I Heard That: The Sociolinguist Reality of the Black Feminist Afrofuture

I Heard That: The Sociolinguist Reality of the Black Feminist Afrofuture

Peitho Volume 23 Issue 4, Summer 2021

Author(s): Stephanie Jones

Stephanie Jones is a Doctoral Candidate in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric program at Syracuse University. She has a certificate of advanced study in Women and Gender Studies. She has served as the Assistant Director of TA Education for the Syracuse University Writing Program. She is currently a Syracuse University Humanities Dissertation Fellow. She was awarded the 2021 Geneva Smitherman Award for Research in Black Language, Literacies, Cultures, and Rhetorics from NCTE/CCCC Black Caucus and the 2021 Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award for Writing Rhetoric and Composition Studies. Her latest publication, “#BlackStudy the Past to Find Hope in the Future,” is a reflection on the use of hashtags as intersectional praxis and is published with Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal. Her research interests include Afrofuturist Feminisms, Black Feminist Rhetorical Studies, Anti-Racist and Radical Race Literacies.

Abstract: This article examines the “sociolinguistically constructed” meaning of Afrofuturism in order to define it as a Black feminist discourse. Using Geneva Smitherman’s concept “““Black sociolinguist reality””,” this article traces the history of Afrofuturism through its use by Black feminist speculative fiction authors as rhetorical praxis that recognizes Black language practices as processes of invention unique to Black linguistics that constructs the multitudinous nature of Blackness in the future. The recognition of a “Black sociolinguist reality” allows for more work that recognizes Black people have always been tastemakers, content creators, scholars, and artists that represent the uniqueness of Black style in ways that can and should always be celebrated, but can never be duplicated. By bringing Afrofuturism to rhetorical and feminist studies this article argues that “Black sociolinguist reality” is a practice of emergent strategy which recognizes the efforts of Black feminist speculative fiction authors to create worlds that disrupt notions of capitalistic chronicles of progress. This article is the winner of the 2021 Geneva Smitherman Award for Research in Black Language, Literacies, Cultures, and Rhetorics.

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“The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The black goddess within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free”.

― Audre Lorde

When I think about the stories that made me who I am today, the ones that leave whispers in my dreams as Lorde says above, they are stories about the future. Good stories always seem to have rich and important histories working in the background. Speculative fiction, an umbrella term for the genres of science fiction and fantasy that engage the future, conjures a kind of magic when read through African American history. In this article, I argue that we can use Geneva Smitherman’s concept the “sociolinguistically constructed” as the Afrofuturist meaning making method “Black sociolinguist reality”.1 I have described “Black sociolinguist reality” as a charting method that recognizes Black language practices as processes of invention unique to Black linguistics that constructs the multitudinous nature of Blackness in the future. By bringing Afrofuturism to rhetorical studies “Black sociolinguist reality” serves as a method of emergent strategy which allows speculative fiction authors, when they engage in Afrofuturist feminism, to create worlds where racial identity is not a liability and by using tools like “Black sociolinguist reality”, they imagine a world where Black people can all be free.

adrienne maree brown’s concept of emergent strategy is an organizing strategy that speculative fiction authors use to practice a future in their writing that recognizes change is an iterative process. Afrofuturism, as Alondra Nelson explains, is a framework that recognizes we need texts that understand that we matter and that Black life is not an anti-avatar or a platitudinal diversity effort. Nelson’s work on the Afrofuturist listserv in the early 1990’s, before Mark Dery coined the term Afrofuturism, argues that capitalistic chronicles of progress argue that what is new is also in some way improved, but the notion that that means the future is “race free” maligns African diaspora culture. We must recognize that “African diaspora culture [is] grounded in the histories of black communities” and that history is a relational data and interwoven into our futures. (Nelson). Afrofuturist discourse exists as a reflection of Black history that rhetorically heals our collective pasts, present and futures. The ways in which Afrofuturism operates semiotically as a term can only be defined through the work of Black feminist practices because, in order to enact Afrofuturism, you must unapologetically reclaim the bits of history that have been stolen from African American people and make it beautiful once more. That is Black feminist praxis and, as such, an Afrofuturist practice of Black feminism. I define Afrofuturist feminism as an intersectional practice of invention and a Black Feminist praxis. Bridging the gap between the academy and the public, Smitherman’s Talkin and Testifyin makes the case that African American modes of speech do not denote cognitive deficiency. She explains that “Reality is not merely socially, but sociolinguistically constructed. Real-world experience and phenomena do not exist in some raw, undifferentiated form. Rather, reality is always filtered, apprehended, encoded, codified, and conveyed via some linguistic shape.” (Smitherman, 1977). I believe the rhetorical history of Afrofuturism is one such phenomena.

The term “Afrofuturism” was coined by author Mark Dery in 1994 as a way of understanding Black history within the genre of speculative fiction. To Dery, “[s]peculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future—might, for want of a better term, be called ‘Afro-futurism’” (Dery, 1994). This means that Afrofuturism is first and foremost a writing practice. Dery’s distinction that African American authors writing within science fiction and fantasy genres are making definitively different rhetorical moves to render the world from their perspective rather than their white counterparts’ is an important start to the conversation, but it is not the whole picture. By revisiting the work of Geneva Smitherman in African American slave history and the transposition of African languages into an African American language, I argue that Afrofuturism is an axiom. It is a rhetorical philosophy which grounds Black speculative fiction discourse in African American history. Since Afrofuturism is in essence what Alondra Nelson has defined as “African American voices” telling stories about “culture, technology and things to come” Afrofuturism’s function as an axiom defines the words “Black sociolinguistic” reality as more about recognizing those voices whose lived experience makes up the discourse of Afrofuturism; rather than an appropriation of Black cultural understandings that limits how Black people are perceived in the social order. (Nelson, 2002). Coming from the Greek word ἀξίωμα, whose etymology is (axióō), “to think or deem worthy” and‎ -μα (-ma), an axiom loosely means “that which is thought worthy or fit” or “that which commends itself as evident” in a statement or argument. An axiom is a system of logic that is self-evident in nature because those who would use the logic also must experience it, thus it requires no formal demonstration to prove its truth. (“axiom,”2020). With this in mind, Afrofuturism, as an axiom, enables a Black feminist discourse community to have speculative conversations about the “what if, if only, and if this goes on” of Afrofuturist African American culture. Through emergent strategy we can see Afrofuturism demonstrated as a Black Feminist liberation aesthetic which explains how the visibility, judgement, and uptake of Black spoken language and culture reclaims dignity and power of Black language practice for the African diaspora. The semiotic construction of Afrofuturism as an axiom celebrates the use of Black language and cultural experiences to radically imagine the future with the magic of the past. This level of understanding the reality in which our linguistic practices are created would not be possible without Smitherman’s affirmation that Black language is part and parcel to Black history. Most importantly, Afrofuturism as an axiom outlines Dery as the interviewer recording findings about what an outsider to these conversations might perceive as Afrofuturist. Without Black feminist discourse that traces through conversations there is no Afrofuturism.

I argue that when we talk about Afrofuturism we begin with the definitions given to us by the Black women who created the space for its exploration and have produced its seminal texts. Alondra Nelsen, Nalo Hopkinson, and Octavia Butler are our Afrofuturist architects that conjured the axiom. Their writing practices are where our discourse begins. We must look to the tastemakers, content creators, scholars, and artists in that community because they are always already defining their own terms. By imagining Black history as having undiscovered linguistic practices, we can use emergent strategy to define a “Black sociolinguist reality” that demands space for Black language practices within the genres of science fiction and fantasy. Without attention to the sociolinguist reality of Black people in stories, we are often rendered as harmful stereotypes that mimic master-slave narratives, gentrify Black genius, and erase elements of the Black American experience. Black women writing speculative fiction heal this trauma through emergent world building. As such, they have created a discourse that disrupts normalized genres of futurity in ways that are anti-racist. For example, Black people on shows like Star Trek link us to what host of the Women at Warp: A Roddenberry Star Trek Podcast Kennedy Allen calls the Cosmic African diaspora.2 Writing ourselves into this cosmic diaspora is an important part of fully understanding the rhetorical history of the word Afrofuturism and the impact it has had on public discourse. By shaping the definition of this word for ourselves, Black women writing speculative fiction have given the term a sociolinguistic reality grounded in Black history and storytelling practices.

The importance of Black women changing public discourse around Blackness and gender within the genres of science fiction and fantasy can be seen in the life and career of actress Nichelle Nichols who played Nyota Uhura in the late-1960’s version of Star Trek. She is credited with bringing a huge cultural shift in the kinds of characters seen in popular television shows drawing the attention of political leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King who is said to have encouraged Nichols to stay in the role even though she faced racial discrimination on set. It has even been reported that King insisted that seeing a Black woman in that role was helpful to the plight of Black people during the 1960’s civil rights movement. Her presence on the show has inspired fan fiction and cosplay, but she also inspired diversity and inclusion efforts in the work place. The 2019 science fiction documentary Woman in Motion describes Nichelle Nichols’ as an agent of change who allowed science fiction to positively influence reality. Nichols’ character Lieutenant Uhura was the Enterprise’s communications officer, specializing in linguistics and cryptography from hundreds of worlds. The empathy and understanding she brought to the project of discovery throughout the course of the show was grounded in her lived experience. Uhura’s first language is Swahili. As part of her characters development on the show, Nichols portrayed complex human emotions, like fear and love, through the use of Swahili. These moments set a precedent for all Black characters in subsequent Star Trek shows and films, from Benjamin Sisko’s collection of African artifacts on Deep Space Nine to Rafaella Musiker’s elite command on communication technology in Star Trek: Picard. Her willingness to demonstrate the power of Black language through her acting gave Black viewers an inspirational legacy and a concrete example of Black intelligence as thriving in the future, models which were sorely missing from public discourse about Blackness and gender.

Nichelle Nichols’ empowering demonstration of Black language practices is central to Afrofuturism and Black women’s storytelling practices. Today, the Star Trek franchise features a Black female lead, Sonequa Martin-Green who plays Michael Burnham, captain of the starship Discovery. During Star Trek: Discovery’s New York Comic Con panel, Black female astronaut Mae Jemison asked Sonequa Martin-Green about meeting Nichelle Nichols at the show’s premiere. Martin-Green admitted: “She said, ‘Enjoy this moment—this is yours now.’” With Martin-Green’s character becoming the reluctant captain of the starship Discovery at the close of season three, fans of the franchise are seeing diversity and inclusion in the show like we have not seen it before. I believe this is because when the audience is introduced to Michael Burnham, she is still finding her voice. According to April Baker-Bell, “African American females’ literacy tradition, storytelling reflects Black women’s multiple consciousnesses and is one of the most powerful language and literacy practices that Black women possess” (Baker-Bell, 2017). To affect public discourse about the impact of Black women as central to the world building of science fiction and fantasy, Burnham’s character invokes a social justice ethos—much like that of Anna Julia Cooper—because she invokes social change by embodying what it means to make a difference. She is not a superhero and she does not heedlessly sacrifice herself for the good of others. Instead she listens to her mother and she embraces her double consciousness—that of her intertwined Vulcan and Human cultural background—so that there can be a future. Being the first human raised and educated on the planet Vulcan she possesses a superior command of logic known to be attributed to the Vulcan race, but it is grounded in humanity. This allows her to hold both logic and compassion with equal measure when making decisions. This is explored in Discovery as Burnham’s ability to time travel. In previous versions of the show, time travel is banned and against the code of ethics established by Starfleet called the Prime Directive. By decoding the messages that unlock the ability to travel through time, Burnham discovers that the technology for time travel was created by her mother. She has the ability to disconnect time travel from its nefarious logical conclusion, an event called the Time Wars in previous versions of the franchise, and instead sees it as a lifesaving technology.3 Burnham’s unique positionality as an individual who holds the legacy of time travel technology within her is, I believe, a homage to the character Uhura and the legacy her character left in the series as a gift finally being fully realized. Uhura is often rendered as an anti-avatar or a raceless individual who’s, as Nelson described, African diasporic culture is a relic of the past rather than in integral part of her humanity. For example, in the episode “The Changeling” Uhura’s mind is erased by a 21st century Earth interstellar probe. The probe does this because it does not understand the meaning of a song Uhura is singing and rather than allowing her to explain it in her own words the probe takes her ability to utilize language. While this seems like a fascinating situation to have a communications officer in, there are precious few scenes throughout the episode for Uhura and we do not see her recovery on screen. There is one scene where Uhura regains her command of African dialects, but it is dismissed as an incorrect use of language. Throughout the series there are several moments when Uhura’s Blackness is a liability, or she is expected to be raceless in her responses. Burnham’s characterization and Sonequa Martin-Green’s performance through the Discovery series are a decided step away from what Uhura goes through. From her natural Black hairstyles to her captain catch phrase, Burnham is fly and Black and she makes no apologies for who she is. Her characterization recognizes her humanity and Burnham strives to do that for others as well through her ability to understand the importance of time and her compassion for others. For those of us who longed for more episodes from Uhura’s perspective and a deeper understanding of how she came to know so many languages we now have Burnham. Thinking of Burnham’s abilities as ancestral gifts in this way connects her character to the stories of so many other people in the Star Trek franchise that were overlooked or undervalued. An example of this would be Burnham’s adversary throughout the show Osyraa, the leader of the evil syndicate The Emerald Chain, who belongs to a race called the Orion. In the original series, Captain Kirk discovered that the Orion are a race of slave women who are used to entertain male guests of the planet and Kirk does nothing to help them. In contrast, in the universe Burnham has written through her understanding of time travel, Osyraa is given the power to fight back against her oppressors and although she falls victim to the darker allures of that power, her presence in the series makes space for other people like her to have their stories told. This further proves that when and where Burnham enters the Star Trek universe, all of the forgotten, erased, and marginalized stories from the previous series’ enter with her. As a Black feminist rhetorician, I appreciate the relationship between Uhura and Burnham to be a linguistic strategy of emergence. The sociolinguist reality time travel has allowed to be made between these two characters cultivates both a healing from anti-avatar renderings of Black life and a promise of the recognition of Black humanity in the future.

As a pathway forward for Black feminist rhetoric I believe we can use Smitherman’s concept “Black sociolinguist reality” in the same ways Burnham’s linguistic invention practices are used as a technology of liberation. The first step would be to trace story-telling practices as emergent strategies that champion “Black sociolinguist reality” through the work of Black women writers of speculative fiction. Without their contributions to the genre, characters like Burnham would not be possible. I believe our most salient example of this is the life and work of Octavia Butler. In particular, Butler’s book Kindred uses time travel to demonstrate how Blackness is constructed across time in a very different way than whiteness.

Working towards tracking the rhetorical and historical significance of Afrofuturism in Butler’s Kindred, Smitherman’s take on linguistic social realities is important because it centers the lived experience of people whose methods of speech are deviant from standardized forms. As rhetoricians and teachers of writing, the word-work4 we use can be just as important as the work itself. Smitherman’s call for us to change the sociolinguist shape world by disrupting language power dynamics is a good place to start. In a 2012 interview, Smitherman described her work as “[u]plifting the linguistic souls of Black folks…[t]o help us understand who we are linguistically-culturally, to understand why and how we say the things we say as well as why we say the thangs we don’t say…[t]o recover and reclaim the Black Language psyche from the psycho-social distortions and warped myths that done been inflicted on us during our journey here” (Alim, 2012). This message is extremely important to Black scholars, especially those like myself who are just starting out, because it embraces the redirection of our energies back toward linguistic diversity. Afrofuturist writing practices, like world-making, celebrates our lived experiences by centering linguistic diversity. When Black women writing speculative fiction engage in world building we see and hear stories that disrupt normalized genres of futurity in order to embrace and celebrate the full potential of thriving Black futures. Smitherman’s work codifies that point by explaining that white American linguistic reality is largely monolithic and does not allow room for other Englishes to be anything other than otherized. Specifically, she attests that the power of Black languages and the recovery of a “mother tongue” is central to doing work that matters. Hearing our stories from us, by us, and for us is an important disruption because language is a catalyst for change. “Black sociolinguist reality” provides us with a method to recognize the importance of Black women writers writing our community alive using Afrofuturistic linguistic practices to render undiscovered social realities.

Smitherman’s take on linguistic social realities is also important because it centers the lived experience of people whose methods of speech are deviant from standardized forms. Smitherman’s call for us to change the sociolinguist shape of our world by disrupting language power dynamics is an important place to start. To change the landscape of our scholarship, we need to take a human-centered approach to understanding Afrofuturist writing practices—we need to bring wreck to these normalized genres that have no love or recognition for the way Black people experience story. As Gwendolyn Pough describes in her book Check it While I Wreck it: Black Womanhood, Hip-hop Culture, and the Public Sphere, “Bringing wreck is a decided act, not an unavoidable breaking point…women of the Hip-Hop generation who enact a rhetoric of wreck do so after making a conscious decision to speak out. They are bringing wreck in order to create change” (Pough, 2004). Afrofuturism, as a platform for Black exploration and expression imagines unbound futures in order to disrupt how Blackness is engaged within normalized genres of futurity. These important changes liberate Black life from anti-avatars to central characters—creating narratives of freedom for our communities. Seeing liberated Black women at the center of speculative fiction stories is the wreck we need to see change within normalized genres of futurity. Afrofuturist feminist storytelling then is an African diasporic community space that “values the power of creativity and imagination to reinvigorate culture and transcend social limitations [and t]he resilience of the human spirit lies in our ability to imagine”(Womack 317) a liberated society where Black lives do matter.

Looking back to Butler’s Kindred stories with Black female protagonists who not only liberate their people, but are at the center of creating new worlds where everyone can imagine themselves as free, bring wreck because they are effective ideological vehicles. Formulating societies, real or imaginary, speaks powerful truth to the lives of everyone instead of an elite few. As Ytasha Womack further explains in her book Afrofuturism: the World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture “[t]he imagination is a tool of resistance. Creating stories with people of color in the future defies the norm. With the power of technology and emerging freedoms, black artists have more control over their image than ever before.” (Womack 319). The protagonist of Kindred is Dana, who uses her voice to bring change to the people she meets when she time travels from the 1970’s to the early 1800’s. An ancestral connection forces Dana to time travel from her present day to early 1800s in Maryland in order to explore a narrative history of her linage and its connections to African American enslavement. Many things marked Dana as different during her time travels, but one of the dangers she faced trying to survive during American slavery was the way she speaks. A young slave boy name Nigel explains to Dana that talking better than white people is dangerous for her to be doing because it put ideas of freedom into the minds of slaves. (Butler 73). Dana explains that her mother was a teacher, but the fact is dismissed as unrealistic. Butler’s attention to detail in the way Dana is characterized is one of my favorite parts of the novel. The fact that Dana can travel across time and space and still her voice, the only tool she can rely on to get here through this dangerous situation, is also the thing that can get her killed. Her strategy of trusting Nigel with a truth from the future creates the iterative data we need to hear and understand that the voices of Black women lead to freedom. Butler makes the deliberate choice to have Dana speak the future in the past because stories make up the majority of what a lot of Black people know about their family histories. The oral tradition allows Dana to time travel through her history exploring the “Black sociolinguist reality” speaking freedom into existence makes. Ultimately, the word-work Butler’s Kindred does is a performance in honor and representing Black histories of resistance. In this way, time travel is an emergent strategy—one that writes the future in the past, so we can disrupt normalized notions of futurity in ways that are anti-racist now.

As a way of incorporating how the disruption of public discourse can be humanizing into Afrofuturist feminisms, I use adrienne maree brown’s concept of emergent strategy outlined in her book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Thinking about the missing pieces in African American history as artifacts we can liberate with emergent strategy can create links to stories we never knew before by allowing us to ask more complex questions. To start, emergence out of erasure would allow those of us who do not have connections to our history through land to ask questions like: what if we are digging through a past that does not have a physical location? How then do our artifacts signify our history if they are uncovered in soil that never was? The first step toward answering these questions is humanizing the subjects. Black bodies are always already political objects because of our ties to labor as the means and mode of production in America. As ways to engage critical consciousness and imagine methods of social action in the future brown calls for the use of emergent strategy; one that explains “the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions” and allow us to imagine ourselves in these systems differently. (brown, 2017). As brown further explains: “Imagination is one of the spoils of colonization, which in many ways is claiming who gets to imagine the future for a given geography. Losing our imagination is a symptom of trauma. Reclaiming the right to dream the future, strengthening the muscle to imagine together as Black people, is a revolutionary decolonizing activity” (brown, 2017). I believe imagination is an iterative process for most Black people. As a strategy of emergence Black women writing speculative fiction are often left with imagination as the only place to go to for information about African American history. The Afrofuturist worlds they build are the ones we can only explore through narrative, but the importance of our stories is embedded in the way Black people have experienced history. Going back to Butler’s Kindred, Dana demonstrates that telling Black stories creates the realities we need to sustain freedom in the future. Her Black Girl Magic is teaching others to move towards freedom, which is what she saw in Rufus, because those lessons travel across space and time in our oral histories. brown goes on to say this moment we are in now is a celebration of Black Girl Magic in all its forms: “Now it is our work, and the exciting thing about this time is that we are learning to name ourselves, our distinctions and solidarities. Our afrofuturisms. Developing enough of a common dream language that we can be that much more explicit about the real futures we are shaping into existence.” (brown, 2017).

This is a fundamental message in Afrofuturists’ writing because our call to action when thinking about African American history is to remember. Remember those who have been erased by violent legislation and white supremacy. Remember those who were killed for telling stories in their mother tongues. Black women writing speculative fiction demand we remember through emergence of forgotten history and the strategy of writing themselves into the stories of the past in order to write themselves alive in the present. I see speculative fiction as an African American intersectional practice that rhetorically imbues the history and language of Black feminist thought into public discourse, so that readers may come to recognize and remember African American history as integral to stories that imagine the future. Black women writing speculative fiction helps us understand that without Afrofuturist feminism, there is no future.

Reclaiming Our Time

As cultivators of a discourse community, Black women writing speculative fiction use Afrofuturist feminism as a meaning making method that is an emergent cyclical process of coalescing data. This data celebrates how speculative fiction reclaims the narrative power of Black life by shifting how we are depicted in stories. According to adrienne maree brown, this is visionary fiction—which I am defining as a rhetorical method of building Black stories from a history of heartbreak and pain into rhetorical practices that build lasting change. I believe this is a unique rhetorical practice, born from the Black experience, that needs to be explored as a way to diversify the language of futurity currently present in public discourse.

In brown’s book Emergent Strategy she explains that she created this philosophy of emergence as strategy for those who want to liberate the world from colonial thought processes. Inspired by Angela Davis’ “Let Us All Rise Together” brown describes emergent strategy as for anyone who “wants to radically change the world…to tap into the most ancient systems and patterns for wisdom” and create new knowledge systems in order to build an Afrofuturist world. (brown, 2017). I see a need for the disruption of how we build knowledge around the word Afrofuturism. Thinking of Afrofuturistic pursuits as emergent cyclical process of coalescing data extends Nelson’s ideas that we must disrupt notions of capitalistic chronicles of progress moving us towards a “race-free” future to include the speculative alongside “technologically driven chronicles of progress” in order to construct Blackness in the future in ways that reflect the fullness of our humanity. (Nelson 2002). Time travel in speculative fiction, such as we see in Butler’s Kindred, is one such example of an emergent strategy to coalesce history with the oral tradition and the sustaining force of education as data that can theorize a future where Blackness is constructed by the stories we tell about ourselves not by our relationship to capitalistic chronicles of progress. We already have a wealth of scholarship exploring how Black women experience time travel. Brittney Cooper explains in her 2016 TEDTalk The Racial Politics of Time that in this political moment we are facing the “racial struggles we are experiencing are clashes over time and space” because time has a race and that race is white. She states:

William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But my good friend Professor Kristie Dotson says, “Our memory is longer than our lifespan.” We carry, all of us, family and communal hopes and dreams with us. We don’t have the luxury of letting go of the past. But sometimes, our political conditions are so troubling that we don’t know if we’re living in the past or we’re living in the present. Take, for instance, when Black Lives Matter protesters go out to protest unjust killings of black citizens by police, and the pictures that emerge from the protest look like they could have been taken 50 years ago. The past won’t let us go. But still, let us press our way into the present. (Cooper, 2016).

I understand this to mean that, in order to explore what time means for those who have been marginalized through narrative, authors must recognize that time must be redefined through our collective experiences. Cooper, citing theorists like Hegel, explains that time was racialized by white people in an effort to commodify and demonize Africa, thus robbing Black people a chance at defining their own future. The further contextualizes the argument that in order to speculate on what Black futures look like we must first honor the past. She closes her talk by crediting Woodrow Woodson for the founding of Negro history week, now Black History Month, as one way to recognize the past and reconcile American Black history. I feel this is an important example because the designation of a calendar month, a unit of time that we all experience, could have, at that time been seen as Woodson exploring the future as Black speculative fiction. Cooper’s example here outlines the same tools I define as Black speculative fiction language created in celebration of Black life by using the reclamation of time as world building, connecting the magical roots of Black history, and celebrating Black activism as central to our survival. It gives us back our time by outlining a space to celebrate who we are as Black people. This same rhetorical construction of time is central to the world building of Black women writing speculative fiction.

Further rhetorical examinations of the term Afrofuturism, as it is used by speculative fiction writers practicing Afrofuturist feminisms, are needed because the popularity of it as a concept has brought it away from the authors that created it in ways that are problematic. Outlining a framework for Afrofuturist feminisms began for me with this idea of a prism. I knew Dery’s term was not working for my community because so many authors were trying to redefine it or reclaim it for themselves. Ytasha Womack’s Afrofuturism: the World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture is a good example of this. The book reads like a timeline attempting to stick together the histories that created Afrofuturism. I argue Afrofuturist feminism does more than that because it gives context to those lost histories using their authorship as race radical futurity. I believe the way Black women craft speculative fiction stories is why Afrofuturism exists in the first place. Without a framework that recognizes the contributions Black artists that substantiate the rhetorical makeup of the word Afrofuturism, we risk the continued co-opting of a genre that is, in fact, our culture.

When wielded by Black women, the sociolinguist reality of words is the process of world building that teaches us how to dream of the future. Sociolinguistic reality, as it is articulated in the work of Geneva Smitherman, is a practice of tracing the significance of Afrofuturism through the context behind an author’s words or diction. Understanding Smitherman’s take on linguistic social realities is important because it centers the lived experience of people whose methods of speech are deviant from standardized forms. In her 1977 book Talkin’ and Testifyin she explains that our social realities have a linguistic shape that imbues things, like historical meaning, into our lived experiences. In her 2006 follow-up book, Word from the Mother: Language and African Americans, Smitherman codifies that point by explaining that American linguistic reality is largely monolithic and does not allow room for other Englishes to be anything but otherized. Specifically, she attests that the power of Black languages and the recovery of a “mother tongue” is central to doing work that matters. She writes: “The wisdom of the Elders demands that we stay steady on the case. In research and pedagogy…the Elders and the sacrifices of many thousands gone, the role of the linguist—indeed the role of all scholars and intellectuals—is not just to understand the world, but to change it” (Smitherman. 2006). Afrofuturist Feminisms is such a project. Smitherman’s call for us to change sociolinguistic reality by disrupting language power dynamics is a good place to start.

I argue that Afrofuturism is a Black Feminist discourse and, as such, a feminist practice—because isn’t it just like a Black woman to have the power to create the past and the future with a word? Afrofuturist Feminisms hear the beauty that is Black life in the past, present, and future as a liberation project. To change the landscape of Rhetoric and Composition to adequately recognize the power of Afrofuturist feminism, we need to take a human-centered approach to understanding speculative fiction as a race radical recovery project through emergent strategy that engages a rhetorical journey to recover Black women’s power to craft their sociolinguistic reality, in order to write their own stories.

In my research for this article, I have identified that the first step in an Afrofuturist feminist rhetorical analysis should be the examination of what a hero’s journey narrative or mythologies coded as white are, and how it bars Black mythology from existing within the current American storytelling boundaries. Modern worlds explored in science fiction and fantasy usually reify white explorations of the future. As Toni Morrison explains in her essay, “I wanted to carve out a world both culture specific and race-free,” African American stories that are “race-free” do not erase Blackness, but work toward building a world where definitions of Blackness do not come from white imagination. I see significant strides being made towards this liberation in Black women writing speculative fiction because they have reimagined the genre by challenging its white supremacist tropes. For example, science fiction and fantasy stories are largely based in shared mythologies that are coded as white. Usually science fiction stories have some sort of science in them—either real or imagined—and the stories are that of discovery; like a hero saving his people from evil. White supremacist tropes are reinforced through these narratives as manifested destiny or a divine right that enables the protagonist to succeed; which is central to the Star Wars universe like we see in the conclusion of the most recent trilogy where we learned that the only way to be a Jedi was through lineage. Grounded in white escapism, the Star Wars universe can only be protected by true Jedi which further perpetuates the idea that some people, in the case of Star Wars white males, are the only ones who can be divinely ordained with the power to save the universe. These stories share a mythology that, as author N.K. Jemisin describes, does not include the lived experiences or African mythologies of Black people because they do not have to. The mythology is coded so that only particular individuals can achieve greatness or save their people and since the mythology is shared it does not really leave any room to explore if anyone else’s lives matter. Jemisin stresses that even if canonical science fiction and fantasy stories evoke myths that limit the ways the world can imagine Black people, such as being cast as barbaric races such as goblins or orcs in Lord of the Rings or Stormtroopers with no home or family history in Star Wars. She explains further that “[d]reaming is impossible without myths. If we don’t have enough myths of our own, we’ll latch on to those of others—even if those myths make us believe terrible or false things about ourselves. Tolkien understood this…Depending on the myths we believe in, those boundaries can be magnificently vast or crushingly tight” (Jemisin, 2018). By rhetorically shaping the discourse to one of Afrofuturist Feminism in this way, Black women writing speculative fiction and exploring uncharted Black history are enacting Afrofuturism by bringing us all into the space. As a liberation project, an Afrofuturist feminist framework outlines pathways which help to answer questions that are central to exploration of Black life in the future because they seek to address our myths and our reality as cyclical. I believe the best way to do this work is to draw on questions from the Black Lives Matter movement. Afrofuturist feminist rhetorical analysis looks at a text as an archive that recovers missing connections between our understandings of African American language practices, symbols, and art as cyclical in nature and connected to Black mythology. This means that, in order to fully understand how Black women make sense of and communicate life and life experiences in the future through critical imagination, we must look at the past as central to imagining the future. This is similar to the technology written into the Black Lives Matter hashtag. Using that hashtag demands you recognize the humanity of Black people. In the same way, Black women writing speculative fiction are not just writing science fiction or fantasy stories, but building worlds grounded in “Black sociolinguist reality” that demand you see and speak the truth of Black history. Shaping our culture through the cultivation of sociolinguist reality, Black authors like Octavia Butler stop the gentrification of Black genius by demanding space for the recognition of our history within the worlds they build.

Octavia Butler coined the term “Histofuturity” to embody a practice of writing that reflected history in a scientific way. One of a few Black people writing science fiction, Butler embraced working within the genre differently than her male counterparts. In an interview for the New York Times given in 2000, Butler was asked: “Why do you place black women at the heart of so much of your work?” Butler’s reply was straightforward: “I certainly wasn’t in the science fiction. The only black people you found were occasional characters…I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing. I can write my own stories and I can write myself in”(Marriott). This is an example of Afrofuturist feminism in action because, when the interviewer asked Butler to give a fragmented answer to a complex question, she responded by signifying her personhood in its totality. Butler wrote about this more extensively in her 1980 essay “The Lost Races of Science Fiction” for Transmission Magazine. She describes this essay as “a protest against racism” because she knew “too many bright, competent blacks who have had to waste time and energy trying to reason away other people’s unreasonable racist attitudes; in effect, trying to prove their humanity.” The essay covers a lot of what was happening within the genre during that time, but what stood out was her reaction to the Star Wars franchise and her response to America’s male chauvinist customs we are unwilling to address. She writes:

Back when Star Wars was new, a familiar excuse for ignoring minorities went something like this: “Science fiction is escapist literature. Its readers/viewers don’t want to be weighted down with real problems.” War, okay. Planet-wide destruction, okay. Kidnapping, okay. But the sight of a minority person? Too heavy. Too real. And, of course, there again is the implication that a sprinkling of blacks, Asians, or others could turn the story into some sort of racial statement. The only statement I could imagine being made by such a sprinkling would be that among the white, human people; the tall, furry people; the lumpy, scaly people; the tentacled people; etc., were also brown, human people; black, human people, etc. This isn’t a heavy statement—unless it’s missing. (Butler 1980).

The distinction that the lack of acceptance within the genre is more a problem of customs that refuse to recognize that they are part of the change is central to Butler’s Parables series; which came out in the early 1990 after this essay was written. Butler was clearly a prophetic writer and her term Histofuturity is just one way of understanding the unique and important ways she rhetorically shaped the beauty of Black life. Thinking of speculative fiction as discourse that critically engages the places in time where humans and technology intersect as a method of interrogating history, we can see Butler’s writing practices as a bridge to the future she was trying to carve out within the genre of science fiction. Moya Bailey and Ayana Jamieson describe Butler’s writing process as that of as “radio imagination,” or an imagination that hears the future. Additionally, thinking of Moya Bailey’s work in Black women’s resistance to misogynoir in digital spaces helps us to understand why Black women are often used as anti-avatars in science fiction and fantasy. This is central to the development of the Parables series main character. Lauren/Oya Olamina created the community of Arcon where she teaches the parables of Earthseed. Rather than a religion, Earthseed is a formula of living your life with persistence, enthusiasm, and deliberate adaptability. It is through these “books of the living” that her community seeks to recode the world’s thinking through changing common thought patterns around religion, politics, and economics. The foremost parable of Earthseed is “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change. God Is Change.” (Butler, 2019). This is because Lauren/Oya is a Shaper, meaning that the futurist power she wields makes the world a better place. Thinking about Lauren/Oya as a sonic response to the popularity of Star Wars makes the linguistic reality of Earthseed an expression of Afrofuturist feminism. The legacy she leaves us with through Earthseed helps us both see and hear the future in spaces that overlook our lived experiences as systems of knowledge. Butler’s unique understanding of what it means to be an outsider and a Black woman gives a linguistic nuance to her work that is best described in the terms she created for herself. If we consider Butler’s contributions as a way to both see, with her use of time travel, and hear with her use of radio imagination, the future then we can better understand the ways in which Black women are still experiencing exclusion within science fiction and fantasy fan bases. More specifically, we must consider radio imagination and Lauren/Oya’s experiences as a form of resistance to “misogynoir” in popular science fiction and fantasy at the time Butler was writing and today.

In her body of work, Butler sought alternative ways of understanding Black people’s relationship to their own histories that were not centered around slavery. This should not be confused with a whitewashing of history that divorces white people from the atrocities of American history. In her pursuit of visible histories, Butler created the term “Histofuturity” as a way to use the resources of history as a method of invention. She would meticulously record the world around her in journals, then reinvent a new world from the perspective of her characters. In her Earthseed series, an unfinished trilogy consisting of Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, Butler’s main character Lauren Oya Olamina crafts the community and religion Earthseed as an acknowledgment of the beauty found in the sociolinguistic reality of African American spiritual connections to the divine.

Remembering that to enact Afrofuturist feminism is to unapologetically reclaim the bits of history that have been stolen from African American people and make it beautiful once more, taking a closer look at the rhetorical power behind Butler’s writing strategies reveals her dedication to the liberation of Black women. Butler’s writing process is that of crafting sociolinguist realities through sonic writing. From her archives we have learned Butler often listened to the radio as she wrote. This is a sociolinguistic technology of invention because Butler is using her ability to learn sonically to translate history into a world that recognizes Black humanity in the future. My personal journey into the rhetoric of Afrofuturism started with Butler’s work and thinking about her distinct writing practices as a representation of the magic needed to write oneself into the future. From Sami Schalk’s work we know Butler may have had dyslexia; as such, her particular sociolinguist reality is deeply connected to the trauma of Black language being seen as inferior. Butler’s work demonstrates a dedication to developing Black characters that represented our potential to heal from our collective trauma, as Schalk explains, “what has come to constitute disability literature is not based primarily or exclusively on the identity of the author, but also on the content of the narrative.” Since Butler was, according to Schalk’s account, a person with disabilities, “her dyslexia and various physical and mental health concerns she experienced throughout her life” were central to understanding her writing practice. I believe it is important to consider Butler’s sociolinguist reality as dedicated to a future where all forms of learning, but especially the ways in which Black women find ways to define the world for ourselves, are championed and respected. Schalk goes on to explain that Butler’s research was fundamental to her writing process. In a motivational note to herself in 1976, she writes, “Speak and write only of things you’ve earned the right to speak and write about through experience and/or study.” This is particularly important when considering Butler’s use of the sonic writing and her self-perception. The ability to use sonic writing as a tool for self-definition is something Butler gives to her characters as well. I found this to be a transformative technology and expression of emergent strategy in the characterization of the protagonist in Butler’s Parables series Lauren Oya Olamina. Butler calls Lauren a shaper; I took her meaning of this to be that she holds the power within herself to shape the world. Lauren explains how she became a shaper to her brother Marc in Parable of the Talents, but he believes her religion, Earthseed, is “made up.” However, Lauren responds by explaining how all of the tenants of Earthseed are inspired by real events; in particular they are responses to events from their childhood and American politics. Her translation of these events into text created the language of Earthseed and the lifesaving technology of the community that embraces it. As an expression of her power over her sociolinguistic reality, Lauren’s task as a shaper is to change the world for others. Her relationship with her brother Marc, who is unable to embrace any kind of change, is a perfect example of the kind of technology needed to change the world. Through Earthseed, people are given the language of liberation, but they also have the space to choose what that liberation looks like in their own lives. For those oppressed in Butler’s universe, this kind of social justice is seen as threatening because ignorance has become a kind of currency that allows corporations to use and drug the masses towards their own selfish goals.

Through Earthseed we see an Afrofuturist feminism that liberates Black people from how they are currently being imagined. This ability to hear and recognize Black life through Afrofuturist feminism discourse as having a linguistic reality is similar to the phrase I heard that. When a Black woman says I heard that, they aren’t just listening to you. Saying I heard that is a linguistic recognition that acknowledges shared experiences without flattening the perspective of the speaker. Mirroring that same recognition within the linguistic reality of a text as an archive of the Black experience is a felt sense or a feeling that the author is envisioning the Black experience across time and space. In this way, saying I heard that is a rhetorical representation of the Afrofuturist mental gymnastics Black women are always already doing. Afrofuturism is a situated knowledge that can only be wield by authors dedicated to Black feminist practices of liberation. The restorative power of telling our own stories decenters the violent inception of African American history that has been our burden since the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. We can lay down that burden and explore our history differently through Afrofuturist exploration. Black Feminist Afrofuturists are uniquely situated in that we have tapped into the power that allows us to write ourselves into the kind of stories that don’t just teach us how to live, but how to dream. A Black Feminist Afrofuturist discourse demands an intellectual and sympathetic comprehension towards those whose “freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression” by writing ourselves into the future (Combahee River Collective, 1986). For example, the first time a teacher called me “colored” I was young enough to think she meant I was full of rainbows. Naive enough to be so mislead by her false characterization of my tiny personhood that I repeated what she said to my father, thinking he would see that I was full of all the colors and lights I imagined myself to be full of too; just like the bright rainbow-filled characters in my favorite tv show. It wasn’t until I saw the pained look on my father’s face that I learned I had made a mistake in understanding what my teacher had meant, and it would be much longer before I realized the mistake was hers. Even before this injustice, I had learned the mental gymnastics of putting myself into a story because I wanted to be alongside all the characters I loved, on their adventures. What that teacher really took advantage of was not my innocence towards racial violence, because she was not the first or the last educator to weaponize my body to prove a violent point, but my need to belong in the story. What I would learn from this experience many years later is that I am not the only little Black girl to grow up this way. What I know now is that I have the power to resist my body being storied for me, and I get that power from Afrofuturist Feminisms. I have also learned in researching different genres of storytelling that I am not the only Black girl with a story like this one. Through speculative fiction, Black people writing stories can regain their storytelling power from genres that have historically not loved us as much as we might love them. Telling our own stories is a radical recovery project of the invisible histories that make Black people whole.

An Afrofuturist Tomorrow: Conclusion

Ultimately, this article is an interdisciplinary exploration into Afrofuturist feminist ways of being and knowing. A deeper understanding of Black linguistic practices through Afrofuturist feminism helps understand how Afrofuturism informs temporality, myth-making, and Black linguistic justice in ways that liberate the construction of Blackness from its marginalization within normalized genres of futurity in ways that are anti-racist. To be able to take a break from the world and dive into a book where your voice, your body, and your experiences are represented is invaluable in America’s current political climate. In order to protect our peace in these spaces we have to be critical of how futurity is being defined. Dery’s “Afro-futurism” comes from a short article that precedes a series of interviews he conducted with Black science fiction artists, authors, and scholars Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose. He defines the interviews as a map that represents the “largely unexplored psychogeography of Afrofuturism” (Dery, 1994). A rhetorical examination of these interviews would suggest that while Dery started the conversation that bore the term Afrofuturism, it would not exist without significant contributions from Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose. His interdisciplinary approach to the conversation would suggest that the concept of Afrofuturism is largely dependent on multiple voices commenting on a shared experience of the world. Dery suggest this shared experience comes from the “search for legible traces” of African American history as it relates to mapping any possible future. I argue that this is a gross oversimplification. Without a consideration of the “Black sociolinguist reality” of Afrofuturism through Alondra Nelson and Nalo Hopkins’ work with the Afrofuturist listserv we do not get a full picture of the lived experiences that inform Afrofuturism. Dery’s assertion is more in line with the anti-avatars Nelson describes. For example, his assessment of US Slavery history as a barrier to the potential to thrive in the future only further marginalizes Black people. His labeling of Afrofuturism as a “subalternate” or “technoculture” ignores our lived experiences and perpetuates the idea that we cannot thrive unless the future is somehow new and “race free;” which is exactly the problematic absence Butler warns us about. As a reader of his series of interviews I could not help but think “What would Octavia Butler have said about this?” Dery notes the only woman writing within the genre conventions of science fiction at the time of these interviews as Octavia Butler.(Dery, 1994). The absence of her voice in the interviews is then problematic when you consider his conclusion that African American writers of science fiction are engaging in a kind of “subalternate” “technoculture” that replicates the present in the future.(Dery, 1994). Butler’s body of work demonstrates explorations in our shared humanity. In her essay “The Only Lasting Truth” about Butler’s career and their friendship, author Tananarive Due explains Butler’s work as “a prism through which she examines ills in American society”(Due, 2015). Butler’s deep dedication to social justice actively engages with questions that recognize African American history.

With this in mind, I argue that for Black women writing ourselves into stories is where the sociolinguist reality of African American culture, particularly myths and customs, must begin with a liberated process of invention: emergent strategy. This, like much of Butler’s work, asks the question: “What if we continue to ignore the lived experiences of Black women?” instead of the more reductive approach Dery was exploring of “Can African American people tell stories in the future?” In order to articulate a discourse that recognizes the future of African Americans as containing multitudes untarnished by the erasure and violence of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Black women speculative fiction writers, like Butler, use Afrofuturism as a future focused telescope to recontextualize African American life across space and time. This is the language of Afrofuturist feminism. The purpose of an Afrofuturist telescope is to use speculative fiction to illuminate forgotten, stolen, and unrealized histories through speculations of possible futures. Afrofuturism feminism is a process of understanding the world, a prism whose coalescing faces show the past, the present, and the future as the light is refracted onto American culture through time and space. As guiding force, Afrofuturist feminisms shows us what we could not see before, what we ignore, and helps us to see more clearly. The flexibility of the term is foregrounded in speculative inquiries while also allowing other genres of fiction and research to inform the world these writers explore. Not belonging to the genre of science fiction or fantasy, speculative fiction is an intersectional term for the process of imagination that allows artists to create fictional worlds through art to render time and space when and where they enter the field in Black futuristic complexity. An Afrofuturist lens thus shines on all rhetorical frameworks of African American discovery. As articulated by Adam Banks and Keith Gilyard, the project of Afrofuturism is a discourse deeply connected to African American history. They attest that our ability to navigate imagined terrain and negotiate our linguistic reality defines the shape of African American rhetoric’s impact. The following is an exploration into how each author uses Afrofuturist Feminisms to define their own terms. Banks and Gilyard’s articulation is inspired by Geneva Smitherman’s articulation of “nommo” or the power of the word. (Gilyard &Banks, 2018).

Afrofuturism’s popularity—which rose significantly with the release of the Marvel film Black Panther—has become a significant part of the African American cultural lexicon. There is a substantial amount of scholarship being done around the film Black Panther, but I wanted to take a different approach to my work because, while it is inclusive, the Marvel Universe is built upon Eurocentric myths and folklore. The popularity of the term Afrofuturism and the film Black Panther seems to have solidified the concept of Afrofuturism as an aesthetic of African technology that embraced the development of Black intelligence in the future. However, I found this narrative troubling and incomplete. Wakanda is a place that exists within erasure. It was not touched by war, slavery, or any of the other violence Black people who lived beyond its walls experienced. As such, even in this technological paradise for Black creativity, its promise of freedom is out of reach for Black characters who are not from there and they are labeled as defiant, deviant, and problematic outsiders. We need more data to figure out what is necessary to build the Afrofuture. “Black sociolinguist reality” helps us to synthesize that data into emergent strategies that recognize the Black experience in its totality. Going forward, especially in our current political climate, where words are being weaponized to malign vulnerable communities daily, we need more scholarship that is embodied by members of those communities and that attends to how all this vitriol will have lasting effects on our identities. We need to be the loudest voices on what is reasonable to say in public spaces. The affectual nature of hate speech has been unreasonably disconnected from the harm it does to those the hate speech is meant to reflect. The idea that political office or a level of affluence divorces a person from the responsibility of how that speech impacts sociolinguist reality is directly counter to Smitherman’s work and completely absurd. I believe that the best way forward towards outlining the shape of our impact as rhetoricians is to produce scholarship and pedagogy that is grounded in rhetorical frameworks that are built to fight injustices in the same ways Black women writing speculative fiction build worlds where we can all be free.

End Notes

  1. Concept derived from the work of Geneva Smitherman. By identifying the term as a “Black sociolinguist reality” I am honoring Smitherman’s scholarship and complicating it with an Afrofuturist sensibility.     -return to text
  2. Allen says this in a video that is part of the article “Afrofuturism is all around us and we don’t even know it” by Elizabeth Wellington published in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2020. The larger conversation in this video centers different definitions of Afrofuturism in regards to when and where each person being interviewed enters the world of science fiction.     -return to text
  3. This is different from previous explorations of time in Star Trek, such as an episode of the series Voyager where the character Seven of Nine can only save her fellow crewmates by killing victims of the Time Wars using time travel. Additionally, in the series Enterprise, time travel is used as the major part of a plot about ethnic cleansing. As such, Burnham is the show’s first character to use time travel as its inventor intended.     -return to text
  4. Concept from Toni Morrison Nobel Laureate speech.     -return to text

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