There's an experience I have fairly often when I do speaking engagements in the U.S; my host introduces me as an African American author, I thank them for giving me the opportunity to address those gathered, then I say, “I'd just like to clarify, though; I'm not African American.” Then I get an array of expressions, from alarmed to disgusted, from people who think I'm trying to distance myself from my Blackness.
So I follow up with, "Because I'm not American." Then I typically see another set of expressions, from bemusement to bashfulness, as people recognize their unexamined assumption that “African American” is the safe and proper way to describe any Black person, even a non-American one born and largely raised in the Caribbean of Caribbean parents and who is a naturalized Canadian citizen; me, for instance.
I myself make a related mistake when I'm talking about Caribbean speech; I'll belatedly realize that I'm referring specifically to certain forms of Anglo-Caribbean speech as though what I say applies to all the various languages spoken in the Caribbean. It doesn't. I don't have enough of the linguistic background to do that. I'm most familiar with the speech of Trinidad, Jamaica, and to some extent, Guyana. I'm not speaking for Kréyol, or Papiamento, or, or...I'm not even certain that what I say holds for other Caribbean nations than Trinidad, Jamaica and Guyana whose languages have part of their origins in English. My nod towards inclusivity is in fact an erasure. When I catch myself doing that, I correct myself.
A few days ago, my friend and fellow author Nnedimma Okorafor caused some anger when she posted on Twitter that when people say “Afrofuturism,” they should name artists of (recent) continental African background first. A few people berated her for, as they saw it, replicating a internalized oppression of authenticity, of claiming that African artists from the continent are somehow more African than those from its far-flung diaspora. Nnedi, by the way, is a Nigerian American born in the U.S.; she's arguably as American as she is Nigerian. But that's neither here nor there; internalized systemic oppression can have its most emphatic expression in those who belong to the group being oppressed.
But I don't think that's what's going on. While I understand why some people reacted with anger to the brashness of her statement, I see it differently. For one thing, I rightly or wrongly view the inflammatory nature of the words she chose as being of a piece with a particular type of emphatic Black oratory meant to challenge, like pecong and rap. You come out strong to push your point home. Maybe she means it exactly as she says, and maybe she doesn't. For my purposes here, that isn't my point, and I'm disinclined to make this into the kind of tone argument that's so frequently used to discredit people who are fed up. I'm not mad at Nnedi, and I don't see her hewing to some kind of hierarchy of Blackness. This is the same Nnedimma Okorafor whose name was completely omitted from many news announcements that George R.R. Martin will be adapting her novel Who Fears Death for television, so eager were they to say that George is creating an afrofuturist series. Which he is, and that's wonderful, but dag, can we at least not disappear the actual African author who created the source material? Let me say that I'm not laying this at George's feet. I've only had a few encounters with him, but he doesn't strike me as the type to ride roughshod over another author in this manner.
Nnedi's not the only artist from the African diaspora to experience this. The thing is, when the term “Afrofuturism” comes up, it's clear that it comes largely out of African American realities, cultures, histories, language. And that's fine; in fact, it's glorious. Yet it has meant that in talk of Afrofuturism, the mention of continental African creators and thinkers, if and when it occurs, frequently feels to me as though it's muted, also-ran-ish. The same is true of artists and scholars from all over the diaspora who are working in modes which can be identified as afrofuturist. (If I didn't have papers to grade today, and a Hallowe'en costume to finish sewing, I could talk about how my Caribbeanness and Canadianness are often a footnote in discussions of my work, unless the people doing the discussing are from or are specialists in the study of those regions.)
But do notice that the first part of “Afrofuturism” is an abbreviated form which can be taken to mean “from and/or relating to Africa and its diaspora.” Suppose there were a thing called Antillean Futurism (yes, I'm mindful that “Antillean” technicially excludes the Bahamas and for all I know, Guyana and Brazil. Exclusion is everywhere). Suppose that discussions about said phenomenon tended to focus on Caribbean artists and thinkers from everywhere but the Caribbean. Wouldn't that seem odd? So doesn't it make sense that given the word "Afrofuturism," it might be logical to expect that the names that most commonly came to people's lips would be the likes of Tutuola, Okorafor, Ntwari, Beukes, Faust, Oyeyemi, Farmer, Jeyifus, Onwualu, Woode? Not because their Africanness is more authentic than that of Delany, Butler, Lord, or me (and by the way, a few of the folks I just named are white Africans; we could have a whole n'other discussion about race, Africanness, and my choice to include those names), but because of where the movement would have originated, culturally and historically.
Well, those aren't the first names that come to mind for most people, because Afrofuturism didn't originate in Africa and isn't centred around continental African culture and experience. I mean, the practice had been around in Africa for awhile. I'm talking about the phenomenon of giving it the name "Afrofuturism". And I'm not mad, either, at it being at root a discussion which at this point speaks largely to and about African American experience. It's centred where it's centred, and it creates a productive, excellent framework for analysis.
If you don't already know, the term "Afrofuturism" was coined by a white -- as far as I know -- scholar, Mark Dery. If I remember correctly, he did mention continental African artists when he brought the concept to the world. Some people have the background to do that, some don't. Just like I'm not going to become an expert in Caribbean languages. But I do try to be clear about which types of Caribbean languages I'm talking about when I do.
I accept the term “Afrofuturism” when people use it as a filter to talk about my work. It's a good filter. It's just not the only one, and sometimes it's not even the primary one. It is an accurate enough term as far as it goes, in that "African" can include the whole diaspora. It's nevertheless not an all-encompassing term, as most broad stroke terms are not and cannot be. I sympathize with creators of more recently continental origins than mine when they chafe at people automatically reaching for the term to describe them, and apparently assuming it's a one-size-fits-all umbrella.
I am intrigued to see how/whether one effect of the upcoming Black Panther film will be to implant a certain representation of continental African futurism more firmly into popular notions of Afrofuturism. So far, the trailers are doing a brilliant – in my estimation – job of calling to and hybridizing continental African and African American visions of the future.
Now, maybe some day I'll do a post about how Afrofuturism isn't a genre.