Comic-Con@Home: Afro-Futurism Examines The Past to Tell The Future

by Malissa White

John Jennings, Afro-Futurism.

Afro-Futurism defies categorization. With feet firmly planted in the present, it looks forward by looking back. It feels like a misnomer for that reason. Yet, it is through examining the past that we come to shape our future.
Moderated by Aaron Grizzell, Executive Director of Northern California’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Foundation, the ‘Afro-Futurism & Black Religion’ panel begins in the middle of an ongoing discussion. Tuning in, we are invited to their table. There’s a camaraderie shared by the panelists, who are roused and amused by their off camera discussion. After a brief introduction, Grizzell leads us head first into the discussion with the Mother of Afro-Futurism, Octavia Butler.
Panelist John Jennings, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies for University of California, Riverside is the perfect person to begin this discussion. Jennings is the two-time Eisner winner for his work on The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art and for his graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Draped by the scenic Afro-Futurist city of Wakanda, Jennings posits that Butler uses the mutability of change as the basis of the Afro-centric religion developed in Parable of the Sower, which becomes mother or shaper of Earth. 
Fellow panelist Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks, Leslie Endowed Chair of Literary Studies from Michigan State University, expands on this. To Brooks, black women are central to the future and past. Because time is conflated, it can be shaped. Afro-futurism taps into this knowledge through black women, using us to assess what may remain of the past. In one of my favorite points, Brooks points out that transphobia is an example of what must be left behind, but that if we examine further and widen our scope into the past we see cultures and systems where gender and sexual fluidity were embraced. Afro-futurism isn’t new, but rather a recognition of and return to that knowledge.
Panelist Dr. Sakena Young-Scaggs, Honors Faculty Fellow in Barrett Honors College from Arizona State University, approaches Afro-Futurism from a womanist philosophical perspective. Women are life-giving and life-affirming. In Afro-Futurism, as in Vodun practices, we examine the bones of what was that we may see what can be. Like the Sankofa bird, we bring it forward.
For all three panelists, the intersection of religion permeates the genre. Afro-religious culture transcends time and space, its influence spread across countries and religious traditions. Demonized by direct competition with Christianity, Afro-centric religious practices center inner space: there exist healers that can possess, that can extend beyond their physical bodies into the spiritual realm. Conjurers were originally women and queer men, but pushed out through “professionalizing,” a form of gender oppression through educational exclusion. Afro-Futurism offers us an opportunity to reclaim that knowledge and bring it forward.
By panel’s abrupt end, we understand that Afro-Futurism is a lush inner world of creation, building and exploration. Outer space is everything outside of that. Supporting Afro-Futurist work then is supporting the black economy, financially, spiritually, and ancestrally.

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