The Time Machine: Life as an Afrofuturist
“To be a Black activist is to be a futurist.”
I wrote these words while penning a failed essay for a science fiction digest. I was trying to find a way to relate my personal love for science fiction and my Blackness. The essay was meant to be a literary gumbo of references to my favorite science fiction works, Afrofuturism and Black History. My main argument was that Black culture is innately compatible with science fiction as a vessel for fantasy futurism since the horrors of the past keep us from the comforts of nostalgia that others can enjoy. Thus it seems we always look to the future for salvation; for our shining moment of transcendence. I was expressing an inherently optimistic viewpoint, one that believes that our eyes are to the horizon of progress and equality because we are hurtling towards it. I never finished the article because that optimism rang hollow to me.
The thought experiment is a common one. If you had a time machine and could pick any era to visit, which one would it be? We’ve all probably been asked the question. Any writer of science-fiction or fantasy has considered it at length. Folks often claim they “belong” in other eras and often times certain political parties basically use the premise of a time machine as a platform. Even the aliases of the two main rails of American politics (Conservatives and Progressives) bring to mind the basic question. But the question is itself a vessel of privilege. How can groups that were disenfranchised in the past ever go back? Why would I go back to the antebellum period country singers seem so enamored with? Why would women who relish self-agency and the right to vote? To the futurist in me, the answer was once simple. I would go forward. Assuming that we are and have been progressing to a time that will be better for people like me and all disenfranchised individuals, why wouldn’t I? As a sci-fi writer I vowed to create worlds based on this central conceit of optimism. Black protagonists living in a world that celebrated their culture rather than cast them aside because of it. Pioneers that looked like me and were embraced. Writing was and still is my time machine.
But like the plight of H.G. Well’s Time Traveler, sometimes the time machine takes us to futures we may not want to visit. I spent most of my life believing in the inexorable march of the juggernaut of Progress, as did most of us sons and daughters of the Civil Rights Movement. As things improved for my grandparents and parents, so they would for me and my children. As we saw the rise of a Black President, so would we soon see a world where leaders of all races, genders, identities, and orientations would rise and form a true egalitarian and cosmopolitan society where our distinct differences were recognized and celebrated. That’s been the crux of what we’ve always been taught as Black children; that things aren’t where we need them now but will be. The mountaintop was always on the horizon. But as anyone who has ever sailed knows, the horizon is an illusion. While we know things will never be perfect and progress toward equality is always a goal as well as a tangible task for the present, through my blogging and striving to understand and act on the things that keep oppressed people oppressed I have faced the possibility of progress being a not-so-inexorable march, of our tomorrows not being better than our todays or yesterdays. With inequality widening and the “post-racial” era’s veil of willful ignorance on issues of social justice, it’s highly conceivable that such a time machine would take us to a future distinctly worse than today. The thought terrifies me.
What if we don’t overcome?
What happens if we don’t shed the remnants of the shackles of slavery and move to a place where we aren’t hunted down in the streets or our own yards just because of our skin color? What if the schools don’t get better and even more rich communities fall prey to the maw of the beast that is hyper-gentrification? For some folks, the fog of the myth of predestined progress has already been lifted. Hell, I may be late to the party. If you asked the time machine question to an older resident from Northeast DC who lived through segregation and was just evicted from an apartment that became a Safeway at the behest of a pro-gentrification local government, what direction would that person choose? If you asked the same of poor farmers whose farms were seized illegally by the USDA in the 40s and now have the same thing happening by large subsidized producers, what would they say? The question becomes a tricky paradox. The future looks precarious, we already know the past to be unacceptable, and the present constantly brings back the pains we were supposed to be past by now. The real estate for even the most imaginative and optimistic can shrink until we are left with the bleakness of the present.
This isn’t all meant to be doom and gloom. The question of the time machine has been answered in one of the most lucid prophecies on race and inequality ever given; Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Mountaintop Speech.” Known mostly as King’s death mask for his ominous prediction of his own demise and exhortation to continue without it, it also fittingly addressed inequality from a temporal perspective.
And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”
Dr. King of course chose the present. He chose the present despite arguably knowing his death was imminent. Although he did not explore the possibility of the future, I think that was largely a function of his understanding that his future would be measured in days, not years. The understanding was that the suffering of the past and present was worthless and will result in history repeating itself if the work is not done in the present. The time machine is irrelevant without a guiding hand and desire to push the present towards the desiderata.
To revisit that essay (which I guess this essay is an extension of), Black activism is still futurism in a way. We must be concerned with the future-almost obsessed with it-but with that concern comes a responsibility for the present. The responsibility towards the present is something many of my favorite sci-fi visionaries like Wells and Asimov didn’t have. They could predict sweeping changes coming in the world and sit back and watch them. We can’t. Black visionaries have a duty of action attached to their visions. There is a sort of temporal dual-consciousness we must have or else the pessimism will surely doom progress. I say “we” because I believe all creatives and writers are in some way visionaries. We have the power to see what is not there and make it so. My belief in the inevitability of progress has been shattered; shards to be swept in the dustbin of youthful naivete. What remains is stronger and more real. The word must have Will.