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Displays of resilience have long been part of African history within the diaspora. A constant need to defend Black bodies from enslavement, Jim Crow, sexual violence, and police brutality have allowed Black people to create spaces that accommodate them and fight for their inclusion within history. The ways in which activism engaged with these concepts are prominent within the arts and more specifically music and literature. These two mediums have been used as radical declarations of pro Blackness and were able to challenge competing rhetoric.
The initiation of Black Feminist Thought into mainstream feminist discourse is important because historically feminism has only been for white upper and middle class women. Their positionality allows them to look at the lens of oppression through sexism. But, by having a school of thought that focuses on Black women, we get vocabulary and forums in and outside of academia that examines the intersectionality of Black womanhood so that we can challenge hegemony and oppression. Afrofuturism’s increasing popularity, has allowed the theory to transcend into prevailing Black thought and has contributed to a cultural revolution in literature, film, and fine art.
The intersection of Black Feminist Theory and Afrofuturism allow for a new theory to emerge, one that focuses specifically on placing Black women in the future and centering their experiences away from current hegemonic thought. In this paper I will explore Afrofuturism in conjunction with Black Feminist theory, as a way to engage with Black womanhood. I will provide a content analysis of Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer and Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed.
Black female bodies are often left out of discussions with Afrofuturism as well as Cyberfeminism, which is similar to the historic exclusion of Black womens roles within activism and academia within the Civil Rights Movement and the first and second wave feminist movement. The context in which Afrofuturism is used is often to describe the determination of Black men and the most visible and often referenced faces include Sun Ra and Parliament Funkadelic. And while it is important for this space to be used by them, Black personhood cannot be limited to the experiences of men because oppressions touches everyone in a multitude of ways. As Elizabeth Hamilton points out “ By placing the Black man in space, out of the reach of racial stereotypes, Afrofuturism allows for a critique of both Western culture and technoculture (19).”
This definition describes Afrofuturism as a way to imagine a world/future where Black bodies are present and integrated with technology especially in relation to the image of the “Black man in Space” or Afronaut. The centering of Black men and exclusion of Black women throughout history within the diaspora serves as a catalyst in searching for ways to incorporate them into the Afrofuturistic narrative, because they also experience trauma under the same forces of oppression, while also navigating sexism. Bell Hooks’ states that “It is essential for continued feminist struggle that black women recognize the special vantage point our marginality gives us and make use of this perspective to criticize the dominant racist, classist, sexist hegemony as well to envision and create a counter hegemony (15).” The emergence of Black feminist though allowed for conversations about blackness and the state of Black people to include gender, class, and sexuality. Patricia Hill Collins Black Feminist Thought describes some of the themes of Black feminism and one theme that stood out was, the power self definition and self evaluation as ways to resist “negative controlling images of Black womanhood advanced by whites (97).” This theory’s goal in creating counter hegemony sounds similar to the goal of Afrofuturism in that both are still attempting to provide a space for black voices. Black Feminist Theory goes a step further because it includes a more holistic approach that allows for more inclusivity within the framework.
Octavia Butler walked so everyone could run is probably the best way to describe Butler’s contribution to the discipline of Black Feminist Theory and Afrofuturistic thought and she is the visionary behind a plethora of books and more specifically the Wild Seed (1980). “The Patternmaster Series takes the reader on a journey of genesis filled with shapeshifters and non-material entities who manipulate their material and spiritual worlds in order to create a new race of people or an “other” (72).” The use of the “other” is common in science fiction because of its use in extraterrestrial beings but for Black science fiction, this concept works two-fold because the “other” is anything outside of the norm; which would include Black bodies who are often not included within this discourse and are seen as “alien”. Like most literature within Science Fiction, she offers the reader a critique of society through the use of purposeful storytelling. And although it can be argued that she doesn’t really incorporate technology into her writing the fact of the matter is her writing is Afrofuturistic in content because she rewrites history in a way that places Black bodies and more importantly Black women in a new context that doesn’t necessarily escape oppression but instead finds a way to challenge it. Wild Seed takes place over the course of approximately 300 years starting in Africa and ending in America.
This text grapples with themes of patriarchy, power struggles, and control and contains a strong female protagonist by the name of Anyanwu whose in conflict with the antagonist Doro. Anyanwu is an intelligent 300 year old being who possesses unique powers. She is a shapeshifter who has the ability to take on different forms and along with her biological capabilities she is also holds the gift of healing. Her relationship to the antagonist is one in which he uses his power to control Anyanwu, her husband and the people within the seed villages. However her wit ultimately allows her to bargain with him so they can work together. Butler as a writer is able to use the “Power of Self-Definition” as a way convey define a version of Black womanhood not seen within the context of science fiction because of the typical exclusion of Black and Brown people. Furthermore, it can be argued that Butler laid the foundation in which Afrofuturism and Black Feminism interact and engage with each other. This blueprint continues to act as the catalyst in which artist such as Janelle Monae, perform and produce their art.
Janelle Monae is a dynamic artist who basis her music and image within the context of Afrofuturism. In the past Janelle Monae has been, very keen on using her android persona Jane 57821 as the main storyteller. The use of the android is Monae’s metaphor for the minority/other, she uses this persona to critique society and her placement in it. In Dirty Computer (2018), Jane 57821 (Monae) is a cyborg/android who is taken for a “cleaning” but rebels against her superior’s wishes, which causes them to activate the Nevermind, which allows them as well as the audience full access to Jane’s memories. The memories represent each of the songs on the album. The Emotion picture, may symbolize Monae’s release of her android persona “Jane” persona and usher in an era that humanizes her. Dirty Computer ultimately creates a utopia in which Black womanhood is allowed to escape the confines of familiar tropes placed on Black women. One song in particular that embodied Black feminism was “Django Jane.” In talking about “Django Jane”, Monae states in The Guardian that
“Django Jane is a response to me feeling the sting of the threats being made to my rights as a woman, as a black woman, as a sexually liberated woman, even just as a daughter with parents who have been oppressed for many decades. Black women and those who have been the ‘other’, and the marginalized in society – that’s who I wanted to support, and that was more important than my discomfort about speaking out.”
Her verses communicate both empowerment and frustration in what is easily her most political song. The imagery within the video is dark but richly colored and throughout it she is around a group of Black women. She goes back to her roots by wearing suits but they are tailored to fit her in a more feminine way. Monae is exceedingly sure of herself and her identity and within Black Feminist Theory tradition she is holding the power to use reality as a driver for her art, which allows for her to hold the power within how she and other Black women tell their stories. As an African American she was able to reference some history with her verse “ And I Django, never Sambo (Monae 2018) ” This verse is one that stands out because she juxtaposes two different images one being the slavemaster killing vigilante and the other being the loyal and content servant. This image touches on the need for radical activism in comparison to just staying under the radar. This verse along with entire song is telling the listener or the viewer a story that engages with ideas of wanting liberation and in some ways obtaining it. Monae places Black women in the forefront of her narrative but it can be argued that Dirty Computer in its whole engages with womanhood and personhood across the intended audience.
Furthermore, since Black women cannot rely on others to include them within new theories or narratives, we must be in charge of telling our own stories and placing ourselves in a world that we want. By making space for our thoughts and experiences within Afrofuturism and Black Feminist Theory we create and control definitions of self. Wild Seed and Dirty Computer both prove that Black womanhood is indeed dynamic. Both works examine and engage oppression and patriarchy and allow for the exploration for ways in which we can interact with both. However, since Cyberfeminism was briefly mentioned within the paper, it would be interesting to do an intersectional analysis of Cyberfeminism using both works as a way to gage the inclusion of all women.
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