From left: Sheree Renée Thomas, Stacey Robinson, and Reynaldo Anderson
Into the Afrofuture
Two leaders of the Black Speculative Arts Movement talk about their new collaboration with N Square—and what Afrofuturism brings to the task of envisioning a nuclear threat-free future.
Not long ago, as part of a public art project in Pittsburgh, Afrofuturist Alisha Wormsley mounted a billboard atop a commercial building. It featured just seven words, big bright letters on a dark background: “THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE.” Incredibly, the sign was deemed too provocative and quickly dismantled. But what can’t be dismantled is the burgeoning artistic movement that Wormsley’s words represent. Afrofuturism is an aesthetic practice involving vast numbers of Black artists and creatives whose work envisions futures rich with African heritage and sci-fi futurism. Their work challenges the dominance of Eurocentric worldviews—and it’s creating a groundswell of ideas, agency, and optimism for the future in Black communities worldwide.
Reynaldo Anderson and Lonny Brooks are fueling this groundswell. Anderson is an associate professor of communication studies at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis, an Afrofuturism thought leader, and cofounder of the Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM), a national and global movement dedicated to celebrating Black speculative creativity and design. Brooks is an associate professor of communications at California State University, East Bay, co-creator of The Afrofuturist Podcast, co-director of the Afrorithm Futures Group, and co-creative director of California BSAM Futures, which promotes, publishes, and teaches forecasting with Afrocentric perspectives in mind.
In April 2021, as part of our mission to build a transdisciplinary network of innovators committed to ending the nuclear threat, and to diversify and democratize the communities involved in envisioning a future beyond nuclear weapons, N Square partnered with BSAM on a new kind of collaboration. For months, we’ve been conducting strategic foresight training with BSAM members and engaging in a knowledge exchange, with BSAM’s Afrofuturist community bringing valuable and highly underrepresented perspectives to questions about nuclear threat and how to imagine a future beyond it. In this interview, Anderson and Brooks talk about Afrofuturism, how it illuminates longstanding blind spots in the craft of futures thinking, and why the collaboration with N Square excites them.
Q Let’s start with the basics. How do you describe Afrofuturism?
Brooks Afrofuturism combines science fiction and fantasy to reexamine how the future is currently imagined and to envision alternative futures based on the Black experience, leveraging our ancestral intelligence. Afrofuturism celebrates the Black imagination and our Black state of consciousness, released from colonialism and the slaver mentality. It gives Black artists, writers, and other creatives the space to explore, as Reverend Andrew Rollins puts it, the possibilities and probabilities within the universe, individually and as a community.
Anderson Afrofuturism is the high culture of the African diaspora and creatives on the continent, involving a network of intellectuals, activists, and artists who are generating philosophy, literature, arts, and social science concepts based upon this construct. Being immersed in radical Black art has always been a gateway to the future, but it’s now being elevated and recognized as that gateway. The first wave of Afrofuturism came in the 1990s, and the second wave, Afrofuturism 2.0, is now underway. It’s international in nature, so the way it looks depends on the geographical location. If you’re in Brazil, it’s Afrofuturismo. On the continent, it’s African futurism. In the North Atlantic Basin, it’s Afrofuturism.
Q The term “Afrofuturism” might be young, but it’s a practice, or an aesthetic, with deep historical roots, right?
Brooks Black people had to be futurists when they arrived from the continent, because they were forcibly stripped of so many traditions. They had to be innovative and resilient. They took hymns from Christianity, a religion forced upon them, and recreated them as their own spirituals that foresaw a future free of slavery and colonialism. So, we always were futurists, because we had to be.
Anderson The Black speculative tradition emerged out of the context of imperialism, colonialism, resistance to slavery, and resistance to scientific racism. In practice, Afrofuturism, in a way, is a form of slow politics. It evokes a moment of deceleration in which we can intuitively engage each other and reimagine alternate realities. Our underground churches and literary societies were probably the first speculative spaces, where we could meet in peace and imagine a better tomorrow. A good Black orator knows how to suspend time and space through the spoken word or nommo, where you feel like you’ve only been in there 10 minutes but actually it’s been 90 minutes, because they’re able to speak to the Black imagination and suspend time briefly in that very communal moment.
“NUCLEAR FOLKS SAY IT’S ONE MINUTE TO MIDNIGHT. BUT IN AFROFUTURISM STYLE I WOULD SAY IT’S ONE MINUTE TILL THE JUKE JOINT CLOSES.”
Q You’ve said Afrofuturism brings the African mind, heart, and soul to futures thinking, that it’s “a 360-degree, full-body immersion into the possible.” What’s driving the communal vigor that seems to animate the Black Speculative Arts Movement?
Anderson A BSAM event is like a Hogwarts wizarding tournament where we all come together. There are exhibits, performances, cosplay, and workshops that are all experienced in community. BSAM events create a temporary space that allows us to decelerate from the acceleration of the postmodern condition, reimagine alternatives, and keep alive this idea of what a better tomorrow might look like. With BSAM events, it’s like we’re trying to hold open the stargate portal for as long as possible for all the cool people to get through until it closes. We’re also a democratic and de-centered movement. We don’t have a traditional hierarchy based upon educational level, gender, geography, or anything else. It’s whoever has the dopest stuff at the moment. All the organizers do is invite a lot of people that are smarter than us to help develop and host something, and they often create something beautiful.
Q What sorts of insights and intelligences does Afrofuturism bring to futures thinking that more classic strategic foresight does not?
Anderson Afrofuturism helps point out the blind spots of some other methods and approaches. Black futuristic practice, to borrow a phrase from philosopher Lewis Gordon, operates out of a different geography of reason. Most Western Euro modern thinkers who are futurists, their geography of reason, even when they’re trying to be progressive, usually revolves around ideas of political economy, German philosophical idealism or romanticism, and French socialism. The geography of reason that animates the Afrofuturist 2.0 perspective is the geography of Africa, or Africa mediated through the middle passage within the diaspora. And this leads to different imaginings. For example, an Afrofuturist might look at Great Britain weakening as an important country in the world because of Brexit and other issues. They might couple that with the fact that the African Union will dwarf the European Union (the former colonizers) in population sometime in the 21st century. And they might see the decolonizing possibility that the prime meridian, which has run through Greenwich, England, since the 1880s, moves to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. That would be both a radical political move and a simple reimagination of how we reclaim our time.
Brooks Afrofuturism’s focus on art as a powerful medium for reshaping worldviews is also different. Classic futurists talk about the social, technological, environmental, economic, and political, or “STEEP,” factors that will shape the future. A framework that we’re trying to develop, influenced by Afrofuturism 2.0, is what we call “ASTEEP,” where the “A” stands for arts. What are the artistically driven signals that we need to shape and to look out for, and how do they in turn influence these other social, technological, environmental, economic, and political factors? So, we’re really creating a kit for that.
Anderson Culture, fashion, and expression are a core part of the futures we’re envisioning. I’ve never seen a classic futurist talk about the kinds of food we’ll eat in the future, or what music survives. Being African American, we’ve got to think of style, too. I mean, there is no way that I’m going to go around wearing a gray drab outfit in the future. When COVID-19 started, we were talking about how do we pair loose clothes with a mask and make it look cool, if that’s going to be the new reality of dealing with climate change and the plagues of the 21st century.
Q Lonny, you’ve written about how insights from Afrofuturism can translate into public policy. That it’s not just about imagining these vibrant futures beyond the present—it’s also building elements of these worlds into existence.
Brooks I co-direct a program called the Community Futures School, based at Oakland’s Museum of Children’s Arts, that engages youth of color in futures thinking. One goal of the program is to partner with other local institutions like the Museum of the African Diaspora, the Oakland Museum, the City Council of Oakland, as well as universities like California State University East Bay and others, to create a kind of speculative futures hub, or imagination network. The network can articulate visions of the future of traditionally underrepresented communities—from Latinx to Asian to Queer to Black—and translate these visions into public policy agendas as platforms for legislative action. How might we create an imagination network in the state of California, for example, that advocates for the futures of its peoples and centers the margins rather than the elites?
“THIS KIND OF TRAINING BRINGS US ALL UP TO A NEXT LEVEL OF THINKING. IT’S CREATING A NEW KIND OF FUTURES ECOSYSTEM.”
Q N Square and BSAM have been in conversation for a while, looking to set up opportunities for mutual learning and exchange. From a BSAM perspective, what value do you see in the strategic foresight training that BSAM members are currently doing with N Square?
Anderson We have an international network. The futures training that N Square is facilitating gives us a common language through which to mediate some of our ideas. Even though we speak different languages—whether it’s Portuguese, Spanish, Igbo, French, English—it offers a shared platform for thinking about what the future looks like from Legos, Nigeria, or Rio, Brazil, or Montreal, Canada, or Cape Town, South Africa, or Berlin, Germany. These traditional futurist tools bring a certain type of rigor to some of the processes that we want to engage in, or just a different set of tools that will become a part of our toolkit going forward.
Brooks To have this opportunity to train this network is remarkable, because everyone should have access to this type of practice. Stacey Robinson is one of our leading artists doing amazing work in imagining temporary Black utopia. What might he do with some of these tools that will influence and merge with his artistic visions? Sheree Thomas is a great writer already doing forecasting. But how will the signal scanning we’re doing with N Square influence her writing? What will she be bringing next? This kind of training brings us all up to a next level of thinking and creates an interesting platform for collaboration. It’s creating a new kind of futures ecosystem.
Q Next month, BSAM members and N Square are going to be building scenarios on the future of global security and how it might be differently and more equitably reimagined. Part of that will be thinking about a world beyond nuclear threat. Until now, how have nuclear weapons factored into Afrofuturism, if at all?
Anderson It’s important to point out that when futurists talk about the end of the world as public enemy, the end of the world has already happened for a vast number of people of African descent. African people are the only ethnic population in the world where one-third were taken outside of their continent of origin. The disaster, or the Maafa as African scholars have called it, has already happened. So, when you talk about nuclear weapons and major disasters, we’ve had a big disaster already.
Nuclear folks say it’s one minute to midnight. But in Afrofuturism style I would say it’s one minute till the juke joint closes. A famous Thelonium Monk jazz piece talks about how all kinds of stuff happens ‘round midnight. There’s also Amiri Baraka’s avante garde version of anti-nuclear criticism in his production Primitive World: An Anti-Nuclear Jazz Musical. As an Afrofuturist, though, the reason I have to care about nuclear weapons is not primarily the weapons themselves. I’m more worried about the people who have access to the button. So, I have to care, because we’ve seen people move into positions of power based upon ideologies that are not conducive to an advanced society. And that’s an example of the ethics of the citizenry not measuring up to the technology or necessary politics of the moment.
Brooks That’s where I think we need to develop ethics and restorative justice. So much harm can still happen, but so much has already been done. So many people feel that they’ve been harmed by the West, haven’t had their voices heard, or have been trampled upon by colonial practices. So, how do we have a global restorative justice reconciliation movement that develops the ethics we need now, and have always needed? The way to solve a problem is to evoke an inclusive humanistic solution, whether that problem is systemic racism or climate change or the threat of nuclear weapons. That’s where I think Afrofuturism can help, because it offers an immersive experience in global empathy and imagination that the nuclear community and others can tap into.
“THE WAY TO SOLVE A PROBLEM IS TO EVOKE AN INCLUSIVE HUMANISTIC SOLUTION, WHETHER THAT PROBLEM IS SYSTEMIC RACISM OR CLIMATE CHANGE OR THE THREAT OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS.”
Q This seems critical, rather than optional, to tackling wicked problems in a rapidly changing world.
Anderson The world is changing faster than people can adapt. There will be 50 years of advancement over the next 10 years, and human beings are not hardwired to go through change that rapidly. This country and others did not make the educational investments they needed to make at the end of the cold war to prepare people for moments of rapid change and function as citizens in the 21st century. Not preparing people for these moments has created a very cynical population and stunted the imagination of those in public office who govern by poll rather than by creativity and imagination. Look at the age of the U.S. Senate. These politicians govern like we still shop at Blockbuster instead of streaming from Netflix. So, when I think of 2045, I think there’s going to be a whole bunch of ugly stuff happening before then, simply because so many people don’t have the tools to cope with change.
Brooks Integrating futurism and imagination into educational practice is what Afrofuturism offers as a blueprint for the future, because the way we teach history is the way that we can teach the future. We have to endow everyone with the ability to have a voice in forecasting the future, especially young people. At the Community Futures School, we teach young people of color about Afrofuturism and indigenous futurism, have them scan the news and social media for signals of the future, and then create art based on what they’re finding and imagining. Their work is energizing, hopeful, and humbling. This summer we have 45 students creating an Afrofuturism youth community manifesto envisioning Oakland in 2045 we call “Okanda Visions.” Imagine what that manifesto is going to look like, with the storyboards and art they’re creating.
Q The nuclear risk reduction community has long had trouble getting young people to care about nuclear issues. Engaging them in broader efforts to reimagine the future—their future—could spark that engagement. And it might even be fun.
Anderson One of the most important aspects of Afrofuturism in particular is that it can be joyful. You can’t forget the joy. All I’m doing as an Afrofuturist today is replicating what I was doing at 12 or 13 years old, which was playing with the new technology of the time; enjoying early animation, folk wisdom, and culture from my Mississippi grandparents; and reading comics. From Falcon, I learned about the possibilities of democracy. From Black Panther, pride in my African heritage. And from Luke Cage, it was neighborhood politics. So, as an adult, I’m just articulating something that brought me joy at that formative age, and reimagining it. If you want to know where the culture is going, look at the 12- to 14-year-olds who get their news from TikTok and are coming out of a traumatic Covid-19 hybrid education environment. The kids going into college in the next three to four years will be the generation running things in 2045. We need to understand what they love, and we’ve got to plot that joy. Because when we engage young people in this work, we are planting a seed for the future.
Story thumbnail: Illustration by Alan Clark
Top: Book cover illustration for Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness, designed by John Jennings