A Multiplicity of Voices: The Importance of Diverse Narratives

 

Cover art for Binti: Home.

The series of novellas collectively known as the Binti trilogy served as my personal introduction to Afrofuturism. I have always been a member of the sci-fi fandom, and at first, I was merely excited to have found a new sub-genre. At the time, I was unaware of the complexities of the social hierarchies being commented upon, and the vital importance of the narratives being portrayed in a much different light than what I had been used to seeing in science fiction written primarily by white, cisgender, heterosexual men. Whenever I had seen a character of color in a novel, whether Afrodiasporic or of another, non-Caucasian race/ethnicity, they generally served as a plot device, a stereotype, or were otherwise reduced to little more than a caricature supposedly representative of their entire race or people.

 

I began to casually research the genre of Afrofuturism, and found a wealth of literature, from novels to short stories to academic papers, as well as art, music, sculpture, and other forms of cultural expression.

This work of art, which I traced back to twitter user @Michelle.art, who describes herself as an ‘artist and afrofuturist,’ depicts a woman with a halo who appears to be partially cybernetic.

 

As a queer woman, I was particularly interested in the intersection of LGBTQIA+ representation and the canon of Afrodiasporic literature, particularly as it pertained to Afrofuturism, Black Sci-Fi, and African Speculative Fiction.

 

In “’Isn’t Realist Fiction Enough?’: On African Speculative Fiction” (Joshua Yu Burnett), Gwen Ansel is quoted as saying that Afrofuturist literature should be promoted because “children need to stop reading Charles Dickens.” (Burnett, 121) However, a more moderate stance is taken by Burnett, who suggests that children should not be forced to read Charles Dickens and his contemporaries, who largely consisted of white, heterosexual men of Western European descent, at the exclusion of a more diverse range of voices – literature from people of every ethnicity and any nationality, from authors who identify as LGBQTIA+, from writers who are neurodivergent or differently-abled, and from authors who hail from a wide spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds.

Diversity of thought is crucial in any conversation, but is especially important in the literary canon that is being taught in schools across the world. Young people need to grow up feeling represented, and seeing others both like and unlike themselves in media.

There is a concept in computing known as data bias. In short, it happens when a set of data is accumulated from past years and decades, but is not representative of the entire population in some way, shape, or form. This data is then fed into an artificially intelligent algorithm, which perpetuates the biases of the past into the future. I strongly suspect that people, too, are subject to data bias. When every scientist depicted in popular media is a ‘lovably eccentric’ man of European descent, complete with spectacles and a lab coat, is it any wonder that more women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, Afrodiasporic peoples, Latinos and Latinas, indigenous populations, and people from elsewhere on the range of human diversity do not go into STEM fields?

The very first image that came up after a quick Google Image Search for ‘scientist.’

The same holds true for literature. Our biases are self-perpetuating. They are taught in school and reinforced by the media. They are also incredibly damaging to so many people, which is why it is vitally important, now more than ever, to imagine futures where everyone is represented, and diversity is more than just a buzzword or a token character haphazardly tossed into the narrative and promptly forgotten about by Act 2.

 

In the Binti triology, the Himba are depicted are isolationist, but not to the point where they had been left behind as technological advancements swept the Earth. It is revealed that Himba people rarely go off-world in Nnedi Okorafor’s imagined future, and themes of home – from Binti’s homeland to her homeworld to the physical home she resided in for most of her life are frequently touched upon. At the very start of the novel, Binti gives thanks to the land and to the Earth. For the first time ever, she is leaving home. And for the last time in her life, she is nothing more or less than human; she is Himba, and Himba alone. “I swiped the otjize from my forehead with my index finger and knelt down,” Binti narrates. “Then I touched the finger to the sand, grounding the sweet smelling red clay into it. “Thank you,” I whispered.” (Binti, 1)

 

On Earth, Binti had been a master harmonizer, so skilled in mathematics that she was accepted into the most prestigious university in the galaxy. The other Himba individuals in the story, Binti’s friends and relatives and neighbors, embrace technology alongside tradition. The balance between the two is, at times, delicate, and Binti defies tradition in order to leave to go to Oozma Uni.

 

In Bernett’s words, “The binary of past/“tribal” versus future/technological here collapses because Okorafor’s speculative Himba are both.” (Bernett, 128) However, it is noted later on in the first book of the trilogy that not all inhabitants of the galaxy felt the same. “’Tribal’: that is what they called the humans from ethnic groups too remote and “uncivilized” to regularly send students to attend Oomza Uni.” (Binti, 51)

Cover art for the first book of the Binti trilogy, depicting a young African woman whose face is smeared with otjize, but not covered by it – which is representative of Binti’s transformation and evolution as a character.

The dichotomy between tribality and technological progress seen in the book can be viewed as an allegory for colonialism and imperialism in the real world. Often, colonizers used words such as “savage,” “primitive,” “heathen” and “uncivilized” to describe that which they did not understand and that which they wished to subjugate. In Okorafor’s future, fictional Africa, the Himba are empowered by technology but still hold their ancient customs sacred, and they are seen as lesser-than for this by other humans and other Peoples of the galaxy.

 

This is very much a commentary on the expectations placed upon tribal groups. They are expected to adopt technology (and, by extension, the dominant narrative perpetrated by a society that views itself as superior to theirs in every way) at the expense of their own customs, traditions, rituals, and beliefs. The Himba in Binti have managed to find a way to blend the past with the future, the new with the old, the traditions going back generations with the latest new technologies.

 

It is this unique balance between Binti’s past and her future that allows her to survive aboard the Meduse-occupied ship. Her edan, an object the Khoush students had shown no interest in, saved her life. Additionally, Binti’s willingness to evolve, grow, and change is a cornerstone of the trilogy, leading to Binti becoming more – more than Himba, more than human, as well as ‘other.’

 

The Silent Spaces Between the Stars

 

A logarithmic map of the known universe.

The Matilda of Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghost is a generation ship. Sent out into the depths of space in one final, desperate hope for humankind, she and her crew have been traveling for approximately three hundred years ship-time.  Though this novel is set in a relatively distant futurity, it seems that some aspects of life have never quite changed at all, and in some cases, have devolved back into the darkest and most despicable parts of human civilization’s past.

In An Unkindness of Ghosts, the word ‘slavery’ is never used. It is intentionally left unspoken, and it is left to the reader to realize through slow and painful revelations carefully spaced throughout the novel that what has happened on the Matilda is, indeed, the subjugation and enslavement of those with darker skin, or those who have descended from the people of the African diaspora, when such a term would have been meaningful to the inhabitants of the ship. Terms as fundamental as ‘Earth’ have fallen out of the vocabulary of the passengers of Matilda. They have lost all sense of their heritage, even something as basic and as vital as their homeworld, which is now remembered only as The Great Lifehouse.

“History wanted to be remembered,” Aster notes early on in the novel. “Evidence hated having to live in dark, hidden places and devoted itself to resurfacing. Truth was messy. The natural order of an entropic universe was to tend towards it.” (59) These lines belie the fact that history on the Matilda has, indeed, been largely forgotten. They also foreshadow Aster’s gradual recovery of the truth her mother had given her life to find, and her return to Earth.

This novel left me with more questions than answers, and it broke my heart, but it was a necessary novel, one that I recommend to everyone despite the difficulty of reading about overseers and blackouts that hurt only the subjugated classes and decks of the ship, as well as executions and the tragic, beautiful ending, where Aster returns to Earth. She “didn’t know what tragedy had befallen this place, but time seemed to have erased it. Though 325 years had passed on the Matilda, a thousand had passed here.” (348)

An Unkindness of Ghosts makes a powerful statement about the capacity of humankind for brutality and the cruelty people are capable of in a world (or a ship) that relies on systemic oppression and slavery in order to keep the upper classes fed and enable them to live a leisurely lifestyle. Slavery illuminates one of the darkest aspects of our species – precisely because it robs other human beings of agency and freedom, and seeks to destroy and negate their very humanity itself.

In drawing on the past to inform a vision of the future, An Unkindness of Ghosts paints a bleak picture, featuring the very worst humankind has to offer, as well as the enduring strength of subjugated peoples, and their resiliency in the face of the harshest of circumstances. It is a portrait that encompasses the past and the future and depicts the best and worst of human civilization.

Sofia Samatar, in “Toward a Planetary History of Afrofuturism,” highlights the complex web of interactions between the past, the present, and the future. She states that “Afrofuturism, as seen through the data thief, is always about all times: past, present, and future. The excavation of the past is essential, for it is from those historical fragments that the data thief or bricoleur constructs visions of what is to come.” The concept of the data thief originates from The Last Angel of History (John Akomfrah and Edward George), and involves a data ‘thief’ who must stay away from the virus known as History – with a capital H denoting that it is a product of the dominant narrative, and does not necessarily factor in the histories and narratives of those outside the domain of the group of people writing the history books.

Thus, it is all times that Afrofuturist literature concerns itself with – though the name might imply otherwise. Afrofuturism does not simply devote itself to the realm of the future. Quite to the contrary, Afrofuturism is deeply rooted in both the present and the past. Elements of each are carefully selected to make a deliberate point through the medium of artwork, literature, music, or any other forms of artistic expression. In An Unkindness of Ghosts, elements are taken from life in the antebellum South and paired with futuristic technology. The dissonance this juxtaposition creates is vital to understanding the purpose and message of the novel, which warns of the perils of class divisions along racial lines through the metaphor of the hierarchy of decks upon the Matilda.

 

You are here. Our ancestors have all lived and died upon this world. It is the home of humankind, one so often taken for granted. It is rarely put in its proper perspective – that it is one planet, orbiting a single star in one of 200 billion galaxies. The universe is a vast and lonely place, and in reflecting upon this simple, elegant fact, one realizes that our differences are insignificant on a cosmic scale. To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, we must watch the courses of the stars as if we revolve with them.

If one ponders for a while, the realization that Earth is the ultimate generation ship comes to mind – here is where all human life evolved, where all of us, no matter our color, class, race, gender, sexuality, gender identity, or ethnic background, have lived. Only a very few of us have ever ventured out into the shallows of the cosmic waters, either through brief jaunts to the moon and back, or travels to space stations. To quote Carl Sagan, “Earth is where we make our stand” – for now, at least. In the universe presented by An Unkindness of Ghosts, the only home we’ve ever known was abandoned for the great unknown because of dire conditions, such as those we face now through anthropogenic global warming. Generation upon generation of humankind have lived and died here, yet it is only recently we have begun to impact the global environment in such ruinous ways. The planet Earth is, for now, all we have, and it is our duty to be kinder to it – and to each other, lest the mistakes of history become the perils of the future.

I will leave you with a short video that maps the visible universe, beginning at a mountain range on Earth and zooming out to the edges of the known universe.

 

 

 

All the Beauty In Between: Explorations Beyond the Gender Binary

Loyiso Mkize is the South African artist who created the oil painting above. In an interview with Design Indaba, he said that his work often addresses gender. “I was talking about love, I was talking about war, I was talking about beauty, divinity, I was talking about miseducation, I was talking about the dynamics between African men and women, about that relationship that the male principle has with the female principle in the African context,” he said in response to a question about power struggles between genders.

In the artist’s own words, “his life’s work embodies the message(s) of self-awareness, acknowledgment, strength, and radical presence.”

 

Our world is governed by a web of overlapping, interconnected social constructs, many of which are left unspoken and are instead perpetuated by the slow, inexorable molding of our selves through our parents/caregivers and our peers and our elders. Gender is one such social construct. Many people believe that gender is black and white – or rather, pink and blue. A growing number of people have come to understand that gender is indeed a spectrum.

 

This revelation is not a new one by any standards. Having additional gender identities beyond the binary of male and female is not uncommon in the history of humankind. A number of indigenous populations in the Americas have been known to respect the gender of two-spirited people. The Lakota call them Winkte, the Zuni call them Lhamana. The Mohave have four genders, male, female, Alyha and Hwame. The Navajo call two-spirit individuals Nádleeh. Examples of more than two genders being woven into the cultural fabric of a society are found across the entire world, on every continent with the exception of Antarctica.

 

However, the Western world has historically recognized only two genders – male and female. The difference between the sexes seemed biologically self-evident, and intersex babies were promptly assigned a role inside the gender binary. This state of affairs is slowly improving for those who fall elsewhere on the gender spectrum. The studies of anthropologists can confirm gender is, in fact, a spectrum. It is not merely pink and blue – it is all the colors of the rainbow.

 

Another of Mkize’s works which addresses the relationship between femininity and power.

In the artist’s words, found on the biographical page of his website, Mkize hopes his work “carries with it an intention to communicate ideas that he finds most important in his life, the most prominent of which is preserving the African identity.”

 

Gender as a social construct is one of the major themes that An Unkindness of Ghosts addresses. From the first page, a gender-neutral child, Flick, who is referred to with they/them pronouns is introduced. One of the primary power struggles in the novel is between the Surgeon, Theo, and the Sovereign, Lieutenant. Lieutenant often tells Theo that if the Surgeon is the ship’s Mother, and surely he is their Father. “It’s time you stop being a woman about these things,” (247) he says in one of the pivotal scenes, once the tension has reached a breaking point on the ship.

 

Towards the end of the novel, Theo confesses that he does not feel like a man, and Aster replies, “Aye. You gender-malcontent. You otherling… Me too. I am a boy and a girl and a witch all wrapped into one very strange, flimsy, indecisive body.” (308) This line sums up her experience grappling with gender, and assures Theo that he is not alone in feeling discontented with the gender identities sanctioned by their leaders.

 

On the Matilda, the concept of gender is continually reinforced by the Sovereign and the hierarchy he maintains on the ship. On certain decks, like the one Flick originated from, children are assigned gender-neutral pronouns and identities. Aster “was used to the style of her own deck where all children were referred to with feminine pronouns. Here, it was they.” (10) This refusal to bow to the gender norms of the ship and instead take a different approach to the gender binary is, I believe, a form of subtle rebellion, among many other instances and forms of dissent undertaken by the enslaved lower decks of the Matilda, containing only those with darker skin and savage guards that keep them subjugated, afraid, and disempowered.

 

Gender is one aspect of our identities as humans living within a society. In many ways, social norms shape and inform who we are. We have a limited amount of power and agency over how others perceive us. Their perceptions constitute a significant part of who we are, and how we self-identify. The concept of interpellation suggests that we internalize society’s ideologies and norms about who we should be, and that this, in turn, informs who we think we are. This continuing dialogue between our self-identity and the way others identify us shapes and molds our identity. No human is an island, or so the saying goes, and our place and purpose in the web of society are determined by a variety of complexities, identity among them.

 

This is the light spectrum. Visible light is shown to be a tiny portion of the entirety of the spectrum. Gender is also a spectrum. The binary of ‘male’ and ‘female’ at the exclusion of all other identities is very limiting, as it is a small portion of the entire spectrum of genders, in all their beauty.

 

 

An Unkindness of Ghosts addresses this aspect of society not merely for the richness it adds to the text, but also as a commentary on our own society. The cogs of society are often slow-turning. Changes in social norms rarely happen overnight. It is the duty of the writer and the literary scholar to shine a light on these matters, so that forward motion may be achieved. An Unkindness of Ghosts illuminates many such pressing topics, including that of gender-identity, gender-queerness, and transgender people. It makes a statement on the damages incurred when a gender binary is rigidly fixed in any given society, and in turn, implies that the implementation of a gender spectrum can be deeply healing to those who feel trapped by the gender binary.

Ancestral Roots: A Deep and Enduring Magic

Arthur C. Clarke Quote
Arthur C. Clarke, a notable science-fiction author, observed the relationship between technology and magic.

 

Magic is scarce in today’s high-tech, fast-paced, globally interconnected society, but if you cast your gaze back into the past, with an open mind and an eye for detail, you will find that it was once all around us. Much of the body of knowledge we now possess in the 21st century once lay unexplored – relegated to the realm of some distant futurity where people could fly like birds, and explore the depths of the ocean and the reaches of outer space, their vast, sprawling empires boasting towers that scraped the sky, augmented by computers which could answer to verbal commands and a wide array of gestures. Some of these machines, like the Voyager probes, would go on to breach the furthest reaches of our solar system, eventually arriving in interstellar space, a poignant testament to the very best this civilization has to offer the universe itself.

 

Surely, to the eye of the average observer just a century or two ago, much of our technology would look like magic. Many natural processes must have seemed magic, as well – think back to the outrage caused by Darwin’s theories of natural selection and evolution, or further still, to Gallio and Copernicus, both scorned for presenting a non-geocentric model of the solar system. Sometimes, magic is just another word for the inexplicable, whether that is manmade technology or natural processes. Other times, magic is quite real. It exists as ties that bind us to our past, through the lines of our mother’s mother, and her mother before her, or back through a patrilineal line of descent. It exists as the roots we put down, and the paths we have walked, and the dreams our ancestors had, both for themselves, and for the future.

 

In the short stories, “All God’s Chillen Had Wings,” a folktale that is told second-hand by Caesar Grant, and “The Goophered Grapevine” by Charles W. Chesnutt, magic plays a prominent role, not only as a narrative element, but also as a metaphor for something deep and ancestral, some essence of the past and of the homelands of the black characters that they carried with them, something so enduring that it could not be stolen nor bartered by their oppressors and the people who would seek to sell and own them and subjugate them in a myriad of ways.

 

W.E.B. Du Bois Quote
W. E. B. Du Bois was a prominent figure in the arenas of literature and civil rights. He noted that the cost of freedom is less than the price of oppression. I believe he is referring to both the price of repression on subjugated individuals, and on the society that seeks to oppress them.

 

In one of these tales, an old man spoke to his fellow slaves after a brutal day of working in the sun without rest or respite, and “As he spoke to them they all remembered what they had forgotten, and recalled the power which had once been theirs.” (“All God’s Chillen Had Wings” 133) This is a powerful testament to the reserves of strength and fortitude oppressed peoples carry within them – the very light their owners and those who would seek to leave them powerless wish so desperately to quell, the self-same light that burns and burns and never quite stops burning. It is a light that remembers the magic of freedom, and the roots that bind one to a homeland. It is the same light carried from generation to generation, one that is incapable of forgetting magic and freedom and love and the essence of what it is to be human.

 

In the Goophered Grapevine, magic exists as a means of blurring the lines of the hierarchy of power in the South, both before and after the Civil War. Magic is a conduit through which the black characters reclaim some measure of power from the white men that sought to enslave them. In this short story, a certain Aunt Peggy, a freed slave, performs a bewitchment in exchange for what is ultimately a paltry sum. Here, the bewitchment impacts a slave, and while it would have been poetic justice for it to be the ruination of Mars Dugal, the slave owner, that is not what happens – and while the goopher does go on to benefit the man who tells the story of the bewitchment of the vine, he stills ends up employed as a coachman, which is a situation that still sits uneasily with a more modern audience as unsatisfactory in that the white characters benefit greatly and the black characters are slighted, despite attempts to blur the racial lines built into the existing system of power through magic.

 

In short, I have found that magic in early Black Sci-Fi served as a potent metaphor, both for challenging power hierarchies, and, perhaps more pressingly, establishing black characters as powerful in their own right, by alluding to ancestral ties and roots, which possess a deep and enduring magic of their own.

 

I would like to leave you with a 21st-century poem called “Ode to the Only Black Kid in the Class” by Clint Smith. I found one of the final lines – ‘Here you are star, before they render you asteroid – before they watch you turn to dust.’ – to be a poignant reminder of the struggles faced by African American youth, despite the attempts of their predecessors to forge a better future. “Ode to the Only Black Kid in the Class” is a powerful poem and a commentary on education, empowerment, and ancestry are interconnected.

 

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