ebogjonson.com's afrofuturism archive

“Abducted by aliens, forced into slavery, secreted to a strange land and forced to participate in bizarre genetic experiments” – is that the trailer for a latest science fictional blockbuster or any given page from black history?

January 12, 2007

everything but the burden

Lady Sov vs. Jelly Donut. Post title refers to the following:

Q - What are white people taking from black culture?
A - Everything but the burden.

I can't get to mad, tho. MC beefs are ass, completely 20th century.

Posted by ebogjonson at 2:30 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

July 28, 2006

they came before the matrix

we are black revolutionaries

This article originally appeared on Africana.com on May 15, 2003

They Came Before the Matrix: Black People and Science Fiction

The Matrix is hardly the first big screen franchise to go black to the future. In no particular order, here are ten key moments and storylines from the big screen history of black people and science fiction.

They Came Before the Matrix: Black People and Science Fiction
By Gary Dauphin

Among the many mysteries of the Matrix is the unexpected yen writer-director siblings Larry and Andy Wachowski have for putting color into science fiction's usually all-white, big-screen frame. The original Matrix was a tantalizingly multicultural affair, from Laurence Fishburne's laconic Morpheus, to Gloria Foster's wryly luminous Oracle, to the eternal question of Keanu's non-descript racial cipher, while the overarching themes at the core of the franchise -- maroonage and slave rebellion -- can't help but speak suggestively to black sci-fi heads. (It'll be a thousand years or more before an American artist can make work about "slaves" without automatically evoking some portion of black life and history.)

That afrofuturistic parade continues in The Matrix Reloaded with the addition to the cast of Jada Pinkett-Smith, Harold Perrineau, Jr, and, of all people, academic (and occasional MC) Cornel West. The Matrix, though, is hardly the first big screen franchise to go black to the future. In no particular order, here are ten key moments and storylines from the big screen history of black people and science fiction:

1. Black Magic in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
It's no coincidence that some of the earliest mixings of blackness and science fiction took place on movie visits to fictionalized versions of the first black republic, Haiti. Long an object of white fascination and vilification, Haiti's folk religion voudoun was alternately represented as a primitive superstition and as an arcane, crypto-Masonic secret society in dozens of B, C and D-movies from the pre-straight-to-video golden ages of Hollywood exploitation. Flicks like Drums O' Voodoo (1934) titillated and terrorized white audiences with visions of white women under the mind control of black "witch doctors," some of the spells apparently so powerful they required breaking by none other than the extraterrestrial Superman, who made visits to the island in both big screen serials and on TV episodes like Superman #18: Drums of Death (1957). In the movie fictionalization of Harvard ethno-botanist Wade Davis' book The Serpent and The Rainbow, horror director Wes Craven squared the circle of science and mysticism by imagining a pharmacological nightmareland where both the "divine horsemen" (as the gods of Haiti are known) and the Duvalier regime were the products of scary native drugs and freaky native bio-chemistry, thereby giving Haitian religion the "magic mushroom" treatment that the Amazon's indigenous people get in the fantasies of the National Geographic set.

ape shall not kill ape.jpg
2. Fear of a Black Planet
The entire Planet of the Apes cycle took racist anxieties about African nationalism, civil rights and Black Power and did what science fiction does best -- recast the unconscious fears of audiences in forms that were similar enough to the real deal to get a rise, while different enough to pass without a ripple into the popular culture. The Apes series benefited from the placement of the then-liberal Charlton Heston in the opening installment and from there ran roughshod through the political anxieties of white Americans until Conquest of the Planet of the Apes made it plain by depicting a political revolution of ape slaves aided and abetted by, you guessed it, a black man.

darth motherfucking vader3. Fear of the Black Hat: All too often, the only African American face in a science fiction will belong to the villain. George Lucas' black armor-clad Darth Vader was evil incarnate while voiced by African American actor James Earl Jones, his transition away from the Dark Side of the Force (right) signaled by his transformation into a kindly white Brit. In flicks like Total Recall betrayal wore a black mutant face, while in Terminator 2 the end of the world was caused by an over-eager black scientist mucking about with mysterious technology. (Let that be a lesson to every black engineer!)

4. Back in The DayWhile comedy franchises like Martin Lawrence's Black Knight used time-travel to produce easy fish-out-the-ghetto yucks, Haile Gerima's indie masterpiece Sankofa imagined a time travel scenario with a little more bite, when an African American woman finds herself back in days of slavery. The lyrical, quasi-non-linear feature had an art house feel, but re-enacted a basic science fictional question just about every modern-day black person has asked at some point or another: What would I do if I found myself living "back then?" In Brother from Another Planet an escaped alien slave made the trip not across time but space, bringing him into a black neighborhood where the locals band together to protect him.

who am is?5. The White Negro -- Literally
Black essayist and conservative George Schulyer imagined a scientific process whereby black men could be made white and vice versa in 1931's groundbreaking black sci-fi novel Black No More, a conceit that has made it into the movies dozens of times. From spoofs like the Denzel Washington vehicle Heart Condition, to political satires like Watermelon Man and Black Like Me, the transformation of black bodies into white ones and white bodies into black has created endless one-liners about black male endowment and countless opportunities to draw easy conclusions about the similarities and differences between the races. Flicks that focused on actually changing the physical structure of the body, like Black Like Me tended to be both the most lurid and the most interesting, as modifying the racial hardware always raises bigger questions about the software: What's it look like? Who wrote it? Who owns the copyright? And: When is the next version coming out?

6. Angela Bassett's Superpower

Immediately after Kirk and Uhura were forced into TV's first interracial kiss in the classic Star Trek episode "Plato's Step-Children," the verb of interracial love gained a new tense -- call it the "future-perfect-freaky" -- and no one uses it better on screen than Angela Bassett. In Supernova and, more notably, Strange Days, Bassett played black-women-of-the-future responding to what must be (by then) a heinously advanced black-man-shortage by bedding down their white male co-stars. While Bassett savaged Halle Berry in the press for her black-on-white love scene in Monster's Ball, in a temporal inversion of "statute of limitations" she was completely comfortable taking roles that not only featured miscegenation, but treated it as a kind of evolutionary advance. Her romance with Ralph Fiennes not only ends Strange Days, but marks the entire world's official entrance into the future, their kiss setting off the fireworks that announce the arrival of the new millennium.

7. What is B.O.G.? Racial Purity and the Coming Beige Apocalypse
In the sci-fi worlds of the "future-perfect-freaky," mixed race, bi-racial people stride the earth, a scarily perfect super-race purportedly mixing the best of black and white. While writers like Octavia Butler regularly re-imagine the encounter between Europe and Africa in the Americas as a regenerative genetic apocalypse where both roots are transformed by their offspring, the theme had no big screen analog until Wesley Snipes brought the brooding Daywalker named Blade to the multiplexes. The big-screen version of the comic book Blade brought the image of the tragic mulatto into the bio-molecular age, the half-vampire, half-human played by Snipes not just trapped between two warring tribes but forced to live in a battleground-body. The product of pregnant (black) human mother raped by a (white) vampire father, Blade faced an identity crisis that also gave the "one drop rule" a creepy age-of-AIDS spin, turning vampire creation into a question of post-coital viral infection. Unlike Butler's vision of a transcendent middle race, which in books like the Xenogenesis trilogy and Clay's Ark takes giddy satisfaction in the survival of the fitter, new-fangled hybrids, the less radical Blade only wants to maintain the status quo, defending the humans in the first picture, and then discovering the nobility of his pure-blooded vampire antagonists in the second, as embodied by fangy-hottie Leonor Varela.

8. Esoterics in the Land of Cotton
Although not always understood as visions of science fiction, there are always strange doings afoot whenever the moist lands south of the Mason-Dixon line are depicted on screen. From Eve's Bayou to Beloved, the American South has always been a big screen haunted house where the sins of the white racist fathers swap spit with Hollywood fantasies of black spiritual resistance, aka rootwork and hoodoo. Black spiritual technologies -- charms, dream books, candles, mojos -- have been so severed from their original contexts by LaLaLand that they could seamlessly provide a tagline for a franchise like Austin Powers, while in the work of Stephen King, most notably The Shining and the The Stand, wise southern black folk warm King's chilly New England nightmares by acting as walking repositories for strange, unexplained energies. Although much, much richer, even the late Gloria Foster's Oracle in the Matrix movies is a play on the image of the aged Negro as spiritual antenna, a trope as old as Harriet Beecher Stowe's god-fearing Uncle Tom beatifically soaking up the good Lord's shine.

9. Substance D: Imaginary Drugs for Imaginary Ghettoes
In 1977, Philip K. Dick imagined a "Substance D" in A Scanner Darkly a drug so powerful it split the novel's undercover narc protagonist into two personalities, one belonging to the cop, the other to his prey. Dick and his readers didn't have to wait long for the lab-cooked super-drugs of the future; a scant half decade after A Scanner Darkly was published, America was in the grip of a crack epidemic. Ghetto real thrillers like Deep Cover, Ricochet and Belly might not seem like science fiction, but their storylines all revolve around black folks hard at work on the high tech creation of heretofore unknown new narcotics, next generation cracks and methamphetamines. Deep Cover imagines a black and white team looking to create an ecstasy-like pill with no side effects, while in Belly DMX learns (from MTV News of course) of a perfected heroin. In Ricochet Ice-T isn't just Denzel's bad seed pal from back in the day, he's a high tech entrepreneur whose inner-city lab is a futuristic playground straight out of Tom Clancy, the street obviously finding new uses for technology long before the newest-latest reaches the suburbs.

I am not made of normal flesh10. Michael Jackson
What's there to say about MJ that hasn't been said? The "Thriller" video and the "Black or White" video (not to mention their associated games) are epic parts of the black science fictional canon, Michael's racial anxieties turning to the power of special effects to allow him to transform his black body in ways far more radical than the puny tools of plastic surgery allow. Few remember, though, that Michael also created a full-length feature called Moonwalker where the King of Pop enacted a slew of Afro-futuristic fantasies, culminating with his climactic transformation not into a white man, but a 400 foot tall Transformer.

About the Author: Gary Dauphin is Editor in Chief of Africana.

Posted by ebogjonson at 2:07 PM | Permalink

May 19, 2006

uh, did I say "talking androids"?

I just really want to thank god and the Academy for these google results for search string "talking android".

Also: I want to share this just for kicks.

And, of course, it goes without saying that I should link to wikipedia, which just has to have a great entry on Reed and Mumbo Jumbo and the talking android.

Huh. I guess a stub is a start, right? This brings to mind two things:

1 - Every time I try to do a search for something like "talking android" I think with sadness of the old Africana.com article and encyclopedia database that was deep-sixed by AOL and the new managers of AOL Black Voices.

2 - Every time a search for black subject matter on wikipedia produces a stub instead of an article I feel incredibly fatigued. I think: I barely have enough energy to update my dumb blog; now I have to get up early and write and 500 word entry on Ishmael Reed? And what with my copy of Freelance Pallbearers being in a box at my mother's house and all...

Posted by ebogjonson at 3:57 PM | Permalink

May 9, 2006

every day we're hustling

Spent a large portion of last weekend back-reading Emeka Okafor's The Timbuktu Chronicles, a technology and entrepreneurship blog focusing on sub-Saharan Africa. (Someone turned me on to Okafor a while ago, but I've forgotten who; apologies to you if you know who you are.) In between lots of optimistic blog-and-tell (apparently the African swimwear manufacturing sector is heating up), Okafor does some neatly programmatic prognosticating about a possible, tech-driven African renaissance, wondering, for example, whether the West's (or at least the Bay Area's) reignited "need to grapple with the tangible tactile 3rd dimension" has application in Africa:

The now almost retro cyber-age had emphasized the importance of all things digital at the expense of those objects we can grasp. The merging of the bit the biological and non-biological atom in the developed world is on track courtesy of robotics and nanotechnology, while in areas south of the Sahara the 'made' atom has barely gotten of the starting block. The uptake of technology in Africa has been symbolized almost completely by cellphones, computers and information -ICT as it commonly labeled. As a result the nerves are beginning to sputter into life, but the equally important muscles and sinews have not even begun to coalesce.

In a Timbuktu Chronicles post "Fundamental, Unsexy and Absent" the non-existence of an industrial mechanical base was highlighted and its pivotal nature emphasized. The boring 'old' industries of Metalworking and various types of Manufacturing and Chemical Engineering have had to bow off the stage in the developed west while the young upstarts of the information age, biotechnology et al bask in the spotlight. This could rightly be considered progress in the industrialized and developed/ing countries, but not where industrialization has experienced a still birth and these industries do not even exist. The ability to communicate effectively does not confer the title of 'developed' on its wearer's head, ICT is to a large degree an enabler and facilitator.

Okafor is bullish on the idea that the post-hobbyist instrumentalities and practices popular among our local DIY types will open up transformative zones of people/entrepreneur driven growth and industrialization. It's a compelling, current, optimistic scenario, and if I have a nano-sized nit to pick it's that "reignited" interest in the atom in the West or no, places like Haiti or portions of sub-Saharan Africa have always already being zones of intense "maker" activity. The atom hacking and hustling required just to keep head above water in some places means that people are constantly surrounded by a nimbus of modification. It's like a literal poor man's version of Madeline Gins and Arakawa's architectural surround, an enveloping "architecture" that exists not to support Gins and Arakawa's (art)project of life-extension but plain old life-continuance, maintenance, life-not-dying-enance and so on.

(This is a random aside, but I had a chance to hear Madeline Gins speak/read last year in LA. She was fascinating but scattered, and when the audience started tiring just a bit of her shtick she disdainfully saluted the crowd and spat "Goodnight, plants!!!" at us before storming off the stage. Completely amazing.)

Okafor name-checks MAKE Magazine and the transit from there to there (and potentially back) could fill the pages of several well-designed magazine special issues. How long, for example until we see a "MAKE: THIRD WORLD" issue? ("MAKE VISITS THE GARAGE LABS OF SUPER TINKERERS FROM TURKMENISTAN TO NIGERIA TO PARAGUAY!!!") How about a February MAKE exclusive: "BLACK MAN HACKS TRAFFIC LIGHT!! USING XBOX SCRAPS!!!" As much as MAKE contemporizes Popular Mechanics and Heathkit (there's also a hint of "In Search of..." thrown in there somewhere, but that could also just be the taste of nutmeg) it also indulges in stealth deployments of "Budweiser Presents A Black History Month Special: Great Black Inventors," MAKE's central "genius in you" storyline implicitly suggesting the existence of "genius in them" angles, "look what I made!" being less than six degrees of separation from "didja know what they made?"

Or is that "didja know what we made?" The communitarian storyline might be the spécialité de maison of middlebrow, corporate-sponsored, African American media but MAKE still a kind of freedom that when applied to US blacks (pun not intended, but noted) takes on science fictional overtones. Even correcting for the distorted ways people talk about Africa it seems a universal black affliction, infecting even Okafor's straightforwardly earnest postings. His hopes for a coming maker golden age seem the stuff of a hacked Cyptonomicon, but then that's likely why he put "The Timbuktu Chronicles" on the header and not "Sub-Saharan African Technology Today."

Posted by ebogjonson at 9:02 PM | Permalink

April 29, 2006

all these revolutionaries will only break your heart

I stumbled across some Battlestar Galactica-themed Boondocks fanfic this morning, which is a fine way to start any lazy Saturday. The story is much more interesting in theory/title than in execution, but strangely warming nonetheless. This particular except concerns the game of pyramid:

"I'm coming for yo' ass, Starbuck!" Riley hollered. "Tellin' me I ain't big enough to play your jacked-up fake basketball game."

"Kid, I am going to beat the living crap out of you on the court this week, if the toasters don't frak you up first," Starbuck hollered back. "Get your trash-talking ass home before curfew."

"I don't have to listen to you! You ain't my mom!" Riley said.

"I can kick your ass, though," Starbuck answered. "So you wanna play, we will play, Riley Escobar."

"You'd beat up a little kid? That ain't right, Starbuck! You hear this crazy ho? She's sayin' she's coming for my ass!" Riley protested as I sighed and started walking away. "N*gga, I'm eight!"

Posted by ebogjonson at 12:53 PM | Permalink

February 27, 2006

rips - octavia

Octavia Butler passed away over the weekend in Seattle. From what I've been able to gather, she fell (from stroke?) and hit her head, suffering a massive hemorrhage.

Butler's books were always tantalizing and difficult for me, especially the Xenogenesis series. I was amazed by the trilogy's scope, marveled at how Butler could inscribe what felt like the entire dynamic of being black in the New World into a plausible, science-fictional arc. There is a world of great black sci-fi, but I think Butler's books are the texts that most fully fleshed out the core insight of what sci-fi heads like to call afrofuturistism. Afrofuturists believe (and it is a form of belief) that only the specific formal interventions of the speculative narrative genres can accurately capture the shifting states and conditions and, yes, powers of blackness. ("Abducted by aliens, forced into slavery, secreted to a strange land and forced to participate in bizarre genetic experiments" - is that the trailer for a new X-Files movie or a page from black history?) In Butler's work the Afrofuturistic insight became solid and nodal and true, as opposed to what it had been before she crafted her amazing powerful stories: a hunch, a shadowy premonition shared by a range of people about a disconnected series of works.

The difficult part about Butler (for me, at least), always concerned in the way she treated the genetic hybrids that sat at the core of her writing. Hybridity is, for reasons that don't bear outlining here, an obsession of mine (WHAT IS B.O.G.?) and Butler had a take on it that I always found disquieting. In so much as her work imagined and re-imagined the encounter between black and white as an encounter between human and alien, I found myself occasionally recoiling from how she handled bodies with mixed parentage. There are three distinct hybrid modalities deployed in Butler, one where her hybrids seem akin to African Americans, one where her mutts seem like Americans in general, and one where her hybrids are what we commonly describe today as "mixed race." Each one of those modalities has implications and politics for me, and as Butler deftly juggled each, at times according them a place of honor, at times depicting them like a newcomer predator ravaging an ecosystem, I found myself being challenged and pushed out of my various comfort zones, no small thing considering that my default setting about such matters (for those of you who don't know me) can be basically summed up as "smug prick." Butler forced me to evaluate and reevaluate how I was reading and thinking about race, where I was suturing myself into the story. There are hundreds of books out there that have changed me, that have been absorbed into my psychic code-base, but Xenogenesis has always been grit in my mind's gears, a substance (isotope?) whose resistance to assimilation and smooth digestion produced a rendering of my own inner workings. Except for foundational works that blew my mind and educated me as a kid, I can't really think of any other writer who had the power over my thinking.


For at least 10 years I have kept track of the instructor list at the Clarion Science Fiction Writing Workshops offered in Seattle and Ann Arbor, MI. It's been a fantasy of mine to take one the workshops, and in my mind there was a very short list of writers that always made me lean a little more forward in my chair, Samuel Delany, Nalo Hopkinson, Nancy Kress, Maureen Mchugh, and, of course, Octavia Butler. I never got around to applying, and it typically never occurred to me that there wouldn't be a next year for me and the vague objects of my literary affection, be it a writer like Butler or the long unrequited love affair I've long had with my own as-yet-unmade fiction writing.

Posted by ebogjonson at 2:20 PM | Permalink