Smithsonian’s Afrofuturism exhibit explores the funk of outer and inner space — Andscape
There is an expansive feel to the new Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. It travels back and forth through time. It roams geographies and the universes of Black thought to make connections between worlds both cosmic and interior.
As a cultural expression, Afrofuturism manifests itself in music, literature, film, fashion and activism. It reclaims the past to reframe the present, which reseeds the future. And it habitually contemplates migration to faraway places where people are safe to be as Black as they want to be.
“As a conceptual framework, Afrofuturism enables authors, thinkers, artists and activists to interpret the history of race and the nuances of Black cultural identity on their own terms,” writes curator Kevin Strait in the introduction to the exhibit’s companion book.
The 4,000-square-foot exhibit, featuring more than 100 objects, and the book with its 125 photos, examine the roots of Afrofuturism in African antiquity. And they speculate about scientific advances, both theoretical and applied, capable of giving Black people special powers, including sufficient supercool to change distant galaxies.
The term Afrofuturism was coined by critic Mark Dery in his 1994 essay Black to the Future, which asked why so few African Americans write science fiction, “a genre whose close encounters with the Other — the stranger in a strange land — would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African American novelists.”
“But it applies to essentially every element of the African American experience,” said Strait in an interview. “Afrofuturism points to that revolutionary and radical sense of expression that’s been an essential element of Black creativity, Black art, Black innovation really throughout time.”
It is an aesthetic, a cultural movement, a genre, that is intensely self-referential.
At the exhibition’s opening reception recently, poet Ephraim Nehemiah put it thusly:
on this planet
the sun rise when Sun Ra say
here suddenly I can’t be late no more
cause “CP” is the standard measurement of time
for those who only lotion the visible parts
of their body no worries
cause here ashyness ceases to exist
The exhibition uses a linear approach for its nonlinear subject. A 19th-century moon mask from Côte d’Ivoire symbolizes the expanse of African communities, including those at civilization’s dawn, that used astronomical observations and mathematics in ways typically associated with the Greeks, Chinese, Babylonians and a de-Africanized Egypt. It moves through early America with slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, abolitionist Harriet Tubman and mathmatician Benjamin Banneker whose radical ideas about freedom and liberation seared them in Black cultural iconography.
There is a rendering of Phillis Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book of poetry. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was written in the language of her 18th century enslavers, who were so stunted in their human understanding that they convened a tribunal to challenge her authorship. Their signed attestation finding that she had written the poems was included in the book’s preface.
It was Afrofuturism, before it was named, that gave Wheatley the surpassing Imagination! Who can sing thy force? to write her way past her limitations. Two centuries later, George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic can be understood as channeling Wheatley — or perhaps she had already divined them — in “One Nation Under a Groove,” which promised concertgoers “a chance to dance your way out of your constrictions.”
In 2011, Strait acquired for the museum’s permanent collection one of Clinton’s space-age Motherships – Black music’s most significant stage prop, able to figuratively transport Black people to other worlds. That gave Strait the idea for the Afrofuturism exhibit, which he began working on in 2019. Clinton’s rainbow wig is also an exhibit item.
Also included are colorful hand-drawn charts and graphs on the social realities of African Americans developed by W.E.B. DuBois for The Exhibit of American Negroes at the 1900 Paris Exposition, part of a documentary package visually advancing post-emancipation accomplishment. “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” he wrote in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folks. In his 1920 short story, The Comet, DuBois contemplates the enduring significance of race after New York City has been destroyed by a comet.
In the exhibit’s companion book, scholar, filmmaker and dance therapist Ytasha L. Womack has an essay titled I Came to Africa on a Spaceship. In it, she examines the image of sankofa, which means “to retrieve” in the Twi language of the Akan people of West Africa. It is symbolized as a bird, whose feet face forward while its head looks backward. The past as future, time-simultaneity, the promise of return embedded in escape is part of the cohesion of Afrofuturism.
“Afrofuturism asserts that there is wisdom in Black cultures — unnamed, untapped understandings, with answers for us all,” writes Womack.
The exhibition reaches for space with the Olivetti typewriter of sci-fi author Octavia Butler, the oracle who saw us in the stars, saw us time traveling, saw immortal Black futures, and the red velour Starfleet uniform worn by Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Nyota Uhura on Star Trek from 1966 to 1969. It was Nichols who suggested the character’s name, in her audition for the role of communications officer, bringing with her a copy of the book Uhuru, which is Swahili for “freedom.” (Nichols planned on leaving Star Trek after the first season, but changed her mind after civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. told her how important her role was for Black people and urged her to stay.)
The stolen future encapsulated by Trayvon Martin’s flight suit from Experience Aviation, a Florida nonprofit that provides education in flight and related science, technology, engineering and math fields, helps explain the impact of the costume worn by actor Chadwick Boseman in the Marvel movie Black Panther as a symbol of a nation beyond the reach of white thieves.
“I’m always thinking about the fact that there are Black people in the future,” said Brittany Packnett Cunningham, co-founder of Campaign Zero, which advocates for police reform, at the exhibit’s opening reception. “That’s what Afrofuturism invites us to do. It invites us to be the designers of our own world, invites us to be the collaborators, the creatives. Invites us to be the innovators and inventors of what the world should look like. … When we do that in our music and our art and in our protests, it gives us a chance to practice building the future we deserve.”
Of the pillars of Afrofuturism which include literature and visual culture, music is the most accessible, says Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African American studies at Duke University.
In his essay, Just Look Over Your Shoulder: The Music of Afrofuturism, Neal cites 11-year-old Michael Jackson’s ad lib in the titular reference from 1970’s chart-topping “I’ll Be There.” It echoes an earlier ad lib by Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops and is a quintessential example of reaching into the canon of Black music as habit and practice. Jackson was a bridge between eras of Black musicians: His sampling of hooks and dance moves, across geographies and time, made him “a repository for the past, present and future of Black music” Neal writes.
“All the sampling practices in Black vernacular culture, historically, is a form of Afrofuturism,” Neal said in an interview. “Whenever you listen to Black music in any historical moment, it is always in conversation with the stuff that came before, and gesturing to stuff that hasn’t come again.”
It is Maurice White’s kalimba, an African thumb piano whose origins date back more than a thousand years ago, and the Earth, Wind & Fire lyrics:
You know, like, we study
All kinds of sciences . . . astrology an’ mysticism an’ world religion
So forth, you dig?
There are self-referential codes in hip-hop, hiding in plain sight, and random sounds and references that artists brought into the music, Neal said, though much of the music Black artists used to find in the crates is now digitized and behind a paywall. This can drive Black creativity further into unreproducible leaps of imagination that put it beyond the reach of cultural appropriation and corporatization, at least for a time.
For Neal, the evolution and virtuosity of Black music is part of the significance of Afrofuturism. “It’s a challenge to Black genius, right? Imagine far and wide and don’t think about the limits of the marketplace. Don’t think about what’s legible to you, right? Because you know Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solos weren’t legible to anybody in the 1960s. Twenty years later, everybody is trying to play like him. Coltrane solos weren’t legible to everybody. Fifteen years later, everybody’s trying to play like him,” Neal said. People have been “trying to play like Robert Johnson for almost a century now.”
The guarantee of Afrofuturism is that our creativity comes back around. In this lifetime or another. Even those things invented in the moment, that cannot be reproduced, provide rocket fuel for a Black world that is always imagining a better shake, and looking to a free horizon.
Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures is at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 1400 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., through March 24, 2024.