Novelist Ishmael Reed once described his writing technique as “making something whole from scraps,” or more to the point, “the gumbo style,” meaning that his work was steeped in the European literary tradition, and also shaped by popular culture as produced by the commingling of influences in the new world.
These makeshift definitions might be applied to all the art forms conceived in the Western Hemisphere after the forced migration from Africa. The cultural traditions slaves practiced in the homeland were prohibited or censored by their new masters, but the new arrivals managed to maintain their ancestral roots, even if they were intertwined with the conventions of those who subjugated them.
The results of this cultural melting pot were stoked by the dual urges to maintain identity and make sense of their existence in this new and hostile environ. The latest manifestation of this quest for identity and purpose continues its evolution this week on Thursday and Friday at a conference on the campus of Loyola Marymount University in Westchester. The consortium for this new and emerging movement called Afrofuturism, is in its second incarnation and is titled “Astro Blackness 2: The Surreal, The Speculative, and The Spooky.”
The title of the event itself is a play on words, as conference founder and organizer Adilifu Nama points out, for the Black person of African ancestry, “life in America is surreal.”
Nama is a professor of African Studies at Loyola with a special interest in Afro-centric pop culture. He initiated this colloquium (an academic seminar) when he realized there were few events dealing with the subject, and those that existed were are concentrated on the East Coast.
This year’s conference takes direct aim at the shadowy history of the African Diaspora, as it explores the supernatural spaces of descendants of the Dark Continent, especially the result of the extreme traumas suffered in the Transatlantic slave trade and afterwards. Co-organizer Professor John Jennings points to the work of sociologistist Orlando Patterson, author of “Slavery and Social Death” (1985, Harvard Press), in which slaves and their descendants are categorized as the most marginalized of society, a condition that effectively not fully human, according to those who comprised civilization during that era.
Jennings is an artist (his work is utilized for the banners and posters publicizing the event), curator and scholar at the University of Buffalo, who notes that the term “spook” (figured prominently in the event’s title) is a loaded term. As a double-entendre, first as a verb (to “spook” someone); it’s sed and as the well known racial pejorative (or slur) for a Black person.
He believes that the first Afro Futurism colloquium was a success because of its cross-generational appeal; it drew attendees from the Civil Rights era onward, banding together to undertake an analysis of culture from a variety of lenses (cinema, literature, music, and so on). Jennings has taken pains to ensure that its content is accessible to a vast majority of the public, as well as those just for those looking at it from an academic or theoretical perspective.
“It’s our duty as scholars to reach out to the community,” he says.
Perhaps no other group has been marginalized as those taken in bondage from the African Diaspora. Jennings believes that formal study can act as a cathartic or healing influence. As credence for his argument, he cites a little known school of thought called “Afro-Pessimism,” based on, among other conceits, the notion that slavery never ended (in the mind of the supposedly liberated). Sociologist Patterson, author of “Slavery and Social Death” (1985, Harvard Press), is among its foremost proponents. The school of thought builds upon the idea that because they were not fully accepted as human, slaves were relegated to a form of social exclusion, which continues today.
With this in mind, the spheres of science fiction and fantasy offer an attractive avenue for the person of color to envision an alternative, more tangible environ of possibilities free of the shackles of the repressive present. Consequently, through the fertility of imagination, R & B legend George Clinton and his musical mischief-makers, Parliament Funkadelic, could conceive of a Black president in 1975’s “Chocolate City,” decades before the actual event.
All artistic practitioners, regardless of their mode of expression, eventually embrace a standard of “aesthetics”—an individual, quantitative determination of beauty and taste. Due to the circumstances of their existence, the artist of the diaspora is often compelled to seek a train of thought which liberates them from “the confines of a box,” which may symbolize the constraints put on them by society.
Bouncing back to popular culture, ethno-futurism was sent into warp drive in the new millennium, added and abetted by the advent of the Internet, which offers the rapid exchange of communication and ideas, enabling the user to hurdle the traditional barriers of economic and racial segregation.
UCLA History Professor Scot D. Brown will be on the dais Friday as part of a panel on what is arguably the most prominent artistic expression of Afrofuturism—popular music. Prime examples include Clinton and the previously mentioned “P-Funk,” the late jazz pianist Sun Ra, and psychedelic soul R&B artist Janelle Monáe. For Brown, Afrofuturism is a bridge where all the arts and elements of Black culture can form an avenue from the past to the future while allowing us to interpret the present.
“Astro Blackness 2: The Surreal, The Speculative, and The Spooky,” takes place on Thursday and Friday, March 12 and 13, in the MacIntosh Center at Loyola Marymount University, 1 LMU Drive, Los Angeles.. For more information, call (310) 338- 2700.