The uncomfortable origins of ‘Afrofuturism’

The term ‘Afrofuturism’ was coined by Mark Dery in his article ‘Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose’. I finally got round to reading the piece recently; as you might infer, it’s not my area of expertise, so it’s more than possible that someone has made these observations better than me, before me. But I thought it was worth writing about: firstly because I was so taken aback by how uncomfortable it was to read, as a white person who’s minimally aware of the many perils that beset the work of white people like me writing about black culture; and secondly because after a throwaway comment I made on Twitter, Mark Dery took it upon himself to sealion me, and demand that I explain in detail my critique of his work:

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I’m doubtful as to the sincerity of this demand – the Panopticon is, after all, a tool of discipline rather than reflection. But as a scholar of Žižek, one thing I’ve learned is that sometimes the most ethical thing to do is simply to take a person at their word.

‘Black to the Future’ opens with a conundrum: ‘Why do so few African Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounter with the Other – the stranger in a strange land – would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists?’ Why is it that African Americans are not producing the sort of culture that Mark Dery, a white guy, thinks they should be producing? Dery does at least realise that if there’s an answer to this question he can’t figure it out on his own, and so the bulk of the article consists of interviews with Samuel Delany, Greg Tate and Tricia Rose. Most of the words are not Dery’s own. It’s not clear how closely the text itself hews to the original interviews, but on the account that Dery himself gives, the bulk of the analysis the article contains is Delany’s, Tate’s and Rose’s. They’re fascinating, smart, insightful interviewees, with a lot to say about the relationship between black culture and science fiction. Dery? Not so much.

For someone who is so sure about his competence to assess the contributions of African American science fiction, Dery is remarkably unreflective about his own position in relation to the people he is interviewing. African American culture which engages with technological, sci-fi and futuristic imagery and concepts is a ‘largely unexplored psychogeography’ towards whose exploration Dery himself is taking ‘a first, faltering step’. That’s right: Dery, a white guy, is positioning himself as bold explorer into a largely unknown region populated by people of colour. A voyage into the heart of darkness, if you will. This ‘largely unexplored’ region is so unknown, so previously unthought, that Dery must appoint as his native guides an author and literary critic (Delany), a musician, producer and cultural critic (Tate) and a Professor of Africana Studies who is ‘currently at work on a book on rap music and the politics of black cultural practice’ (Rose).

Dery is right, however, that his first steps into this region are faltering. His unfailingly gracious interviewees spent a truly remarkable amount of time gently correcting the assumptions which underlie the questions he asks them. It’s excruciating:

Dery: One thing that intrigued me about your brief essay [on cyberpunk] is that you made no mention of the orbital Rastafarians in Gibson’s Neuromancer. I find that curious.
Delany: Why should I have mentioned them?
Dery: For me, a white reader, the Rastas … are intriguing in that they hold forth the promise of a holistic relationship with technology.
Delany: You’ll forgive me if, as a black reader, I didn’t leap up to proclaim this passing presentation of a powerless and wholly nonoppositional set of black dropouts, by a Virginia-born white writer, as the coming of the black millennium in science fiction; but maybe that’s just a black thang…Your question is indicative of precisely what I was speaking about in the essay you cited: the interpretive idiocies that arise as soon as a book is lifted out of its genre and cut loose from the tradition that precedes and produces it.

Dery: Why, then, would black youth be alienated by SF signifiers for high technology?
Delany: The immediate answer is simply that the sign language is more complicated than you’re giving it credit for.

Dery: Wasn’t there an elitist, if not crypto-right, slant to [science fiction] literature from the very beginning?
Delany: Once again, that sounds to me like a simple historical misunderstanding about the history and tradition of science fiction … I’m not even sure what you could be referring to.

Dery: Why has there been so little overtly gay SF?
Delany: There is, of course, a whole bibliography full of gay science fiction … And there is a considerable gay fandom …. There is at least on annual gay science fiction convention … And the gay programming that regularly, today, turns up in other science fiction conventions is almost always among the most crowded, standing-room only event.

Dery: Why hasn’t the African-American community made more use, either as writers or readers, of science fiction?
Tate: I don’t know that that’s necessarily true.

Dery: I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an inherent dichotomy in hip-hop between a displaced people’s need to reaffirm a common history and the quintessentially American emphasis on forward motion, effected through technological progress. Don’t these contradictory impulses threaten to tear hip-hop apart?
Tate: No, because you can be backward-looking and forward thinking at the same time.

It’s clear that Dery simply hasn’t done the work required to be a good interviewer. He asks his interviewees about areas of culture in which, as they make clear to him, they have no interest or expertise. Many of his questions draw not on Dery’s own observations but on work that has been done by other people. The article ends with the final interview: Dery writes no summary, and makes no attempt to sketch out a map of the terrain in whose exploration he describes himself as a pioneer. What’s interesting about the article, one of Dery’s best known works and the reason why his name is so omnipresent in discussions of Afrofuturism – a phenomenon which he both names and claims to have discovered – is precisely how little work he does. A great deal of intellectual labour is visible in the essay, but almost all of it is undertaken by Delany, Tate and Rose, who not only tolerate Dery’s ill-informed and – let’s be honest – occasionally racist questions, but offer smart and insightful accounts of the areas in which they are, after all, experts.

There’s so much in here that I want to reflect on, to digest, and to be formed by intellectually. But I can’t cite this work on the part of Delany, Tate and Rose without citing Dery himself. What’s worst about ‘Black to the Future’ is that Dery has found a way to identify an area of black culture, declare it unknown territory, and, by appropriating the labour of black creators of both culture and critical reflection on that culture, has ensured that this terrain has come to bear the name that he chose for it.

18 Responses to “The uncomfortable origins of ‘Afrofuturism’”

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    How on earth did this article becomes such a sensation? It sounds like utter shit.

  2. amaryahshaye Says:

    Delaney, Tate, and Rose are all excellent is how.

  3. Hill Says:

    Because “afrofuturism” is such a cool neologism. “I don’t know what that is, but it sounds awesome.”

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Maybe next he can do a follow-up essay consisting of blockquotes from smart critiques of his previous essay, with inane tags from him.

  5. Aaron B Says:

    I just read the article in question (which is really just three interviews and a short, bland introduction), and it seems to me that everything in the post above is basically completely right. But I did have another reaction, which was that–as someone who’s spent a lot of time interviewing writers lately–the best interviews are often exactly like this (sharp smart answers to sort of dumb questions). Smart and eloquent questions often don’t produce smart and eloquent answers; they can even preclude them. But an ignorant question is an invitation to correction, in the same way ignorant questions are also the space in which learning is possible. Which is absolutely NOT to dispute Marika Rose’s reading and reaction, especially in the introduction itself; the way he’s positioning himself as an explorer of unexplored territory, which he then requires native informants to inform him about so he can discover it, is pretty cringe-inducing. But I’m not sure the sharpness of the answers Dery elicits are that disconnected from his form of presenting the questions; in lots of ways, because he presents them with forms of ignorance that they’ve been dealing with for a long time, their answers are wonderfully polished and compressed versions of the responses they’ve been given for years.

  6. amaryahshaye Says:

    I think that’s true Aaron. I frequently feel the same about that NPR interviewer Terry Gross. For some reason, her ignorantly posed questions seem to be the possibility for illumination from her interviewees.

    But I also think there’s a difference between an interview and a conversation with an author. It seems that someone who is not performing as explorer of uncharted territority but is actually affected by the material is more able to enter into conversation with the author in generative ways that produce new knowledge for the author, too. Rather, here, the authors kind of tiredly have to repeat themselves because of Dery’s ignorance. That is, he seems to attempt to mine the authors for their knowledge rather than be generatively related to the knowledge he’s inquiring about, even as, at the same time, their thought is greatly exceeding his ability to even grasp what they’re doing precisely because he isn’t related to their work in more than a cursory way.

  7. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    If you like ignorantly posed questions, can I recommend My Name Is My Name?

  8. Ray Davis Says:

    “There’s so much in here that I want to reflect on, to digest, and to be formed by intellectually. But I can’t cite this work on the part of Delany, Tate and Rose without citing Dery himself.”

    Read lots of stuff by Delany, Tate, and Rose, and reflect on, digest, be formed by, and cite that instead. Sounds crazy, but it really works!

  9. David Bell Says:

    Ray, regardless of what Marika reads or doesn’t read, Mark Dery’s career has very likely been significantly advanced off the back of other (black) peoples’ labour. Individual scholars can, of course, choose to cite politically (avoid citing Dery in favour of black scholars); but that doesn’t negate this much needed critique. Indeed, this much needed critique means it’s a tiny bit more likely that people will do that in future.

    How fucking hard is this to understand? Arguments that Marika should ‘just choose to read something else’ are like saying you should ‘just turn the TV off’ whenever there’s racism.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Ray, Is literally everything they say in the Dery interview replicated elsewhere in their work? Why would it be, since he has them talking about something outside their usual area of expertise?

  11. Ray Davis Says:

    David, I liked Marika’s post a lot and I’m sorry I gave any other impression. I’m all for the critique part! I was just reacting to that final gesture of hopelessness. Much too much attention already goes towards successful self-publicists of bad behavior and much too little attention towards what we find valuable. Why climb onto what’s been admitted to already be a dogpile of citations when we could ignore that trademarked bit of jargon and cite elsewhere? It’s a long-time frustration, and my response was correspondingly cranky — I ended up reproducing in miniature the sort of behavior I’m supposedly against!

    Adam, what’s quoted from the interview is certainly already in Delany and Tate (including expressions of frustration!). For whatever anecdotal evidence is worth, as an old guy who’d read a lot of Delany and a fair amount of Tate (albeit too little Rose), I barely remember the Dery thing as just another crap interview by someone who didn’t bother to do much thinking before writing. I didn’t realize it had achieved such a successful afterlife, although I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

  12. Marika Rose Says:

    I’ve only ever seen Dery cited as the person who invented the term, to be honest. I mostly just wanted to signal the way that appropriation works specifically in the context of an academic article: Dery’s name is the one that the article gets credited to, even if you’re only citing it for the things that Delany, Tate and Rose say. That’s part of the problem with Aaron’s argument, I think. If you interview someone for a magazine then everyone knows that what’s important is what your interviewees say; but an interview that’s an academic article, that gets *credited* to the interviewer, ends up being presented as predominantly the interviewer’s work. And Amaryah’s right: they’re *such* dumb questions. Delany has to spend several paragraphs explaining that he doesn’t really watch TV and so doesn’t have any opinions about Star Trek.

  13. Ray Davis Says:

    Ah, that makes sense, Marika; thank you for explaining and apologies for my point-missing. Academia’s current citation bias seems peculiar (if not gloryhallastoopid), given that interviews are typically collected in volumes credited to the interviewed; e.g., Delany’s wonderful _Silent Interviews_. I still wonder how much value truly needs to be invested in the branded term “Afrofuturism,” given that none of the supposedly-involved parties used it…

  14. t/c/v Says:

    Having spent some time with Dery, it’s worth going a little farther back and reading the work of Mark Sinker (his piece in WIRE — “Loving the Alien: In Advance of the Landing”) and of course Greg Tate (especially his work on Public Enemy, Rammellzee, etc in Village Voice, collected in his first volume of essays), both who make some of the connections Dery does but neither who coin the overarching concept of “Afrofuturism” (though Sinker comes close, and his singular essay perhaps best encapsulates, in a way that Dery doesn’t, the transAtlantic motifs of alien abduction inherent to Afrofuturism).

    I too find Dery’s piece frustrating, and his opening question constrained by unnecessary ethnonationalism and assumptions concerning racialised isomorphism of parts to a whole (I’ve writ on this and it will hopefully see publication next year, FWIW), but I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it outright; it also needs to be read in historical context. Dery is a tactical author and very much positions his questions in such a way as to draw out responses from Delany, Rose, and Tate that challenge his assumptions. His piece has survived because of the quality of the interviews but also because Dery doesn’t hide his struggles in grasping the subject manner. That today we can so easily critique Dery also reflects his initial honesty, even if he’s not entirely conscious of it nor articulating it in a way we would find acceptable in 21C academic discourse. Critiquing Dery for likewise not concluding or wrapping the essay — given the critique proffered above, I’m glad Dery didn’t try — or critiquing him for conducting an interview piece like this is also a bit disingenuous to the medium and format.

    As for “Afrofuturism,” it has thankfully been remixed and repurposed by scholars, artists, and activists since to signify Afrodiasporic futurisms that traverse and reimagine worlds (even) beyond the Black Atlantic, and has been put to use in a number of creative ways, not the least by scholar Alondra Nelson to counter racialized perceptions of the “digital divide” (she founded the Afrofuturism.net mailing list and website with Paul D Miller), by Kodwo Eshun to travel through (black) electronic music (in _More Brilliant Than The Sun_) and more recently by artists, scholars, and others to shape increasingly connected movements (such as at the recent HTMlles festival in Montreal). See the current, accessible, and very awesome book by Ytasha Womack entitled _Afrofuturism_, for example, and for my part, see Issue 5(2) of _Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture_ on Afrofuturism.

  15. Becca Says:

    Thank you for a great post! As others have mentioned in different ways, I have such a hard time identifying Dery’s role in this article, as interviewer/academic/participant – he is clearly not having a conversation with his interviewees, as there is no cohesion between questions he asks, the answers he receives, and his subsequent questions. The insightful answers he does receive put him in his place as the foolish and entitled freshman who hadn’t done their homework but still feels the right to claim ownership of the discussion. He just bounces back with more uninformed questions.

    I think it speaks less to a sense of his role as the “humbled academic who believes in intellectual integrity and authenticity” and more to a substantial arrogance, that Dery was willing to publish such an article, as he knew that no matter how much he revealed his “interpretive idiocies” (as Delany called one of his questions), his name would forever be affiliated with Afrofuturism. Origins that are really unfair.

  16. Robert Saler Says:

    One good thing that’s come of this – now a whole bunch more of us know what “sealioning” is…


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