Author Erin Sharkey on AfroFuturism and the necessity of imagination

On February 16, in Mia’s Pillsbury Auditorium, five literary and performance artists will offer their takes on AfroFuturism, the burgeoning cultural movement that projects people of color into the future. It’s an expansive notion—an extension, if not a rebuttal, of Black History Month—encompassing the cosmic jazz of Sun Ra, the dystopian science fiction of Octavia Butler, even the nerdy wit of Junot Diaz.

Erin Sharkey, one of Thursday’s presenters, has explored the past as well as the future of black culture in her poetry and non-fiction writing. Here, the St. Paul native explains why such artistic time travel is essential, if black culture is to have any future at all.

What’s your take on AfroFuturism and its relevance today?
Science fiction has often erased people of color. And it’s not just a haphazard admission. I think it underscores some insidious lack of imagination about how black folks could persist through the oppression of this time. AfroFuturism insists that we do belong in the future. In fact, the only way we will actually get to the future is if we imagine ourselves there. If we can’t imagine a future with us in it, it won’t actually happen.

You’re a fan, then, and sometimes a creator, of writing historically excluded people of color. How does that happen?
Something I learned early on, like a lot of young readers of color, is how to relate to people on the page who don’t look like us. It happens for all kinds of readers—people are hungry for stories, so they develop this heightened ability, this set of skills. I think it’s been a detriment for white readers, actually, to not have this opportunity to develop and hone their empathy, to see themselves in lots of different kinds of characters.

You’ve worked with the Givens Collection of historical black narratives at the University of Minnesota. How does your interest in the past inform your take on the future?
It’s true that being rooted in the past is unusual for someone thinking about Black Futures. But I’ve mostly worked with Umbra Search, a free digital aggregate of historical black research from archives and museums around the country, reading ex-slave narratives—most of which have never been published before. It’s staggering to think how much material has been removed in this way from the record, and so you can use imagination as an opportunity for restoration both forward and backward in time. To imagine into these absences, places that have been erased from memory or don’t yet exist. To think past this broken and corrupt system we live in now. AfroFuturism provides that space for us to think not just about the near future—about black joy and black health and black wealth—but also the expanse of the galaxy.

There is something inherently liberating about time travel.
Yes, particularly when I’m writing as a poet I think I do some time-travel work. I don’t think time is a long, linear string; I think it snakes around us, and when we look up from the present we can see across time. At least in my own writing that’s generally how it presents.

So how does history remain a part of your identity without binding you to the past?
I’ve been toying with the idea of being a genealogical gossip. I’d like to redeem the idea of the gossip. We trust history, the historical record, which on the surface is an agreed-upon narrative of what’s happened but also tends to leave out the real juicy stories, the real dirt. We have to go back in time and extricate that history. There’s some fun to be had with that, while also insisting that love and creativity survived even in the most horrible situations, even in the belly of the slave ship. We don’t know enough about ourselves and our people and how we survived.

What’s your feeling on Black History Month—good, bad, neutral?
As a student, Black History Month was always the time when I felt the most tokenized in the classroom. Teachers seemed unprepared to teach the material, and I was asked to basically team-teach an experience that wasn’t actually my experience. I do think black achievement and black leadership deserves to be celebrated, ideally not just this month of the year. But there was a time when I felt really burned by it. AfroFuturism and Black Futures reminds us that blackness didn’t begin with slavery and didn’t end with Civil Rights. There’s so much more we can be celebrating and looking towards.

Erin Sharkey is a writer, producer, and graphic designer in the Twin Cities. She is the co-founder, along with Junauda Petrus, of the experimental arts production company Free Black Dirt, which is currently producing the Sweetness of Wild web series—a love story about Minneapolis’ modern Black Renaissance.