Week 3 Utopias & Dystopias II: The Fifth Season

Page Illustration: Broken Earth Trilogy by broccolini, Fan Art, 2019

ASSIGNED READINGS & MEDIA

Jemisin, NK (2015). The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth Trilogy #1). London: Orbit. (COURSE TEXT)

Maynard, Robyn (2019). Reading Black Resistance through Afrofuturism: Notes on post-Apocalyptic Blackness and Black Rebel Cyborgs in Canada. Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 39(4): 29-47.(via LEARN)


AFROFUTURISM

Image: WIN-INITIATIVE/GETTY IMAGES Source: Yes Magazine

In Robyn Maynard’s essay, “Reading Black Resistance through Afrofuturism,” she maps out two important concepts: (1) how the foundations of our current society are built on anti-Blackness; and (2) how afrofuturism creates the possibility of imagining liberation outside the confines of Western Enlightenment thinking. These concepts are critical to our collective study this term and we will explore them in a little more detail below.

The Foundations of (anti)Blackness

Maynard situates modernity as the site of contemporary anti-blackness. Modernity, our current social reality, is constructed through the historical processes of capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, settler colonialism, and ableism.

Modernity emerges through the European mass-abduction and enslavement of African peoples, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the genocide of Indigenous peoples in what would come to be known as “the Americas.”

Europeans consciously and violently justified these processes by developing the pseudo-scientific reality that Africans and Indigenous peoples existed outside of humanity. This way of thinking came to be known as the doctrine of discovery and was justified by the Papal Bulls (i.e. The Pope’s evaluation of the morality of a given issue) that suggested that it was alright to enslave, kill, and steal land from African and Indigenous peoples because they were not Christian and therefore, not human.

As Maynard explains:

As the project of modernity positions black life as outside of humanity, the black condition can be conceived of as cyborg: figured at once as machine, fungible commodity and monster.

Robyn Maynard, 2019: 29
Survivors, Resisters, Refusers – Not Just Victims

Maynard makes clear that from the onset of this process, those deemed to be sub-human or non-human were not simply victims of this brutal regime – what she calls “the foundational, apocalyptic violence exerted upon the black Atlantic.

She continues:

[S]ubversion and resistance have also defined the black experience, embodied by those who refused, often at great risk, to fight against incorporation into the violent structures of the New World, working instead toward new ways of black becoming.

Robyn Maynard, 2019: 29
What is a Black cyborg?

Maynard says “To be black in a world that is structured by violent antiblackness is to be a cyborg.”

What does she mean by that? What is a cyborg? How does anti-blackness create the conditions that make black people living in modernity cyborgs?

Maynard lists (3) three conditions:

  1. Radical Alien-ness: There is a radical alien-ness to blackness, and to black being, in a white world: black people have been used as subjects for medical experiments, coded as “natural machines” in the service of white wealth production, and denied legal status as human beings (Lavender 2009, 190). (30).
  2. Survivors of the Apocalypse: Our ancestors—and here I speak to my black ancestors—who survived the apocalypse of the transatlantic slave trade and the violent colonization  of Africa did so in a world in which to be black was to be positioned as a non-human entity, subject to “the ongoing purge of the black from the category of the Human” (Walcott 2014, 96). (31)
  3. Dystopia is the Past & Present not Future: While the apocalypse is generally conceived as a dystopic possible futurity, the African diaspora has already undergone brutalities so vile and degrading, and so historically unprecedented in scope and scale, that only Armageddon can accurately describe the advent of modernity on our collective past, and only the postapocalypse can define our present (30-31).

What is Afrofutrism?

Maynard draws on Kodwo Eshun’s assertion that “black existence and science fiction are one and the same” (32). Based on the foundations of anti-Blackness that we’ve theorized above, what does that mean?

To understand the black condition as existing in a form of science fiction, opens activists and artists up to imagining possibilities outside of the boundaries that declare: “this is how it’s always been” or “Black people need more stable father figures” or “things are getting better”.

Maynard explains that the very conditions that construct Black people as “subhuman” are the same that give them access to theorizing and seeing ways of existing beyond the limits of the “human condition”:

With luck, too, she says, this knowledge “avails us with particular ways of re/seeing, re/ inhabiting, and re/imagining the world” (2016, 22). Put otherwise, to be denied access to humanity is not to be subhuman. In fact, it is to have access to ways of existing beyond and outside the limits of the human.

Robyn Maynard, 2019: 32

Afrofuturism consists of:

  • artists, philosophers, musicians, scientists, and radicals
  • speculative cultural, artistic, technological and philosophical movements
  • the fields of science fiction, speculative art, cultural criticism and radical theory

Afrofuturism provides us with news ways of thinking, including:

  • redefining past/present/future
  • historical methodologies that fuse myth, science fiction, and realities of black oppression and resistance
  • thinking beyond the linear progress narrative of the Enlightenment
  • “a program for recovering the histories of counter-futures” (Eshun 2003:301)
The Black Radical Imagination

Maynard shows how Afrofuturism is a contribution to the Black radical imagination. This lineage includes: recovering histories of resistance spanning multiple centuries and continents that have been erased by dominant society; and individual and collective responses to slavery, colonization, capital, and racial domination in Africa and across the African diaspora.

For Maynard, the dystopia of today requires the Black radical imagination to bring us to a futurity that is – not this.

If life had become a nightmare so horrific it could be described today only as a dystopian science fiction, then the black imagination that stages a refusal to submit demonstrates a near-cosmic drive to futurity. As much as the black condition was, beginning with enslavement, marked by death, it was also characterized by a refusal to capitulate, while maintaining impossible desires of freedom.

Robyn Maynard, 2019: 36

For Maynard, this politics seeks justice in the following ways:

  • justice that is deeper than mere acceptance into (white) society
  • the possibility of becoming “black on black terms”
  • creating transformative change on a planetary level

How is the afrofuturist Black radical imagination expressed in contemporary popular culture?

To further understand how it operates, we turn now to the work of Janelle Monae.

JANELLE MONAE: THE METROPOLIS SAGA

Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid, 2018

It’s the year 2719, female android Cindi Mayweather (aka Janelle Monáe) has encountered a musical market world filled with severe social stratification.

Grace D. Gipson, Afrofuturism’s Musical Princess: Janelle Monáe, 2016

This is how scholar Grace D. Gipson introduces the afrofuturist world of Janelle Monáe’s The Metropolis Saga, a four (4) album (and counting) sci-fi speculative fiction treatise that Gibson describes as invoking “the literary genius of Octavia Butler fused with the music artistry of Prince”.

METROPOLIS: THE CHASE SUITE (2008)

While the characters Cindi Mayweather and the Metropolis world are first introduced in Monáe’s self-released album, The Audition, the story begins in full at the start of her first studio album, Metropolis: The Chase Suite.

Monáe’s concept for these albums is derived from her own personal lived experiences in moving from her hometown of Kansas City to Atlanta in search of better work opportunities. The year this album was released coincided with the financial collapse resulting from the “sub-prime mortgage crisis” that disproportionately impacted Black communities who have been structurally shut out in getting mortgages since the days of “red-lining” and were now being exploited by the usurious scheme of sub-prime mortgages.

The album begins with this spoken word monologue:

Android No. 57821, otherwise known as Cindi Mayweather, has fallen desperately in love with a human named Anthony Greendown.

Mayweather, an android is not permitted to feel/love/exist outside of what she has been programmed to do and her love with a human sets her up to be chased by bounty hunters (although the daily rules specify “no phasers, only chainsaws and electro-daggers”).

Katie Goh, in her article for Dazed, explains how the lead single “Many Moons” establishes what would become Monáe’s signature Afrofuturistic aesthetic, “an exploration of real world issues of race, class, gender, and politics in a sci-fi setting.”

Goh suggests that “Many Moons” does two important things in creating Monáe’s afrofuturist world:

  1. Blurring of reality and (science) fiction: It creates a purposeful blurring of the lines between our current lived reality and that of the world of Cindi Mayweather. “Civil rights, civil war / Hood rat, crack whore,’ Monáe sings. “Cybergirl, droid control / Get away now they trying to steal your soul.” 
  2. Creates an Afrofuturist Imagery and Aesthetic: The video ends with a Mayweather quote – “I imagined Many Moons in the sky lighting the way to freedom” – predicting that Many Moons and many worlds will be how Mayweather (Monáe) gains her freedom. These moons and worlds will be the various “emotion pictures” and Afrofuturistic aesthetics that Monáe will create throughout her career, in a quest for total creative and political freedom.
THE ARCHANDROID: THE CHASE SUITE (2010)

The ArchAndroid picks up the plot with Cindi Mayweather returning after her escape from Metropolis to free the city from “the Great Divide,” a secrete society that uses time travel to suppress freedom and love. Mayweather develops as a messianic figure returning to mobilize droids to fight for freedom.

The album is released in 2010 amidst mounting protests over the killing of Oscar Grant by San Fransico BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police on New Year’s Eve. The mobilizations that took place against police brutality and Grant’s killing were re-enacted in the 2013 film Fruitvale Station starring Michael B. Jordan. The ArchAndroid emerging in the lead up to the Occupy Wall Street protests further develops the dystopian world of Metropolis continuing to parallel the events of the rebellion with the real-world. The album trailer for The ArchAndroid gives us our first visual look at Metropolis and the city that Mayweather fled only to return to lead the Android rebellion.

THE ELECTRIC LADY (2013)

The Electric Lady, the third album to develop the world of Metropolis draws more heavily on post-humanist feminism to further develop Mayweather’s character.

Goh (2018) suggests that Monáe draws inspiration from feminist Donna Haraway’s seminal (1984) essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto” to suggest, as Maynard does in her piece above, that Mayweather (a representation of Monáe herself) can only be understood through the lens of the cyborg, “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction’; a ‘creature in a post-gender world.” Recognition of this identity, suggests Goh, is how equality will be gained.

Monáe’s android persona, Cindi Mayweather, is Haraway’s cyborg, a posthuman, genderless creature that has a fluid existence that doesn’t rely on boundaries or limitations.

Katie Goh, Tracing the evolution of Janelle Monáe’s high-concept music videos, 2018

The release of The Electric Lady came amidst protests of the murders of Trayvon Martin in Florida and Rekia Boyd in Chicago. In her engagement with these movements, Monáe produces a track in support of the rising BLM movement called “Hell You Talmbout“.

Thematically, The Electric Lady, is a scathing critique of the way in which white/non-Black society desires Black culture, music, and excellence but seeks to control and maintain it for its own pleasure. Freedom is unacceptable musically, financially, and spiritually.

This is best exemplified in the video for the track “Q.U.E.E.N.” featuring Erykah Badu that shows Cindi Mayweather and other Androids being held in a museum and only allowed out of their exhibits to perform for humans.

DIRTY COMPUTER (2018)

Dirty Computer, Monáe’s most recent release begins to transition and further blur the lines between her afrofuturist world, Metropolis, and reality. It continues the afrofuturist feminisms developed on The Electric Lady but begins to also incorporate significant aspects of Black queer theory – lining up with Monáe herself beginning to publicly talk about her own queerness/bi-sexuality.

In Cassandra L. Jones’ (2018) essay, ““Tryna Free Kansas City”: The Revolutions of Janelle Monáe as Digital Griot,” suggests that the shift between The Electric Lady and Dirty Computer can be seen as an awakening of Mayweather’s sense of the “queer love” she has developed with a human – a love not sanctified by the state – one that sets her at odds with the government. These albums show her transition “from an ordinary lover to a freedom fighter who seeks to dismantle the status quo” (Jones 2018:52).

Dirty Computer, however, blurs the lines more than any other album between Metropolis and lived reality. Monáe “voices narratives of liberation via technology, she equally confronts the racist, heterosexist, patriarchal, capitalist origins of technology and how these have been used against black women’s bodies” (Jones 2018:43).

This is perhaps most evident in the video and song “Django Jane.”

ACTIVITY 1
The video for "Django Jane" is filled with visual, auditory, and lyrical content that is both a continuation of Monáe's afrofuturist narrative of the Android freedom fighter Cindi Mayweather and a direct political intervention in the struggles for Black lives and Black queer love.  

INSTRUCTIONS
1. Watch the above video. 
2. Reflect on the visuals of the album - pull out at least one item that Monáe uses to symbolize an "alien-ness/futurity"; a connection to continental Africa; a connection to urban Black America. 
3. What is the importance of Black "femmeness/womanhood" ascribed to the lead characters. Pay special attention to these lyrics: “We gave you life/We gave you birth/We Gave you God/ We gave you Earth/We femmed the future/Don’t Make it Worse”
4. How does Monáe blur the lines between autobiography and sci-fi storytelling in this song? Pay special attention to these lyrics: "A-town, made it out there//Straight out of Kansas City, yeah we made it out there/Momma was a G, she was cleanin' hotels//Poppa was a driver, I was workin' retail//Kept us in the back of the store//We ain't hidden no more//"

THE FIFTH SEASON AS AFROFUTURISM

N.K. Jemisin, Vulture Magazine, 2018

ON NK JEMISIN

Speculative and Science Fiction have been the realm of white, conservative, and often over white supremacists like HP Lovecraft for many years. In fact, when Nnedi Okorafor won the World Fantasy Award for best novel in 2011 they awards committee was pushed by Okorafor to change the award statue from the bust of HP Lovecraft who wrote all of his stories with an avowed and brutal anti-Black lens. Authors like the anarchist Ursula K. LeGuin or the afrofuturist Octavia Butler were small twinkles in a space utterly dominated by conservative white men.

In Alison Flood’s article in The Guardian on NK Jemisin, she describes how Jemisin’s 2016 Hugo Award for best novel (The Fifth Season) came after years of a block of mostly white, male right-wing writers acting as a voting block to thwart the award going to BIPOC and women/trans* authors.

Jemisin did not shy away from calling these people out in her award acceptance speech:

“This is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers – every single mediocre insecure wannabe who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage, that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honour, that when they win it it’s meritocracy but when we win it it’s ‘identity politics’ –… I get to smile at those people, and lift a massive, shining, rocket-shaped middle finger in their direction.”

NK Jemisin, Hugo Award Winner Speech, 2016

Jemisin went on to win the Hugo Award in 2017 (The Obelisk Gate) and in 2018 (The Stone Sky) becoming the first author in history to win three consecutive Hugo Awards and an award for each of the books in a trilogy.

In an interview with Jessica Hurley in ASAP/Journal, N.K. Jemisin discusses the political context that instigated the anger and urgency in which she wrote The Fifth Season (and the entire Broken Earth trilogy).

She recalls:

[T]he particular strains of how this story manifests, or how this world developed where it became a reflection of a lot of issues that I was seeing in the world around me, was because I was writing it around the time of Ferguson and watching that unfold on the Twitter feed, and a lot of that anger came through. There’s the idea that dystopia makes no sense when you’re talking to people from certain marginalized groups. Because the society we live in is a dystopia to those people. To my ancestors who struggled to survive in a country that actively sabotaged them again and again and again and again and is still doing so, a country that claims to have gotten rid of slavery and yet snuck in a little clause in the Thirteenth Amendment to make it “tee-hee, still possible,” I mean, this society is and remains a dystopia. Dystopia is in the eye of the beholder (471).

N.K. Jemisin, An Apocalypse is a Relative Thing: An Interview with N.K. Jemisin, 2018

The pain, fear, and anger that Jemisin felt as people mobilized after the death of Michael Brown (and many others) during the 2015-2017 phase of the BLM uprisings provoked a vivid dream. Jemisin recounts that in her dream she saw a middle-aged Black woman lifting up a mountain and getting ready to throw it at her. She could not shake this vision and wanted to write about what earth shattering anger feels like in the context of living in a current dystopia.

KEY THEMES IN THE FIFTH SEASON

Broken Earth fan art by DOOMGLOSSARY

BURNING THIS WHOLE DAMN PLACE TO THE GROUND AS LEGITIMATE STRATEGY

There are at least two orogene characters (Alabaster and Essun) in The Broken Earth Trilogy who recognize that change in their society can only come through cataclysmic events.

Jemisin uses these moments to parallel contemporary debates around reform vs. revolution. She is highly critical of incremental change noting:

“There are those who believe in incremental change as the only safe way to make the world a better place. I don’t believe in that. Incremental change means a lot of people suffering for a very long time, mostly so that the people in the status quo can be comfort- able longer. The people pushing incremental change aren’t the ones who are suffering. And sometimes a revolution is necessary; sometimes you do have to burn it all down” (473).

Jemisin shows how the humans in The Fifth Season are enslaving orogenes and using their powers to maintain stability and prolong the inevitable in hopes for a “more convenient season”. She likens this to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” where “

However, Jemisin recognizes as well that a strategy of “burn it all down” should not be advocated lightly and without recognition for the harm and violence that comes from such a political strategy. She explains that “he’s lamenting mostly white liberals who were constantly urging him to go slower, to just wait for a time that would be better, there would be a time at some point in the future when it would be appropriate for black people to be granted basic civil rights” (473). For Jemisin and for King, the problem was that society was devoting more energy to maintaining its power structure than it was to actually addressing the problems around them.

THE ECOPOLITICS and RESISTANCE TO THE ANTHORPOCENE
Obelisk, Eli Neugeboren, FanArt

This last point, about being more concerned with maintaining the power structure than dealing with the problems we’ve caused, gets at the heart of the eco-politics of The Fifth Season. In a time (over 40,000 years) of periodic, cyclical, and unpredictable “fifth seasons” where the world is so toxic that it becomes an “enemy” of the people who live on it, the society is so concerned about maintaining power and surviving the next destructive season that they legitimize the slavery and abuse of orogenes and their own hatred for the planet on which they live.

This too parallels today’s society and the debates happening within the environmentalist movements. Many (particularly white led) environmental justice groups and activists describe the era we are living in as The Anthropocene, the geological time where humans are transforming the entire planet. However, as Jemisin argues, not everyone on the planet is equally responsible for the damage. It is the systems and structures of power (capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, settler colonialism) that those who have power seek to maintain that are resulting in these dangerous changes – not general human activity.

Jemisin reflects:

It depends on what you consider the end of the world. An apocalypse is a relative thing. Usually the world survives just fine and there’s another species waiting to take our place if we nuke ourselves or something. And, hell, there are more than seven billion people on this planet (476).

NK Jemisin, An Apocalypse is a Relative Thing: An Interview with N.K. Jemisin, 2018
BLACK WOMANHOOD/MOTHERHOOD
Syenite By Jameelah Walgren, FanArt

The Broken Earth Trilogy is centered on motherhood/parenting and Blackness. Through multiple character interactions Syenite and Alabaster and their son Coru (and the queerness of their relationship), Damaya’s relationship with her mother and then with the Guardian Schaffa, Essun’s loss of her son at the hands of his father and her quest to find her daughter Nassun.

The driving story is one about a woman “fighting to make a world worthy of her children”.

Jemisin explains, “And you see what it takes to make such a world when you’re fighting against oppression. You need to change the entire goddamn world to make that world function (475).”

While acknowledging that in real life it is perhaps not as daunting of a task as literally destroying the whole world, it remains a perilous journey.

Jemisin compares this to the current context of Black rebellion against police killing:

When you recognize the fact that we live in a society that is willing to roll out the damn army when a peaceful protest of people is taking place, when you begin to understand the scope of forces arrayed against a concept like Black equality, when you begin to realize how much, how many years of effort and energy are engaged in keeping my ance tors and me from having a decent life, it starts to feel like the Earth is out to get you (476).

NK Jemisin, An Apocalypse is a Relative Thing: An Interview with N.K. Jemisin, 2018
SOLIDARITY AS SURVIVAL
How to Survive the End of the World, Podcast Cover Image, 2020

The final key theme that is relevant to this course is the way in which The Fifth Season suggests that solidarity, collaboration, and cooperation across differences in power/history/positionality is criticial to our collective survival.

As Jemisin argues, “The Broken Earth books are a Black female power fantasy, and I at least tried to address the fact that in the apocalypse it’s not the rugged individualistic white guys who have the guns and are domineering and whatever, who tend to survive. In real situations of disaster, it’s people who cooperate who survive. It’s people who look out for each other. Altruism and community are what help you get through, not being Mad Max” (470).

These are themes that will resonate throughout the course and perhaps most certainly through the work and reading of adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. If those themes are interesting to you, consider checking out adrienne maree brown and her sister autumn brown’s podcast How to Survive the End of the World which does a great job of bridging many of the topics that we cover in this course! It might also be relevant to Assignment 1, 2, and even 3!

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