Over the past few years, afrofuturism—a term coined in the mid-’90s to describe speculative art, music, and literature that addresses the African diaspora—has expanded its pop culture footprint thanks to Beyonce and Solange Knowles, Janelle Monáe, Marvel’s Black Panther, and Ava DuVernay’s just-announced TV series based on Octavia Butler’s Dawn. But ever since the 1940s, when Sun Ra brought his cosmic jazz to Washington Park, Chicago has been ground zero for afrofuturist arts and culture, and it remains so today.
Back in 2014, we caught up with some of Chicago’s most prominent afrofuturist artists and musicians like David Boykin, Nick Cave, and Cauleen Smith. But what about the city’s poets and writers? Through science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, and surrealism, these three women are keeping Chicago at the center of the afrofuturist conversation.
Poet, Writer, Artist, Sociologist
Growing up in Logan Square, Eve Ewing used to daydream about “shooting arrows, exploring dungeons, and solving mysteries” while riding her bike. She didn’t hear the word “afrofuturism” until her 20s, but as a child she watched Geordi La Forge on Star Trek and listened to George Clinton. Today, Ewing’s one of Chicago’s most visible cultural icons, from her reporting on Chicago Public Schools to her debut poetry collection, Electric Arches (Haymarket Books, Sept. 12), which looks at Chicago’s South and West Sides through an afrofuturist lens.
“The book is an attempt to use poetry to write a future, and to me that future has to be a free black future,” Ewing says. In Electric Arches, lunar aliens invade Chicago and paint everything black, a time machine allows a fifth-grader to speak with her ancestors, and South Side children escape the police on flying bicycles.
“Part of what makes afrofuturism interesting and distinct is that blackness in America demands an honest reckoning with a violent and traumatic past,” she says. “And here we are in Chicago, a city where black life has been crafted in the face of generations of inconceivable violence: gun violence, state violence, everything. I think we are tasked with thinking beyond this world, about how to live in spite of and beyond everything trying to kill us.”
Poet, Artist, Professor
One of Eve Ewing’s mentors is Krista Franklin, a poet and artist who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In the art world, she’s known for her mixed-media collages—as well as the art book SEED (The Book of Eve), which was inspired by the science fiction of Octavia Butler—but she’s also an accomplished poet, appearing in Poetry magazine and the 2015 anthology, The Breakbeat Poets (Haymarket Books).
“Chicago is a fertile ground for afrofuturist writers, artists, and musicians for several reasons, but one of those reasons is that Chicago is a dystopia,” Franklin says. “It's a city where invisible and visible lines are drawn; a city popularly characterized by crime, citizen- and state-sanctioned violence, and a commitment to the prison industrial complex for children, youth and adults. It's also a city where black and brown creativity thrives and flourishes even under challenging and difficult circumstances.”
Since a lot of afrofuturist work looks toward the future, I asked Franklin if she was optimistic about the future of Chicago. “I don't think I even know what optimism means. I'm a realist, and I always have been. What I see from the artists, visionaries, writers, musicians, scholars, designers, and intellectuals who surround me is that Chicago's future is strong and vibrant. The future is happening now,” she says.
Author, Screenwriter, Filmmaker
As a fourth-grader, Ytasha Womack wondered why Darth Vader was voiced by James Earl Jones but played by a white actor. “With the diversity of the nation and world increasingly standing in stark contrast to the diversity in futuristic works, it’s no surprise that afrofuturism emerged,” she writes in Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (Chicago Review Press), her landmark analysis of afrofuturism as a pop culture phenomenon.
Womack was also inspired by Nichelle Nichols, the Chicago-area actress who played Uhura in the original Star Trek series. “She was going to quit the show but was encouraged by Martin Luther King to stay. He told her that her role showed that everyone has a place in a technologically advanced future. Later, Nichols would actively help NASA recruit women astronauts, and her character inspired Mae Jemison [another Chicagoan] to become an astronaut as well,” Womack says.
In addition to her nonfiction, Womack is a novelist, screenwriter, and filmmaker. Later this month, her experimental short film A Love Letter to the Ancestors From Chicago will screen at the Black Harvest Film Festival after showings in Nigeria and the UK. Meanwhile, her crowdfunded feature film Bar Star City, about “two star-crossed lovers from opposite ends of time who decide to make a bar on the South Side of Chicago their home,” will start shooting this fall.
“It’s no surprise that NASA's first black male and female astronauts came from Chicago,” Womack says. “A great deal of those ideas about the future are embedded in black Chicago culture. As long as we value humanity in all that we do, we'll be spacetastic.”