Aiesha Turman Researches Afrofuturism at the Barnard Library

This essay contributed by Barnard Library Research Award winner Aiesha Turman:

When I began my tenure as a research fellow in Barnard’s zine library, my goal was to explore how Afrofuturism was utilized in this particular form of cultural production. At the time, I had just completed my second full year as a doctoral student at Union Institute & University where I am enrolled in the Interdisciplinary Ph.D program with a concentration in Humanities and Culture. I had just formed my dissertation claim that asserts that Afrofuturism is a result of and a response to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade with particular roots in Gullah-Geechee culture which is concentrated along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, though historically reaching as far north as lower North Carolina and as far south as northern Florida. I also assert that there is a strong Black feminist literary genealogy of Afrofuturism and made the decision to trace part of that lineage in order to position Afrofuturism as a speculative art form squarely in the realm of a Black feminist liberatory praxis and create, with my dissertation, what I call a generative framework for the mitigation of cultural trauma and historical grief.

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Photo from Smithsonian.com.

Before I talk about the process, I should probably clue you into what Afrofuturism has been defined as. In 1994, journalist Mark Dery coined the term as:

Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture—and more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future—might, for want of a better term, be called Afrofuturism. The notion of Afrofuturism gives rise to a troubling antimony: Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?

Until very recently, Google results for the term “afrofuturism” would return Dery and his work at the top of the search engine findings. However, within the last five years, there has been a surge in the interest in Afrofuturism particularly among artists and in academia. In the past year in New York alone, there have been art exhibitions at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Corridor Gallery in Brooklyn, talks, a film festival at Brooklyn Academy of Music, and a conference at The New School. These events have assisted in creating multiple nuanced definitions of Afrofuturism that have overtaken Dery’s, as that it is problematic because it assumes that enslaved and later marginalized and subsumed Blacks lacked the agency and intent to imagine future spaces outside of the narratives of subjugation. What were slave revolts, running away, drapetomania (the deliberate slowing down and stopping of work by the enslaved), learning to read under the threat of death, and later strikes, marches, and the creation of benevolent societies and social aid clubs other than a way to imagine and put into practice the creation of new and possible futures? And, there are scholars and writers such as Alondra Nelson, Ytasha Womack, Lisa Yaszek whose work has contributed significantly to the growing recognition of Afrofuturism in creative, academic, and social justice circles.

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Many of the discussions around Afrofuturism rely heavily on technoculture and the ways in which technology aids in a prosthetically enhanced future.  My work centers the earliest forms of technology, the earth and the body, as sites of emancipation and moves from the past, present, and into the future. It also rests in the notion of there being a future-present, past-present, future-past, and past-future where knowledge, practices, and cultural production collide. It is with this understanding that I mined the archives for work by self-identified Black woman, women of color, and Afrofuturists to gauge how zine production, as well as its content fits into any of the spaces.

So where do the archives come in? Over the course of several months I pored over hundreds of library citations, ultimately requesting several dozen and visited the archives periodically to investigate what was pulled from the collections. I mined dozens of zines in the open stacks to explore my claims further. I have lots of work ahead of me, but it is very exciting and I am extremely grateful for this opportunity which was made almost effortless due to the amazing work and resourcefulness of Associate Director of Archives and Special Collections Shannon O’Neill and Digital Archivist Martha Tenney, as well as Associate Director of Communications and Zine Librarian Jenna Freedman who has provided resources and information above and beyond the scope of this fellowship.

Since beginning the fellowship, I have completed my coursework, passed my comprehensive exams, and will soon be defending my dissertation proposal. It is without a doubt that this fellowship allowed me to simultaneously narrow and broaden my exploration of Afrofuturism and will contribute to a final work that adds to the understanding of it as both theory and practice.
 

Aiesha Turman is a Brooklyn-based social practice artist and educator. When not exploring the practical, liberatory uses of Afrofuturism with young women and girls via The Black Girl Project, she teaches at an all-girl’s school and explores New York with her tween daughter. Visit aieshaturman.com for more!