The literary genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror have for decades explored themes of the future, technology and the fantastic. From the stark weirdness of Philip K.Dick to the spine shivering darkness of H.P. Lovecraft, the genres were until the late 20th century largely tales of white experience told by white writers, but that’s changing.
In the new subgenre of Afrofuturism, Black creators in fiction, poetry, film and comics are using their personal and shared history to create new tales. Last week as part of Bunnell Street Arts Center’s weekly Zoom presentation, “Inspiration and Adaptation,” new-to-Homer artist and writer David Brame spoke on Afrofuturism. His talk can be seen at www.bunnellarts.org/inspiration-and-adaptation.
“With Afrofuturism we’re taking those personal stories that are native to the Black experience, and telling those stories with all that fantastical stuff,” Brame said in a later phone interview. “… It’s using the framework of the lived experience of a Black person or an African American person.”
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, and raised in the South and Midwest, Brame, 37, moved to Homer with his teenage daughter before the pandemic after living in Mexico for two years. A friend of fiber artist Abigail Kokai, he had spent the summer of 2015 working with Bunnell and Kokai. He wrote the narrative for a street mural done on Heath Street in 2015 by artist Kady Perry, now known as Kady Yellow.
“We were going from the bottom of the country to the top,” Brame said. “… It seems like a good move in terms of an art scene and support of the arts. It seems like a good place to be.”
A Yates Fellow at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, he graduated with a master of fine arts in 2-dimensional studies. After grad school he taught at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and at a historically black college and university in Maryland. Initially he said he was excited to teach.
“I was a Black professor. I’m going to get to teach Black kids,” Brame said. “I’m a steward of their lives and going to be able to help them.”
But he soured on university culture. At Ryerson, he ran into racial microaggressions he didn’t at first recognize. In Maryland, he found a corrupt system.
“I don’t think academia is for me,” he said about leaving teaching. “… I figured it out. It’s been since 2014 and I haven’t had to get a quote real unquote job. I’ve been able to travel still and have lots of experiences. I think now I’ve been able to get into my ability, be creative.”
His latest project, “After the Rain,” is a graphic novel adaptation of Nnedi Okorafor’s short story, “On the Road.” It will be published in January by Abrams/Megascope. “After the Rain” ticks off many of the boxes in Afrofuturism. The story of a Nigerian immigrant detective in Chicago named Chioma, it takes the main character back to her home country after she takes a leave of absence following a police murder of Black youth.
“There’s all these layered moments of trauma she’s dealing with,” Brame said.
Chioma starts seeing strange things, like death flowers that spew foul spells, or a zombie boy with massive head wounds who’s still alive.
“She’s kind of working through these traumatic experiences and it’s causing her to lose grip on reality,” Brame said. “She’s losing little bits of herself as she moves forward.”
The Nigerian-American character of Chioma created by the Nigerian-American writer Okorafor exemplifies another aspect of Afrofuturism: It’s not just about the American Black experience, but includes African, Caribbean and other Black artists of the diaspora.
In his Bunnell Zoom presentation, Brame talked about visiting some of those cultures. In 2017 he spent seven weeks in Africa, visiting both Arab and Black communities. He said he wanted to find small, intimate places.
“I’m not looking for cultural, Trip Advisor places,” he said. “I like to wander.”
Black people sometimes think of travel as “white people’s stuff,” Brame said.
“I’ve always thought Why? Why not?” he said. “What are the social barriers or niceties? What are these things that cause you to be unable to have that experience?”
Travel, he said, is “an act of defiance.”
“When I’m traveling, it is socially defiant to be a traveler as a Black person, especially in the Americas,” Brame said. “… When traveling in America or Canada , your blackness is pervasive. … It’s unsafe. Being alone as a Black person in rural areas is terrifying.”
A lot of what Brame has done is collaborative, like Sanford Biggers’ “Codeswitch,” an art installation at the The Bronx Museum where he helped illustrate an accompanying book with John Jennings and others published by Yale University Press. They also did a video of the project. Biggers used quilting structures as a way to tell stories. The conceit is the unconfirmed tradition that people used images in quilts to tell stories.
“We were using that framework to tell stories of time and heritage and history,” Brame said. “Specifically, Black lives that have been affected by the history of the African American South. What is that tapestry made of?”
Brame said he found working with Jennings to be “a really wonderful collaborative process.”
“I would draw a few things. He would come back with parts of it he painted,” he said. “I’d add a bit more. … I won’t say I had no idea that was what we were doing. It was very organic the pieces we created. … We were constantly impressed by the next person’s addition.”
While Afrofuturism sometimes deals with the historical and personal trauma of the Black experience, it’s not just about trauma, Brame said. Afrofuturism can be an acknowledgment of the Nigerian history of a Black character in a far-off future, like the character of Joann Owosekum in “Star Trek: Discovery.”
“They have these tiny nuances for each character,” he said. “… It’s not ‘random Black character number one. Those kind of things I think are wonderful. That’s part of the nuance of Afrofuturism, being able to have those little tidbits.”
Afrofuturism isn’t necessarily works done by a Black creator or with a strong Black character. The comic strip “Black Panther” isn’t Afrofuturism, Brame said, because it’s rooted not in Afrofuture ideas but superhero ideas.
From film to fiction to comics, Afrofuturism is going through a creative explosion. Pioneer Afrofuturists like the late Octavia Butler, who wrote “The Parable of the Sower,” have led to comics like “The Umbrella Academy,” also a Netflix series, and Matt Ruff”s “Lovecraft Country,” now an HBO series.
Most of all, Brame said, Afrofuturism is fun.
“You still want all the parts that make science fiction and steampunk and horror,” he said. “… It has to be joyful. You can have the joy. You can have the learning. You can still have the historical tidbits, but you can still have the fun of what we’re creating.”
Brame will work with Bunnell again in January when he’s their artist in residence.