Tracing Black Speculative Poetics: Afrofuturism, the Supernatural & Afrosurrealism
Poets House library intern Isabella Vento describes her work in the Poets House library multimedia archives. She is an artist and researcher from Italy, working in and around the triptych of technology, ecology, and public memory.
I have always been drawn to the mythical and imagined, the unreal and absurd: I look to cyberspace, cosmic references, legendary creatures and space odysseys as the narrators of yesterday and tomorrow. In honor of Black History Month, I inclined my work in the Poets House multimedia archives toward the speculative lenses applied by literary greats of the African Diaspora and beyond—from Afrofuturism to poetic investigations of the supernatural to Afrosurrealism. Some of these recordings are online, while others are available to listen or view at the Poets House library; I invite you to watch and listen in!
Long before Afrofuturism was formally defined in an essay by Mark Dery for the book Flame Wars: The Discourse for Cyberculture (1994), it had found its way across canvases, pixels, musical scores and most relevantly, words. Dery’s essay features an interview with cultural critic and musician Greg Tate who waxes poetic about science fiction and technoculture as conduits of Blackness. In 1995, Poets House hosted Parallel Lines: Poetry and Hip Hop, in which Tate joined poet and scholar Tracie Morris and musician Djinji Brown for a panel of performance and discussion moderated by the scholar Houston A. Baker Jr. The panelists draw comparisons between poetry and hip hop, such as their shared capacity to conjure images and layer context. Tate says that the sound and words of hip hop are “embedded with African cosmology,” much in the same way that Afrofuturist texts conceive of sci-fi settings by centralizing the myths of African kingdoms.
Another major Afrofuturist icon is Octavia Butler, who authored a series of science fiction novels that landed her a MacArthur Fellowship and revolutionized the genre. One of her most notable works is the Parable trilogy, which begins with the story of a young Black “hyper-empath” girl navigating an apocalyptic future on the West Coast, armed with a determination to establish the religion “Earthseed.” Butler read some of this work and joined writers Cornelius Eady and Gerald Jonas in conversation at Architecture of the Imagination: Realizing the World in Science Fiction and Poetry in 2000. This video footage feels timeless as she discusses the role of her writing in the then-current political climate and urges the audience to reflect on social issues that will continue to manifest if not given appropriate attention.
Butler also wrote stories about vampires and extraterrestrial microorganisms that infect the earth, offering her readers eerie circumstances to contend with and inspiring other writers to weave dystopian narratives of horror and the supernatural. Linda Addison, the first Black woman to win the Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award, and Bryan Thao Worra, Lao Minnesotan Poet Laureate and president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association, explored the speculative and the uncanny in the work of Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft at last year’s Poetry of the Supernatural: The Weird. As they reflect on what defines a literary work as weird, Addison points out the importance of cultural context in defining something as “supernatural,” while Worra specifically relates traumas of his heritage to atrocities in the horror stories of Lovecraft.
As Afrofuturists look to the future and other poets of color deconstruct the past, another aesthetic movement focuses on Black experience in the present, or the “future-past,” as artist D. Scot Miller puts it. In 2009, Miller published the Afrosurreal Manifesto (in the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s “Call it Afro-Surreal” issue), working off of Amiri Baraka’s use of the term “Afro-Surreal Expressionism” in an essay describing Henry Dumas’ writing. The Afrosurreal aesthetic manifests in a variety of mediums to recount the “absurdity” of Black life in this country. It is heavily influenced by the literary Négritude movement co-founded by the poet Aimé Césaire. In the Poets House program Passwords: Infinite Plentitude & AfroSurrealism, Devin Cain, Alexandria Eregbu and Krista Franklin of the artistic collective Du Monde Noir performed a string of verses that allude to a folktale set in Martinique, the birthplace of Césaire, and shared experiences of their own journey to this destination in the Caribbean, as well as how Miller’s manifesto anchored their collaboration.
To trace these modes of imagination, I have watched and listened to recordings of a number of other events organized by Poets House. One of my favorites is a celebration that took place in 2016 for the late great Afrosurreal poet Jayne Cortez, at which an ensemble of writers read her work and describe how she influenced them through her performative artistry. After tuning in, I felt an incredible urge to find an event in the archives, in which I could actually hear her “firespitting” voice and found a CD with an audio recording of a Tribute to Chinua Achebe. At this event in 1990, Cortez performs “Everywhere Drums” following heartfelt testimonials made by the likes of Amiri Baraka and Toni Morrison, in memory of the acclaimed Nigerian author. Of the recordings mentioned, some are online but some treasures are also available onsite. I encourage you to visit Poets House—both virtually and in person—and explore the multimedia archive!