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Radical Black Re-Imaginings: Afrofuturism and Community Work

Words by Maurice Broaddus

Art by Jim Mahfood

One of the questions often asked me is what it means to be the resident Afrofuturist at the Kheprw Institute (KI). KI is a grassroots non-profit organization focusing on youth leadership development to effect change in our community. It uses various social enterprises to not only help fund the organization, but act as active labs for youth to learn entrepreneurial skills. Many organizations have futurists on staff, using their vision and skillset to consider new alternatives or be a guide to navigate current circumstances. Futurists by definition look for new ways of examining our society, technology, and the world to extrapolate and create blueprints and roadmaps to innovate tomorrow. With an Afrofuturist lens, however, that visioning is rooted in black historical roots and culture to create a vivid picture of what the world could look like. For KI, a resident Afrofuturist represents a public statement of the attitude and mindset of the organization and community, about creating desired future states in the present by constantly re-imagining the work and the way the community moves through the world.

The idea of Afrofuturism has seen a recent resurgence in interest since the term was first coined by social critic, Mark Dery, in his 1994 essay, “Black to the Future.” When most people think about the term these days, it’s in light of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s blockbuster, Black Panther. But Afrofuturism is what black creatives—black people, period—have always done: imagine a better future for ourselves. From Martin Delany and his book Blake (aka The Huts of America) to W. E. B. Du Bois’ story, “The Comet;” to Ta-Nehisi Coates The Water Dancer and N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy; from the visual art of Jean-Michel Basquiat the music of Sun Ra, Parliament-Funkadelic, or Janelle Monae to the work of Milestone Comics, Afrofuturists ponders the questions “Where are we now?” “Where do we want to be?” and “How do we get there?”

What is Afrofuturism?

Afrofuturism is the intersection of a black cultural lens, technology, liberation, and imagination. It embraces the concept of Sankofa, a word in the Twi language (Ghana) that means “go back and get it” or “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” In so doing, Afrofuturism is rooted in the past and critiques the present by looking to the future. Through art, it explores black identity in a creative journey of self-discovery of the diasporic communities. Against the backdrop of science, technology, cultural aesthetics, and social theory, it has the potential to radically re-imagine as it breaks apart systematic baggage. In short, Afrofuturism mixes science fiction, technology and social justice; imagines the future through the art and the lens of black experience; and is rooted in black people creating a better future for ourselves on our terms.

Art credit Jim Mahfood.

The story of the diasporic black experience is rooted in a historical struggle for existence and be considered fully human with all of its attendant rights. That pursuit of systematic equality continues in the work today, especially at the grassroots community level. Afrofuturist art creates and represents a visualization of the work. It displays the intentionality of what it means to work with community, collecting and telling stories, learning from community, collectively dreaming alongside community. The art, the stories, in very real ways, charts the work.

Dystopia vs. Utopia

The second Friday of every month, the Kheprw Institute looks at some aspect of Afrofuturism, be it book, movie, music, or visual art, and builds a discussion around it. The Afrofuture Friday community conversation series creates a space to talk about the works of artists such as Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemison, Beyonce, Walter Mosley, Nnedi Okorafor, Janelle Monae, and many others. Not too long ago, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower was revisited with a discussion entitled “Survival Tips for when the Dystopia Arrives.” Octavia Butler had said that she came to this future by imagining our current problems progressing unchecked to their logical ends. With much of the black diasporic history stemming from oppressive systems or genocidal experience, many stories are tales of resilience and resistance.

Afrofuturism is about Remembering, Resilience, and Resistance.

The dystopia vs utopia discussions amount to Afropessimists and Afrofuturists being in conversation without another. Far more often than not, dystopias are the default state for black communities mirroring the present reality. Some might argue out stories rely too heavily on dystopia, the trauma reaction to white supremacy. The rise of Afropessimism speaks to this, as well as the sentiment generally heard among non-profits that “we’re too busy trying to survive today to dream about tomorrow.” However, the dystopian stories also speak to our resilience. The failures of our societal systems (as well as our all too human condition) has to be interrogated in our art. Big obstacles to the work, like white supremacy, get cracked open in stories. The tales put a human face to the work. Artists capture stories and in so doing, analyze character archetypes, and chronicle the journey of the work. The stories position our characters as agents of change, their own agency being the hero’s journey. It all boils down to about looking for and being the future in the present.

Adrienne Brown (co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements) wrote that “Octavia understood that these are the conditions that emerge when we are trapped in the imagination of racists, fundamentalists, and smart people addicted to hierarchy—people who don’t think of the whole … we have to claim the space to imagine ourselves beyond this world.”

Art credit Jim Mahfood.

Which brings up the idea of the utopia, the dream waiting to be imagined into existence. To overcome the way society remains unequal, there has to be visions of a future where the problems are solved. Waiting for characters to embody new principles and ways of being and doing. Stories of joy and thriving, the Promised Land of what people persevere toward. The dream of the utopia is the visions of future hope. The stories illustrate how things could be different. Either as a present or future narrative, the reader has a vision of what the work could look like now. The community develops an adaptive posture, embracing entrepreneurial instincts and leveraging spaces for opportunity. Casting visions and painting pictures of what could be, the multiverse of possibilities within each person’s story.

On Technology

Black people’s history of engagement with science and technology cannot be overlooked. A fellow Afrofuturist on staff at KI heads up a new initiative: Democratizing Our Data, training multi-generational members of the community in the use of Big Data to craft and control the community’s own narrative. With a different cultural lens and emphases of concerns, Afrofuturists examine such as issues of AI’s programmed racism, AI as digital slavery, or issues of inequity of technology access. Or it incorporates the “soft” sciences, like sociology and psychology, to deconstruct and reimagine issues of culture, cultural mores, and other social constructs from relationships to economics. For example, as a function of literary worldbuilding, speculative fiction writers are positioned to invent new or at least alternatives to capitalism.

The latest initiative of KI is Café Creative, networking neighborhood artists and creating spaces and platforms they can control. Mentoring young creatives to be the next generation of dreamers, storytellers, and vision casters. Because that’s the work of art informing community work and community work informing the art. The merger of art and social practices, artists and activists.

The Dreamer and the Dream

Afrofuturism as a part of community work is where the past, present, and future collide. Emergence, convergence, and entanglement fuel the imaginative framework for charting ways forward. Where black culture, agency, and liberation get remixed, to undergird our art, politics, economics, and philosophies of navigating the world. At the Kheprw Institute, the work of community is people-centered work, the “human” part of “humanities.” There is more to life than just survival. There has to be room to dream about the possibilities of what could be. It’s ideas and the room to imagine for ourselves that are at the heart of what it means to create a better future.

The hope inspired by Afrofuturism keeps us from despair but in order to create radical change we have to be able to envision it. To create a space to imagine and dream of possible futures. To join together to build a better tomorrow together, imagining pathways of healing for our future. That’s the true hope Afrofuturism brings to community work, reminiscent of this quote from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower: “All that you touch you Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God Is Change.”

So go forth and be the change.

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A community organizer and teacher, Maurice Broaddus’ work has appeared in magazines like Lightspeed Magazine, Weird Tales, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Asimov’s, Cemetery Dance, Uncanny Magazine, with some of his stories having been collected in The Voices of Martyrs. His books include the urban fantasy trilogy, The Knights of Breton Court, the steampunk novella, Buffalo Soldier, the steampunk novel, Pimp My Airship, and the middle grade detective novel, The Usual Suspects. As an editor, he’s worked on Dark Faith, Dark Faith: Invocations, Streets of Shadows, People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror, and Apex Magazine. Learn more at MauriceBroaddus.com.

The professional career of Jim Mahfood aka Food One has spanned across the fields of comic books, illustration, animation, advertising art, murals, gallery shows, body painting, and live art in bars and nightclubs. Mahfood’s style, the neo-psychedelic Visual Funk, is his signature combination of various influences that Mahfood has turned into a recognizable brand, garnering a loyal following across the globe. Highlights of his career include: illustrating director Kevin Smith’s Clerks comics, painting the murals on Comedy Central’s Sarah Silverman Show, illustrating the Kickpuncher comic book that was included in the Season 1 DVD of NBC’s hit show Community, illustrating and art-directing reggae legend Ziggy Marley’s MarijuanaMan project, and providing all the art on the new Tank Girl series: Everybody Loves Tank Girl.

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