Ytasha Womack is a filmmaker, futurist, and the author of Post Black: How a New Generation is Redefining African American Identity and 2212: Book of Rayla. She is the creator of the Rayla 2212 sci-fi multimedia series, the director of the award-winning film The Engagement, the producer and writer of Love Shorts, and the coeditor of Beats Rhymes and Life: What We Love and Hate About Hip Hop. She has written for many publications including Ebony and the Chicago Tribune. She lives in Chicago.
Today we’re interviewing her for her non-fiction book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, launching on October 3. This book sheds a very different light on the history of science fiction compared to the “standard” narrative, especially as it integrates music, fashion, art, and technology into its scope. And that’s before we get to all the pre-Samuel Delany black writers that haven’t always made it into the historical narrative.
Karen Burnham: Hello! Thanks so much for taking the time for this interview. Could you give us a short overview of your book Afrofuturism and what you hope readers will find in it?
Ytasha Womack: My book introduces readers to the general ideas, key players and approaches to the Afrofuturism aesthetic. For some, Afrofuturism is a form of critical theory around culture, for others it’s a great playground for artistic innovation and creation, and for many it’s a process for self evolution. For many, simply presenting people of African descent in the future challenges their ideas about reality. Unlike futurism, Afrofuturism zig zags from the future to the past, remixes culture and challenges notions of reality. It gives people a way to wrestle control of their images. It also bridges art, philosophy, science and history in a way that reads as both SF and mysticism.
In the book, I look at the use of the imagination or the power of a vision and the SF perspectives that are the focus of Afrofuturists. I hope that the book will give voice to ideas that many are thinking about, but don’t know the words for. I also hope that Afrofuturism will spark alternative ways of viewing life and the world.
KB: How did you come to be involved with the community that surrounds Afrofuturism?
YW: I was introduced to Afrofuturism when I was in college at Clark Atlanta University. Many of my friends were really excited about bridging science fiction, pop culture, metaphysics, history and the cultures of the African diaspora. We weren’t familiar with the term Afrofuturism at the time, but we had a lot of conversations and created some work around the ideas.
Alondra Nelson started a listserv for those interested in Afrofuturism. She was a grad student in New York at the time. Many of the people who helped spread the world about Afrofuturism were connected through the listserv.
But although Afrofuturism was officially named in the mid 90s, many people working with the aesthetic just discovered the term a few years ago. I still meet people who do work around ideas that fall within Afrofuturism, but have never heard the term. When they learn about it, they are pretty excited about it.
YW: I interviewed those working in Afrofuturism – artists, theorists, professors, art managers, activists, writers, filmmakers, scientists… to get a perspective on the approach and experience today. I listened to music by Sun Ra, Drexiya, Flying Lotus, Herbie Hancock, Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix. I read some of the early theorists, lots of interviews with Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany. As I began my research, I had an idea for a Afrofuturist novel called 2212: Book of Rayla. The story follows a woman who lives on an Earth colony 200 years into the future. She has to go to other lifetimes and does some time travel to discover herself. I wrote the book, launched it as an ebook with a digital media campaign, and then went back to finishing the book on Afrofuturism. I think I had to have my own Afrofuturism experience as an artist/writer to ultimately gain a perspective to write the book.
The most surprising thing was to find that many Afrofuturists have a background that merges science, art, philosophy and black history. In some cases, they wanted to be scientists as kids and their curiosity lead them to became artists, or they are scientists who write sci fi stories for fun. They usually had strong cultural experiences with a general sense of responsibility. In general, they experience science and art as flip sides of the same coin. The relationship is very natural. The other surprise was the intense interest in time travel as a cultural metaphor and in some cases a reality. It’s very common to view the distant future and the ancient past as, again, two sides of the same coin. So regardless of the medium they work in, whether they call themselves Afrofuturists or not, they pull imagery from ancient Africa and other cultures and merge it with far off tech and societal projections infused with very human issues that we deal with today.
KB: I know! I was excited to learn that Erykah Badu had a STEM background! So with Afrofuturism launching this week, what’s next on the horizon for you?
YW: I’ll be touring with the book for a bit. I’m speaking at the Twin Cities Book Festival in Minneapolis on Oct. 11. I’m presenting on Afrofuturism at the Race in Space Conference at Duke University Oct. 26. That event will be especially cool because I’m showcasing new Afrofuturist art work created by Cory & Craig Stevenson from the Rayla 2212 project. And on November 9, I’ll be in Philadelphia for King Britt’s Bring the Noise, an Afrofuturist fest. Other than that, I’m finishing some writing and will be in production at the end of the year.