The Afrofuturist Healers: Arthur Flowers, Sheree Renée Thomas, and Kelechi Ubozoh on Past, Present, and Future Healing

Thursday, September 3, 2020

If we’ve fallen into a dystopian novel—a global pandemic, police shootings, and a recession that results from the pandemic—then how do we climb out?

Our best writers and artists understand our frustration, validate the less-than-joyful emotions, and remind us there’s still something to celebrate. They may work alone, or they may view creativity as how Afrofuturists do, through deep listening and healing. When the future feels as stunted as a tree stump and as distant as wind chimes, Afrofuturists embrace its discarded bits. Afrofuturists gather us; they imagine compassionate, joyous Black futures; their art renews us; they understand struggle as part of the healing—and they provide its soundtrack.

Our Afrofuturistic healers fix our lives.

Kelechi Ubozoh, Sheree Renée Thomas, and Arthur Flowers spoke with TriQuarterly about their creativity and Afrofuturistic healing.

TQ: During this time of the Coronavirus pandemic and (maybe) greater awareness of police violence, do we need our imaginations and creative energies more? (All of you have written or said something that fixed my life.)

AF: These are historically significant trying times, this pandemic is going to change our lives, it is a crossroads. And it is precisely in trying times like these that I think the role of the artist as seer is ever more important. I believe it is the role of the visionary artist to provide alternative visions that open up the cultural imagination to evolutionary possibilities and it is precisely at times like these that I feel that need ever more critical. It is incumbent upon us all to get our work done. To provide alternative realities that unleash human potential to be greater than we are, to evolve. I like to think everything I do is a healing.

KU: In times of ongoing community violence in Black communities, imagination is part of how we’ve survived for so long. Creativity is how we escaped. (I wrote a poem about what if we all left and went back to our home planet. What if we went home? Where is home for all of us?) That’s part of how I cope with certain things. It’s important for our survival. Right before shelter in place, I talked to a Black Lyft driver about how memes have saved our lives. Humor and comedy and art are the things we do to stay here. Part of that gets appropriated and used against us, but that’s been a huge salvation for me.

ST: I think that there is a reckoning taking place. Not only here in America, but in other communities as well, something has been brewing for quite a while. People are responding to a cyclical chaos. It’s a pendulum that swings, but in ways that are very new to us because of technology, because of the need to get information immediately and to be able to really dissect and analyze the curated story presented through traditional media. So when an incident happens in a part of the world, and people are on the ground to capture different aspects of it, we can get a different version of events online through social media and other outlets that really undermine what we would have gotten in a soundbite from the evening news or a traditional newspaper.

TQ: Sheree mentions tradition. Arthur once said (this is an awkward paraphrase) it’s human to want to dream and discover new things. He wrote, “I believe it is human destiny to be a star faring peoples, and I want black folk to be at the forefront of that destiny. The cutting edge.” Kelechi said Afrofuturism allows us to generate a “vision of what the world could be as well as what to do with what the world currently is.”  Does the Afrofuturist imagination have any role in creating social change?

ST: Our rights need to be protected equally under the law as we consider what we’re going to do about an organization [the police] that has its roots in policing property, not protecting Black lives. We are at a crossroads. You’ve always had fear. You’ve always had the prophetic voices that were uniting the energy and spirit of those who were trying to work for justice and humanity and dignity with those who were waiting for a catalyst. For me, artists, scholars, community activists, healers are that catalyst. They are that force that keeps the through lines through the cycle. We are the conscious. We are memory, the ancestral memory. We are communicators of future visions.

TQ: All of you have strong web presences, from creating videos and websites, performing in Zoom readings, being active in social media...How does technology show up in the way you’re sharing and creating work? Has coronavirus changed the way you’re creating or presenting work?

KU: Personally, I’m using technology right now to stay connected with people and to have spaces of creativity, places of literature, of writing and reading. I recently did an event, Let Her Tell It, hosted by Jeneé Darden, where four Black women shared their experience with mental health and what we’ve done to stay and survive. Honestly technology is keeping me connected with people, but I sometimes need to take a break because of that connection, or being way too connected with things that aren’t good for my soul (like the news cycle)...It’s a little bit of balance. I have very limited social media, but I might share things on LinkedIn, and I’m on a lot of Zoom calls. Recently, I’ve used Zoom to facilitate communal spaces for Black employees and that has been so powerful for us to see each other, especially if we are isolated or the only one in our office. I’ve also used it to join different writing groups. When used in moderation, it’s an important tool.

ST: I’m seeing people connecting quite naturally with technology. My mentor Arthur Flowers has always had a fascination with technology, whether he’s doing it with his music, where he created his own instruments or has acquired an instrument he has hooked up, remixed, and reimagined. He blesses you with his art and presence. He comes with all of his cables, so the person in the back of the room who didn’t think they’d be involved has to come out of the room. He’s always using technology. I remember his Rootsblog and it reminds me of the artist Marilyn Nance, one of the first artists I’ve seen doing hyperlinked art. They’re using the technology to connect, to access people. You can consult, communicate, share, listen digitally online in ways that were more difficult before.

For me, my practice is my art. As an artist, I’m recording, researching, and have sound files and music stored on the laptop, but I still have my Luddite notepads. There’s something about the tactile experience of being able to flip through the pages and the oil on your fingertips that seems to jog other memories. There are things you can observe in person—when they avert their eyes or when their pupils dilate or the temple moves—that tells you things you wouldn’t catch if you’re chatting in other means. So, there’s a difference but it gives you further reach. I’m not a fan of the new era of Zoom. I didn’t become a writer so I could be on camera or become a celebrity. But what’s useful for me may not be useful for a broader audience. I’ve had to level up, in terms of how I present things and also access—I’ve learned how to caption so people can follow-up if they can’t hear. I’m thinking of other ways to help people capture the energy through music, image, and sound that you’d have in a traditional reading, in a university or bookstore.

(Listen to "Origins of Southern Spirit Music" by Sheree Renée Thomas)

AF: At the beginning of the shutdown, I immersed myself in digital production in order to remain in the dialogue and be part of the evolving digital performance infrastructure but I have found myself of late drawing back and focusing more on using this time to work on books and scripts. I have found quarantine to be a very productive creative space and a steady diet of unpaid Zoom performances and self-made videos is distracting. It was however a quick education in creative production and I’ve been thinking of ways to use that new capacity in my own creative work. It’s likely this cultural moment will speed up the ongoing digitation of life and art. As for digital production skills, I was convinced long ago that a 21st century artist had to be capable of working with both hands, that having a print and digital presence was essential both in terms of promotion and ideological orchestrations, in order to remain part of the dialogue.


TQ: You knew this was coming...I’ve had the privilege of hearing all of you perform your work. You’re gifted oral storytellers. How does music or oral storytelling traditions inform your work?

AF: I got into performance hanging out with performance poets in my cub days in the city. Developed a blues-based act that has evolved into griotic performance with ever evolving instrumentation and production mastery. I like making music. I am part of the griotic school of Afro-Am literature, who feel that we are heirs to two literary traditions, the western written and African/African American oral, and try in the fusion to contribute to both. Through griotic performance I am able to reach folk on an experiential level and if I do it right it becomes a spiritual moment, for both me and the congregation. Every performance, I call myself gathering folk around the sacred fire and providing the visions without which the people will perish. I also feel that performance reaches a different audience, folk who may not respond to the written word, or folk who don’t speak English. My performance work has taken me all over the world and to variant venues. I get a unique satisfaction from making music. It enhances my griotic aspiration and identity.

It is important to me to be as technically competent as possible so that I am able to create on a variety of platforms for a variety of audiences, both now and in a future, that will process ideas in unimaginable technologies. Future generations will process information differently and I try to work across platforms to remain relevant. I am a devotee of the book, but I am not wedded to the form.

(Listen to "Invocation" by Arthur Flowers)

KU: Storytelling is part of our tradition, our culture. I sometimes mix nonfiction with the surreal. Sometimes it’s my telling my true experience and laying it all out there. At Let Her Tell It, we talked about the intersections of racism, mental health, and trauma. I spoke about my experience being engaged to a White man and the relationship I had with his daughter and what was looked at and not looked at, how our allies show up or do not show up for us. That really hard conversation about what happens when someone you love does something racist and won’t look at it. Allyship is coming up in conversations a lot. Allyship is trending, depending on what month it is, though it’s always important to those of us who are Black. Allyship is a verb and a thing you do, not an identity. 

ST: It not only informs my work, it’s the birth of my work, oral storytelling from my family and elders. I didn’t want to write works that were constantly translating to a mainstream audience. In our country, you’re given many opportunities to learn those patterns and those rhythms. I wanted to write stories, that if you listen with your inner ear, you might hear some other things too.

TQ: Your writing, to me, suggests that love is a kind of magic. I see all of you actively supporting community. You all do a lot. How does your investment in other writers and community inform your work?

AF: I was trained by Babajohn Killens, the Great Griot Master of Brooklyn, who always stipulated that wherever he taught his workshop would be "open to the community" and over the years a cadre of young writers formed around him. I came out of that process and it’s a part of my training to be a literary organizer, to try to be a space where writers grow. And though I have been in academe training all manner writers for 20 odd years now, I will always feel a sense of mission about training young Black writers and providing/supporting creative spaces and incubations. Babajohn considered it a sacred responsibility and so do I. This also comes from my literary hoodoo practice. Custodial hoodoo assumes commitment to the communities for which you accept custodial responsibility. I am a spirit doctor and unleashing artistic potential is one of my hoodoo specialties. I’m kinda good at it. In academe I get paid to do what I would gladly do for free.

ST: Community informs my editorial work because that's collaborative work by nature. The order you put them in, the people you put them next to, the beats you create, all of that is a different space that takes different energies out of you. There are moments when I need to rest from collaborative editorial work, that’s largely thankless work. Anybody with any good sense would just focus on their own work. My editorial friends, Ronda Racha Penrice and Danielle L. Littlefield, and I, we’re editors by nature, and we make space for that. Right now, I’m looking forward to occupying the creation space for myself. I had to teach myself to say no to all kinds of things because after my second anthology, I was being inundated with requests for all kinds of work, mostly free labor. I wanted to do some of those things because I had been helped in so many other ways by other collaborative-minded people: Arthur Flowers, the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, first as a student and later as an instructor, the New Renaissance Writers Guild. My friend David Earl Jackson. My editorial mentors: Cheryl Woodruff who helped me learn how to edit; Dr. Miriam Decosta-Willis, Dr. Reginald Martin, Herb Boyd, Paul Coates, and Jacqueline Johnson, the poet—these are people who had many talents, and it appeared organic. They were artists of multiple genres and they shared with all of us. Quincy Troupe’s salon and workshop, C. Liegh McInnis at Jackson State University, Ishmael Reed and Konch, Carolyn Butts of African Voices, Kalamu ya Salaam, Eugene Redmond, Alvin Aubert, Cave Canem—supportive, community-minded people.

KU: I have always felt like communities have had the answers to their solution. By that I don’t mean “it’s up to Black folks to solve White supremacy,” but when I think about the pain, the trauma that’s still in our bodies, certain practices we’ve unlearned or forgotten or that have been assimilated out of us, we could reconnect to. When I think about Black people experiencing their own healing journeys, we’re not a monolithic community but there are some shared experiences we have. What is it like to embrace our joy? What is it like to have different narratives around mental health and coping? Where does writing and music and art show up in that healing space? How do we leverage that to give us back our energy? How do we connect back to us? We receive so many bad messages, but our own value isn’t always known to us. We’re wanted and desired and we’re in so many conversations. We must be amazing.