Afrofuturism helped me cope with post-pandemic uncertainty

Futuristic portrait of a black woman. Vivid neon lighting, colors. Fashionable jacket, necklace. Cyb...

In December, the approval of two coronavirus vaccines in the United States renewed hopes that the pandemic was almost over. With it came a deep craving to go back to the so-called "before times." For many, the only way to overcome a thing as awful as the pandemic is to pretend it never happened. They imagine the world as if coronavirus put it on pause, and a vaccine will allow us to resume right where we left off. While it is easy to condemn this reflex, part of it rests in the simple fact that most people are not taught how to navigate an uncertain future.

Before I became a journalist, I was a community organizer in Minneapolis, where I first learned how to think about and conceive new futures. While I no longer organize, that future-oriented thinking continues to be encapsulated in the work that truly captivates me: fiction. I have used fantasy and science-fiction to work through theories I'm reading, reflect on new information, and consider the future by magnifying the past. The most obvious examples of this engagement include my short stories "If You Don't Mind the Drowning," which arose from reading about sharks and the trans-Atlantic slave trade; "We Are the Flare," which I wrote to help myself digest Christina Sharpe's In the Wake; and "When the Buildings Began to Bleed," which was inspired by an article about melanin-infused buildings.

I don't assign many labels to my work. But as a self-proclaimed nerd, one label I do not hesitate to embrace is Afrofuturism, which broadly refers to a cultural aesthetic and movement in literature, music, and art usually expressed through the use of science-fiction and its themes to think specifically about Black people. While Afrofuturism as a term was coined by American critic Mark Dery in 1993, the tradition it describes is hundreds of years old. Some of Afrofuturism's earliest examples include Pauline Hopkins's Of One Blood, which began serialization in the 1902 issues of the Colored American Magazine, as well as the overall work of W. E. B. Du Bois, like his short story "The Comet," published in 1920. In the midst of the pandemic that is especially devastating Black communities, I have found myself returning to Afrofuturism to help me move through the present moment.

Let's face it: The unknown is terrifying when nobody has taught you how to navigate it. It is far easier to look anywhere other than an uncertain future. But we cannot pretend that the pandemic is just a thing to push past. I pay special attention to this as a Black woman who watches as the COVID Racial Data Tracker, part of the Atlantic's COVID Tracking Project, says that Black people nationwide are dying at nearly two times the rate of white people. Where race is known, Black people account for 17% of all coronavirus deaths. That changes us, even if we don't yet know how.

The pre-pandemic U.S. was hardly comfortable, but at least you knew it.

I understand why people want to latch onto what was. The pre-pandemic U.S. was hardly comfortable, but at least you knew it. But whether we want to be or not, we are now all engaged in future work, because to think of post-pandemic anything is to try to anticipate the future and capture the uncertainty that threatens to overwhelm us. You have to grow comfortable in the abyss. You might even have to get used to the fact that there is not a single future; instead, there are many, and you are effectively falling while reaching for a thousand billowing strands almost too slim for your fingers to catch.

To think you can go back to the before means you believe you can completely leave behind what's happening now. But that's impossible. The present is hideous, but, regardless, it is our history and our future. Time is not as linear as it is presented to us; as Du Bois once wrote in The World and Africa, "Don't you understand that the past is the present; that without what was, nothing is? That, of the infinite dead, the living are but unimportant bits."

For me, the weight of our present-past is summed up with the coronavirus dead. Eventually, we will need to move on from now, to a new era — if not a "before" time, then at least an "after" time. So how do we recognize the unthinkable amount of people we've lost, and still think ahead to the future? In their 2019 novella The Deep, Rivers Solomon wrote about the wajinru, the water-breathing descendants of enslaved Africans tossed off ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean. I read this work, which exists in conversation with "The Deep," a 2017 song by the rap group Clipping, for the first time last month. It forced me to consider post-pandemic futures and how we bring the dead along without suffocating ourselves.

Coronavirus has killed over 50,000 Black people in the U.S. already. More will die from the virus in the weeks and months to come. And still more deaths will result not from the virus directly, but from the pandemic's broader harms — like the people who will lose their homes because they owe thousands in back-rent or overdue mortgages and who, if they become homeless, will be at increased risk of death.

To leave our dead behind would be to leave them to rot in a present that barely cared about them. We cannot do it. But 50,000 is a lot of bodies to carry if only a few bear the burden. We cannot expect only kin to carry kin; we have to expand our relations and remembrances beyond blood, beyond ourselves. Otherwise we will face a struggle similar to the one bearing down upon the wajinru, who rely on a historian to carry all of their memories — a tradition begun by a matriarch who hoped to spare her people pain. But as a result, the memories are only shared sparingly, in a ceremony once a year.

The overarching question becomes, then: How do we remember our history without getting trapped in grief? How do we use our history to build? To work through these questions, I have often reflected on literary giant Octavia Butler, who is regarded as one of the mothers of Afrofuturism, and her response when once asked what good science-fiction is to Black people. "At its best, science-fiction stimulates imagination and creativity," Butler said. "It gets reader and writer off the beaten track, off the narrow, narrow footpath of what 'everyone' is saying, doing, thinking — whoever 'everyone' happens to be this year."

We must depart from the narrow footpath to begin imagining post-pandemic futures. We must also reconsider the isolated self, instead placing emphasis on community and shared experiences. In my work, I often find myself dealing with ancestors and notions of individuality. For example, I explored what came after enslaved Africans were tossed overboard in "If You Don't Mind the Drowning," but the mermaid-like creature I envisioned was a single narrator whose voice encompassed every lost person. In "We Are the Flare," I similarly turned four dead Muslim girls into a collective. In both of the stories, I declined to use first-person narration; instead, I relied on "you" and "we."

At first glance, these stories may not seem to be in line with Afrofuturism. They aren't sci-fi; there are no grandiose dreams about ditching Earth for some point in space, there is no fancy digital technology, and they are not explicitly set in the future. This is where I turn to artist Martine Syms's "The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto," which asserts that "outer space will not save us from injustice and cyberspace was prefigured upon a 'master/slave' relationship." In stepping away from tropes that define Afrofuturism in many people's eyes, Syms begins to outline how Afrofuturism can be lived out in the everyday, via "the sense that the rituals and inconsistencies of daily life are compelling, dynamic, and utterly strange."

Black people have imagined and dreamed of so much. Our dreams have led to revolts and rebellion, and forced extraordinary futures into being.

Sitting with Afrofuturism in the pandemic has allowed me to think about our dead without becoming trapped in grief. Instead, I am learning to consider how death shapes so many aspects of Blackness, but how it does not represent the totality of our being. In the introduction to the forthcoming Black Aliveness, Or A Poetics of Being, Kevin Quashie writes, "What would it mean to consider Black aliveness, especially given how readily — and literally — Blackness is indexed to death? To behold such aliveness, we have to imagine a Black world ... we have to imagine a Black world so as to surpass the everywhere and everyway of Black death, of Blackness that is understood only through such a vocabulary. This equation of Blackness and death is indisputable and enduring, surely, but if we want to try to conceptualize aliveness, we have to begin somewhere else."

I don't know if Quashie intended for "aliveness" to be a call to the future, but it's where my mind goes. What touches me about this introduction is how aliveness does not discount the weight of death. Considering Black aliveness and pursuing a Black world never once calls for us to forget the dead. In fact, Quashie lingers on our ancestors in quoting an excerpt of a letter written to Du Bois and a poem by Lucille Clifton titled "reply." In Quashie's consideration of aliveness, the ancestors are not gone, the past is not forgotten, and the dead become the anchor you need in that descent into the abyss, slowing your fall and guiding your hands to grasp a tendril of the future.

In all this, I am also reminded of a quote from Sofia Samatar's research paper, "Toward a Planetary History of Afrofuturism": "Afrofuturists prize the histories encoded in the left over, the discarded, the scattered, and the secondhand." The ugly reality is that throughout the pandemic, Black people — both our aliveness and our deaths — were treated as of no concern. But Afrofuturism teaches us how to build with what's been discarded. We cannot say for certain what world we’ll be living in when the pandemic is over, but Black people have imagined and dreamed of so much. Our dreams have led to revolts and rebellion, and forced extraordinary futures into being.

Through Afrofuturism, we can seize these past movements and influences to have faith and courage in our ability to function in whatever is next. Most importantly, we can turn to legacies like Afrofuturism to not only exist in the future, but to position ourselves as more than passive subjects within it. We cannot control every future, but we can certainly claim our own.

The pandemic is overwhelming; it looms and swallows with ease. But in Afrofuturism, I see reminders that uncertainty isn't inherently an enemy. We do not need to try running back to a past that will never come again. Instead, let us create our futures for ourselves, without forgetting from where we have come.