Whose “Again”? Reconciling Historical Erasures through Futurist Narratives

Tomorrow We Dreamt of Yesterday

Whose “Again”? Reconciling Historical Erasures through Futurist Narratives

By Genevieve Quick November 14, 2017

Tomorrow We Dreamt of Yesterday explores how artists create counter-narratives that fuse science fiction, present-day life, and histories of colonization, displacement, and economic and political inequities.


The innumerable recent incidents of racism, xenophobia, gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and fascistic exertions of power have left many of us wondering: How could this happen? Today's horrors come from the past, with which we have yet to reconcile ourselves. While modernity has been marked by increased economic and social equality and the notion of historical progress, we live in a postmodern world that no longer conforms to linear conceptions of time, for both ill and good. So how, as Americans and as a global community, do we construct our pasts, presents, and futures? As the alt-right perpetuates nostalgic narratives that fuel regressive legislation, marginalized and global voices form imaginative counter-narratives that politically activate the erasures of the past, present, and future.

While my conservative Midwestern father and I have never agreed politically, I always considered him to be reasonable. But when early in the 2016 campaign I asked him if he supported Trump, he replied, “I want to ‘Make America Great Again.’” My father chose his own interests, those of a White male, over those that might make a world in which his brown, foreign-born daughter could thrive. In deciphering Trump's vacuous slogan, we must ask: When, and for whom, was America great? By ending the slogan with the word “again,” Trump's ambiguous rhetoric summons the past, a nostalgic restoration to an unspecified era that erases previous traumas and discrimination, thereby laying the groundwork for regressive policies. Trump’s messaging panders to a predominantly White, male America that feels threatened by laws supporting affirmative action, anti-discrimination, same-sex marriage, women’s rights, and gender-neutral bathrooms—progressive policies that Republicans are actively working to weaken and repeal. As seen in Charlottesville, in particular, Trump’s nationalist sentiments have emboldened White supremacists. In a recent episode of the radio program This American Life, Zoe Chace features members of the Proud Boys. While this “fraternal order” attempts to distinguish themselves from White supremacists by advocating for Western civilization with slogans like, “The West is the best,” Chace’s interviews clearly illustrate the group’s animus toward women and minorities.1 More importantly, the episode illustrates their construction of exclusionary narratives and their attempts to revert time to an era in which they maintain hegemony.

Nyame O. Brown. Classroom in Neveryon, 2016; installation view, Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist.

As members of the dominant culture have created their stories of identity, marginalized people too have established their sense of belonging and place, sometimes in the form of folklore, surreal fantasy, magical realism, and science fiction. While science fiction may appear escapist, its plots, imagery, and language often address colonialism, slavery, war, capitalist exploitation, corruption, and otherness. Afrofuturism in particular lays the groundwork for speculative scenarios created for and by people of color. The music of Parliament/Funkadelic and Sun Ra, the 1984 film The Brother from Another Planet, and the writers Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany transformed otherness into out-of-this-world spectacles that borrowed from ancient Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, slavery, and the tragedies and joys of modern-day life. These creative works have been role models for more recent Afrofuturists such as Drexciya, DJ Spooky, Janelle Monaé, Nyame Brown, Cauleen Smith, and Saya Woolfalk. In Ytasha L. Womack’s book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (2013), the artist D. Denenge Akpem explains, “‘[T]here’s this idea that if you can control time and your place in it, you can control the course of history and your own history. Afrofuturists create new visions. If you can create a new vision of the future, you can create new visions of the past.’” The perspectives written by the dominant culture are insufficient to accurately portray history; first-person accounts by marginalized people have been greatly ignored. Through their fictions and fantasies that reinterpret the past, marginalized voices suggest possibilities to fill the voids caused by historical erasures. Additionally, speculative fictions allow marginalized groups to integrate history with the present and future, the temporal paradox that we all grapple with.

Womack concludes her book by explaining that Afrofuturism “is not exclusive to the diaspora alone. Whether by adopting the aesthetics or the principles, all people can find inspiration or practical use for Afrofuturism to transform their world and break free of their own set of limitations.”3 Indeed, global forms of futurist imaginings are appearing from places like the Persian Gulf, South Asia, East Asia, and Latin America. As inhabitants of the world, we navigate our histories of subjugation, civil wars, and colonization with globalism, cyberspace, and increasing migration, becoming more culturally, racially, and ethnically hybridized across time and place. With our multi-hyphenated identities, we are working on ways to reconcile our histories, both personal and communal, such that we imagine and author our futures.

Nyame O. Brown. Classroom in Neveryon, 2016; installation view, Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist.

In following Afrofuturist models, those who wish to construct speculative possibilities must consider the temporal, spatial, and cultural erasures and negations within the dominant culture. For example, in her essay “Tomorrow Never Dies,” Dawn Chan illustrates a particular dynamic: When Asia emerged as a locus for technological innovation in the 1980s, Jean Baudrillard described Japan as the negation of the United States, one that managed “an unintelligible paradox, to transform the power of territoriality and feudalism into that of de-territoriality and weightlessness,” which has made the country a satellite of Earth.4 Here, Asia, and in particular Japan, has been defined as an Other, outside the planet, rotating ambiguously in time and space around the Earth—that is, the United States. Chan illustrates this placelessness by enumerating the ways in which, in Western popular media, Asians only appear in the future. Additionally, she notes that Asian Americans have been reluctant to publicly address

the unease that comes from sightlessness and the ongoing threat of encountering the phrase go home—a partial inheritance of a history of immigration bans, internment camps, and indentured servitude in America’s not-so-distant past.5

To Chan’s analysis I would add that, in other forms of fiction and historical accounts, Asians (both male and female) are stereotyped as docile, yet noble, embodiments of ancient serenity and discipline.

Katie Dorame. Invasion by the Sea, 2014; pen and ink on paper; 17 x 28 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Similarly, Indigenous populations are frequently portrayed in the mass media as noble savages and relics of the past, where they are living artifacts shipwrecked in modernity. In “Decolonial Futurisms: Ancestral Border Crossers, Time Machines, and Space Travel in Salvadorian Art,” Kency Cornejo explains that Western perspectives have viewed colonized Latin American knowledge as

underdeveloped, primitive, lacking reason, and founded in superstition or fantasy. The uneven distribution of technologies inscribed Western technology as a marker of imperialism and capitalism, where the West has been the sole producer and the rest of the world either consumes or becomes the subject of technological and scientific studies.6

Cornejo explains that when Indigenous populations are not the makers of technologies, it is because they exist as the binary opposite of Western development. Cornejo also argues that Western ideas of progress and technology are defined as linear, but that some Indigenous and non-Western worldviews don’t subscribe to these ideas. Cornejo notes that the Maya had cyclical cosmologies and explains that

if futurity in time and space is still to come, but space and time remain colonized, then the future will be defined and structured in the service of coloniality. A decolonial future, therefore, requires a decolonization of time and space, of yesterday and today.7

To ensure that marginalized groups can speak with their cultural specificity, perhaps the reconfiguration of time can present an ideological shift in self-directed narratives and empowerment.

Katie Dorame. Mission Revolt, 2014; oil on canvas; 40 x 36 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Afrofuturism, Asian futurism, and Indigenous futurisms are only three areas in which temporal disruptions can explore the positions of marginalized people in the world. These complex stories of cultural hybridity and collisions of time and space are constantly shifting as everyday life unfolds. The future is not a single narrative, but rather exists as multiple and parallel worlds that can challenge dominant ideologies. As nationalist rhetoric in the United States and abroad fosters reactionary narratives that erase historical injustices and exclude marginalized people from their visions of the past, present, and future, artists can leverage the potential of fiction to assert our hybrid and hyphenated identities.

In the following installments of this column, I will bridge the speculative visions that artists use to address their legacies of time and place, from Afrofuturist visions to East Asian, South Asian, Persian Gulf, Latin American, and Indigenous futurist speculations. I will consider artists’ projects that merge history and imagination to consider space travel in relation to: the presumed developing world and Indigenous populations; colonialism, where Others are represented as alien and imposters; and the imaginative concepts of a multiverse and transhumanism. In these explorations, my aim is to address how we define technology and time on a global scale, and how non-Western traditions can be adopted and hybridized to craft narratives that are more representative of different perspectives.

Notes

  1. Zoe Chace, “Episode 626: White Haze,” This American Life, WBEZ, September 22, 2017, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/626/white-haze.
  2. Ytasha L. Womack, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2013), 154.
  3. Womack, 192.
  4. Dawn Chan, “Tomorrow Never Dies,” Artforum (Summer 2016): 161.
  5. Chan, 162.
  6. Kency Cornejo, “Decolonial Futurisms: Ancestral Border Crossers, Time Machines, and Space Travel in Salvadorian Art,” in Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas, edited by Robb Hernándes, Tyler Stallings, and Joanna Szupinka-Meyers (Riverside: UCR Artsblock University of California 2017), 22.
  7. Cornejo, 22–23.

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