By Nancy Powell
Afrofuturism may have been the panel name, but this clearly was an homage to sci-fi writer Octavia Butler. Panelists touched on how the various aspects of Butler’s works and personal philosophy inspired their own research on Afrofuturism.
Three UCLA archivists and librarians (Kelly Bessel, Dalena Hunter, Shani Miller) and UCI Informatics Professor Roderic Crooks teamed together for this enlightening, and at times uneven, panel that dug into the rich cultural treasures of Afrofuturism and its influences in media, using the archives of Octavia Butler as an example.
The discussion kicked off with defining get the central tenets of Afrofuturism. Professor Crooks’ defined Afrofuturism as a liberation aesthetic couched on the concepts of freedom. Although the term was coined by 1994 by Mark Dery and was most prominent in the recent Black Panther movie, Afrofuturism could be traced to the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s through black speculative artists and musicians such as Sun Ra. Scholar Alondra Nelson, writer Tananarive Due and wearable tech designer Woodrow W. Winchester helped to shape the concept in their own views, with Winchester using Afrofuturism to help black women figure out what they wanted from wearable health technology devices.
Delano Hunter, the next speaker, defined intersectionality on the multidimensional aspects of discrimination. She highlighted legal examples on how race, class and gender are used as “interlocking oppressions” against black women and offered examples in media and the arts that showed how intersectionality has affected black women and their communities. Hunter also used library searches as an example to illustrate the lack of understanding and acknowledgement about Afrofuturism, citing that individuals seeking to learn more about Afrofuturism would have to know how to search from the point of view of the African diasporic experience and identity. Using Octavia Butler’s example of overcoming the odds and defying the expectations of history, Hunter says “Be like Octavia…look broader and look deeper…look narrowly, but look deeper.”
Shani Miller shared her experiences on the access and digital tools centered around Butler’s Parable series, stating that Butler never thought of her series as prophecy, but global warming and environmental issues have made her fiction a reality. Miller explained how digital archives sourced from library digital media helped to create an apocalyptic map of Parable locations, using ESRI story maps.
Kelly Bessel, the final speaker of the panel, offered her own experiences as an archivist to illustrate efforts required to preserve historical and literary records. Bessel led the audience through a one-page zine-making session that generated a lot of audience participation and appreciation for the work.
This was a standing-room only, pro-Octavia panel whose audience members showed a level of engagement that spoke to the continuing interest in Afrofuturism and to a reenergized following of Butler’s works.