Conference Overview

“Afrofuturism — What is its Sound?” is a 2-day event curated by Dr. Julian Chambliss, professor of English, Michigan State University and ZORA! Festival National Planner. This conference is inspired by Zora Neale Hurston’s legacy of valuing the voices and sounds of black culture and will marry elements of futurism or science fiction to the oral tradition and music technology evident in black history and culture.

In his definitional essay “Afrofuturism 2.0 & The Black Speculative Arts Movement: Notes on a Manifesto”, Dr. Reynaldo Anderson wrote that the “embryonic movement examining the overlap between race, art, science, and design has been stirring and growing” into a global movement. What today is recognized as Afrofuturism has roots in a broader global history of blackness ignored in the western context, as well as, in the particular roots in African American liberatory experience.

Thus, Afrofuturism has sparked discussion across academic disciplines as an epistemological tool to challenge systemic antiblackness inherent to western knowledge creation even as popular expression celebrates contemporary cultural events such as Marvel’s Black Panther (2018). As an epistemological tool, Afrofuturism calls our attention to how colonial belief and practice designed to facilitate imperial exploitation in the Age of Discovery continues to shape our world. Contemporary scholars’ talking about and acting on the ideas of Afrofuturism are merely continuing a theoretical practice geared toward dismantling the ideology of oppression.

The current intellectual activism linked to Afrofuturism is a challenge to our established notion of knowledge production and dissemination. There exists this dynamic — Contemporary scholars engage in this work, a complex process of recovery that recognizes the legacy of black knowledge within black culture and can be found by examining everyday practice and discovery; which considers how a framework centered on African Diaspora practice offers new ways to understand science, aesthetic, philosophy and gender is taking place. Inherent to Afrofuturism’s critique of the colonial power structure that defines modernity is a recognition of how black thought and action have been demonized and marginalized. In the U.S. context, this knowledge persists within black communal spaces but often lies outside white-controlled institutions. Current scholarly production seeks to remedy this inequity.

Thus, scholars such as Dr. Kinitra Brooks, who champions a consideration of rootwork or traditional medicinal practice commons within the black community, challenges us to understand that the definition of “knowledge” has been and continues to be shaped by antiblack belief. Her work seeks to bring the conjure woman into the canonical conversation and in doing so validates black folk practice. These efforts weave an inclusive narrative that recognizes the ways seminal figures such as W.E.B. Dubois and Zora Neale Hurston might be understood as part of a “black speculative” tradition dedicated to freedom and rejecting the tenets of “white” modernity. In this way, we can see how those past actors concerned with arts and letters are analogous to contemporary figures such as curator Ingrid LaFleur, who engages in a political art practice that seeks to celebrate and invigorate Detroit using an Afrofuturism platform concerned with art and practice or artists such as John Jennings whose aesthetic vision centers African American cultural experience through critical design practice.

Dynamic and evolving, Afrofuturism as theory and practice can and will continue to grow. It describes both a mode of knowledge production and corresponding practice that seeks to set a new inclusive standard for understanding society.