author – activist – faculty – mom
Let me begin by saying I am not native to this planet – the world of the AfroFuturists. As many of you know, I have my origin in another genre: I write crime and heist fiction. My published novels have no magical elements. Just women of color robbing wealthy unscrupulous white men. But as a cultural critic and activist, I am VERY excited about everything that Black people and other people of color are exploring in the science fiction and fantasy genres. I am very excited about AfroFuturism.
When I first encountered AfroFuturism, I understood it to be a movement of Black artists and thinkers pushing back on the way that white supremacy had impacted our cultural imagination about the future. This meant calling out the fact that the Black character is always the one to die in the first five minutes of the movie. And why was there only one Black character to begin with? And why were white people always in the center of futuristic stories? And how was it that white people could create these incredibly complex and intricate future worlds that excluded us? The very people whose labor had historically built their wealth. And It meant honoring the long legacy of Black authors and creatives in science-fiction and fantasy arts that had long been marginalized, including affirming new generations of Black creatives who were imagining Black futures. As well as activists who wanted to shape our real Black future.
According to Inverse, “AfroFuturism is an artform, practice, and methodology that allows Black people to see themselves in the future, despite a distressing past and present…..the official term was coined in [the early 90s] by cultural critic Mark Dery, [but] AfroFuturism as a practice has been around for centuries. Iconic figures like Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X fought for Afrofuturistic societies. They imagined expansive and prosperous lives despite living within a world of peril. Today, Afrofuturist artists and creators dream up ideas of Black lives beyond marginalization, misogyny, transantagonism, generational trauma, and other systems of oppression.”
For a long time, I was primarily an Afro futurist by marriage. My man is an Afro Caribbean fantasy novel reading World of Warcraft playing, Star Trek and Star Wars watching, Magic the Gathering card collecting, comic book page flipping type brother. Although we’ve been together almost 20 years, when we hang at home, you might find us cuddled up, reading very different books. Like I said, I am a sister who write feminist heist and spy fiction, so while we both like our action and drama, we are decidedly living in different genres. The only movie we’ve seen together in the theater in the last decade was Black Panther.
Even though I write contemporary realistic fiction, I had so much love for the sci-fi fantasy writers of color because y’all are so hyphy. So when I heard about AfroComicCon in 2017, I had to come.
Two years ago, I came with my dude. I thought this would be a great date for us: he would get to geek out on all the content, and I would get to geek out on all the politics. My first year here, Black Panther wasn’t even out yet, but change was clearly on the horizon.
Author Jamie Broadnax, founder of Black Girl Nerds says of Black Panther: “Many of us blerds (Black nerds, to you) who have read the Black Panther comics never thought the day would come when we would finally see this story adapted for the big screen….AfroFuturismis the reimagining of a future filled with arts, science and technology seen through a Blacklens….A narrative that simply features a Black character in a futuristic world is not enough. To be AfroFuturism, it must be rooted in and unapologetically celebrate the uniqueness and innovation of Black culture.”
So Black Panther not only marks a turning point in AfroFuturism, where our stories have gone mainstream, but also the moment when the film industry has finally become inclusive enough of Black creatives that the story could be done right. And it was. Because even though the original story was written by Stan Lee, a white guy, it asked the right question: how can we imagine a group of African people who have access to their brilliance in a way that has not been devastated by racism and colonization. He—as a white ally—helped us to imagine how much power we might have if we could exist outside of the oppression we face. And it is an amazing vision.
So let me tell you, AfroFuturism is infectious. After two Cons and Black Panther last year, I got the fever. I had been working on a Black and Latina spy girl YA series called GOING DARK, and the plot of the latest book wasn’t working. Suddenly, I found myself including fantasy elements and geek gaming characters and the book just blossomed.
I began writing a story-within a story. Not just writing the characters, but also writing the storylines of the comic books they were reading. In the comics, there’s a group of teens that have superpowers to battle evil forces in the present and an origin story of how those powers were conjured by a group of characters in the 1600s who cast a powerful spell to escape slavery in the Caribbean, and to fight against the slavemasters.
The latest novel-in-progress is still untitled, and it’s about a contemporary spy girl who is Latina but light enough to pass, who is sent to a southwestern high school to befriend the son of white nationalist who is threatening a terrorist attack. The authorities can’t get a line on him and are hoping that she can get some critical intel out of his estranged son. In this particular novel, the young spy is part of a coalition of independent intelligence agencies that look out for the interests of Black and Latinx people, internationally. So, of course, it turns out that the teen boy is a game-playing kid, and in order to get in good with him, the Latina spy girl needs to read the comics and learn about the game. And so they bring in the mentor, who is a Black teen spy girl from a previous book in the series. She teaches the main character all about the card game Triangulo, that has some similarities to magic the gathering, but it has Afro-Indigenous-Latino origin and content.
This slide is from the movie Quilombo, about a maroon colony in Brasil. I saw this film when I was a kid, and it undoubtedly influenced this story.
In many ways, this writing that toggles back and forth between the present time and the period of slavery is inspired by Octavia Bultler’s KINDRED. [In which a contemporary Black woman finds herself involuntarily time traveled back and forth from slavery to present day.] I read it in my early 20s, and it has always stayed with me.
According to Bolanle Austen Peters founder of Terra Kulture, in Nigeria: “Time is not linear in this genre [AfroFuturism]. An imagined future can impact the present as it unearths a buried African past.”
She goes on to say: “Given the sometimes bleak present-day circumstances of Afro-descended people, AfroFuturism is a chance to envision a radical and progressive vision of Blackness – one in which justice reigns in superheroes and where Black creativity is mystical and fascinating. In this space, Black life matters.”
So let’s talk about Octavia Butler. Some of her work is decidedly dystopic, where Black life is fighting and struggling to matter. But it is precisely her fiction thatpredicted this dystopic historical moment that we’re living in. Right down to the zealot who gets elected with his “Make America Great Again” slogan. In her Parable series in the 90s. She saw it coming! That’s our people! Our Afro-futurism matriarch! Handing down the prophecy. Decades ahead of time.
Which is why Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha were also prophetic in their book OCTAVIA’S BROOD. They believed that all Black political activists were really writing science fiction and fantasy. That we, in our audacity to imagine a different future and to work to bring that future about, were practicing science fiction and fantasy—changing the future.
Beyond just the prophecy of the make America great again slogan, Octavia Butler was prophetic about the shape of our times. This is a short quote from an article by Abby Aguirre on Butler in the New Yorker. “PARABLE OF THE SOWER, which was published in 1993, opens in Los Angeles in 2024. Global warming has brought drought and rising seawater. The middle class and working poor live in gated neighborhoods, where they fend off the homeless with guns and walls. Fresh water is scarce, as valuable as money….Police services are expensive, though few people trust the police. Public schools are being privatized, as are whole towns.
“PARABLE OF THE SOWERunfolds through the journal entries of its protagonist, a fifteen-year-old Black girl named Lauren Oya Olamina, who lives with her family in one of the walled neighborhoods. “People have changed the climate of the world,” she observes. “Now they’re waiting for the old days to come back.”
So, like so many other authors, Butler was writing about the climate crisis.
And now, we are only four years from the time this book was set. So let’s turn our attention to talking about Black People in this moment in history and the climate crisis.
I am sure some of you have heard, our entire planet is in a state of ecological crisis. Due to increases in carbon emissions, mostly from the burning of fossil fuels, the planet is warming. Ice is melting. Sea levels are rising. Storms are getting stronger and more frequent. Droughts. Wild fires. Floods. Everything that we take for granted about the air, the water, the plants, the animals, the earth that sustains us, is falling out of whack. Hurricanes in the Caribbean and the US. Cyclone Idai in Africa, more disasters than I can name. Our recent PG&E Blackout was a response to the fire danger brought about by record high temperatures on a warming planet. But also by PG&E’s greedy negligence, using public paid funds to enrich their executives and investors, instead of doing the upgrades to their infrastructure that they should have done. But this is at the root of the climate crisis: corporate greed, and an unwillingness to put people or the planet before profit.
Things have heightened to a state of emergency. This would be like the plot to an episode of Star Trek: “This planet is gonna blow!” But unlike Star Trek, we only have one earth, and can’t just get Scotty to beam us up to our ship where we can find a better planet, one that’s more stable and fit for human habitation.
We need to take the action necessary to save this one.
Yes, I am up here talking about the environmental movement. And let’s be real here. I am a girl from Berkeley. And when I grew up, we played a non-competitive game called Save the Whales. And at that time, a lot of Black people were mad at the environmental movement. Because they were talking about Save the whales, while Black people were getting shot by the police. Save the seals. While crack was getting dumped into our communities in the 80s: save the spotted owl. While our people were suffering from mass incarceration in the 90s: save these animals? What about saving Black people? Crickets. And when Black and Indigenous people started to organize around environmental justice, for all the refineries and toxic dumping and polluting factories that were harming the health of people in our communities, a LOT of white environmentalists were still talking about save the old growth forests. I know they were. And I’m concerned about whales, and owls, and seals and trees. But I’m also concerned about Black and brown people. Yes. Let’s put it on the table. The white environmental movement had serious racism in its priorities. We, Black people, have a history of chattel slavery. We have had the same status as cows and horses. We have been valued less than dogs. So when white people build a movement around endangered animals and trees but ignore our plight, we get mad. That’s why we had to have a whole movement called Black Lives Matter (thank you, Alicia Garza for the phrase). We matter. We need to know we matter. And we might have resentment toward white envrionmentalists who couldn’t hold a vision of saving the land and the animals and the people. But that’s how white American culture works, y’all. They lost their access to ancient African and Indigenous traditions that are in harmony with nature. European-American culture has this big disconnect between humans and nature. They are the dominion people. We’re gonna dominate this earth and make it do our bidding. And their dominion fantasies have run amok, and now the planet and all the people are in danger.1
Climate emergency? Some of us Black people are like, we don’t have time to deal with that! We’re tired. We got other movements that we’ve been working on. For racial and economic and gender justice. We feel like white people made this mess and they need to come clean it up.
But how could the white environmental movement succeed, when it failed to attract people of color, who are the majority of the people on the planet. And of course it didn’t have mass appeal to Black and brown folks, because from the jump it was led by wealthy white men, and contained the seeds of racism. The big fathers of environmentalism: Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, all those guys, were hella racist. They did some good things in terms of preserving stolen Indigenous lands with the intention of making them places where white people could go to enjoy nature, but they didn’t threaten the larger system. They set aside some lands, and advocated for capitalism to leave those spaces alone, but they greenlighted the continued exploitation of everything else, and let racism and sexism and all the other oppressions march on. So most of us stayed away from the environmental movement. We built our movements for racial justice and economic justice and played key roles in movements against war, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and colonization.
Yes, I am a Black woman, and I have felt the pressure my whole life to clean up after white people. That’s what we were brought here for from Africa: to pick cotton and tobacco and rum and for Black women to do all the domestic work that white people didn’t want to do. And yes, here we are doing it again. But as usual, if we don’t clean it up now, it’ll be much worse later. So I’m a working mom, and sometimes when you’re rushing you spill some water, and think, oh, it’ll evaporate. But sometimes you spill coffee. Sometimes you spill lemonade. Sometimes you spill milk. I’m lactose intolerant, so I don’t spill milk, but one time I had bought some steak off the burrito bar at the Berkely Bowl. And it spilled, and the gravy seeped through the bag and got on the upholstery of my car. And I was tired, and I didn’t want to deal with it, but I went in to the house and got the enzyme cleaner. Because if you clean it up now, it’ll be a hassle. But nobody wants to smell rotting meat in their car. The climate crisis is like that. It’s a mess. It’s already a mess. But we can clean it up now, or it’ll get much worse. At some point, it’ll be impossible to clean up.
Recently, scientists have given us a deadline: 12 years to cut our fossil fuel emissions in half, that wasn’t a dozen years to make everything all good and just like it used to be. It will never be like it used to be. Scientists are saying that if we can make those changes in a dozen years, we stand a chance of having a planet whose air, and water, and land can actually support human habitation moving into the future. If we don’t do it, we may damage the planet so much that it’s no longer livable. 12 years. And that was a year ago. So we gotta work to clean up this mess.
As Naomi Klein points out in her new book On Fire: the (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, the triple root of the problem, slavery, Native genocide, and exploitation of nature co-evolved to bring us to our current planetary crisis.
There have always been people of color in environmental movements, but for decades the movement has been unwilling to include a critique of racism in its core. Until now.
Now, all these movements are coming together into a movement for climate justice. Because here’s the thing: it’s all connected. The climate change deniers are saying that they can burn fossil fuels and there are no consequences. And funny, these are the same people who think cops should be able to shoot Black people and face no consequences. That men’s violence against women should have no consequences, that wall street should be able to loot the economy til it collapses and face no consequences, that predatory lenders should be able to loot the real estate market and face no consequences. Well, really, they are all saying that we, Black people, women, people of color, working people, should be the ones to pay the consequences. But now, with the earth warming, there’s no way to fully insulate themselves from planetary consequences. To be sure, Black people and brown people and poor and working-class people and women and disabled folks, and people in the global south will be the frontline communities. But the climate crisis is coming for the elites, as well, and their way of life is completely dependent on our labor.
The people in this room here has probably read more scenarios of how it will happen than most. Futures where people live in biospheres, or have to wear sun suits to leave the house. People living in unbreathable air. Some of that is already coming to pass. When I think about the airpocalypse last thanksgiving and brown children swimming in the summer wearing suits that cover them wrist to ankle. When I was a kid, melanin was enough protection, but not anymore.
So we have read the prophecies. And we have followed our protagonists through the battles. But now it’s time to do something that many of us are not eager to do. It’s time to come out of the books. Out of the games. Out of the comics. Out of the TV shows and movies. It’s time to shut down the computer, to stand together and fight.
I know you didn’t come here to hear this today. But our books have been the oracles of prophecy: they’ve shown us what kinds of environmental dystopias can arise if we don’t take action. Our books have been both utopian or dystopian. Our books have shown us that we, Black people, can be brave and loving and powerful and effective. They’ve shown us that we can take action and demand a different future.
We love these stories. And now it’s time for us to live these stories.
Some of you are scared. Some of you think it’s too late. It’s never too late. Powerful white people’s choices have damaged the climate, have changed nature. But our choices of resistance have also changed nature. The migratory patterns of sharks stay changed TO THIS DAY, because our people jumped off ships in the Middle Passage, and were unwilling to participate in slavery. We have a chance to change nature again
AfroFuturism, at its most optimistic, had been a way for us to think about Black people having a future, and to envision a future where we wouldn’t be so deep under white supremacy.
So you all can see that this is literally a science fiction plot. The end of the world? The scientists all agree, but there’s an ultra-evil group of people in power who are building up bunkers to survive into an apocalyptic time? The scientists have said We have 12 years to save the planet!
Climate emergency is coming to Wakanda
Climate emergency is coming to the Avengers Mansion and the X Mansion
And for you DC comics folks
Climate emergency is coming to Metropolis and Gotham
Climate emergency is coming to paradise island
Climate emergency is coming to Jakku and D’Qar.
Climate emergency is coming to the planet Klingon.
qo’ muD Dotlh choH
Which means climate change in Klingon
And whatever language we call it by, it’s terrifying. As a parent, I’m really scared.
But we are being called upon not only to see ourselves in the future, but to save the future. We need to emulate the people of Wakanda and imagine our power outside of the limits that white supremacy has set for us. Because we all know that inside we ARE THAT POWERFUL. I’m telling you, people, WE ARE THE VIBRANIUM.
“The root causes of the problems our communities face—like climate change, racism, and economic inequality—are all deeply connected. Since the problems are connected, so are the solutions.”
Who put this together? You know that super duper AfroFuturistic society – The NAACP. That’s right. Black people are already fighting the climate crisis.
The recent #GlobalClimateStrike showed that millions of people all around the world can come together to demand a change. [Particularly young people.]
These are Black people on strike in Africa and the US, including right here in the Bay Area. Black people are already in this fight. We need to bring every shred of our brilliance to organize and create the solutions to this crisis that will determine the future of humanity. It’s a scary time, but it’s also a time of great hope that our species, human beings, is being forced to change everything. Now the corporate elite who profit off climate crisis don’t want to give it up. This is the battle of all time. And we need to get in it, despite our fear.
And there’s this one particular shred of hope that I’ve been clinging to lately, and it’s this: The Hero’s Journey.
Joseph Campbell talks about this monomyth, this story that has appeared in every culture on the planet, and it’s about a reluctant hero who gets called upon to leave their safe comfortable world and venture into an unknwon world. This is the plot of so many of our favorite stories: Star Wars, Moana, Black Panther, the new She-Ra. I use it in my work. And the climax of the story is this: In the so-called darkest hour, the hero has lost hope.
The crew is turning on each other. The power of the enemy seems unstoppable. And the hero wants to give up. Really, the hero has given up. They’re just gonna stop fighting and let the evil forces win. But someone comes along and tells them that they can do it. Because it turns out that after all the physical obstacles the hero or band of heroes had fought, the final obstacle was within, their hopelessness or guilt or shame or fear of inadequacy was the final thing holding them back. And then some kind of mentor or ancestor or magical force comes and tells them that they can do it. They can fight and they can win. And I choose to believe that human beings in every culture in the world have been telling this story for thousands of years because it is our story. Because we are those heroes, and because we can win if we set aside our hopelessness and fight.
So this is my call to action. To all the reluctant heroes. We are gonna have to come out from behind the books and the gaming consoles, the glow of the Netflix series and for me, even the writing desk. We’re gonna have to join the rebellion, the resistance, the movement IRL—in real life. And yes, we can make noise on social media and the internet, but we are also gonna have to march and some of us will have to get arrested, and we need to organize and strategize and build a movement that is stronger than the [greedy] forces that want to destroy the planet.
And the good news is that the people who profit off this are so very tiny, that they are vastly outnumbered. But it’s gonna require the activation of the power of the people. And that includes us.
Very concretely: we need to vote. Particularly in the 2020 election. And we need to vote for candidates that have a platform of radical change when it comes to addressing the climate crisis. We need to start talking about the climate issue as our issue in our communities. Because you best believe our communities are already the first ones getting hit, whether it’s the vulnerability of Black neighborhoods in hurricanes or the vulnerability of Black island people with sea level rise, or our economic vulnerability to domino effect crises with things like the PG&E power shutoffs.
So I want to leave you with a video from The Intercept. It’s a piece of political propaganda for a particular policy. But I want you to read it through the lens of AfroFuturism. People tend to focus on the narrator of the piece, but I want you to think about the young, Black protagonist, and focus on her story.
So I urge us to ensure that the next wave of AfroFuturism is Black people saving the planet.
Thank you for listening.
Delivered on October 19, 2019 AfroComicCon in Emeryville, CA.
photo credits forthcoming.