– Masiyaleti Mbewe
Imagining ourselves in the future forces us to consider how our environment might look like. An idealistic perspective would have us construct a future that sustains Black lives. However, the realities of environmental racism play a significant role in the perpetuation of white supremacy. The deliberate and continued systemic racism that disproportionally burdens and targets marginalised communities by forcing them to live in proximity to health hazards like garbage dumps, sewage works and chemical plants are all examples of the barriers Black people have to reconcile with when tasked with conceptualising possible futures. While a huge part of Afrofuturism is re-imagining what Black people and Blackness looks like in the future, the concept, defined by Ytasha Womack as “an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation”, in which “Afrofuturists redefine culture and notions of blackness for today and the future” by combining “elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs, has always critically engaged the roles climate change, global warming and environmental racism will play in these imaginings.
Written in 1993 by Octavia E. Butler, the science fiction novel Parable of the Sower takes an eerie look at the year 2024. In the narrative, Butler centres the experiences of a Black woman, Laura Oya Olamina, as she navigates a world that has disintegrated under white supremacist capitalism, climate change, violence, poverty and substance abuse (sound familiar?). The book contextualises and outlines how the most marginalised of our communities suffer the most under these oppressive systems. More recently, Namwali Serpell’s historical science fiction novel The Old Drift hauntologically examines the effects of colonialism on the environment, tracing how the violences of racial inequality intersect with the socio-cultural, political and technological development of the future. Contemporary Black visual artists are also urgently applying the realities of climate change and its devastating effects on the future in their art. Some of these (art)ists include sculptor Pitika Ntuli, the works of Farbrice Monteiro, films like Iitandu by Lavinia Kapewasha and the mixed-media series Poor People’s Campaign by Najee Dorsey. This suggests that Afrofuturism has always been a means for communicating the importance of environmental sustainability.
Because of the physical, cultural and environmental disruptions of colonialism (the transatlantic slave trade, apartheid, neo-colonialism), Black people have always had to consider living beyond “the end”. Afrofuturist praxis has been the basis for Black survival, as writer Krinka Desir eloquently puts it, “If for Black folks it has been the end, then how miraculous is the life we cultivate in the midst of death? In the midst of dystopia? In the midst of apocalypse? How miraculous is the act of imagining a future otherwise?” This is where intersectional feminism comes into the picture. Coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is a term that describes a framework for conceptualizing a person, group of people, or social problem as affected by a number of discriminations and disadvantages. It takes into account people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face. In other words, intersectional theory asserts that people are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: their race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other identity markers. If we are to discuss environmental justice in our feminism, we must consider these various intersectionalities.
These Afrofuturist works, theories and concepts help cultivate the urgency for activists to reform their politics and consider the ways in which including climate change and environmental advocacy in their praxis helps contribute to the larger intersectional dismantling of white supremacist cis-heteronormative capitalist patriarchy. Afrofuturism assists in this recalibration of our perceptions of the future, allowing us to expand our ideas of what the future will look like and who belongs in said future. This in turn makes our feminism more inclusive and more intersectional. Similarly, Fatimah Kelleher explores African ecofeminist futures explaining that “Ultimately, the crisis of Africa’s current trajectory is a crisis of visioning: the inability of the continent’s leaders to imagine a process of development less destructive, more equitable, less unjust, more uniquely African, and – quite simply – more exciting. The positions, passions, and holistic approaches offered by African ecofeminism provide key ingredients for an alternative to the capital-centric ideals of economic growth that have defined progress so far. These have not only wreaked havoc on global ecological sustainability but have failed to deliver a genuinely equitable or just society anywhere. It’s time to start dreaming and delivering an African future that can do better than that.”
Afrofuturism operates on many planes, it is able to outline and centre the issues Black people experience whilst simultaneously considering history to construct a future that can be inclusive, environmentally sustainable, safe and innovative. Afrofuturist work used in conjunction with critical feminist theories could act as a blueprint for the transformation and construction of new realities after we have successfully dismantled white supremacist cis-heteronormative capitalist patriarchy. As Krinka Desir concludes, “Afrofuturism offers much more than allegory to articulate Black experience and to critique our present. It offers much more than the visualization of Black people in the future. Afrofuturism presents the tools to think through a way forward, the tools to refuse white supremacist futures.”
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