Black to Detroit: Imaginative artistic movement Afrofuturism takes root in Detroit

During an intense discussion on race at The Scarab Club, Ingrid LaFleur remembers a white man standing up to explain his interest in the forum. "He came from this white, patriarchal background that was quite racist," says LaFleur, who co-hosted the event. "All of this narrow-mindedness existed within his personal world."

But he was moved by the unique dialogue, which was specifically about afrofuturism, a philosophy and artistic movement centered around blackness in science fiction and its corollary genres. "He was trying to move out of that, and saw afrofuturism and our talk as a way to help in that endeavor," says LaFleur. 

Afrofuturism was first coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in the 1990s in his essay "Black to the Future," which detailed his observations of the writings of science fiction authors Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, and other black writers of the time. Dery defined the term as "speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth century technoculture."

The movement has since grown to encompass other artists who have explored the African diaspora, such as musicians Sun Ra and George Clinton, the performance artist Nick Cave, or the photographer Renee Cox.

Detroit, with its dystopic imagery of abandoned factories, fraught racial history, and 83 percent African-American population, has become a hub for afrofuturism. The city was the home of techno music and afrofuturist pioneers Drexciya and Carl Craig. Today, the philosophy is present in the programming and messaging of organizations like the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, which is trying to create a sustainable ecosystem in a food desert. And numerous local artists, writers, and curators are harnessing the movement to create works that sometimes, as with the case of the white man at the forum, have the power to heal and transform. 

LaFleur is one such Detroit afrofuturist. Six years ago, she began curating a space and program for Detroiters. Called Afrotopia, she describes it as her way of showing black Detroiters that there is more than one way of being. For LaFleur, the interplay between different time-periods helps to create ownership over one's story. 

Ingrid LaFleur

"When we are coming into these histories, mythologies, and legends of the past it helps to kind of reorient your present and then create these futures based on this reorientation," she says. "You don't want to create the futures based on the trauma that's existing in your body right now, because it's just going to repeat."

Through Afrotopia, LaFleur has hosted monthly book clubs, film screenings, social discussions, and cocktail conversationals exploring Detroit through the lens of afrofuturism. She also curated an afrofuturism film series at the Detroit Film Theatre that included movies like "Les Saignantes," a Cameroonian sci-fi, vampire thriller. LaFleur even ran for Mayor of Detroit this last election cycle on a platform that supported the arts and cryptocurrency. 

Bryce Detroit, the other co-host of the Scarab Club dialogue, describes Detroit as a "black urban metropolis." He says that afrofuturism manifests itself all over the  city, whether it's through the art of The Heidelberg Project and Dabl's African Bead Gallery, or through the sounds and performances on display at the gallery and art space he curates, ONE Mile Detroit in the North End. 

Created in 2014, the project is famous for its "Mothership," a replica of a golden spaceship used by George Clinton as a prop in his concerts, and which makes appearances at various events around Detroit. Through events like Detroit Afrikan Funkestra and Synergistic Mythologies, ONE Mile hosts exhibits, workshops, performances, and dance parties, all of which translates blackness in imaginative and experimental ways.

Exterior of ONE Mile Detroit

Bryce Detroit describes himself as a cultural curator, which, he says, means "uplifting the narrative of the people, the majority population."
This "uplifting" is an important component of afrofuturism. For many, the philosophy acts as a deprogramming from a European, patriarchal-dominant society so they can practice asserting and affirming their own identities. For example, many in the afrofuturist movement and beyond were alarmed by a recent Bedrock advertisement that stated, "See Detroit like we do," amidst a mostly white crowd. The advertisement was taken down, and CEO Dan Gilbert said, regarding the campaign, "We screwed up badly."

According to afrofuturists, however, this kind of messaging is not new or unique, just more coded. That's why the movement is so necessary—it allows black people to create their own mythologies, stories, and narratives of empowerment. 

"For a lot of cats it's giving them permission to just be a black person," says Bryce Detroit. "It doesn't even have to be something ancestrally rooted. I am supposed to be in this space, I am not supposed to be in the background. I am actually supposed to be in the forefront of my own world. Because afrofuturism really promotes the cultivation of one's own mythology. To that point, I am at least supposed to be present here, wherever I want 'here' to be."
The city is also home to afrofuturist writers, like adrienne maree brown, co-editor of "Octavia's Brood," a collection of science fiction short stories that imagine worlds of radical social change. The collection was heavily influenced by Octavia Butler, an acclaimed black science fiction writer whose books feature alternative communities and social structures. A 2013 Kresge Literary Arts Fellow, brown also hosts writing workshops, like a session at the Allied Media Conference called "Spells for Radicals," which taught people "how to create and cast spells to protect yourself and your loved ones and to shape the future."
Detroit writer and afrofuturist Clarence Young
Detroit writer and afrofuturist Clarence Young has written numerous novels, including "In The Quiet Spaces" and "By All Our Violent Guides." The author, who goes by the pseudonym Zig Zag Claybourne, loves the freedom of afrofuturism, which allows him to explore an array of topics from psychology to sexuality to ecology. 

Young also sees afrofuturism as a way to challenge one's assumptions about the world. 

"Afrofuturism is really about reconnecting ourselves to the world," says Young. "It's much more concerned with building, connecting, and reshaping for the benefit of all, and those are the three keys to anything I write. It's transformation so far away from the status quo that the quo is immediately forgotten."

All photos by Nick Hagen.

Read more articles by Jasmine Espy.

Jasmine Espy is a journalist, artist, and student at Wayne State University.
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