August 9, 2022

Afrofuturism and Democracy: The Age of Disorder and the Coming Pluriverse

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It's After the End of the World, a live album recorded in 1970 by Sun Ra And His Intergalactic Research Arkestra, reflected the cosmic philosophy of Sun Ra—the spirit of the Space Age during the Cold War—and was a prequel to the movie and album Space is The Place. Sun Ra never believed that people of African descent would find peace and justice on this planet.   However, peace and justice are at the forefront of the contemporary Afrofuturist imagination in the world today. There are several reasons for this, including the rising tide of authoritarianism, fascism, white supremacy, cyberwar, disinformation, accelerating technology, and climate change. Accordingly, Afrofuturism must adapt to the transformation of the world order through recent events, including from the Eurasian conflict between Russia and Ukraine.


What we now call Afrofuturism is a contemporary manifestation of the Black Speculative tradition that is practiced in Africa and its diaspora. Although in the last decade some writers like Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) have expressed that Afrofuturism did not have a core philosophy—or that it was distinct from an African literary sensibility—the dominant expression of the contemporary Afrofuturism movement has matured into an intellectually grounded, international phenomenon. With the significant changes wrought by the global pandemic these last few years, Afrofuturism now faces its first major geopolitical crisis. Afrofuturism must adapt to the rise of AI, the Metaverse and accelerating change, global disorder, and conflict in a multipolar world for the next few decades, as well as a search for ethics toward a Pluriverse World Order.

Afrofuturism is an emerging philosophy of the diaspora and Africa. It's a framework for how African people locate themselves in time and space with agency, with the understanding that the control of time is tied to the control of space. For example: “The Africa centered perspective, in Afrofuturism, provides the type of history for people of African descent that makes sense of what they, rather than somebody else, went through first, and for an African liberated future, and as a futurologist she or he can speculate and gaze beyond the next century.” It is currently expressed as high culture in relation to metaphysics, aesthetics, theoretical and applied science, social science, and programmatic spaces. At the end of the Cold War, Afrofuturism emerged as a response to the appearance of virtual communities, the rise of the virtual state, and the adoption and international participation by people of African descent in the digital public sphere.

The term Afrofuturism was coined by Mark Dery in 1994 as an African-American speculative phenomenon in conversation with critics and creatives Greg Tate, Samuel R. Delany, and Dr. Tricia Rose in the early '90s, and was truly manifested in the creation of a listserv with Alondra Nelson. Founded in 1998, the listserv included hundreds of global members and was moderated by Paul D. Miller, the scholar Kali Tal, and the writer Sheree Renée Thomas, editor of the groundbreaking Black science fiction Dark Matter anthologies that uncovered 165 years of Black speculative writing and introduced the science fiction of W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. The online community was largely a diverse expression of literary criticism, gaming, music, visual and digital arts, and dance cultural exploration. It offered a critique of the whiteness of techno-culture, centered around conversations about related works such as scholar Ron Eglash's African Fractals, and around discussions of the digital divide (primarily in American society).  

Sun Ra 1968

The second wave of Afrofuturism was shaped by the emergence of global social media in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, and was a response to the intensification of globalization and incorporation of the African diaspora as the sixth zone of the African Union, the continuing problem and growth of White Supremacy as a domestic threat, the global War On Terror, the economic crash of 2008, and the limitations of domestic and foreign policy neoliberal initiatives under Republican and Democratic administrations. Conferences, exhibitions, and the work of thinkers like Ytasha Womack and others marked Afrofuturism's 21st century resurgence. It was this second wave that moved beyond Afrofuturism's initial (albeit limited) ideological attachment to the pan-European academic canon to embrace a pan-African and transnational Africanist approach. This wave began to grapple with global philosophical implications of Black Futurity in the areas of African futurism, second-wave Afrofuturism, and Afropolitanism in an Anti-Black World.

A new proliferation of African creatives such as Tokini Peterside, founder of Art X Lagos, use of cryptocurrency, blockchain technology, and NFTs to create an alternative economy signaled the transition from previous American-centric discussions of Afrofuturism and projected the direction of Afrofuturism as forecasted by creatives like Nettrice Gaskins and others in the areas of the metaverse, blockchain technology, AI, and machine learning. BlackFreelancer, for example, is a global blockchain network of creatives of African descent who invest in cryptocurrencies, contract for jobs and employment, and showcase their creations. 

A Harris poll taken during the summer of 2021 showed that 23% of African Americans, as opposed to 11% of White Americans, owned cryptocurrencies, demonstrating how people of African descent are seeking to empower themselves socially and economically. Nigeria and South Africa are among the leading countries in cryptocurrency utilization despite a lack of regulatory direction from the government, and cities such as Lagos lead the world in interest in Bitcoin. It follows that Afrofuturist creatives will have to swiftly grasp the importance of the metaverse phenomenon. The metaverse, a term originally described by the writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snowcrash, is characterized as a computer-generated universe with a shared 3D environment where people can be present in digital spaces. 

The evolution of cloud computing, multiplayer online gaming, blockchain assets, NFTs, and social networks has seemingly made Stephenson's dystopian vision a reality, though geopolitics will impact the regulatory reality of the metaverse. For example, Chinese apps like WeChat will not be compatible in some jurisdictions, while China intends to develop a metaverse of its own with its own cultural characteristics and launch its own Blockchain Services Network (BSN) intended to help Chinese companies develop apps. This geopolitical reality of the metaverse will only become more complicated considering current issues on the scale of the Eurasian land war prosecuted by Russia in Ukraine.

specular disorder by Nettrice Gaskins

Afrofuturism and global disorder

The global order in which Afrofuturism had its genesis was the conclusion of the ideological struggle of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, which resulted in the USA becoming the global hegemon and leader of the so-called Free World. Many authors including Francis Fukuyama subsequently wrote on The End of History, while a significant number of African-American scholars and other scholars moved onto discussions of postmodern identity and postcolonialism that moved beyond the concept — history was not, in fact, over. 

In contrast, contemporary Afrofuturism, or Afrofuturism 2.0, with its origins in the rise of social media and the politics of transnationalism and globalization, began to transition between 2016 and 2018 in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, the emergence of other authoritarian politicos around the world, and the increased growth in the use of artificial intelligence with machine-learning frameworks and use of chatbots by industry. 

The Afrofuturist movement’s transition was further quickened by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic disruption, and violent conflict. The descent into a seemingly disordered world was complicated by the inability of liberal democracies to grapple with the globalpandemic and the growing boldness of authoritarian regimes and their fascistic sympathizers to flout human rights and spread disinformation. For example, Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine in February of 2022 has caused a reaction in pro-Western democracies that has clearly showed the global geopolitical fault lines in the world system that in some ways resemble the old Cold War order, but with different underlying tensions that reflect the new rivalry between the United States and China.  

The period in question will determine the near-term future of human beings on this planet for the next few decades. However, there is still time to make ethical choices to prepare the global society for other challenges facing human beings such as climate change, a transition away from a carbon-based economy, and a pluriversal approach to world affairs. 

An African-centered or Pluriversal approach does not promote ethnocentrism, nor deny the validity of other human perspectives, and is not interested in hegemony. The pluriversal perspective recognizes the regional differences of different cultures around the globe and advances a human-centered, non-hegemonic, multi-centered approach to the social organization of knowledge and life informed by these histories. It does not resemble the dystopian metaverse approach described by Neal Stephenson in Snowcrash. For example, the potential emerging Afrofuturism 3.0 generation is already at the creative vanguard of this tectonic shift in planetary affairs; a rising young generation is preparing to participate in a multi-polar world where they want their own seat at the table, and to bring their own socio-political cultural imagination and perspective to bear on human affairs. This rising generation will represent the future of the continent and the diaspora in the struggle for true democracy and resistance against tyranny over human life, and may just be a driving force in saving the planet.

Feature art by Greg Liburd

Reynaldo Anderson, Ph.D.
Dr. Reynaldo Anderson currently serves as the Graduate Director and Associate Professor of Africology and African American Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Reynaldo is currently the Executive Director and co-founder of the Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM), an international network of artists, intellectuals, creatives, and activists. He has presented papers in areas of communications, Africana studies, Afrofuturism, and critical theory in the US and abroad.

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