Is Space Still the Place?: The Colonization of Imagined Spaces in Afrofuturism

Design by Hailey Lynaugh

Image Description: A collage of images including children kicking a ball, a man with a lawnmower, and a man gardening in the forefront and futuristic metallic buildings in the background all set on the surface of Mars.

Originally published in FEM’s Fall 2021 SPACE print issue.

Afrofuturism is a genre that combines ideas of space, technology, science fiction, and Blackness. Through the themes of technology and space, Afrofuturist art, literature, and thinkers conceive notions of the future in which the Black identity is central. As James Edward Ford III defines in his article “‘Space Is the Place’: Afrofuturist Elegy in Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars”: “Afro-futurists are literary, visual, and sonic artists and intellectuals who do not simply assert that black people will exist in the future (although this assertion, in itself, counters the discourse of extinction that has trailed black folk since Emancipation until now). Afro-futurists treat blackness as a way of envisioning futures.” (Ford, 161). 

Though the term “Afrofuturism” is attributed to Mark Derry, who coined the phrase in the early 90’s, Afrofuturism as an idea and genre took off after professor and author Alondra Nelson founded an online community centered around Afrofuturism in 1998 (Ranft, 76). It was through this online platform that “members discussed issues related to technology, racial identity, diaspora, activism, the future, and various other topics.” (Ranft, 76). How fitting that a movement and framework that centers around technology and conceptions of the future would be conceived in an online space. 

But, why is Afrofuturism important? How does the genre work to imagine new spaces for the Black community? 

First, Afrofuturism uses themes of science fiction and technology in order to create speculative works, ways of envisioning new spaces and futures, which lends itself to creative mediums like poetry, music, and other forms of art. 

In the poetry collection “Life on Mars,” poet Tracy K. Smith utilizes the imagery of outer space in order to comment on past, present, and future ideas of the Black identity in space and society. It is through the medium of poetry that Smith is able to create a nuanced vision of the future through the lens of race, a future in which “distinction will be empty” (Smith). Smith takes inspiration from her father, who was an engineer that worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, and science fiction pop culture, as evident in her poem “My God, It’s Full of Stars.” 

In “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” Smith references Stanley Kubrik’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” and actor Charlton Heston, who was known for his roles in popular science fiction films such as “Planet of the Apes” and “Soylent Green.” Smith writes through the perspective of the characters in these science fiction films, creating a perception of outer space that is wonderful, fictional, and at times, terrifying. For example, Smith uses language like “apocryphal white” and “an aurora of orgasmic light,” contrasting these ideas with darkness in order to emulate the spectacular, cinematic, experience of Hollywood’s outer space. It is through the fantasization of outer space that Smith is able to ground the idea of cosmic horror in the stanzas surrounding these pop culture references. For example, the first section of this poem focuses on the end of the world, “while the father storms through adjacent rooms/ Ranting with the force of Kingdom Come,/ Not caring anymore what might snap us in its jaw.” The end of the world does not concern itself with humanity— it is  a cold, unfeeling, Revelations-like end. A truly horrifying idea of outer space and the end of human space. 

In the final part of her poem, Smith recounts memories of her father’s work on the Hubble Space telescope. It is after stanzas about meditations on the spectacle of outer space and the end of the world that this last piece of her poem circles back to Earth. Smith’s description of her father exists in stark contrast to the rest of the poem. Even with the vast expanse of space and time, there are still the small pieces of meaningful reality, as illustrated by the description of her father. 

It is through both the aspects of speculative outer space and reality that Smith reconciles the idea of outer space as a stage for a new future. Though outer space is unknown, unfeeling, and expansive, the existence of Black bodies in this speculative space is not without history, experience, love and memory. 

In addition, Afrofuturist works often reference the past as a way to build a foundation on which the future rests. For instance, in the article “Creating and Imagining Black Futures through Afrofuturism,” Grace Gipson cites a tweet referencing the city of Detroit that reads “The future was here…” (Gipson, 97). This tweet encapsulates the idea of the past being a foundation on which conceptions of the future can be cultivated. Gipson further considers: “The city of Detroit acts as a kind of time machine in that it has always been a site rich with ideas about Black futurity, and different eras of Detroit’s history have proposed different futures.” (Gipson, 97). Specifically, Gipson is referring to Dr. Martin Luther King’s June 1963 speech given at Cobo Hall and Motown Records, the first Black-owned record label, both located in Detroit and important developments for Black history. Here, the spatial is conflated with the temporal; these two moments in history become superimposed over this single physical location. 

The entire genre of science fiction, in fact, relies heavily on this idea of “retrofuturism” (think the aesthetic of “The Incredibles”). The speculative future is created through the lens of the past. Take Smith’s references to her father’s work on the Hubble Space Telescope and to science fiction pop-culture; by looking at these retro ideas of the future, Smith is able to create this liminal space in the present, which stands between the past’s conceptions of the future and the actual future. 

This overlapping of past and present is particularly important in Tracy K. Smith’s work. We see an example of this in her poem “Life on Mars.” The poem  is broken up into nine sections that differ from each other narratively— from theories on space from a character named Tina, to a first person perspective recounting of a haunting memory. In the sections about Tina, Smith writes in the first person, presenting  Tina’s beliefs about space and the universe to the reader. Then, the next section is a flashback to a newscast of a girl who was kept in a basement. Two sections later, the poem becomes a memory. 

Not only does the poem jump around narratively, it also jumps around temporally. Through the collation of memory and present reality, Smith is able to create a conception of outer space as a canvas for the future. In the eighth section of the poem, Smith’s lines get more fragmented as the poem transitions to outer space. The lines now zoom out from the specifics of previous sections, into space, looking at Earth from an outside perspective. Though hinting at a future outside of Earth, the poem reminds us of humanity’s history on this planet: “The earth we ride in disbelief./ The earth we plunder like thieves./ The earth caked to mud in the belly.” In order to imagine the future, there must be a recognition of the past and the present. Outer space is not just a clean slate to paint a new future devoid of context and history, we must go into this new future with our histories and our wrong-doings in mind in order to create a new space. 

Though the interest in outer space travel started decades ago, traveling to, and living in, outer space is increasingly becoming a reality with the recent growing interest in commercialized space travel. However, there must be the consideration of how the present reality of space travel interacts with Afrofuturism’s ideas of outer space as a canvas for new and imagined futures. By considering these two ideas together, there is an invasion of theoretical space. Sun Ra, another prominent Afrofuturist, popularized the phrase “space is the place” through his film and album of the same name. But with the reality of the near future of space travel, can space still be the place? 

The obsession with “exploring,” and thus exploiting, new spaces and the movement of physical bodies into these spaces is inherently a function of colonialism and presents a threat to the core concept of outer space in Afrofuturism. In Afrofuturism, outer space represents an unknown, a new potentiality on which the future can be projected. Through space colonization, outer space no longer represents a speculative space. The socio-political and economic situation of our reality will be imposed onto the new spaces we invade; outer space will merely be another extension of our current spaces. The new advent of space travel is a test, a test to see if we choose to repeat our mistakes or to reconcile our history with our future. 


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