Episode 37: Transcript
Transcription by Keffy
Charlie Jane: [00:00:00] Welcome to o Our Opinions Are Correct, a podcast about the meaning of science fiction. I’m Charlie Jane Anders, a science fiction writer who thinks a lot about science.
Annalee: [00:00:07] And I’m Annalee Newitz, a science journalist who writes science fiction.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:12] Today we’re going to be talking about Afro-futurism which is bigger than ever thanks to movies like Black Panther and Into the Spiderverse, and tons of amazing music that’s coming out recently. We’re incredibly lucky to be joined in the studio by Shawn Taylor, a writer and scholar on Afro-futurism and the ethnospeculative, science fiction comic books, popular culture and mythology/folklore. Shawn Taylor is the co-founder of the popular geek culture site TheNerdsOfColor.org and the co-founder of the Black Comic Arts festival.
[00:00:39] So, get ready to travel with us into the Black future.
[00:00:41] Intro music plays: Drums with a bass drop and more science fictional bells and percussion.
Charlie Jane: [00:01:07] So, to start us off, here’s a clip of Ytasha Womack, the author of Afro-futurism, the World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture talking at the Sonic Arts festival where she actually defines what Afro-futurism is.
Ytasha: [00:01:19] What exactly is Afro-futurism? Well, it’s a way of looking at the future and alternate realities through a Black cultural lens. Black cultural lens means the people of African continent in addition to the diaspora. People in the Americas and in Europe, etc. It is an artistic aesthetic, but it’s also kind of a method of self-liberation or self-healing. It’s a—it can be a part of Critical Race Theory. And in other respects, it’s an epistemology as well.
[00:01:53] But it intersects the imagination, technology, Black culture, liberation, and mysticism.
Charlie Jane: [00:02:02] So Shawn, what do you think about that clip and do you agree with how Ytasha Womack kind of defines Afro-futurism?
Shawn: [00:02:07] I do agree. But I also, I’m wary about having it be a catch-all for everything, because I feel like that can be kind of dangerous. You know, it kind of loses its potency. For me, for my, just work and how I live my life as being. You know, it’s definitely epistemological. It’s ontological. It’s a philosophical and I think there’s an artistic aesthetic with it. But I think we also need to be careful about trying to put everything under that has Black and rockets or Black unicorns under the same umbrella because I think then, once again, I think we’ll dilute what has become very… a powerful liberatory tool for a lot of different artists and people who are just trying to live their lives.
Annalee: [00:02:43] How do you define a difference between Black science fiction and Afro-futurism?
Shawn: [00:02:48] I mean, I think of, like George Schuyler, Black Empire, back in the ‘20s. That to me is Black science fiction. It’s like, Black folks in a traditional white science fiction setting. Where I believe that Afro-futurism is really about fundamentally challenging the Western notions of science fiction and turning it into something completely different than the tropes that we’ve been accustomed to for so long.
Charlie Jane: [00:03:09] So, it’s not enough to just have inclusion. It’s not enough to just put Black people into the kind of science fiction settings…
Shawn: [00:03:15] No. I think that’s a fool’s errand. I think it’s kind of like what Bucky Fuller said. You don’t fight the system, you create a new one to make the other one obsolete.
Charlie Jane: [00:03:23] Right.
Shawn: [00:03:23] And I think what Afro-futurism does is it acknowledges and understands that the whiteness. White supremacy, things that are there, white science fiction, but we’re building something completely different over here that’s not beholden to, or having to talk back to the traditional science fiction that we’ve been experiencing.
Charlie Jane: [00:03:38] So is it a matter of aesthetic? Is it a matter of the starting framework?
Shawn: [00:03:42] I think it’s aesthetic and I think it’s intent.
Charlie Jane: [00:03:44] Okay.
Shawn: [00:03:43] I think it’s also intent as well. Like, what is your purpose of telling this story? Is it for liberation? Is it for just visibility which is, you know, that’s neither here nor there. What is it actually for. What is your purpose in telling this particular—or, creating that particular artwork or that conversation. I mean, for me, I use Afro-futurism as a way to imagine myself without the constraints of whiteness. Is how I use it. Whether it’s my scholarship, when I teach. When I create, myself. I’m normally a scholar by trade but I’m doing my first fiction piece and it’s really important for me to realize what’s the purpose of this fiction.
Charlie Jane: [00:04:19] One of us. One of us.
Shawn: [00:04:21] It’s hard. When you come from the scholar mindset it gets very difficult to kind of figure out what the fiction piece is, you know? And I’m also turning one of my Masters theses into a book on Afro-futurism. AfroGeek, and it should be out February or March of next year.
Annalee: [00:04:35] That’s really interesting. When you were talking about the idea of Afro-futurism being about imagining writing without the constraints of whiteness, it was making me think about the fact that I feel like, in the United States, Afro-futurism kind of starts with slave narratives, which is to say, writing by people like Frederick Douglas, or Sojourner Truth, or people who were enslaved and were either trying to convince white people to let Black people be free or were talking to other Black people about what it means to be free. And I think this is a history that, obviously, is not at all shared with whites. It’s an origin of thinking about the future which is about claiming self-hood and it’s just about saying, okay, now we can think about a future because we’re not owned anymore and we don’t have the constraints of whiteness anymore. And I think it’s important to think about that history behind Afro-futurism when we think about how it’s different from, say, white science fiction, or European science fiction. Because there’s no moment in the history of whiteness where white people are like, oh, we’re going to build a future out of having been slaves. It’s like, oh, we’re trying to imagine what tomorrow will be based on our history of industrial reproduction, or whatever.
Shawn: [00:05:46] Even Italian Futurism was different. You know, you look at Italian Futurism, it’s not that.
Charlie Jane: [00:05:48] Right.
Annalee: [00:05:48] Yeah. It’s true, and it’s interesting to think about how different national groups imagine the future. But I think in the context of the US, it’s such a different history and such a different context for imagining tomorrow.
Shawn: [00:06:04] I mean, if you think of the rapid progression of Blackness in the United States, right? I mean, it’s unbelievable. Like, segregation wasn’t that long ago.
Charlie Jane: [00:06:14] No.
Shawn: [00:06:15] You know, Jim Crow: not that long ago, if you look at historical time. And I think that we’ve done so much. Because Blackness itself is science fiction. I mean, aliens came to your planet. Stole you. Brought you to a new planet with new flora, new fauna, new diseases. What did you lose along that journey. You lost your gods, you lost your instruments, you lost geographic connections. I think that’s why Black Panther was so powerful for people, because it replaced everything lost in slavery. They had their own languages, they had their own cosmologies, they had all these things that were lost. I think that’s why. Because the movie itself, it’s a good movie.
Annalee: [00:06:51] It’s good, yeah.
Shawn: [00:06:52] You know, it’s not like the best that Marvel has to offer, to be perfectly honest. But what it did was remind people that we weren’t always a post-colonial project.
Annalee: [00:07:03] That’s right. And kind of manufactured by whiteness, again. Because the idea of Blackness, well, like whiteness, those are inventions of the United States—
Shawn: [00:07:09] Absolutely.
Annalee: [00:07:09] —those are not identities that existed in Europe and Africa. One of the things I thought was so funny about Black Panther was that when Africans watched it, they were like, what is this culture? It’s this kind of weird, like, African mashup of all these different things. I think for African-Americans that, like you said, that’s filling in the blanks.
Shawn: [00:07:26] Or other Black folks who aren’t continental Africans.
Annalee: [00:07:30] Right, diaspora.
Shawn: [00:07:30] Because our diaspora is incredible. Because, me, I’m Jamaican and Puerto Rican. So my—the social context is completely different. But I grew up in Brooklyn in an African-American context. You know, hip hop and the rest. So, Black identity itself is a futurist project. Because how do you project out of your limited context. The context that you are limited to. You know, the projects themselves are a futurist project. And then how do you come out of that? So I think what Afro-futurism does is allows you to manipulate context in ways that if you stayed with Eurocentric scifi/fantasy, whatever, tropes, you would never be able to tell the stories that we need to tell for ourselves.
Annalee: [00:08:13] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:08:13] You said that you think there’s an important distinction between Black science fiction and Afro-futurism, that the two are not the same thing—
Shawn: [00:08:19] And they’re both very valuable, though. I just want to make sure that they’re valuable.
Charlie Jane: [00:08:22] Yeah. And so, what are the, kind of formative, important works of early Afro-futurism that you kind of point to?
Shawn: [00:08:30] I think Steven Barnes’ Street Lethal is very important, because I remember when the book first came out, it was a white guy on the cover but the actual protagonist was a Black martial artist.
Charlie Jane: [00:08:38] Oh man…
Annalee: [00:08:38] The perennial cover problem.
Shawn: [00:08:41] Oh man. I want somebody to do a trade book with like, all the original and then the actual. Like, old Octavia Butler covers, [inaudible]. I mean, I think that. I think Jewels of Aptor, Samuel Delany. George Schuyler, Black Empire. Which kind of straddles the Afro—because actually it was meant as satire, because George Schuyler was really conservative in the ‘20s, Black man. But Black Empire is like this whole separate thing.
[00:09:05] I think musically, I think, I would argue that music has done more for Afro-futurism than literature has in a lot of ways. Like Drexciya, which is, you know, because techno itself is Afro-futurism. People think that techno/rave culture is this white European thing. It’s not. It’s Black Detroit. People are like, when your entire financial ability is usurped by machines, what does that sound like? How do you respond? How do you resist that? That’s like Juan Atkins and all those guys up in Detroit because Detroit is Black Afro-futurism music. Drexciya has this entire song/album cycle about slaves falling off slave ships and creating an aquatic society under the ground. That thing’s called Neptune’s Children.
[00:09:49] Between that—I mean, dub music itself in Jamaica is Afro-futurism, because people forget that dub was basically created using passed-off electronics that didn’t work. So that’s why dub sounds so weird, because they were using equipment that wasn’t 100% functional.
Annalee: [00:10:06] They were music hackers.
Shawn: [00:10:08] They’re music hackers. That’s exactly what they were.
Charlie Jane: [00:10:09] Yeah, oh my God.
Shawn: [00:10:09] I think hacking itself was an Afro-futurist concept. I mean, the guy who mailed himself out of slavery. Was his last name was really Box, I mean? How incredible is that? Right? I mean I think there’s these moments. I think now we’re trying to codify Afro-futurism, which I think makes sense to a degree. But I also think that we are putting a lot of things in, we’re retrofitting a lot of things into Afro-futurism that—
Annalee: [00:10:33] But then by doing that, we’re losing these strands, like you said, of hacking and DIY, which have been completely appropriated by white punk and white hip hop.
Shawn: [00:10:42] Urban homesteaders. We were growing our own vegetables since forever in our yards and now it’s this cool movement. It’s like, no, just, I was… we had to do that to survive. Ooh, organic. Rastas were having the ital food for how long? Like, all food was organic before industrialization, what are you talking about. And so a lot of these things people are doing, indigenous communities were doing, Black communities were doing, have now become commodified and now we are reappropriating them. And I think that’s just… also I think that’s a fool’s errand. Just do what you gotta do. Not everything has to be academic, or… just do what you gotta do and live the life.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:18] So, I mean, obviously, when it comes to music, some of the big things that people bring up a lot are Parliament, Funkadelic, and here’s a tiny clip from the Mothership Connection album.
Mship Connection: [00:11:27] Coming to you directly from the mothership. Top of the chocolate Milky Way. 500,000 kilowatts of P.Funk power. So kick back, dig, while we do it to you in your eardrums. Oh, me? I’m known as Lollipop Man, alias the Long-Haired Sucker. My motto is: make my funk the P. Funk. I want my funk uncut.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:49] Do you think that that’s important in the history of Afro-futurism.
Shawn: [00:11:52] I think, but I thin, you know, we talk about Parliament, Funkadelic, Janelle Monáe, but we forget Missy Elliott.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:56] Right?
Shawn: [00:11:56] When Missy Elliott came out, I remember all my Black scifi heads were calling each other like, did you see this video? What is happening? Do you hear this music? What is happening? And have it be a woman who wasn’t in the traditional body spectrum come out and do these things. It was the most celebratory thing that I remember experiencing in popular music at the time.
Charlie Jane: [00:12:18] I mean, obviously, you’ve done a lot of work in comics and when it comes to the early ‘90s, we’ve got Milestone Comics and how important was that in the history of Afro-futurism.
Shawn: [00:12:28] Afro-futurist thought? Absolutely. I think they were great, but also they were just analogs for white heroes in a lot of ways.
Charlie Jane: [00:12:33] I mean, Icon is basically Superman.
Shawn: [00:12:34] Superman, and you know.
Charlie Jane: [00:12:35] Hardware is basically Iron Man.
Shawn: [00:12:37] Iron Man. But it was great, though. For the time, we had this company, these wonderful people, rest in peace Dwayne McDuffie. You had these great people who were doing this wonderful work and you’d never seen yourself. Being as a kid, and me, I was a young adult when Milestone hit. And it was like, wait a minute, going into—I remember seeing like, Blood Syndicate and I was going, all right, I want all of those titles on my pull list. Every—and I mean, they were marginal quality, let’s be honest. I mean, they were like, they’re hit or miss.
Charlie Jane: [00:13:04] I mean, I love a lot of those comics. I think the whole run of Icon, I thought was amazing.
Shawn: [00:13:08] I think Icon was great. And I think it did some subversion of tropes but reinforced others.
Charlie Jane: [00:13:12] The thing that I loved about Icon is that the real hero was Rocket, you know?
Shawn: [00:13:16] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:13:16] It’s this Black girl who finds this alien guy who basically doesn’t give a shit.
Shawn: [00:13:19] He’s conservative, yeah. He’s like John McWhorter with a cape.
Charlie Jane: [00:13:23] He’s just kind of hiding out. He happens to be Black because his ship crash-landed in a slave plantation and so he took on that appearance but he doesn’t really see any need to do anything for anybody until she comes along and basically turns him into this superhero. And Dwayne McDuffie talked over and over again about how the real hero of those stories is Rocket. And if they ever make an Icon movie, which I would dearly love, I hope it’s Rocket’s story, because she’s the one who creates Icon and she’s the one who really drives the whole thing.
Shawn: [00:13:49] I mean, I think, and that also speaks to the place of Black women in society and why Black women are really fielding Afro-futurism. It’s always the hard choice. It’s always the community choice. I think there’s something about that I think is really beautiful how you look at, like Octavia Butler is everybody’s touchstone. And it’s not Samuel R. Delany. Which, I love Chip Delany, but Butler is the touchstone for almost every Afro-futurist writer. For a reason. Because how she thought about the craft of science fiction was anti-tropey. It was anti—It was a-historical. And we never saw that. We never saw Kindred before, ever, until Kindred came out. And when that hit it was the most, what the hell is this? We didn’t question that there was no mechanism for the time travel. You know, we didn’t question these things. Or, you know, you look at her Parable books, her Parable of the Sower. That’s prophecy. I mean, Make America Great Again is in the book. This is prophecy that she was doing. So, to me, I think it’s really important that… I think that sometimes a lot of men are doing a lot of scholarship of Afro-futurism, but I think we’re missing a lot of female voices doing the hard scholarship of Afro-futurism.
Annalee: [00:14:58] Yeah, I was going to say, another great kind of forgotten ‘90s moment is the Cosmic Slop series, which was an HBO anthology series.
Shawn: [00:15:08] Hosted by George Clinton.
Annalee: [00:15:09] Hosted by George Clinton.
Shawn: [00:15:11] [crosstalk] three-eyed, floating head of George Clinton.
Charlie Jane: [00:15:14] Yes.
Annalee: [00:15:14] Yeah, and it was basically, it was kind of the African-American Twilight Zone, and I feel like it was so ahead of its time because now we have Jordan Peele doing the Twilight Zone and we’re kind of—this is going mainstream. But at the time it was a show that was highlighting Black science fiction. We actually have a clip here from The Space Traders which is adapted from a short story by Derrick Bell, who was a lawyer, who just decided to dabble in science fiction.
Shawn: [00:15:36] This is at the bottom of the well.
Space Traders Clip: [00:15:37] Trader: We are space traders bearing exclusive gifts that will restore your niche to its former glory. Nearly limitless quantities of gold and precious metals that will instantly erase your deficit. Machines that will renew your rivers and your air. Cold-fusion technology for a safe, cheap, and inexhaustible source of energy. All we ask in return is the delivery to our vessels, five days from now, every child, woman and man in your nation with at least 2500 milligrams of melanin in their skin per square centimeter.
[00:16:18] Audience: What the hell is melanin?
[00:16:19] Trader: Put more simply, in trade for solving all your most pressing domestic catastrophes, we are asking for every person in your country that you would classify as Black.
Charlie Jane: [00:16:33] I love that it’s like, Ronald Reagan, that the aliens are just like, let’s just put on the face of Ronald Reagan to offer this bizarre trade.
Shawn: [00:16:40] And I also think that it’s still ahead of its time. If you actually—I would never—that’s one of those movies I would never want to be redone. Because, I mean, you could do it with better effects and the rest, but I think there’s something about that and the button, I think it was not called the button, but the idea of the revolution happening at a certain time when the rifle comes to the house. There’s so many things that were happening in Cosmic Slop. To this day—I remember when the video tape came out, because I’m old. The cover was a Magic Eye thing. It was like, the greatest thing ever. But to this day, it’s one of those holy grails for Afro-futurist collectors to find that video tape.
Charlie Jane: [00:17:17] Oh my God.
Annalee: [00:17:17] Yeah, there were a few other—
Shawn: [00:17:17] Yes, I have it.
Annalee: [00:17:17 —moments, like there was Tales From the Hood, which came out in the ‘90s, which was another kind of anthology. It was a movie, but going into the horror genre. Not quite as good as Cosmic Slop. It was uneven, but it had some frickin’ great moments.
Shawn: [00:17:30] And for what it was, I mean, I would even argue, Rusty Cundieff, who also did Tales From the Hood, Fear of a Black Hat was just… we never saw that type of satire before. And I think the other movie I don’t think gets enough credit is Pitch Black. And I think Pitch Black was an interesting one. Because you had a space imam who was going like, who’s going on hajj in space. And the main character was this—
Charlie Jane: [00:17:54] Keith David.
Shawn: [00:17:54] —obviously Black. The main character’s obviously Black but ethnically ambiguous. I mean there were just so many things that were happening in Pitch Black, and we were like, whoa.
Annalee: [00:18:02] Yeah.
Shawn: [00:18:02] Then, I think, Attack the Block doesn’t get enough credit.
Annalee: [00:18:06] Oh yeah, and that’s a fantastic film.
Charlie Jane: [00:18:08] Oh my God, I love that movie.
Annalee: [00:18:09] I mean, partly, I think—
Charlie Jane: [00:18:09] That movie is so great.
Annalee: [00:18:09] —partly it’s because the UK context, so in the States we didn’t notice it as much.
Shawn: [00:18:14] Yeah, it starts with the Black guys and biracial guys robbing a white woman. That’s how the—oops, spoiler alert—but I mean, that’s how it starts. I mean, I could see how people—
Charlie Jane: [00:18:23] That’s the start of the movie, it’s not a spoiler.
Annalee: [00:18:24] That’s the start, but it’s also, it’s portrayed as pretty innocent and kind of, you, cute in a weird way.
Shawn: [00:18:29] But that put a lot of people off.
Annalee: [00:18:30] I mean, cute crime. Also, there’s just… and the aliens. I love when the kids are talking about the aliens and they’re like, they are really black. No, black.
Charlie Jane: [00:18:40] Oh my God.
Shawn: [00:18:40] And I think also, and it also upended the Spielbergian trope of adolescence being white middle-class. And adolescent adventure being white middle-class. I think that’s one thing, you know, I was told was great. I was like, oh, this is super anti-Spielberg.
Annalee: [00:18:54] Yeah.
Shawn: [00:18:54] Like, this is the greatest.
Annalee: [00:18:55] It’s playing with the E.T. trope, very much. And it has a lot of that tone. Like, it’s a very gentle film in a lot of ways. It’s like, hijinks. But yeah, it’s centering working class black kids.
Shawn: [00:19:06] But it’s also the danger of Black adventure. Being a Black kid, you have to be very mindful the adventures you go on, you know? That’s why—the violence, that’s why I think the violence in that movie was so perfect, because it was actually shocking, the violence.
Charlie Jane: [00:19:20] Yeah, so, I have another clip that I wanted to play, which is Walidah Imarisha, the co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements. She’s talking at Portland State University, and she’s kind of explaining why she thinks Black Lives Matter is inherently kind of a science fiction concept.
Walidah Clip: [00:19:36] I’m thankful that Black Lives Matter put forward the idea of a name, of a rallying cry, that is a vision for the future. They could have said—it could have been, #StopKillingUs and that would have been real, and absolutely right. And we have a hashtag that says, what is this future? Let’s put this out.
[00:20:02] A couple years ago, Black Lives Matter actually explicitly asked for folks to submit writings answering the prompt, “In a world where Black lives matter, I imagine…” So that, you know, Black folks would not just be thinking about this in some vague way. That we actually can see it. We can’t build what we can’t imagine. We can’t build what we can’t see and smell and taste. And we don’t feel empowered unless we see that that future is ours.
Charlie Jane: [00:20:29] What’s interesting about that is it’s kind of a utopian vision. And I wanted to ask you, first of all, what do you think of that? And second of all, is Afro-futurism inherently utopian? Or, you know, it obviously contains an apocalyptic strand, as well, but is it inherently a utopian vision?
Shawn: [00:20:45] See, I don’t know, because utopian, to me, is so Western. The idea of utopia and even dystopia is so Western that I don’t even know if those categories apply to Afro-futurism. I think that the new terminology, what is the new context, what is the new space that Afro-futurism is trying to create? And I think it’s almost impossible, because we are post-c0lonial beings. And so, it’s almost—it’s hard to divorce yourself, especially if you’ve been formally educated, holy God. It’s like, very difficult to detox yourself from these ideas. And so that’s something I’ve been doing with my little circle of friends. That we’ve been figuring out, like, what is the new play space. What is the new destination that Afro-futurism is either going or trying to establish. And that’s something we haven’t got yet. I don’t know if it’s inherently utopian, but I think it’s inherently hopeful. And I think it’s hopeful, because when we’re talking about the idea of Black identity being the slave. The slave narratives. I think that’s what Kodwo Eshun—he’s the author of More Brilliant Than the Sun, which is probably a very seminal Afro-futurist text. In saying that that’s our modern moment, is this post-slavery, and the slave narrative. This thing.
[00:21:54] Coming from that history, how do you divorce yourself from that process to create something new? And so I think Black life in the West has been dystopic for so long and then, we’re not even trying to find utopia. I think we’re trying to find equanimity. I think we’re trying to find balance in some ways. And we’re trying to find a way to feel safe. And I don’t know if safe is utopian. I think safe is just like, hopefully a new default.
Charlie Jane: [00:22:18] We’re going to come back in a moment, and then we’re going to talk about the New Wave of Afro-futurism.
[00:22:21] Segment change music plays. Drums with a bass line including bass drops.
Charlie Jane: [00:22:36] It feels as though in 2019, Afro-futurism has in some way gone mainstream. You’ve got movies like Black Panther and Into the Spider-Verse. We talked about at the start. Is that true, and how is Afro-futurism different in 2019 than it was in 1969?
Shawn: [00:22:52] I love it that people are getting into it but I’m also concerned that it’s going the puffy route of hip hop, where it becomes just hyper-commercialized. And like, what made it so wonderful and amazing and transgressive gets erased. Because it’s like, you know, back in the late-‘90s, early-2000s, you could slap Youth or Hip Hop in front of anything and get a grant for your non-profit because that was the buzz term. I think, now, Afro-futurism has become the buzz thing. Which, I think is great for a lot of young people coming up, but I also think that there’s a loss of integrity because it’s the cool thing right now. Hip hop is this great, beautiful, global enterprise now, but it’s kind of also like, eh, okay. I’m a hip hop guy, I grew up in it. Now it’s kind of like, it’s everywhere now, and nowhere now. Because of just with the diffusion of culture through the internet and the rest, there’s no place. It’s an everywhere and an everywhen now, and I think there’s something to me that’s kind of problematic, even though I hate that word, about it. Because I think we’re losing some of the integrity of it being—not to say we need gatekeepers, not at all. But I just want conscious intent and conscious participators who are going to create some fiction, non-fiction, music, whatever it is. I’m just worried that people are—this is the quick money thing right now, it’s the quick exposure thing right now. And it gets kind of, a little bit frustrating, a little bit.
Annalee: [00:24:12] So do you think that, for example, the popularity of Black Panther, is that part of the dilution process? Because I wanted to come back to something that you were saying before the break about how Afro-futurism kind of tries to get out of this dystopia/utopia mindset that’s so popular in the West. And I wonder if, even thoug, maybe it is diluted, is something like Black Panther giving us a way to think outside that and to kind of think about a future that’s not centering white people?
Shawn: [00:24:41] I think it does, but I also think that Black Panther was water in the desert. Like, we had nothing like that before, and it’s like, oh my God, and everybody rushed to it. People were coming in and dressing up and, I’m even, known as the coiner of the term Oakanda, that, for Oakland and Wakanda together, to actually, to bridge Black Panther party and the Black Panther film. Right, now, a lot of people are profiting off that word.
Charlie Jane: [00:25:08] Oh no…
Shawn: [00:25:08] No—
Annalee: [00:25:09] You should have patented it, man.
Charlie Jane: [00:25:10] [crosstalk]
Shawn: [00:25:11] Not at all, not at all.
Annalee: [00:25:12] Trademark! Oakanda.
Shawn: [00:25:13] Knowledge wants to be free. Like I said, people think, when I talk about Black Panther, that I’m disparaging it. I’m not. If you read all my reviews about it, I loved the movie. But I also think that it was a giant thing and if it didn’t have the Marvel machine behind it, it wouldn’t have sparked. So, like, a movie like Fast Color, which nobody saw, was one of the most—three generations of Black women with superpowers. Nobody sees this movie and it’s an incredible movie. But if you don’t have the machine, that’s why I don’t want Afro-futurist presentation, cultural artifacts to be dependent on the machine to get that much of an impact. Especially when the internet is democratizing in a lot of ways.
Charlie Jane: [00:25:54] Yeah. And so, actually here’s a clip from Janelle Monáe’s movie Dirty Computer, which is one of my favorite Afro-futurist things of the last few years.
Dirty Computer Clip: [00:26:01] You will repeat after me. Your name is Jane 57821.
My name is Jane 57821.
I am a dirty computer.
I am a dirty computer.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:23] What do you think about Janelle Monáe and other musicians like that who are kind of bringing cyberpunk aspects and other things into this story of liberation?
Shawn: [00:26:29] I think that, Dirty Computer, reminds me so much of Octavia Butler because the body is the locus of transformation.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:36] Yeah.
Shawn: [00:26:36] And there’s something about the body as the locus of change and transformation, of liberation. And so for her to reclaim her body publicly and being able to manipulate and transform her body any way that she wants is so powerful.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:49] Yeah.
Shawn: [00:26:49] In ways that I don’t think we talk enough about.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:53] And it’s about reclaiming her identity as well—
Shawn: [00:26:54] Yes.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:54] —because they’re trying to erase who she is and turn her into this other thing and she has all these memories of partying and having these beautiful celebrations with all these people who are diverse in various ways, including gender and sexuality as well as race. And she kind of uses those as a defense against this kind of erasure.
Annalee: [00:27:12] She also is so great at showing us Black robots, which not necessarily in Dirty Computer, but this is something that a lot of people have talked about, is that why are robots—
Shawn: [00:27:22] Like the Metropolis Suite.
Annalee: [00:27:24] —always white?
Charlie Jane: [00:27:25] Yeah.
Shawn: [00:27:25] Always.
Annalee: [00:27:25] And, you know, and that’s, again, part of erasing a Black future, it’s like, okay, well, the future is just going to be like, white machines and white people and that’s it.
Shawn: [00:27:32] And it’s also the idea of programmer bias. Because as a programmer, you’re going to build it, you’re going to build your bias into your machine and so if you make a Black robot, android, maybe there was a Black creator behind it which actually tells a different story. Unlike Terminator where the Black guy is responsible for killing the entire world.
Charlie Jane: [00:27:47] Oh.
Annalee: [00:27:49] But he was so great in Brother From Another Planet.
Charlie Jane: [00:27:50] Miles Dyson…
Shawn: [00:27:51] He was! Which is—but that’s also interesting. I mean, I have this really love-hate relationship with that movie and I gotta find a way to figure out what I want to do. I really want to do a documentary about that movie.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:02] Oh yeah.
Annalee: [00:28:02] Oh yeah.
Shawn: [00:28:02] Because there’s so much to unpack in that movie.
Annalee: [00:28:04] There’s a lot.
Shawn: [00:28:05] It’s not that long of a movie, either. There’s so much to unpack in that movie. Visually. Aesthetically. Sound choices. So many things. Black and deformity. Like, why is every time there’s Blacks in science fiction, there’s a deformity, whether it’s Worf’s—
Annalee: [00:28:17] Oh, because he’s the three-toe.
Shawn: [00:28:17] The feet, yeah. So, whereever there’s Worf’s forehead and Geordi La Forge being blind. Or… Storm having white hair or pupil-less eyes. There’s always a physical hiccup in a lot of black folks in science fiction, and so I was wondering, kind of… it’s interesting to think about.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:35] Like some prosthetic or something that they have.
Shawn: [00:28:36] There’s a prosthetic or there’s an absence of. It’s not to be ableist, but why is Blackness always like, conflated. If you’re going to make the person disabled, make them disabled in a way, as opposed to—
Annalee: [00:28:47] Also, Cyborg is, like, yeah. I wonder…
Shawn: [00:28:49] Yeah, Cyborg. You know, that’s a desexualization thing.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:50] There’s a lot of Black—it’s true that there’s a lot of Black cyborgs including Cyborg.
Shawn: [00:28:54] Yeah, including Cyborg.
Annalee: [00:28:55] That’s why I brought up Cyborg. I mean, I think it goes back to what you were saying about the Black body being the site of a lot of reclaiming, but also of colonization, and so the body becomes this place where, yeah, there’s a lot of absences, or a lot of extra.
Shawn: [00:29:10] Extra.
Annalee: [00:29:10] Can’t just have a Black body, you’ve got to have a Black body with, like, robot arms.
Shawn: [00:29:14] And a 40-inch penis.
Annalee: [00:29:16] Yeah, well…
Shawn: [00:29:16] That’s hydraulic.
Annalee: [00:29:17] Everybody needs to have that, I mean, I come on.
Charlie Jane: [00:29:19] So, there was a lot of scholarship on Afro-futurism kind of starting in the mid-90s, and how does that process of codification change how we create Afro-futurist content?
Shawn: [00:29:29] It’s weird because Black culture is one of the only cultures whether it’s any Black manifestation of culture, is asked to kill its elders. Hip hop, new MCs are supposed to hate the old MCs. Young scholars now are supposed to, meant to hate the old scholars, whereas rock is like, yes, I go back to Rolling Stones. I go back to The Beach Boys, and they’re part of—they’re proud to be part of a lineage. So I think that these young scholars need to read that issue of Social Text that Dr. Alondra Nelson edited. And if you’re not reading that, I don’t know if I trust your scholarship. If that’s not your foundation, that. More Brilliant Than the Sun by Kodwo Eshun. There’s a couple of texts that if you’re not—if those aren’t your foundational texts, I’m not sure if I’m gonna trust your project.
[00:30:11] And I think what we need to really—first of all, we need to start training scholarship outside of the academy. Some people will call it poverty scholars or whatever you want to call it, but I think people who aren’t out of the academy, we need to hear their voices as well. Like a Rashomon. I’d like to hear people who are practicing Afro-futurism but not knowing that they are. And like, how do you reintegrate that into an entire body of knowledge. Because I think we’re going to see strains of Afro-futurism. Like, now, you have artists like Nnedi Okorafor who’s talking about African futurisms, right? And I’m also souring on the idea, I’m more looking towards African diaspora futurism because my very existence is part of the diaspora. And just localizing it as Afro- when my connection to Africa is really tenuous, but my connection to the Caribbean is one generation removed. My entire social being is formed by reggae and salsa and dub. And machetes, like, that’s my entire work, and so I’m hoping that when we start [inaudible] more scholarship, like second, third wave scholarship. Like, after Dr. Alondra Nelson and the rest, we’ve got John Jennings with the Ethno-Gothic and he’s just a brilliant scholar.
[00:31:23] I would like to see some people out of the academy doing some scholarship. But I’d also love to see community scholarship about this because I think we’re missing a lot of voices by elevating the purely science fiction, or the purely technological aspects but not even the cosmological aspects of Afro-futurism. I think we’re losing a lot of that in favor of elevating tech and elevating ivory tower scholarship.
Annalee: [00:31:45] Yeah, well, that’s why Tananarive Due is so interesting, because she just did that whole series on horror.
Charlie Jane: [00:31:50] [crosstalk]
Shawn: [00:31:50] Oh my God, that was such a—oh my God, that was beautiful.
Annalee: [00:31:53] So she did this series on horror noir and part of her project is to try to get outside of scholarship. So, she teaches at UCLA and she has a project to try to reach outside the academy. And also, she’s not about tech and about scifi. She’s looking at gothic stuff. She’s looking at sort of historical narratives, and so I think that’s another super good example.
Shawn: [00:32:13] And I think reading My Soul to Keep, I think was like my first horror novel, I think I’ve ever read.
Annalee: [00:32:18] And it is fucking terrifying.
Shawn: [00:32:19] It’s terrifying.
Annalee: [00:32:20] And upsetting. Like, it’s not actually—it’s not like you’re biting your nails. You’re just like, oh my God, I’m repulsed and excited and it’s very, yeah.
Shawn: [00:32:28] But it was the question, when I picked it up, I was like what the hell can scare Black people. You know, I’ve been shot, stabbed, gun in my face by the NYPD, like, what can scare me? I’m reading the book, I was like, oh yeah. Okay.
Annalee: [00:32:39] This. Yeah.
Shawn: [00:32:39] This. This can scare me. And I think that what Tananarive Due does so well is to make all of us included in it. Because some scifi, and even some Afro-futurist scifi can be a little bit arrogant in its presentation a lot of the times and kind of above the people. It takes itself almost too seriously at times. Where I think she does is she writes right at the heart of us. And I think, you know, after that, I read everything she’s ever written. I mean, she’s like one of my go-to. Everybody’s, I need a good book. Oh, here you go.
Annalee: [00:33:10] Enjoy.
Shawn: [00:33:10] I’m gonna Amazon 1-Touch to you as a gift right now because you deserve the reading experience, this book.
Annalee: [00:33:16] I was listening to one of her talks and she was talking about how the African-American experience is dystopian and is apocalyptic and so to return to something we were talking about earlier, you know, I think that she’s one of many people who’s trying to think about like, how do we get toward a future from dystopia. And again, this is something that I think is completely absent from white science fiction, or from Western science fiction, more generally. That sense of like, we’re actually in dystopia. We’re not saying, like, well, we could maybe get into dystopia if we had telescreens and like the Ministry of Truth, it’s like, no, we’re actually there.
Shawn: [00:33:50] We’re the Blackmaid’s Tale, right now.
Annalee: [00:33:52] Yeah. Like, we are literally there, and so now our project is not to like go to some fantasy land or avoid some terrible fate, but to actually fricking survive and then build a world out of that.
Shawn: [00:34:04] Post-Black Lives Matter world, I think we’re going to see a lot more survival narratives. I think that may be the new, I mean, how do you make your way through this? Like, this weekend, you know, When They See Us, harrowing. I remember living through Central Park 5 and being terrified and being labeled all these things, and hence the NYPD pulling their guns on me. If you think about just being to all the pain that everything, that we’re still here. I was telling a friend of mine this the other day, that, that we have Afro-futurism. That Black folks consider that Ava Duverne’s able to do these things proves to us that white supremacy isn’t all powerful. That we are still here is unbelievable. After everything that we’ve gone through, everything that we’ve experienced. I mean, not to mention things that our Black queer brothers and sisters have experienced, which is, we’re missing Black trans women left and right. But people are still out there trying to do their things and trying to—
[00:34:56] Where does that come from? I’m a pessimistic guy by nature, like, the glass is half empty, it’s broken, has ebola on it. I mean, like. That’s just my nature. But to see us still thriving and trying and I would even argue that Black camp is Afro-futurist in a lot of ways.
Charlie Jane: [00:35:12] Oh, yeah.
Annalee: [00:35:13] For sure, yeah.
Shawn: [00:35:13] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:35:13] Because having pleasure in the face of dystopia is incredibly radical.
Shawn: [00:35:18] It’s absolutely radical.
Annalee: [00:35:19] That’s why music is so important.
Charlie Jane: [00:35:20] And speaking of music, and speaking of stories of survival. We have one last clip, which is from Clipping who got nominated for a Hugo Award two years in a row. This is from their album Splendor and Misery.
Clipping: [00:35:29] Higher than these motherfuckers claiming it’s they purpose. Turned and asked your partner why he started acting nervous. Brat! Keep talking, that’s lip service. Rats decided it was time to hit the surface. Cats sleeping on it, write ‘em off like cursive. Drown a fucking hater, his experience immersive. Now that he can feel it, call the doctors and the nurses up!
Charlie Jane: [00:35:49] And that’s this story about survival and about this enslaved person on a space ship, and they actually teamed up with Rivers Solomon who wrote An Unkindness of Ghosts, which is another kind of story about enslave—
Annalee: [00:35:59] Survival.
Charlie Jane: [00:36:00] Survival.
Shawn: [00:36:00] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:36:00] And they did a novella called The Deep, which is coming out this fall, which is all about escaped slaves who go to the bottom of the ocean and become kind of sea creatures.
Shawn: [00:36:10] Actually, like, yeah the Drexciya song cycle from Drexciya which was ’95, I think it was?
Charlie Jane: [00:36:16] So, this is kind of picking up that idea again.
Annalee: [00:36:18] Yeah, it’s a recurring fantasy, I think. And again, it’s a fantasy of survival. What do you do if you—if there’s something awaiting you that’s worse than death, because slavery can be worse than—I mean, it’s a social death, which is more painful than the actual death, oftentimes.
Shawn: [00:36:31] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:36:31] You know, how do you survive? Well, you learn to breathe under water. Or you learn to build a community that’s like, clinging to driftwood on the top of the water. One of my professors back in the day, Gerald Vizenor talked about the idea of survivance. He came out of Indian Rights movements and Native American movements and he was very against this idea of what he would call the Indian dying out. He was like, no, we’re surviving everywhere, all over the place. And survivance was kind of his idea of that utopian story of just surviving. Not necessarily building a shining castle full of iPhones. Just getting by is pretty good.
Shawn: [00:37:11] I think that’s—a buddy of mine was saying that the ultimate goal for Blackness is to be able to be equally mediocre.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:18] Uh-huh. Oh, yeah.
Shawn: [00:37:18] Just so you’re not having to be super all the time, because being super all the time is really freaking exhausting.
Annalee: [00:37:25] Just be as good as the mediocre white guy. That’s my goal.
Shawn: [00:37:28] Just like, being able to make the same mistakes but being able to be able to have the same opportunities post-mistake.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:34] Oh, yeah.
Shawn: [00:37:34] I mean, that’s—I think that’s what a lot of this does. I think we’re gonna—it’s gonna shake out, I think Afro-futurism will shake out in the next year or two. When you start having more Afro-futurism classes or meet-ups. Or people are really, so we’re going to figure out what this is gonna coalesce in. Because the problem is with technology, time becomes dilated in a way, and so it took—hip hop now, you know, people called Lil, lil, lil, lil, and hip hop is middle aged, now. So I’m wondering what’s gonna happen temporally with Afro-futurism. Are we accelerating too far to be able to actually recognize its full potential right now because of just equal opportunity internet access and equal opportunity cultural artifact distribution. I’m just kind of curious how the temporality of the moment will affect to the project.
Annalee: [00:38:19] Yeah, we’ll circle back in ten years and see what’s actually come out of it.
Shawn: [00:38:24] Well, yeah.
Annalee: [00:38:24] I think that that’s right. And hopefully the answer is just more Black creators in general. Like, that’s good futurism.
Shawn: [00:38:29] [crosstalk] I think it’s great also, too, I mean, I’m going to be a jerk right now. But just because you’re Black and you create doesn’t mean we have to support you. It means you have to be good. I think what Afro-futurism has done, in a lot of cases, that people are like, “You didn’t support me.” It’s like, you didn’t carry yourself. I can’t love you more than you love yourself. So I think if people are going to do this, I mean, have the integrity. Treat it as you would…
[00:38:54] For example, today is new comic book day. It’s Wednesday. Lotta—I see Black people in the comic book store all the time at Cape and Cowl in Oakland on Clay Street. So, I’m calling you all out, who will go by all of the Black independently-produced comics and go straight for Marvel, DC, Image, Boom!, Dynamite. But like, then you complain that there’s no diversity. But you’re not supporting the diversity that exists there, because we’re still beholden to the white superhero trope. And so I figure if we kind of turn that into Black folk, Black mythic thought, I think we’re going to actually be able to, as you’re saying, get those diversity of experiences and being able to really see the full. Bitter Root is the best comic out right now, and they’re doing that. They’re like, we’re not going to do superhero stuff. We’re going to go back to Harlem. Jazz-age. Like, we did this and understand what that—and that reclamation of our history, I think is one of the best vehicles that Afro-futurism provides. Or best mechanisms for reclamation, is, I think, Afro-futurism.
Charlie Jane: [00:39:51] Okay, cool. Thank you so much for joining us.
Shawn: [00:39:53] Thanks for having me! I appreciate it.
Annalee: [00:39:55] Yeah! That was awesome.
Charlie Jane: [00:39:55] Yeah! That was so awesome, can you—
Shawn: [00:39:56] Hopefully I wasn’t boring.
Charlie Jane: [00:39:57] No, no. It was the opposite of boring. It was anything but. It was super awesome.
Annalee: [00:39:58] There was like ninety million more things we could have talked about, so, yeah, that was actually fucking great.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:03] That was fantastic. So, Shawn, can you tell us where people can find you?
Shawn: [00:40:07] You can find me at ShawnTaylor.net. I am currently a senior fellow with the Pop Culture Collaborative, writing about the political power of fandom, so there will be some tools and things coming out. Black Kids Have Electric Dreams, which is my Afro-futurism memoir, will be out some time next year. And yeah, working on some fiction. So, yeah. You can get me @reallovepunk on Twitter and ShawnDTaylor72 Instagram. Yeah, all those little weird cyber places.
Annalee: [00:40:32] Excellent.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:32] Yay! Thanks for joining us!
Annalee: [00:40:33] Thanks again!
Shawn: [00:40:33] Thank you so much, appreciate it. Thanks.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:35] And thanks to everybody for listening. This has been Our Opinions Are Correct. Please support us on Patreon at Patreon.com/OurOpinionsAreCorrect. You can follow us on Twitter @OOACPod. And you can find us whereever you can find podcasts, like Apple Podcasts and Google Play Podcasts and please leave a review if you like our podcast.
[00:40:54] And thanks to Veronica Simonetti with Women’s Audio Mission for being our engineer, producer, and just general all-around superstar. Thanks to Chris Palmer for the music. And thanks to you for listening.
Annalee: [00:41:03] All right, see you in a couple weeks!
Charlie Jane: [00:41:05] Bye!
[00:41:05] Outro music plays. Drums with a bass line including bass drops.