Reengaging utopian Tomorrowland desires, fears and fantasies for a racially redeemed society and world
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first human-made satellite to orbit Earth, in 1957, a starter pistol was fired and the space race began, putting American exceptionalism to the test for nearly two decades. The head-tripping visuals of Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) more or less predicted a tie between the two countries reaching space and beyond. By the summer of 1969, however, the race to the moon came to a decisive end. NASA started ferrying American astronauts to the moon and back at an impressive rate: six successful missions in three years. The other team, nothing. Nevertheless, it was fitting the words “space” and “race” were prominent sources of meaning during this period given how the civil rights movement also captured the nation’s attention concerning the struggle over the “space” that “race” occupied in American society. In this regard, there is an eerie resonance between science fact, science fiction, pop culture and the real-world experience of racial subordination for Black folk in America.
Take, for example, fantastic films like Byron Haskin’s “The War of the Worlds” (1953) and Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). Both are classic sci-fi films that address the specter of alien encounters and alienness with dread and delight. Yet, as terrifyingly thrilling as those films were for an audience, they do not match the fantastic reality of my African ancestors facing strange beings — their optic opposites — and confronting the enormity of vessels that launch off to unknown, faraway lands. For Black folk, alien invasion, abduction and transportation via bizarre crafts is a historical fact, not a well-worn sci-fi trope from a cornball miniseries.
Do not even get me started on Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel “The Underground Railroad,” a beautifully written and masterfully innovative “alternate” history that re-imagined the antislavery network of abolitionists facilitating fugitive slaves’ arrival to Canada as a prototype subway system to freedom. Black folk had a hidden subway system? As far as I was concerned, at the ripe old age of eight: of course. None of my elementary school classmates thought any different about the Underground Railroad, and this was decades before Whitehead’s novel was published.
Then, there is the North Star: enslaved African American freedom seekers, blanketed by a black, night sky full of stars, not literate, but literally reading starlight without a telescope, searching for the cosmological signposts to deliverance. Decades later, Marcus Mosiah Garvey started the Black Star Line, an ambitious but slipshod venture to achieve economic freedom by ferrying Black folk between America and Africa on Black-owned passenger ships.
Garvey’s maritime arks rest at the bottom of Black history’s graveyard of inventions, innovations, ideas and dreams deferred by internal mismanagement and external maliciousness. The Black Star Line would return, however, like a retro-futuristic Flying Dutchman, cropping up in films such as the 1974 release “Space Is the Place,” directed by John Coney and written by Sun Ra and Joshua Smith, and John Sayles’ “The Brother from Another Planet” (1984), as well as the Hudlin Brothers’ vignette “The Space Traders” in the 1994 “Cosmic Slop” miniseries and Ray Bradbury’s short story from 1951, “The Other Foot,” in which Black folk have fled a racially restrictive Earth to successfully colonize Mars. These various sci-fi incarnations of Garvey’s Black Star Line swung low but did not always carry you home. For African American Black folk, when race, space and science fiction all convene, reaching escape velocity has multiple meanings. Given all of this, I have to say it: Black folk were science fiction before science fiction.
In terms of science fiction, it was not until Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic television series “Star Trek” (1966-1969) that the Black experience had more to do with Black racial formation than just the deep, black void of the infinite. Roddenberry, by putting racial diversity into the optic mix, made good on what science fiction at its best can deliver: a thoughtful, almost existential reflection on some signature social problem humanity faces. With “Star Trek,” “Space, the final frontier,” was a limitless destination, unbound by the pull of prejudice and racial chauvinism found on Earth. The series presented space travel as a catalyst and conduit for ethical human development.
The short film “Departure” (2017), as seen in the “Afrofuturism: Blackness Revisualized” film festival on ALL ARTS, offers a fresh take on Black folk escaping to space to signify a racial Eden in the galactic distance. Certainly, there is the traditional Afrofuturistic take on space as a more racially liberated place. The two lead characters in “Departure” easily signal a cosmological notion of a Black Adam and Eve, as an alien couple named Addem (Hari Williams) and Efa (Natascha Hopkins), sent to report if Earth should be colonized. What makes the film a more dynamic example of this traditional Afrofuturistic expression is the myriad of allegorical areas of racial deconstruction generated.
“Departure,” directed by Donovan Vim Crony, raises questions concerning the interchangeability of alienness with racial Blackness in American society, pair-bonding as an imperative against the backdrop of single-Black-female-headed households and baby daddy drama, the surveillance of Black bodies, and an array of other Afrofuturistic framings that I do not have the room to list. Keep in mind, “Departure” is a film less than 11 minutes long. Yet, within the rubric of Afrofuturism, this short generates a robust dialogue concerning multiple modalities of Black racial meaning to engage with and evaluate.
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As such, films like “Departure” are not merely hyper-conscious attempts to breach all-white worlds of science fiction past, cancel them out with contemporary all-Black worlds as paragons of racial diversity and call it Afrofuturism. Admittedly, an emergent, increasing and evolving trend concerning Afrofuturism is the use of the term as an intellectual clearinghouse to declare almost anything as Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism, at its best, is an earnest examination of the African American experience and Black racial formation as both abstract and tangible, surreal and factually fantastic, organic and conceivably techno-cybernetic expressions of futuristic Blackness. There are nagging ontological questions concerning Afrofuturism as ethos, aesthetic and attitude that exist beyond the faddishness and hip quotient of Afrofuturism as an expression of fashion statements, “happenings,” and uncritical celebratory engagements with “Sonny” Blount (also known as Sun Ra), Lee “Scratch” Perry, Mae Jemison, George Clinton, Nichelle Nichols, Darryl Dawkins (Planet Lovetron’s goodwill ambassador) or any other pioneering Afrofuturistic artists, figures and pop culture artifacts.
“Departure,” along with all the works included in the “Blackness Revisualized” film festival, stands as a rich example of the furtherance of an Afrofuturistic perspective and project. This festival is a snapshot of a growing Afrofuturistic aesthetic and outlook that has reignited and compelled various authors, advocates, scholars, artists, musicians, writers, poets, filmmakers and fans to discover and map innovative ways of reengaging the utopian Tomorrowland desires, fears and fantasies for a racially redeemed society and world.