Afro-diasporic Futures before Afrofuturism (Panel)


American/Diaspora / Comparative Literature

Kate Perillo (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Scholars have largely conceived of Afrofuturism as a contemporary phenomenon. Mark Dery coined the term in 1994 to describe “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture,” and while recent articulations of “Afrofuturism 2.0” extend these considerations beyond the US, they still tend to focus on twenty-first century artists. Yet as Reynaldo Anderson acknowledges, such artists are also “indebted to previous movements.” This session asks how the futures that black writers contemplated in earlier periods, across Afro-diasporic contexts, and in a range of genres can add new dimensions to our conversations about “Afrofuturism.”

This panel will consider the political and aesthetic investments of future speculations in Afro-diasporic writing from the nineteenth through early twentieth centuries—before the Civil Rights movement, before decolonization, perhaps before emancipation. In this way, the session adopts a broad interpretation of Kudwo Eshun’s assertion that “Afrofuturism studies the appeals that black artists, musicians, critics, and writers have made to the future, in moments where any future was made difficult for them to imagine.” Whereas fiction by US-American writers such as Martin Delany, Pauline Hopkins, and W.E.B. Du Bois has been included in histories of black speculative thought, I invite submissions on writing from both the US and beyond, including the Caribbean and Britain. I also invite papers on texts that might not be self-evidently “futuristic,” but which nonetheless experiment with historical and narrative time, thereby raising concerns about what the future can, should, or should not entail for Afro-diasporic peoples. Together, we will seek a more nuanced view of the imagined and/or foreclosed futures with which black writers have contended at various historical junctures, in both fictional and nonfictional modes. Since contemporary Afrofuturism often calls upon and reimagines Afro-diasporic histories even as it looks forward, this enacts a complementary gesture, asking how visions of the future in earlier literatures might have continued resonance today, and how their recovery might inform our responses to the political exigencies of the present.

This panel seeks to augment the contemporary focus of much Afrofuturist scholarship by exploring the political and aesthetic investments of future speculations among black writers from earlier periods, across Afro-diasporic contexts, and across genres (fiction, poetry, journalism, history writing, and other forms of print culture). How might futures that black writers imagined from the nineteenth through early twentieth centuries—before emancipation, decolonization, and/or the Civil Rights movement—add new dimensions to conversations about Afrofuturism? About the politics of futurity for black writers at various historical junctures? What resonance might their visions have in a present world where racist systems have both transformed and persisted?