Afro-feminist journeys and the violence of the present
by Lidia Curti

The term Afrofuturism indicates a conceptual area at the intersection of afro-diasporic cultures with technology and sci-fi; it places African aesthetics at the centre of human civilization and moves between magics and technology; its ethical and aesthetic range refers to a utopia of alternative possible futures in an anti-racial and feminist frame. The world of slavery – denied and removed – comes back from the past to rewrite the sense of the present, disturbing the world in which we live, and to condition the future [1]. Afrofuturism calls for an imaginative appropriation of the past and the necessity of a redemptive critique of the present. It all started in the 1950s with Sun Ra, poet, pianist and jazz composer. He was a black American, born in Alabama, who presented himself as coming from Saturn to save his African American brothers and sisters from their exclusion in white society and guide them to another planet. How do you know I’m real? I’m not real. I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. … I do not come to you as a reality; I come to you as the myth, because that’s what black people are; myths. I came from a dream that the black man dreamed a long time ago. I’m actually a presence sent to you by your ancestors [2].
Afrofuturism combines elements of speculative fiction and fantasy with non-Western myths and beliefs. It can be described as a cultural sensibility, rather than a movement [3], between spirituality and ancestral mythologies on one side and fascination for technology on the other. It is also a framework for critical theory, particularly for feminist black aesthetics. Denise Ferreira da Silva (2017) speaks of blackness as «a disruptive force for a new global order and a way to unsettle ethics in the modern Western world where blackness has no value» [4]. Sylvia Wynter has called for an entirely new definition of what it is to be human and for a ‘profound re-writing of knowledge” in connection with black struggles [5].
A «feminist poetics of blackness» (da Silva) emerges from black narratives, commencing from the black American writer Octavia Butler, by some described as the forerunner of afrofuturism [6]. In novels written from the 1970s onwards, she narrates of journeys from one world to another, rescuing the past and imagining the future in a condensed moment. She poses the theme of the memory of slavery, with its appropriation of lands and bodies, and the importance to its redemption. The time and space travellers in her novels are native- or black-American women, often endowed with superhuman faculties. Her transgressive visions are centred on black female subjectivities.

In her early novel Kindred (1979), Dana, an African-American woman living in California, travels back in time, to a place in Maryland 150 years before, at the time of slavery. It is the place where Alice, a black plantation worker, and Rufus, a slave owner, live; the journey is made necessary to ensure the birth of their daughter who will become her great-grandmother Hagar, thus ensuring her very same existence. This is a motive that will become popular in some famous films of the 1980s, like Zemeckis’ Return to the Future and James Cameron’s Terminator. In consonance with contemporary techno-cultures, afrofuturism has a strong relation with popular culture in many aspects. Its juxtaposition of archaic and postmodern motives is a distinctive feature of contemporary afro-fashion and popular pop music [7].
In that place and time there were two important slave children, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Ross, then Tubman, recalling heroic resistances later recorded in noted writings. Gilroy reminds us that Douglass, echoed by Du Bois, stated that the fight of black Americans is a fight to the finish. Isaac Julien’s recent video, Lessons of the hour. Frederick Douglass (2019), the ex-slave who becomes a writer and an anti-slavery advocate, mentions the less famous women who have been heroines in the struggle, among them Harriet Tubman, the leader of the underground railway that permitted many slaves to escape.
In describing the abjection and the horrors of that condition, Kindred has been seen as an anticipation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the novel interpreting ‘the slave sublime’ (Gilroy) through the ghost of the slave girl murdered by her mother; here the history of slavery is written by the scars on her back, that she cannot see or want to know. In both there is a story not ‘to pass on’. This is a term with a double meaning: the memory of slavery is a tale impossible to tell that nevertheless must be told. Octavia Butler has spoken repeatedly in her interviews of the importance for young black Americans to face the legacy of slavery. The return to origins means that the past never passes and must be faced in order to live in the present and construct a future. Similarly, Saidija Hartman, in her own stories of fugitives from slavery, will later say: «I too live at the time of slavery. I mean in the future created by it» (2007, p. 133).
In Dawn (1987), first volume of the Xenogenesis trilogy, Lilith Iypao, a Native American who has survived the destruction of the Earth, finds herself in an alien place inhabited by tentacular beings who have rescued her. The tentacles covering their bodies are sentient and communicative organs through which they feel, see, meet sexually, experience pleasure and pain, besides giving shape to objects and places, in an activity passing the frontiers of gender and race. After a sleep of centuries, she is reborn between two worlds and identities with the task to “inter-generate” between the two. Torn between repulsion and acceptance, Lilith consents to start a new trans-human species in an articulation that goes beyond ancient dichotomies.
In Parable of the Sower (1993), Lauren Oya Olamina is a black American adolescent in flight from a scene of utter devastation and violence. In the wake of the biblical parable, it speaks of seeds and words and describes the migrating heroine’s difficult itinerary in pursuit of a mission. With other fugitives, she plants seeds as marks of an itinerary of rebirth, thus endowing the vegetal world with the task of a reproduction that can save the planet.[8] She then founds the nomad community of Earthseed whose ultimate goal is an interstellar migration to a faraway planet. They are guided by the faith in a goddess of Change: «All that you touch/You change. All you change /Changes you. The only lasting truth /is Change. God/is Change» is the first poetical epigraph of many, interspersed in the novel and in its sequel Parable of the Talents (1998), all insisting on mutation and metamorphosis as the bases of a new life. The importance of belonging to a collectivity and accepting diversity are guiding drives of the movement. The danger of the resurgence of a new slavery in the present and the future is developed in the second novel. The redemption through religion, a different religion, as a necessary cohesion for a black community, is echoed in Sylvia Wynter’s novel The Hills of Hebron (1962).
Her name, Lauren Oya Olamina, links nature to animism, and the African American world to Nigerian Yoruba culture. Her first name Lauren is inspired by a plant; Oya Olamina recalls the Brazilian goddess Oya, close to the Yoruba Nigerian Orisha, with its nine tributaries, the nine tentacles with which she captures the living and the dead, an image between the Brazilian Santeria and the Catholic cult of the Virgin Mary. As goddess of change, she commands wind, tempest and death, exercising her power as the creator of worlds. Lauren herself has superhuman powers as she is endowed, or we could say afflicted, with the hyper-empathic faculty of sharing the pains and suffering of others, including those she has to wound or kill in the necessary fight for survival. An ailment inherited by her mother – a mother she has never known as she died at her birth, a ghost appearing in her dreams – becomes her strength. It also conveys the author’s message against violence and war: what you inflict on others is inflicted on yourself.
With the interstellar journey as utopia, Butler returns to a sci-fi topos in novels that are also considered an important part of the new black narrative, and the foundation of afro-futurist aesthetics. Lauren, and before her Lilith, moving from a mystical past and a troubled present to a utopian future, are perfect heroines of what I would call afro-feminism. She is an important influence in new black narrative and art. This can be seen in the explorations of the slave past in Saidiya Hartman and Hortense Spiller, or the interstellar journeys in Nnedi Okorafor’s novels such as The Book of Phoenix (2015) and Binti (2015- 17). Norah Jemisin, author of The Broken Hearth trilogy (2016-18), has written the introduction to a recent edition of Parable of the Sower, describing it as a precious guide for future struggles in today’s America.

The Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu, our contemporary, has many points in common with Octavia Butler, and interprets an afro-feminist aesthetics even more centrally in her multimedia art. Her ‘fantastic journey’ (2013) visits faraway worlds, showing strange figurations that challenge racial and gender prejudice, spatial and temporal limits. In her collages, made of paper cutups, painting and drawings, Mutu describes war and colonialism as well as the environmental and technological devastation, in the context of a troubled ecology. The disquieting mutant female forms –­ ironic quotations of the female nude in traditional art – are the result of combinations with plants and animals in the context of Africa: women coyote, women tree, women shrubs, from whose hair strength and menace emerge. The black women who are her obsession, become dragon, snake, siren, cyborg, or medusas with tentacular hair. She follows in the path of constructing a feminist poetics of blackness.

A woman with medusa tentacular hair is at the centre of her video The End of Eating Everything (2013), a foreboding of a darker horizon, of the impeding ecological catastrophe, and a warning to us all. Her body representing the earth floats in the sky in harmony with birds and in symbiosis with plants, insects and other animals; slowly her beautiful face turns into an ugly grimace, she starts eating the birds, and her body changes into a mass of dirt and detritus submerging the earth. The female body becomes symptom and symbol of an apocalypses.
The diasporic narratives arriving from the southern shores of the Mediterranean also speak of different worlds linking a mythical past, a colonial and racist present, and a utopian future of mending and reparation and return of the forgotten Italian colonialism to our understanding of the present. The voices of African and Afrodescendent women in Italy (in novels, poetry, visual art, journalism, media, and music) promote a search for a new possible citizenship, marked by fragments of places and powers and crossed by the traces of different histories and cultures.

Most of these writers, and especially those from the Horn of Africa, reveal another view of Italian colonialism. They fill a void in official records by recalling invasions, massacres, concentration camps, and the racial laws of that colonial regime, along with the brutal banality of authoritarian rule. They contribute to the knowledge of the Italian colonial past, creating a rupture in the vision of a homogeneous, white Italy, more European than Mediterranean. They offer a look on ourselves and pose the question of how to shape our identity as Italians after colonialism, recalling a mourning for a loss that Italian history and culture have not addressed, an echo of what has happened for slavery in the western world.
There are many descriptions of the material journey, of the passage from the country of origin through the desert to the sea; they appear in the narratives of Mediterranean migrations with its horrors and dangers, drowning and the deaths but also hope and desire, reminding us that black lives are expendable here as well. Feven Abraha Tekle in her novel Libera (2005) narrates of the sea voyage to Sicily she experienced as a fugitive from Eritrea. With its difficulties and risks, the crossing from Tripoli to Lampedusa reminds her of the other passage, two centuries earlier, of the African slaves over the Atlantic. Against the background of the contorted phases and multiple locations of the Somali diaspora, Ali Farah in Madre piccola (2007) gives the reconstruction of the migration journey, a “circular story of poor people moved by desire” [9]. In an ideal connection to Morrison and Butler, Gabriella Ghermandi’s Regina di fiori e di perle (2007) is inspired by the painful necessity of describing the horrors of Italian colonialism as a reminder for the Italians of today. She offers a counter history of the Italian ‘conquest’ of Ethiopia, with its iniquity and violence. The heroine Mahlet is given the task to pass on the memory of Ethiopian colonial history and become her people’s griotte; she will cross the sea and carry it to the land of the Italians, to destroy their possibility of forgetting: «[…] that is why I am telling you this story. That is also mine. But now, yours as well» (2015, p. 270). Here the importance of the trace created by women’s writings along the path of memory emerges in all its force, accompanied by the difficulty of its necessary telling, as Toni Morrison wrote.

There are Italian novels too, that have started interrogating the memory of our colonialism. Francesca Melandri’s Sangue giusto (2017) narrates the same events we find in Ghermandi’s novel and follows a similar itinerary though from a different angle, that of an Italian woman of today. The novel starts when the heroine Ilaria finds on her steps a black youth whose documents give the name of her father [10]. After the horrors of the crossing (the atrocious Libyan jails, the perils of the sea passage, the arrival in a country where immigration is equated to criminality), he describes the experience of migration like having a wonderful dream while perched on the branches of a tree – the dream constantly interrupted by the danger of falling down.
The names of the many who drowned near Lampedusa (3.10.2013) are at the centre of many works, films and video. Among them, Dagmawi Yimer’s video Asmat – Nomi (2014), is a reminder of the victims in the Mediterranean, disappearing into the anonymity that is symbolic of the subaltern condition. Here again there is a link to the condition of the slaves during the Atlantic passage suspended in an undifferentiated identity, deprived of names and places of origin, as Hortense Spiller says in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” (1987), their only name being that of their owners, before the nicknames of their new condition.

These themes and motives find an echo in Italian music and popular culture too. Karima 2G, born in Rome of Liberian parents, is a dancer, singer and video-maker. Speaking from the position of a second generation migrant, she turns her gaze on us, on our racist stereotypes not without irony and humour as in the songs Orangutang and Bunga bunga; she also sings of the arbitrary borders we construct against exiles and migrants in Refugees, reminding us of Borders, a video by another migrant singer, M.I.A., a British rapper and writer of Tamil origins. After her stay in Liberia in 2013, where she has confronted her roots and her division between two worlds, she sings in her album Malala from a renewed feminist position, in a development that she herself defines as afrofeminist.

[1] Paul Gilroy considers slavery as the inner character of modernity and blackness as its antithesis; in The Black Atlantic (1993) he repeatedly states that the slave trade and the plantation are part of the moral history of the West and that the memory of slavery is essential in the reconnection of the present to a future utopian transformation of racial subordination. Denise Ferreira da Silva (2017) sees a reiteration of this modality of modernity in the racial grammar that has been reactivated by the flux of refugees towards Europe.
[2] These are words from Space is the Place, the film he produced in 1974 where he appears adorned with the emblems of the Egyptian civilization he cherished. In the accompanying album he plays with the Sun Ra Arkestra that he had assembled in the early sixties. It is interesting to note that, in the same year, Jimi Hendrix produced his instrumental piece Third Stone from the Sun, where ironically aliens come to earth in the search for a better place.
[3] Beatrice Ferrara convincingly argues this point in “My measurement of race is rate of vibration” (2012).
[4] Da Silva (2017) links the disregard for lives lost in the streets of the US to those lost in the Mediterranean Sea, where once again ‘black lives don’t Matter’.
[5] In the interview with David Scott (2000), she speaks of a dissonant, planetary humanism, with extensive reference to a new ecology in the wake of Frantz Fanon as a basis for black struggles.
[6] This recognition comes from Mark Dery, who was among the first to coin the term afrofuturism in his essay Black to the Future (1994).
[7] Kindred has become object of a cartoon in 2017; Parable of the Sower a folk-blues opera in 2015, and Dawn is soon to become a TV series directed by Ada du Vernay.
[8] Butler is attentive to a world suffering from climate change and wealth inequality, where a “new” environmental politics cannot come as a result of liberal reform or black inclusivity but only after understandings of relational human subjectivity are deeply restructured. Sylvia Wynter reminds us that Fanon wrote on the connection of black struggles to the fight for a new ecology and da Silva underlines that humans exist in correlation with any other form (animate and inanimate) in the universe.
[9] «A desire so strong as to be able to unearth roots, to challenge cyclones. You know? To die dehydrated, gasp for breath, thrash about is not a trifle. I could imagine the boats in bad conditions and the list of objects found in the bunk. Small bag, copybook, picture, leather shoe, biberon, shirt, rucksack, watch, lace. Details that write a history […]» (20xx, p. xx)
[10] The question posed here and suspended to the end is whether he has the right blood to get citizenship in this country. The title quotes the ius sanguinis, the right of blood, the only one Italian law accepts as the right to stay; the failure of the battle to pass the extension to ius soli, on the basis of birth, marked the ominous passage in Italy to a government opposing to immigration and waving racism as a banner.

Farah A., Ubax C., Madre Piccola, Frassinelli, Milano 2007; Engl. ed., Little Mother, transl. by Giovanna Bellesia-Contuzzi and Victoria Offredi Poletto, intro. by Alessandra Di Maio, Indiana University Press, Minneapolis 2011.
Butler O. E., Kindred, Doubleday, New York 1979; Ital. ed. Legami di sangue, trad. di S. Gambescia, cura di M. G. Fabi, Le Lettere, Firenze 2005.
Butler O. E., Dawn, Warner Books, New York 1987; Ital. ed. Ultima genesi, trad. di G. L. Staffilano, Urania Mondadori, Milano 1987.
Butler O. E., Parable of the Sower, Warner Books, New York 1993; Ital. ed. La parabola del seminatore, trad. di A. Polo, Fanucci, Roma 2006.
Butler O. E., Parable of the Talents (Earthseed.2), Seven Stories Press, New York 1998.
Ferrara B., “My measurement of race is rate of vibration”, in Dark Matter Journal, 9-2 (2012), pp. 1-16.
Ferreira da Silva D., Toward a Global Idea of Race, Minnesota U. P., Minneapolis 2007.
Ferreira da Silva D., “On Matter Beyond the Equation of Value”, in e-flux journal, 2017, pp. 1-11.
Fanon F., I dannati della terra, prefazione di J.P. Sartre, a cura di L. Ellena, Einaudi Torino 2007.
Ghermandi G., Regina di fiori e di perle, postfazione di Cristina Lombardi Diop, Donzelli, Roma 2007. Engl. ed. Queen of Flowers and Pearls, transl. by Giovanna Bellesia-Contuzzi and Victoria Offredi Poletto, University of Indiana Press, Bloomingtin & Indianapolis, 2015.
Hartman S., Lose Your Mother. A journey along the Atlantic Route, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2007.
Dagmawi Yimer’s video Asmat – Names in memory of all victims of the sea
Karima 2G, “Bunga bunga” (accessed 27 August 2019); “Orangutang” (Accessed 27 August 2019); “Refugees” (Accessed 27 August 2019); “Malala” (Accessed 27 August 2019).
Melandri F., Sangue giusto, Rizzoli, Milano 2017.
Morrison T., Beloved, Chatto &Windus, London 1987; ed. it. Amatissima, trad. di F. Cavagnoli, Frassinelli, Milano 1988.
Mutu W., A Fantastic Journey, video. Extract: (Accessed 27 August 2019)
Mutu W., The End of Eating Everything, video. Extract: (Accessed 27 August 2019)
Spillers Hortense J., “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”, in Diacritics, vol. 17, n. 2 (1987), pp. 64-81.
Scott D., The Re-Enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Sylvia Wynter, in Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, 4(2), 2000, pp. 119–217.
Tekle F. A., Libera, con R. Masto, Sperling & Kupfer, Milano, 2005.
Wynter S., The Hills of Hebron, Ian Randle Publishers, Jamaica, Miami 1962.
Wynter S., Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Toward the Human, After Man, its Overrepresentation – An Argument, in The New Centennial Review, vol. 3, n. 3 (2003), pp. 257-337.

Lidia Curti formerly taught English and Feminist studies at the University of Naples, “Orientale” and is now Honorary Professor in the same institution. She is the author of Female Stories, Female Bodies (1998), La voce dell’altra (2006), and co-editor (with Iain Chambers) of The Postcolonial Question. Common skies, divided horizons (1996).