suspicion and racial bias. Also, both trials were moved to cities outside the one in which the crimes took place. In both cases, this was decided under the guise that saturated publicity proved unconducive to a fair trial. Both changes of venue were to more suburban, affluent areas (in Diallo’s case, Albany, NY, and in King’s, Simi Valley), areas from which the jury members were drawn. These details, among countless others, comprise a complex, tightly woven thread linking the majority cases of police brutality that both predate the 90s and extend into the 21st-century.


Diallo’s death also preludes many of the incidents of police brutality and racial profiling in minority communities today. It is eerily coincidental that this shooting took place at the end of the 90s and kick-started a series of conversations and policies addressing boiling concerns of police brutality, racial profiling, and the criminalization of black men. Many people, from constituents to politicians, urged law enforcement to examine police training policies that informed racial bias by their very design. At the time, outrage was expressed, notably from Diallo’s mom, Kadi Diallo, over depictions of her son via mainstream media. The sweet, peaceful family man and budding business owner, as family and friends alike knew him, had been reduced to an “African street peddler.” Similar methods of character assassination and distortion are evident in the cases of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown,and Tamir Rice–sadly, among many, many other unarmed black boys, men, women, and girls senselessly killed by police.

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With regards to policy, Diallo’s death, as well as an incident where Ol’ Dirty Bastard of Wu-Tang Clan was fired at by cops who supposedly mistook his phone for a gun, led to the disbandment of the Street Crime Unit in 2002. Unfortunately, police officers no longer need to be disguised to unnecessarily apprehend black women and men. And sadly, these same killings are occurring in 2015 at a seemingly exacerbated rate.

Diallo’s death resulted in an impressive outpouring of artistic tributes and responses. Dwayne Rodgers, an independent artist living in Brooklyn at the time, took the widely circulated photo of Diallo’s casket during the funeral procession. At the time, he was also working on a photo series addressing incidents of police brutality. Musically, from Wyclef Jean’s “Diallo” to Lauryn Hill’s “I Find it Hard to Say (Rebel) to Erykah Badu’s “A.D. 2000”, many artists expressed both intense rage and gut-wrenching grief over Diallo’s senseless death. With the prevalence of social media today, responses to police brutality come from every corner of the world. Musically, there are responses (e.g. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”), but many have also taken to the internet to purge their personal grief, sadness, and anger, and to rally around movements with goals of eradicating police brutality (e.g. Black Lives Matter). —Keith Freeman

Works Cited

[The title of the entry is a spin on the title of Beth Roy’s book, 41 Shots…and Counting: What Amadou Diallo’s Story Teaches Us About Policing, Race, and Justice.]

Naomi. “The Amadou Diallo Shooting.” Online video clip. YouTube. Youtube, 22 Apr. 2006. Web. 12 November 2015.

Susman, Tina. “Before Ferguson: Deaths of other black men at hands of police.” Los Angeles Times. 13 August 2014. Web. 12 November 2015.