Exploring the Future of Astro-Blackness

Talking African metaphysics and the next wave of Afrofuturism with Dr. Reynaldo Anderson.

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Oct 18 2017, 2:00pm

Dr. Reynaldo Anderson giving a lecture in Berlin. Images courtesy of Dr. Reynaldo Anderson. 

Beam up to the University of Toronto on October 21 for BSAM Toronto 2017, a convention dedicated to the Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM) that covers African metaphysics, astro-blackness, and the next wave of Afrofuturism. Organized by BSAM Canada and featuring Harris-Stowe State University professor Dr. Reynaldo Anderson, the daylong community gathering is set to include panels, installations, and performances that bring together everything from anthropology and archaeology to hip-hop and speculative fiction that hail from all across the African diaspora.

I first met Anderson while walking the streets of St. Louis with Nightlife, an anti-violence outreach program that grew out of the unrest in Ferguson in 2015. Back then, BSAM was just forming in the professor's mind. Later that year, he published the book Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness with Charles E. Jones, an architect who is the head of the Africana Studies Department at the University of Cincinnati. The book helped define BSAM as "a creative, aesthetic practice that integrates African diasporic or African metaphysics with science and technology and seeks to interpret, engage, design, or alter reality with a re-imagination of the past, the contested presence, and act as a catalyst for the future."

Today, thanks to Dr. Anderson's work in this realm, the dots between the work of musicians like Sun Ra, sci-fi authors like Samuel R. Delany, and filmmakers like Jordan Peele are finally being connected in the popular consciousness. With the convention happening this weekend and a new trailer for Marvel's Black Panther taking the internet by storm (the film is poised to be an epochal moment for Afrofuturism in the mainstream), it felt like a perfect time to visit the former Marine at his Harris-Stowe University office in St. Louis. During our chat, he told me what BSAM is all about and explained how it ties into the current struggle for civil rights and racial equality.

BSAM co-founders

VICE: What exactly is the Black Speculative Arts Movement
Dr. Reynaldo Anderson: BSAM is an umbrella term that looks at several different positions [like] magical realism, Afrofuturism, black science fiction, black quantum futurism, Afro-surrealism, ethnography—different perspectives related to this movement. It's a collection of artists, intellectuals, and activists that we have in these conventions.

How did it start?
BSAM emerged out of the Unveiling Visions: The Alchemy of the Black Imagination project that I co-curated with John Jennings at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. It was during that exhibition that I wrote the manifesto for the movement, which is posted online for people to look at.

Later, while brainstorming with John, he connected me to Maia "Crown" Williams, the founder of MECCAcon, the Midwest Ethnic Convention for Comics and Arts [who] operates a film festival and is a founding member of Ava DuVernay's ARRAY out of Detroit. With her expertise in film and comic conventions, she was very valuable as a co-founder to forming an ongoing convention aspect of the movement.

How long ago did you start thinking about this movement?
We are in the second wave of Afrofuturism, and it's also sociopolitical. When you think about science fiction and what we are doing with Nightlife, a lot of these people who are addicted to drugs have similar behaviors to those of zombies. There is a connection there as a literary or critical theorist. The way I think about science fiction and speculative philosophy happens in real life when people are using all these chemicals and drugs on their body and how it impacts their behavior, as they react like some of these people that we read about in novels. I think it's because society is changing so quickly the only reference we have to understand what happens to us is science fiction or horror. Things that we read in science fiction books used to be unthinkable. Now, they are a reality.

Let's talk about your book, Afrofuturism 2.0. How did you come to be involved in that project?
The book was the result of several years of thinking about the term "Afrofuturism." Many people preceded me in its conceptual development, like Mark Dery, Alondra Nelson, Kodwo Eshun, and others. I first heard of the term in the 90s as a graduate student when I was working on my PhD focusing on the Black Panther Party. The 2.0 project came out of a couple of things. One, I thought about Afrofuturism being different than it was when it was formulated in the 90s.

Afrofuturism 2.0 is the era that we're in now, this era of social media, technological acceleration, globalization, and environmental stress that we are dealing with. I put together a call for papers to put a book around the ideas that really mattered to Afrofuturism from 2005 to now. The other difference is that Afrofuturism is now a transdisciplinary pan-African techno cultural movement. It's global. It's not just American. It takes place in Africa, Latin America—all over the world people are doing it. It was the spirit of those spiritual and intellectual currents going on that led to the book being developed that I co-edited with Charles Jones.

BSAM at Harris-Stowe State University

How does Afrofuturism explore and address the intersections between race and technology?
The first wave of Afrofuturism was focused mainly on the digital divide back in the 90s. But in 2.0 we're talking about social media, about how the idea of black thoughts are transnationally communicated via social media, like the idea of Black Twitter, or these other social media websites where information, media, and concepts are exchanged. It has implications for political organizing and how creative work gets done.

When we talk about this techno-vernacular, or a kind of creative work where you're combing your culture and how you integrate and deal with technology, that previously only existed in your imagination. It's like 3D printing, where you can make something that only previously existed in your imagination. And everyone's imagination is certainly influenced by the culture that they were raised up in. Now the technology exists which can bring it to life. Your cultural imagination and lens is now an active part of how you use technology.

How does BSAM help pierce the color line and bridge the digital divide?
It's similar to what happened around the Garvey movement and the Harlem Renaissance 100 years ago. Then after that you have the black arts movement and the black power movement. The BSAM is really kind of a reflection of the black revolt that is going on around the country now. Some people, particularly white folks, like to think that everything is Black Lives Matter when they (black people) protest, but most black people I know don't talk about Black Lives Matter.

What do they talk about?
They got a lot of different groups running around here like the Huey Newton Gun Club, the Black Revolutionary Party, and in response, recently the FBI came out with this report that talks about "Black Identity Extremism" going on in the country. Black Lives Matter is just one of many sub-groups in the country who are on the political end of this, expressing a lot of political and social discontent. With the BSAM, we are giving that an artistic expression in graphic arts, comics, visual arts, music as a counterpoint to the actual street protests and struggles that are going on at this time.

What do you think about the resistance movements that are going on right now?
A friend of mine says that it is the equivalent of a 21st-century black slave revolt, in terms of NFL players who are millionaires kneeling and putting their jobs and careers on the line. That never happened back in the 60s. You had a few hits and misses there, but now you have a lot of these wealthy millionaires who are aligning their interest with the underclass in the inner cities around police brutally. That's why the BSAM is the artistic expression of this 21st-century black revolt that is going on right now. And these artists are expressing those thoughts via art, music, literature, and other types of technological creations that they're coming up with.

What have artists like Sun Ra meant to the movement and what you guys are doing?
Sun Ra is probably the most important figure to the rise of Afrofuturism as a concept. A lot of people look at him as a cosmic philosopher, a performer of cosmic jazz. He talks about it in Space is the Place, his 1972 film, and puts it in artistic format. As an artist, he begins to influence the idea of Afrofuturism as a tool for enacting a planetary and near planetary vision, because he said he was from Saturn. But after Sun Ra you have to mention some important people, like Sam R. Delany, the science-fiction writer, and currently Nnedi Okorafor, because some people would say that some of their ideas and concepts overlap with the concept of Afrofuturism. I know in the American tradition, its literary format starts with activist and leader Martin Delany in the 19th century.

Then there's other traditions, like Amos Tutuola in Nigeria, and in other cultures you have Nalo Hopkinson, which is like a Caribbean futuristic take. It's being made into a movie called Brown Girl in the Ring. Nnedi Okorafor's book, Who Fears Death, is going to be a movie. George R.R. Martin, from Game of Thrones, is backing that project. You are seeing some of these ideas now moving into the mainstream. That's exciting.

It was considered an insular type of movement, and now it's reaching a full flowering period where its being seriously studied in scholarship, beyond a small group of people, and impacting certain ideas in the mainstream.

What are you going to be talking about at the Toronto convention on October 21?
In Toronto, I'm going to be talking about the concept of interstellar black power in Afrofuturism. I'm talking about how, at this moment in time, black empowerment and having a planetary vision is necessary for people of African descent to think about some alternatives in relation to how to make their societies work.

Why is this relevant today?
[W]hat you're seeing around the word now is that Trump is just a symptom of a larger problem, this area of populism and nationalism. There are going to be too many people and not enough jobs amid a deteriorating environment.

At the same time, you're going to have a lot of this unemployment [for] young people. The environment is continuing to deteriorate, and the technology is continuing to accelerate. The impact on economics and culture is not going to slow down. We are at a transitionary point in human history right now [and] over the next 20 years. There's going to be a laboratory of ideas on how to deal with all this. People like Trump, or Putin, or the people who were behind the Brexit move in England, are trying to present easy solutions to this stuff, and there are no easy solutions.

What about our leaders?
The leadership to pull everybody together to really deal with this is not there. That's the scary thing. With the absence of any real leadership, people are going to retreat to their own corners. Most leaders, and I'll just speak for this country because I live here, are simply exploiting the lack of information that the population has for the gain of a few people, blaming their problems on these different subgroups in the country like Muslims, LGBTQ [people], or black people, or trying to build walls against Mexicans.

Has this happened before?
Anytime there's been anything in the modern era like a black revolt, it's usually accompanied by a black artistic movement. The follow-up literary projects for the movement to the 2.0 book that seek to capture this change [are] The Black Speculative Arts Movement: Black Futurity, Art+Design with Clint Fluker, Cosmic Underground: A Grimoire of Black Speculative Discontent with John Jennings, and Working on the Other Side of Time: A Graphic Introduction to Afrofuturism with Tim Fielder.

Learn more about BSAM Toronto 2017 and visit Dr. Reynaldo Anderson's website.

Update: A previous version of this article neglected to list BSAM Canada as the organizers of BSAM Toronto 2017.

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