In his 1985 review of sci-fi novelist Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, extragalactic culture critic Greg Tate reflected on the fluidity of black linguistics and the dissociative collapsing of space-time. During a Harlemite stroll down 6th Avenue with his homegirl, Pam, who was visiting from the West Coast, a chance sighting of b-boys breaking sparked a conversation about the regional/temporal origins of the term. On the opposite side of the country, Pam claimed, “b-boy is a Sunset Boulevard drag queen.” Regardless of that separation, Tate glowingly recounted, “her b-boy’s are as deep into hip-hop as ours,” a resounding testimony to black collective knowledge across space and time. “The moral of this tale is,” Tate concluded, “pan across what seems to be a world of difference and you’ll find as many connections as disjunctions.”
Our world is shaped by an adherence to Western linear time as it’s measured by the Gregorian calendar, or what Philadelphia-based lawyer and Afrofuturist Rasheedah Phillips calls “the master clock.” The twin pillars propping up its hands – religion and politics – seem as old as time itself and are a method of deciding what kinds of histories are shared or buried, while limiting the perception of time as moving only forward. For Phillips, who co-founded the Black Quantum Futurism (BQF) collective with interdisciplinary artist Moor Mother, the tyranny of mechanical time is the foundation of colonial, social control. It is the crucial fact that establishes and dissembles black memories of the past, and prevents access to potential futures by fashioning both collective and individual moments into static events on an invisible, irreversible timeline.
Black Quantum Futurism purports to give its practitioners the ability to both envision a future and collapse it into an existing reality.
Phillips’ own journey through Afrofuturism began with a concern. “The motivation was always to think about how Afrofuturism could be applied, or, made accessible to black people; low-income black people; disenfranchised black people in our communities.” Afrofuturism – as is the case with most philosophical paradigms observed by critics and academics – was coined as a term by writer Mark Dery long after its practice began. Its imagery and application dates back to the music and aesthetic of artists like Sun Ra; to Octavia Butler’s lucid imaginings of black futurity and alienhood; to George Clinton’s ride along the Mothership. Like those cultural giants, Phillips engagement with Afrofuturism’s now-established principles predates her introduction to the term itself. “For myself, I’ve always thought about science fiction,” she says. “My own life trajectory didn’t allow me an opportunity to delve deeper into those things.” Space in the physical and ideological sense became extremely significant to her exploring not just Afrofuturist methodologies, but how creatives could begin to stretch its outer boundaries. “I didn’t know there was a community of other black people – and not on any exceptionalist bullshit like, ‘I’m the only black nerd, blah, blah, blah’ – but just clearly, I didn’t have a community around me that was thinking about science fiction or saw it as a community thing.” It wasn’t until she went to college that she started to recognize her interest in futurity as part of a wider intrigue into the domination of European conceptions of time. “As soon as I saw the term, it was intuitive to me and it’s like, ‘Oh, so this is what I've been doing!’”
Phillips’ understanding of Afrofuturism echoes the collapsible time-space continuum that sits at the center of BQF’s particular ideology. A linear spectrum, Phillips argues, “stresses the idea that events are both fixed and irreversible,” jiving against pre-Enlightenment observations on the nature of time in African civilizations that Western quantum physicists have found to be altogether true only recently. In essence, our shared consciousness of time does not reflect the reality of time – which African mythologies and cosmologies have long claimed to stretch in every direction and upon multiple planes. By emphasizing the overlap between ancient African consciousness of time and modern quantum physics, Phillips writes that the BQF collective is able to “increase the knowability of the future and the past as formally equivalent.”
To gain “knowability,” according to the BQF Theory & Practice manual, artists “develop foresight and hindsight by studying features of time, sources of change, rhythm and patterns in larger social patterns.” BQF’s framework, which purports to give its practitioners the ability to both envision a future and collapse it into an existing reality, involves three key methods of altering the future – which in turn can alter both the past and present. These are future visioning – the ability to see potential futures; future altering – the ability to choose a future from a subset of probable futures; and future manifestation – building a future brick by brick. All three are built on the central, galvanizing and perhaps revolutionary Afrofuturist ideal that black people will survive into the future. Beginning from that endpoint – what Phillips describes as “retrocausality” – allows us to facilitate new methods of ensuring that survival in the most creative ways imaginable. This can be through art, yes, but also via language, science and communal activity. Black music, literature and visual art in the postmodern era represent the most innovative mechanisms for transmitting potential futures and are littered throughout Black Quantum Futurism’s foundational philosophies.
In her own life, Phillips reflected the principles of BQF both as a young parent and later as an housing attorney advocating for evicted residents of North Philly. “Building a lot of the BQF theory was reflecting back on how that process played out for me,” she says. The impetus for theorizing on futurity was the birth of her child at the age of 14. “If you look at Recurrence Plot (and Other Time Travel Tales) I have a time travel manual embedded there and I’m pulling from real-life experiences, just looking back on how I shifted time for myself… I rewrote this linear progressive future that said my life was going to end because I had this particular experience as a young parent and I – very consciously – shifted that path.” There was a circularity not only in how she perceived the future, and understood its influence on the present, but also how cycles of the past impacted her today. Phillips’ mother had her at the same age she had her child, and that understanding of her personal history empowered her to look at a number of potentialities, building towards the one she ultimately wanted to manifest.
The BQF collective highlights multiple paths of time travel and disruption that largely counteract Eurocentric conceptions of progression. For his entry into BQF, titled “The Implications of Africa-Centered Conceptions of Time and Space for Quantitative Theorizing: Limitations of Paradigmatically-Bound Philosophical Meta-Assumptions,” Dr. Nikitah Okembe-RA Imani, a social scientist and Professor of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha, addressed physicists Daniel Greenberger and Karl Svozil’s “discovery” of time’s relative circularity as it relates to time travel and the undermining of a time-traveler’s free will. Time-travel flicks almost always feature a long-winded explanation on why the time-traveler can’t do anything to endanger the status quo. This level of constraint implies an inherent and “implicit propensity to breach the past as a consequence of personhood.” Dr. Imani dismisses this idea as one based in cultural difference by alluding to 13th-century Akan philosophy, sourced to modern day Ghana. Because of their construction of free will as being inextricably connected to the social identity of the collective, the Akan “would likely not experience the mere capacity to perceive the past without intervening as an onerous psychic burden.” Not fucking up the future is rather easy when you’re conditioned to keep your hands to yourself.
In Dr. Imani’s example we not only find the intersection of language, ancient African spirituality and physics, but also the narrowness of Eurocentric binary thinking. It’s determined, even by Greenberger and Svozil’s own account, that the present and the meaning of the past is “partially constructed and reconstructed from the interaction between that past and the present.” But what we might discover in the past are ripples of the future as it has already unfolded. This circular formulation is part and parcel to how we can begin to measure and disrupt the violent monolith of linear time.
I’m tired of seeing Afrofuturism hyphenated – not just how it’s spelled, but in concept.
It seems as if the modes and modalities of modern Afrofuturism have less to do with the existence of “futuristic technologies” in a diasporic African context, and much more to do with dissembling presuppositions of Western inventions of time and space. In fact, it can be argued that Western technology’s linear movement has largely spelled disaster for believers and practitioners of an Afrofuturist worldview. But Afrofuturism prefigures the survival of the African diaspora, both through the spiritual underpinnings of our ancestral past and the ability to foresee potential, creating the work and tools necessary to secure it. Phillips had foreseen the necessity of a creative space in Philadelphia for extended discourses on this specific power of Afrofuturism: “There’s a feeling, a culture here, that’s like, ‘If it’s not here, then create it.’ So I was very inspired by the space that the Philly spoken-word community created; by my partner [Moor Mother] and her collaborators creating a ten-year running festival called Rockers that showcased black punk artists, women-led bands and things like that. Just inspired by everyday folks who saw a need and were able to do it.”
Though Moor Mother’s own Afrofuturist practice was developed during the domination of neo-soul in the ’90s, she’s carried the techniques, beliefs and aesthetics within her music and poetry for almost three decades. Echoing and attempting to remember the bizarre instance of creation, her song “Creation Myth” from the forceful 2016 album Fetish Bones juxtaposes her own continuous becoming alongside the events that define and redefine her social position in this country. She harken’s back to 1919’s Red Summer and the 19th century’s failed emancipation project. “All this stuff,” she inquires, “how does it sound? What does the history of the planet sound like?” In the beginning and in the now there were dogs. In her birth and in her remembrance there was jazz and in all fashionings of time there was the violence of the clock. On “Parallel Nightmares,” she wails a phantomic rendition of Andrae Crouch’s seminal gospel track, “Soon And Very Soon.” While Crouch anxiously anticipates “seeing the king,” Moor Mother, in the tradition of Wells, Baraka and Scott-Heron, conjures a fantasy of upheaval: “Soon and very soon we are going to kill the king.” The king, in this aspect, is not a person or spiritual force, but the seat of dominance, the one that controls the master clock by which all Western life abides.
What remains difficult to forecast is how Afrofuturism will evolve, as its deep creative resource increasingly becomes the topic of mainstream conversation. Cultural “events” like the election of a black president, the release of Marvel’s Black Panther movie and pop music’s new fave Afrofuturist Janelle Monae’s 2018 music video for “PYNK” locate a few of the limitations on how politics, mythologies and the body are read in popular Afrofuturist frameworks. When asked about the mainstreaming of Afrofuturism, Rasheedah Phillips admits to having mixed feelings about the whole thing. “It’s very complicated” she says, sighing. “I really don’t believe in being a gatekeeper. There’s multiple ways that people should be allowed to enter and Afrofuturism is not an exception to that. People have to be met at different places, like where they are. It’s a lot like hip-hop in that way: It’s co-opted, it’s been co-opted already.” But the fact is, no one owns Afrofuturism. The only requirement, as Phillips notes, “is that it is black and expansive.” She is cautious, however. “I have reservations. You know, I’m tired of seeing Afrofuturism hyphenated – not just how it’s spelled, but in concept. People are slapping ‘afro’ onto ‘future’ and saying we have a brand new world, but it’s the same world. Or just minimizing it to technology, or, like, black people having more technology.”
One of the frustrations inherent to the philosophy BQF proposes is that the circularity of time often means having to have the same conversations over and over again. “There’s an erasure, sometimes, feeling like we have to keep retreading like, ‘what is Afrofuturism,’ and that’s frustrating, you know, not being as advanced,” says Phillips. “And we have to leave room for people to come in, but it is frustrating.” Luckily, Afrofuturist collectives encouraging coalitions between artists, academics and new practitioners are springing up, however slowly, around the world. And they are, necessarily, countering the “blacks with tech!” paradigm that somewhat subsumes popular discourses. There will always be a need for folks on more local levels to ponder on the fact of black survival, especially given the complexity of black art that is aesthetically future-leaning while insidiously reinforcing the subjugating master clock. Large-scale changes involve very small disruptions to the status quo of any period, asserting the work of BQF and other collectives as supremely important to how Afrofuturism will be discussed and rehashed in the coming decades.
Indeed, the Afrofuture will still be grassroots.