Gender, Disability, & Unapologetic Blackness:
Afrofuturism's Brave New World, The Last Angel of History, and Ambiguities of Identity in The Matrix
“The line between social reality and science fiction is an optical illusion.”
The Last Angel of History1
Afrofuturism is a theory and practice grounded in Black cultures and histories, but looking to the future and the role of Black people in shaping and existing within it. Through Afrofuturism, Black people find hope. The term was coined by a white culture critic, Mark Dery, in 19942 to describe Afro-diasporic culture creation in music, art, film, and writing. Afrofuturism describes both the artistic methodology of Black creators to engage in science fiction on their own terms, and a mind-space by which new realities are imagined. In the 1996 film The Last Angel of History, Goldie, a musician and producer, says: “We are in the future now.”3 This describes the place of sci-fi and technology that Afrofuturism explores.
It is a sense of creation and longing to belong that led to Afrofuturism being named and articulated. Dery coined the term in conversation with authors Samuel Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose. He asked, “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?”4 The Black authors he interviewed in “Black to the Future” answered, “Yes!” Feeling alienated as marginalized people, and further alienated within the mainstream sci-fi community, Black artists and writers have sought out ways to connect ancestral traditions, historical truths, present realities, and their dreams for the future. Like any other sci-fi experience, Afrofuturism is a creative take on time, space, technology, and envisioning the possibilities for a new reality in the now.
In “AfroFuturism: A Beautiful History, A Brave New World” Rasheedah Phillips, author and editor of several books about AfroFuturism and Black Quantum Futurism, discusses how she first came to an Afrofuturist perspective.5 Phillips describes Afrofuturism, as a movement that crosses all artistic forms and incorporates science fiction, magic, historical fiction, fantasy, horror, mythology, folk tales and more.
Coming from a science fiction fan background, Phillips writes that she eventually realized she was not reflected in the sci-fi she was reading and watching. In African American studies at Temple University she was introduced to various Black arts, philosophy, women’s studies, and more - all from a Black perspective that encouraged her to seek out Black culture and eschew mainstream sci-fi. In grad school she then realized there was a way to wed Black culture and sci-fi, and that other artists, writers, and thinkers had long been doing so. This realization eventually led her to create The AfroFuturist Affair, an annual costume ball that celebrates a wide variety of Afrofuturist art forms in Philadelphia. She describes the Afrofuturist agenda as:
“Bending the rules of present reality through memory and vision is the mechanism by which participants of Afrofuturistic culture tell the stories of people of color. In the form of art, critical analysis, music, fashion, and literature, Afrofuturists correct the records of our histories, interrogate the present structures and institutions of modern-day society, all while building a world where people of color have agency and a presence.”6
A combination of documentary and fictionalized telling of the story of a “data thief,” The Last Angel of History tells the story of Afrofuturist music, particularly techno music. The fictional storyline is told in something that sounds almost like spoken word, woven in between the documentary interviews. The data thief is “surfing across the internet of Black culture, breaking into the vaults… stealing fragments, fragments from cyberculture, techno culture, narrative culture.”7
Interview subjects include Derrick May, George Clinton, Kodwo Eshun, Ishmael Reed, John Corbett, Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr., Nichelle Nichols , Juan Atkins, DJ Spooky, Carl Craig, Goldie, Greg Tate, Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, and A Guy Called Gerald (Gerald Simpson).
George Clinton says in taking his music to the next level he “had to find another place he hadn’t perceived Black people to be… and that was a spaceship.”8 Eshun says Clinton’s music was “the link between Africa as a lost continent in the past and Africa as an alien future.”9 The documentary also discusses the music and imagery of Sun Ra (d. 1993) and Lee “Scratch” Perry, and how contemporary musicians and producers used technology and developed new forms of breakbeat, hip hop, and techno.
The story of the data thief swiftly throws imagery at the viewer. Historical, archival, and contemporary images of Black life, culture, and history play across the screen as we are told, “The data thief knows that the first touch with science fiction came when Africans began playing the drums to cover the distance.”10 We are then told of a file the data thief finds that features a woman saying, “It’s after the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet?”11 Later in the film we hear an elder Black woman’s voice repeating this line several times. It is this line that connects the story of the data thief with the documentary subjects.
The film connects “music, space, and the future,”12 and brings in some element of literature’s part via novelists Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, while tracing technology’s impact on music as imagining the future. Participant Kodwo Eshun says slave poets like Phyllis Wheatley applied cybernetics in the 18th century, and Black music has built upon that ever since, with the ultimate goal being “to get out of here, to get out of this time here, this space now.”13
In “False and Double Consciousness: Race, Virtual Reality and the Assimilation of Hong Kong Action Cinema in The Matrix,” Peter X Feng talks about race, spectator relationship to film, and how bodies are coded in sci-fi via the film The Matrix (also referenced in Phillips’ essay).14 Neither Feng’s essay nor the film discuss or address Afrofuturism specifically, since it was not considered a “Black film.” The film was, however, one of the early examples that featured Black people in imagined futures, while also, according to Feng, assimilating Asian culture into the telling. Feng focuses much of his essay on Keanu Reeves’ racial ambiguity and what constitutes “passing as white,” claiming Reeves does not pass, and looking at length at how it is the viewer’s perception that often defines passing.
In the same sense, Feng considers how the film viewer’s perception defines the space of the film versus reality, and the complexity of a narrative that seeks to break down the spaces in between. Within The Matrix there are multiple “worlds” - the Matrix, a false world created by the ruling machines to convince humans of their “normal” existence; a “true world” in which humans have become drones for the machines; and worlds in between those two in which the Resistance is able to train without bodily consequences. At the same time, Feng posits the film is designed to draw the viewer/spectator in, breaking through the screen barrier, to remove themselves from their own “real world” and enter the worlds of the film by identifying with Reeves via the ability to map their own identities onto his ambiguity and see things through his eyes. Even the technology of the film and the cinematography almost forces viewers to do this.
Feng additionally notes the irony that a film about the power of machines and the triumph of the human spirit would, in fact, utilize the newest technology in film to tell its story in an engaging way.
Afrofuturism is a form of pan-Africanism and diasporic connection to Motherland that integrates symbolism, iconography, spirituality, and the arts of multiple African cultures and diasporic Black cultures - forming them all into a future culture. One of the unique racial aspects of Afrofuturism is how shadeism is not a primary focal point of conflict. Afrofuturism welcomes the contributions of all Black people around the world without the arguments about who “qualifies” as “Black enough” to participate which frequently are central to other cultural movements. This is why someone light enough to pass for white, like author Samuel Delany, is still considered an authority on Black science fiction and no one questions his right to speak and write as such. Much the same as Keanu Reeves’ racial ambiguity affords viewers of The Matrix the ability to see themselves mapped over his character, racial ambiguity is accepted in Afrofuturism allowing all Black people to feel they are a part of the movement.
Afrofuturism comes about as a reaction to colonialism and racism, and the failure to provide sci-fi stories and film in which Black people did see themselves in the characters presented, so race cannot be ignored. Afrofuturism is also a celebration of cultural history, resiliency, and creation of the future in a Black-centered context. As Ytasha Womack says, “I also wanted to demonstrate that Afrofuturism isn’t new, that it has roots in ancient African culture and was common amongst 19th century black American activists.”15 This is something the three texts seem to agree on as well.
Gender is notably absent in these three texts. The film includes two women in a sea of thirteen men, and between the two they have a total of just shy of two minutes on-screen out of the 45 minutes total. Nichelle Nichols talks about her role in bringing diversity to NASA, and Octavia Butler speaks about how in her fiction the aliens come to earth and tell humans their hierarchical structure is their downfall. Either of those issues might have been worth a bit more exploration, but both of those women could also have spoken to some of the other issues presented in the film. Even in 1996 when the film was made, there must have been other Black women who could have been interviewed. On the music side alone, Grace Jones and Erykah Badu would have been excellent inclusions. Certainly today, on the cusp of 2017, women are central to articulating Afrofuturism, including Moor Mother (musician), Rasheedah Phillips (writer), Ytasha Womack (writer, dancer, filmmaker), Janelle Monáe (musician, actress), Nnedi Okorafor (writer), Azizaa (musician), Fabiola Jean-Louis (photographer, artist, designer), Wangechi Mutu (artist), and many more. Whether they explicitly identify as Afrofuturist or not, many Black women today and historically (even prior to the term’s coinage) have exemplified the concept in their work.
The Matrix too was male-centric, and Feng’s essay doesn’t touch on gender in the film beyond the briefest mention of the Oracle. Trinity was central to the film and had her strengths but also could have easily been interchanged with yet another male character except for the possibility of a necessary heterosexual romantic alliance. The Oracle too was important to the plot line, but her role is more of the “mystical negro/earth mama” and clearly second fiddle to Morpheus. Neither of those roles are explored in Feng’s essay, even when he could have pointed to the light-skinned semi-ambiguity of the Oracle to also boost his points about Reeves’ racial ambiguity while discussing how racial ambiguity is constructed differently for women and the limits of her role.
Phillips doesn’t tackle gender issues specifically in her essay either, though she has certainly written about them elsewhere. Phillips is widely recognized as explicitly supportive of Black women/femmes making their own space within the arts and growing culture encompassed by Afrofuturism and her self-coined concept/movement of Black Quantum Futurism. Her partnership with Moor Mother for Black Quantum Futurism projects is an example of efforts to strengthen and engage the work of Black women in theory and practice.16
Many Black women acknowledge, as Phillips does in her essay, that they felt pushed out of science fiction, not seeing themselves reflected in those worlds, until they discovered writers like Octavia Butler and Tananarive Due.17 There is more needed than just finding stories that include Black people, but also finding stories and spaces that explicitly include them as Black women. The risk otherwise is the creation of yet another version of an “Old Boy’s Club,” merely with Black men as the face. Black women have been pushing themselves into those spaces all along, so it is disappointing to see them still marginalized in a film (Last Angel) that is so powerful in delineating the history and development of Afrofuturism in music.
Central to Afrofuturism has been the queering of identities as well, most evident in such early musical forays as Sylvester Jones and Grace Jones, and continued today with artists like Janelle Monáe and THEESatisfaction. Performance is such an obvious and easy way to challenge gender identities, and that is what these artists did - some intentionally, and some perhaps less so. Beyond music there are more explicitly queer people like writer/poet Travis Alabanza and poet Lucas de Lima who found their voices, at least in part, through Afrofuturism. Author Samuel Delany features heavily in The Last Angel of History without any acknowledgement that he has been open about being gay since his teens.18
The film also showcases artists who are understood as cis-gender and heterosexual but found in Afrofuturism an opportunity to play dress up in a way that speaks to queerness whether they intended it as such or not. Take for example George Clinton’s cover art for The Mothership Connection, referenced in the film. Everything about that cover, from costume to body language, explicates a queering of gender, and even perhaps a negation of gender. In that cover art Clinton is the alien, and does the alien even have gender in the sense of human assumptions? Sun Ra also played up the symbols of alienation and spoke of coming from a different planet, while dressing flamboyantly in capes and gold. The film never names their sartorial choices as queer, and it is, perhaps, for this very reason that early, and academic, versions of Afrofuturism have been critiqued for imagining Black futures without expanding their imaginations to include queerness.19
Many a young queer person has considered the possibility of being an “alien” from another planet or galaxy in their attempt to accept and explain their gender, even more if they did not fit neatly into the gender binary.
“I wanted to get away from the suffocating oppression I faced as a young, genderqueer black kid—and imagining new worlds or technological creations was an entertaining and necessary escape from the world around me. It became far more powerful when I realized that these imagined realities could affect how I maneuvered through my then-current lived realities.” Travis Alabanza20
The embracing of queer identities has become a norm of Afrofuturism precisely because Afrofuturism must embrace all Black people, and Black people with additional marginalizations are also envisioning futures that include themselves and others like them.
Disability is not directly addressed in any of these three texts either, but Feng’s essay on The Matrix discusses the limits of the human body and superhuman abilities that are developed in the worlds between the “reality” and the matrix. Neo (Reeve’s character) is able to execute martial arts moves he never knew before with both style and precision. Gone is his out of shape human body, replaced by a “fighting machine” to fight the machines that have enslaved humanity.
The superhuman trope also comes into evidence in Afrofuturism with the “Black Girls Are Magic” theme that became popular across social media in 2016. Coined by CaShawn Thompson21 as a phrase she used to personally celebrate the women in her family, it spread like wildfire when she used it as a hashtag on Twitter. Whether Thompson realized it or not, she was tapping into a very Afrofuturist theme that echoed the fictional writings of Nnedi Okorafor and Nalo Hopkinson, who write frequently of girls who possess special powers, and would resonate with Black girls and women across the globe. There is a downside to Black girl magic and superhuman tropes, and that is how those in power conveniently forget about the very human cost of their deeds. In particular for Black women, this can tie into the Strong Black Woman archetype that sees the Black woman as the mule of the world. The embracement of Black girl magic has been so phenomenal that it was cited by actor and activist Jesse Williams during a BET Awards ceremony, when he reminded the world that “just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”22 Realness includes vulnerabilities.
The fraught relationship between machine and humanity is nowhere more evident than in discussions of disability. Able-bodied people easily imagine futures in which human physical and mental abilities are improved by the intervention of technology, and human/robot hybrids are romanticized. Frequently, those same imagineers cannot, however, contemplate what it would mean for disabled people to continue to exist in the future - or what needs might exist in assistive devices for disabled people. The X-Men franchise was an exception to this, including Professor X in a wheelchair, but to ensure that viewers would understand how he was still a “valuable and productive member of society” they had to give him extrasensory perception. Fascination with cyborgs tends to stay on the side of cures for disability and making humans “better” by virtue of technology. The possibility that some in the future will still be disabled in some fashion, that even in the future the abled are still only temporarily so, and that mental illness and other chronic conditions might still exist is typically left unspoken and unaddressed. Science fiction can pursue cures for cancers, and faulty legs can be replaced with machinery, but schizophrenia and PTSD just silently disappear from our cyborg selves in the future.
Because Afrofuturism is intimately linked with remembering the past, disability has to come to the forefront of discussions somehow. The effects of generational trauma, environmental irresponsibility, and police brutality, just to name a few issues, are most evident in the lives of Black people and will not magically go away. If we are in the future now, then the future is not a utopia where humans are no longer affected by the past, even if we can conceive of a further future in which we have eradicated inequity.
Sci-fi is all about ambiguities. Nuances exist in good vs. evil narratives, race is sometimes explicit and other times arguable, heterosexual romantic and sexual interests are often assumed even when in the most outlandish characters, and technology as virtue or vice is explored with no easy conclusions. In a growing consciousness of our multicultural reality, Feng argues Keanu Reeves was chosen specifically for his racial ambiguity that affords any viewer of The Matrix to relate to him.23 Phillips argued against the ambiguities of inclusion, giving up on mainstream sci-fi until she found work that reflected her, and then creating her own work to speak to and for Black women. Music, as shown in The Last Angel of History, is one creative form that connects technology with all of the senses and allows for a dynamic opening of the mind to possibilities.
Afrofuturism embraces ambiguity, not policing who is in or out of the fold on certain points, while being pushed to more fully include all gender expressions, sexualities, and disabilities. In the film, Samuel Delany says, “Science fiction does not predict the future, but points out the possibilities in the present.”24 Feelings of alienation are, themselves, often ambiguous and difficult to name precisely, but they lead the imagination to create new worlds where everyone has a place. That is ultimately what sci-fi has always purported to be about, but Afrofuturism brings to bear centuries of Black culture to connect past to present, and build that future today.
1 The Last Angel of History. Directed by John Akomfrah. Performed by Derrick May, George Clinton, Kodwo Eshun, Ishmael Reed, John Corbett, Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr., Nichelle Nichols , Juan Atkins, DJ Spooky, Carl Craig, Goldie, Greg Tate, Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, and A Guy Called Gerald (Gerald Simpson). USA: Black Audio Film Collective/Icarus Films, 1996. Video File.
2 Mark Dery. "Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose." In Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, 179-222. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.
3 The Last Angel of History, Directed by John Akomfrah. 1996.
4 Mark Dery. "Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose." In Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, 179-222. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.
5 Rasheedah Phillips. "AfroFuturism: A Beautiful History, A Brave New World." Nicole D Sconiers. December 01, 2011. Accessed November 29, 2016. http://nicolesconiers.com/blog/2011/12/01/afro-futurism-brave-new-world/.
7 The Last Angel of History, Directed by John Akomfrah. 1996.
14 Peter X Feng. "False and Double Consciousness: Race, Virtual Reality and the Assimilation of Hong Kong Action Cinema in The Matrix." Edited by Ziauddin Sardar and Sean Cubitt. In Aliens R Us: The Other in Science Fiction Cinema, 149-63. London: Pluto Press, 2002.
15 Alison Pezanoski-Browne. "Interview with Ytasha Womack on Afrofuturism and the World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy." Bitch Media. November 18, 2013. Accessed December 05, 2016. https://bitchmedia.org/post/interview-with-ytasha-womack-on-afrofuturism-and-the-world-of-black-sci-fi-and-fantasy.
16 Michael McCanne, Lynn Crawford, and Samuel Draxler. "Time Travelers: Black Quantum Futurism in Philadelphia." Art in America. November 04, 2016. Accessed December 05, 2016. http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/time-travelers-black-quantum-futurism-in-philadelphia/.
17 Rasheedah Phillips. "AfroFuturism: A Beautiful History, A Brave New World." Nicole D Sconiers. December 01, 2011. Accessed November 29, 2016. http://nicolesconiers.com/blog/2011/12/01/afro-futurism-brave-new-world/.
18 Samuel R. Delany. "Coming/Out". In Shorter Views (Wesleyan University Press, 1999).
19 Travis Alabanza. “Dreaming Up Inventions for an Afrofuturist World.” How We Get to Next. February 02, 2016. Accessed December 07, 2016. https://howwegettonext.com/dreaming-up-inventions-for-an-afrofuturist-world-731bffc55267#.77k8nzef9.
23 Peter X Feng. "False and Double Consciousness: Race, Virtual Reality and the Assimilation of Hong Kong Action Cinema in The Matrix." Edited by Ziauddin Sardar and Sean Cubitt. In Aliens R Us: The Other in Science Fiction Cinema, 149-63. London: Pluto Press, 2002.
24 The Last Angel of History, Directed by John Akomfrah. 1996.
The Last Angel of History. Directed by John Akomfrah. Performed by Derrick May, George Clinton, Kodwo Eshun, Ishmael Reed, John Corbett, Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr., Nichelle Nichols , Juan Atkins, DJ Spooky, Carl Craig, Goldie, Greg Tate, Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, and A Guy Called Gerald (Gerald Simpson). USA: Black Audio Film Collective/Icarus Films, 1996. Video File.
Alabanza, Travis. “Dreaming Up Inventions for an Afrofuturist World.” How We Get to Next. February 02, 2016. Accessed December 07, 2016. https://howwegettonext.com/dreaming-up-inventions-for-an-afrofuturist-world-731bffc55267#.77k8nzef9.
Ali, Rasha. "What Is Black Girl Magic? A Short Explainer." TheWrap. June 30, 2016. Accessed December 01, 2016. http://www.thewrap.com/what-is-black-girl-magic/.
Delany, Samuel R. "Coming/Out". In Shorter Views (Wesleyan University Press, 1999).
Dery, Mark. "Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose." In Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, 179-222. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.
Feng, Peter X. "False and Double Consciousness: Race, Virtual Reality and the Assimilation of Hong Kong Action Cinema in The Matrix." Edited by Ziauddin Sardar and Sean Cubitt. In Aliens R Us: The Other in Science Fiction Cinema, 149-63. London: Pluto Press, 2002.
McCanne, Michael, Lynn Crawford, and Samuel Draxler. "Time Travelers: Black Quantum Futurism in Philadelphia." Art in America. November 04, 2016. Accessed December 05, 2016. http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/time-travelers-black-quantum-futurism-in-philadelphia/.
Pezanoski-Browne, Alison. "Interview with Ytasha Womack on Afrofuturism and the World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy." Bitch Media. November 18, 2013. Accessed December 05, 2016. https://bitchmedia.org/post/interview-with-ytasha-womack-on-afrofuturism-and-the-world-of-black-sci-fi-and-fantasy.
Phillips, Rasheedah. "AfroFuturism: A Beautiful History, A Brave New World." Nicole D Sconiers. December 01, 2011. Accessed November 29, 2016. http://nicolesconiers.com/blog/2011/12/01/afro-futurism-brave-new-world/.
Aaminah Shakur: "I am an artist, poet, art historian, and culture critic. My website is AaminahShakur.com."