The Body to Come: Afrofuturist Posthumanism and Disability

Last year, my queer platonic partner gifted me the graphic novel version of Octavia Butler’s Kindred. For us, this gift served as the meeting place of our passions—a book that bridges her love of comics and graphic novels with my love of gut-wrenching, meaty speculative fiction. Upon receipt, I made an effort to read the novel before reading the graphic novel to see the translation of prose to imagery. PhD life took over though, and instead of finishing the novel first, I found myself curled up one evening carefully making my way through Damian Duffy and John Jennings’s graphic novel adaptation.

Reading the graphic novel adaptation of Kindred was nothing short of difficult for me. Watching Dana’s evolution from subject to circumstance to active abolitionist reminded me of watching Cicely Tyson’s tour de force performance in “A Woman Called Moses” as a child. “A Woman Called Moses” is a biographical TV movie chronicling Harriet Tubman’s journey to founding the Underground Railroad. In both Kindred and “A Woman Called Moses,” the disablement of black women’s bodies is central to the plotline as Dana and Harriet endure acts of physical violence at the hands of their slave masters. Experiencing the disabling effects of bondage are the catalysts that propel both Harriet and Dana to seek liberation—for themselves and others. Through Dana and Harriet’s perspectives, both narratives reimagine life during antebellum slavery, particularly the possibilities and difficulties associated with liberation from bondage. Reimagining presents a language of fugitivity—freedom from antiblack violence and the spectre of white supremacy that looms over both plantations Dana and Moses are entrenched in.

Yet for all the speculative possibilities these stories present, I realized a language about disability is largely absent from what it means to seek liberation from bondage, despite its centrality to both stories. By and large, Kindred and “A Woman Called Moses” are not discussed as slave narratives whose protagonists are explicitly named as disabled black women. Subsequently, the disablement Dana and Harriet endure is often belted under the frame of antiblack violence as an explanation as to why they sought freedom from bondage, but not what it means for disabled black women to be architects of fugitivity. When disability is named, it is usually done by black disabled folks who are trying to assert disability as integral to the terrain of black struggle. Such a reluctance to explicitly name Dana, Harriet, and other figures of slave narratives as disabled not only highlights the absence of a language around disability and afrofuturism, but the implications of such silences in terms of how the future is envisioned as a space of black liberation.

So much of afroturism’s liberatory potency and radical imagination comes from the ability of black people to be the architects of their own futurity. Florence Oyeke says as much when she suggests that, “afrofuturism dares to suggest that not only will black people exist in the future, but that we will be makers and shapers of it, too.” One way black futures are crafted is through declaration: the act of naming the existence of black people in the future, the roadmap to which is charted in afrofuturist works. An example of this is Alisha B. Wormsley’s billboard declaration, “there are black people in the future.” This declaration was born out of frustration not only from noticing the absence of nonwhite faces in science fiction films and television shows, but also the rapid demise of the black American neighborhood. Both Oyeke and Wormsley demonstrate the power of naming within the afrofuturist imagination, its significance in shaping the terrain of possibility. Naming a future that’s free from different manifestations of antiblack violence means determining a different relationship with time.

Temporal difference not only shapes the creation of narratives, but also the body-minds at the center of those narrativeswhat body-minds exist in the future and the stories told about their becoming. Representations of afrofuturist body-minds are very much a function of what people desire to make visible, absent, or marginal within the schema of narrative construction. It’s often when I encounter body-minds in afrofuturist works that I’m left wondering about the shaky existence of black disabled body-minds in afrofuturism and the general absence of language around disability. Too often I look at what constitutes a body-mind in the afrofuturist imaginary and am left wondering, “which black people are in the future?”

Take, for example, the prevalence of the posthuman in afrofuturism. On the one hand, there is the posthuman cyborg, most famously Janelle Monae’s alter ego Cindi Mayweather. Monae’s android persona is an example of how cyborgs in afrofuturism aren’t automatically understood as disabled subjects the way they might be for crip futurists, crip cyborgs, or Donna Harroway’s cyborg manifesto. Monae doesn’t use any language around disability to describe her conception of androids in relation to Cindi Mayweather. Instead, Monae understands Cindi as the mediator between flesh and hand, “the oppressed and the oppressor.”¹ Similarly, Kristen Lillvis notes the dual symbolism of Cindi’s “Digital Auction Code” (DAC) featured on the Electric Lady album cover artwork. The DAC represents the branding of enslaved Africans at the same time it marks her liberation from bondageCindi is not for sale.² The lack of language naming Cindi as a disabled cyborg suggests that while it’s possible to interpret her as such, cyborg and disability are not inherently synonymous in afrofuturism. Similarly, there’s the afrofuturist posthuman with supernatural abilities. In Parable of the Sower, Laura Olemina’s hyperempathy distinguishes her from other characters. As Sami Schalk notes, hyperempathy is understood as a condition as a result of a birth defect.³ In an interview with Juan Williams on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Butler explains that Laura’s mother was addicted to the small pills. As a result, Laura is born with hyperempathy.4 The question in interpretation becomes whether hyperempathy is understood as a disability and based off what criteria. Schaulk uses the example of Williams assertion that Laura isn’t disabled. In response to an ableist remark William’s makes, Butler asserts that she never said Laura wasn’t smart, to which Williams concludes that intelligence cancels out hyperempathy as a form of disability.5 

When considering existing conceptions of afrofuturist body-minds, I wonder about the seduction of the posthuman. The trend of afrofuturist posthumanism points to a particular consciousness around the possibilities of black bodies in the future. Lillvis understands afrofuturist posthumanism as a form of consciousness that responds to the conceptual construction of blackness that occurs because of the Middle Passage.6 Thus, afrofuturist posthumanism provides a space to think about black identity independent of white supremacy.7 Building on this, I understand the prevalence of the non-disabled afrofuturist posthuman as a way of envisioning black bodies outside the spectacle of antiblack violence as opposed to “facilitating its objectifying qualities.”8

Afrofuturist posthumanism is a way black people have explored the effects of the Middle Passage on flesh, consciousness, and time.9 It names how the enduring legacy of antiblack violence is enshrine through the marking of black body-minds through enslavement. It names the process of how violence marks the black body-mind as non-human, and how non-human status justifies the continued subjugation. As Zoe Samudzi and William Anderson note, the marking of the flesh is about personhood as much as it is about the social status of the enslaved African.10 At the same time, afrofuturist posthumanism names how the afterlife of slavery perpetuates black suffering, it also provides a view of black futures free from white supremacy. As Ytasha Womack notes, afrofuturism flips conventional thinking about blackness on its head by rejecting stereotypes, dystopian fatalism, and hopelessness often associated with black characters. Instead, afrofuturism demonstrates that within the terrain of the speculative, fatalism is not synonymous with blackness.11 Black suffering is visible, but it is not an entranchant condition.

If afrofuturism is about envisioning black futures free from violence and suffering, then to paraphrase Lillvis, new types of consciousness around the black body-mind must emerge.12 The black body-mind undergoes a conceptual shiftfrom enslaved to liberated subject. It is no longer a site of fatalism, but a site of possibility for the future. In this way, if blackness is ascribed the status of non-human under white supremacy, then the afrofuturist posthuman is an attempt to envision the black body-mind as one that is “fully human.” Afrofuturist posthumans are creative visions of the body-minds to come, the body-mind that is free from violence that is no longer the spectacle of suffering on the world’s stage. The body-mind to come is the afrofuturist posthuman that enjoys the humanity of the black human that doesn’t currently exist.

But like any attempt at worldbuilding or futurism, omitting disability from schemas of afrofuturist posthumans has consequences. If alternative worldbuilding means imagining better futures, then the afrofuturist posthuman as predominately non-disabled demonstrates the complexity of mapping an emerging conception of humanity onto the black body. In linking disablement primarily with enslavement or past history, disability is symbolized as a vestige from an oppressive past to be done away with. Disability gets understood as part of what makes black people non-human under white supremacy. In making these links, it fails to interrogate why an emerging consciousness around afrofuturist posthumanism assumes that excluding disability inherently facilitates the transition from non-human to post-human in black futures. It fails to interrogate how a future without black disabled body-minds is symbolic of black liberation from white supremacy.

Subsequently, it fails to ask why the black disabled body-mind isn’t already considered post-human. What are the underlying assumptions about the relationship between black liberation and posthumanism that would justify the exclusion of black disabled body-minds? What about black disabled body-minds provokes anxieties about the overarching status of “non-human” assigned to black people under white supremacy? In many respects, linking disability to past oppression is ironic given that afrofuturism attempts to move away from conceiving of black body-minds as sites of fatalism. For all its liberatory aspirations, afrofuturist posthumanism has yet to envision disability as part of an emergent consciousness of black body-minds conceptualized independent of white supremacy. It has yet to engage a vision of the future where the presence of black disabled folk signals to a vision of liberation from violence exists in multiple manifestations.

The presence of black disability in afrofuturist posthumanism doesn’t have to connote to the sort of fatalism afrofuturism seeks to avoid. It can represent the liberation of the black body-mind, a radical shift in existence where one doesn’t have to be able-bodied to have a chance at surviving into the future. The black disabled body-mind can explore the abundant possibilities for the world to come, in our body-minds to come.

The black cyborg, as an explicitly disabled cyborg, can signal the onset of a new world where advanced adaptive technology isn’t cost prohibitive and thus financially inaccessible. The black disabled cyborg can also signal to a world where adaptive technology is given to black disabled people as part of reparations for histories of violent, non-consensual medical experimentation. The presence of the black disabled cyborg can usher in a world where black disabled folks finally reap what white supremacy in medicine has sown at the expense of our ancestors’ pain and exploitation.

Similarly, the inclusion of black disabled body-minds in the future can be represented in the physical restructuring of society. The predominantly black neighborhood Wormsley’s billboard highlights the disappearance of can be redesigned to fuse accessibility with the tenants of self-sufficiency, environmental, and economic sustainability that have become cornerstones of black liberation movements. Black neighborhoods can re-emerge, victorious in the fight against gentrification; replete with accessible and sustainably designed infrastructures and community resources.

In essence, the presence of black disabled body-minds in afrofuturism can tell the story of how our people overcame antiblack violence, accounting for our multifaceted presence in the future, our thriving, as opposed to our extinction. “A Woman Called Moses” and Kindred are examples of this, the power of the black disabled imagination in carving out pathways to liberation. The disablement both Dana and Moses experience plays a role in their choice to seek freedom from antiblack violence. It not only gave them an idea of the world they didn’t want to live in, but the world they did want to live in. It plays a role in how they seek to change the present to affect the future, and how they sought to accomplish liberation. The existence of their narratives show how black disabled body-minds are powerful architects of black futures, one that can truly be understood through an evolving language of afrofuturism that accounts for disability it all its complexity.

Post-script:

In the process of finishing this piece, another black man became a hashtag, marking yet again the omnipresence of police brutality and the spectacle of antiblack violence. On July 15, 2018 Harith Augustus was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago. In the aftermath of his death, residents of South Shore gathered at the site of his murder to to protest not only the death of a beloved community member but the continued presence of policing within their lives. As a resident of South Shore, I have witnessed my community’s anger, heartache, and grief in many manifestations. In the process, I witnessed Chicago Police Officers violently attack residents of South Shore and others who had gathered in solidarity.

During the South Shore Uprising, I quickly scanned the crowd. Among us were black people in wheelchairs (both manual and electric), using adaptive devices not unlike my cane, and elders being accompanied by their familial caretakers to safety. In the events that have followed thus far, I’ve noticed an array of black disabled folks from the community in attendance. Black disabled people have made themselves present as the community of South Shore demands justice for Harith Augustus. We have been present as our community outlines its vision for the future in chants, moments of silence, and impassioned speeches. We are part of the vision of a South Shore that is free from the violence of policing, a neighborhood that is abundant with resources to take care of everyone. Our hopes and dreams are bound up in the future of this neighborhood. So it only makes sense that as our neighbors are dreaming up black futures, they don’t see our existence as indicative of an oppressive past but instead dream of the possibility of us in the future.

Footnotes
¹ Andrews, Gillian “Gus.” “Janelle Monae turns rhythm and blues into science fiction.” io9, July 21, 2010, https://io9.gizmodo.com/5592174/janelle-monae-turns-rhythm-and-blues-into-science-fiction
² Lillvis, Kristen. Posthuman Blackness and the Black Female Imagination. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2017, 58
³ Schalk, Samantha Dawn. Bodyminds Reimagined: (dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018, 91
Butler, Octavia E., et al. Conversations With Octavia Butler. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010
Schaulk, 91
Lillvis, 80
Lillvis, 85
Lillvis, 85
Lillvis, 79-80
10 Samudzi, Zoé, William C. Anderson, and Mariame Kaba. As Black as Resistance: Finding the Conditions for Liberation. Chico, CA: AK Press, 2018
11 Womack, Ytasha. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-fi and Fantasy Culture. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press, 2013
12 Lillvis, 80

Zaynab Shahar

Zaynab Shahar is a Ph.d student at Chicago Theological Seminary, specializing in comparative religion and gender/sexuality in Judaism and Islam. She holds an M.A in Religious Studies from CTS and a B.A in Jewish Studies from Hampshire College. Zaynab divides her time between organizing, academic scholarship, and writing. She has written about queer/trans poetics and black women’s poetics for Bitch Magazine and Autostraddle.

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