Born to be wildly visionary

Pub date May 20, 2009
WriterGreg Tate
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

AFRO-SURREAL Living in black America means you’re already living "science fiction" — already born to be wildly visionary and future- bent in form, function, context, and appearance. No choice, really.

History cast your ancestors in the real-world version of the genre’s defining, overarching anxiety-ridden trope — the Earthly-and-Earthy- Beings-Overcoming-Enslavement-and-Genocide-by-Evil-Aliens story.

Black America is clearly the result of Africans surviving an evil alien abduction to an evil alien slave planet where our ancestors, nearly transformed into automatons, came to develop sonically-induced counteracting powers of telekinesis, time travel, teleportation, telepathy, and "trickster-knowlogy" to combat invading alien armies who had us beat when it came to more bluntly ballistic technology. To those African spirit combatants we owe the advent of such dark avatars of symbolic, sonic, and psychic African weaponry as Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Romare Bearden, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, De La Soul, Ramm El Zee, Jean Michel Basquiat, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, whose battle cry "Great Black Music Ancient and to the Future" is as succinct a manifesto for the black SF movement as has ever been written.

But now let’s get really real up in this piece: the terms black science fiction, Afro-Futurism, Afro-Punk, post-blackness, Black Surrealism, Black Dada Nihilismus, etc., are all born of attempts to accommodate and simulate the strange reality of being black (and "black being and nothingness") in the not-so New World in ways not seen on BET. Yet all these terms are actually redundant — black in America by itself already signifying the ultimate in Weird Tales.

They’re also just a tad elitist and academic — at times intended to suggest that some blacks, usually college miseducated, are more modern, avant-garde, and outside the black box than others. The world that most black working-class people live in here in these United States is already as freaking strange twisted and bizarre as any space opera. The self-taught artists that have come from African American working class communities — Ra, Thornton Dial, Bessie Smith, Thelonious Monk, Simone, Hendrix, David Hammons, George Clinton, Wu-Tang Clan to name a few — are all more "out of this world" than their merely grad school-sanctioned brethren and sistren. No surprise.

After all, who needs to dream bigger than folk trying to escape from America’s urban behavioral modification concentration camps? Furthermore, anybody who thinks the extraterrestrial African imagination needs anything but a daily reality check to get fired up needs to come spend a day in Harlem.

From my bedroom window nested high up on uptown’s Sugar Hill — blocks from the old cribs of Ellington, Robeson, Hughes, and Basie — I can see a shimmering forest of spring green trees being stalked and hovered over by a four-building complex of high-rise public housing projects known as the Polo Grounds towers. Each is 30 stories; the combined 1,616 units hold an estimated 4,200 residents of primarily African descent on a 15-acre property that defines Harlem’s eastern edge. At night these towers are illuminated by an artificial, man-made double moon: one brand new, one still to be demolished — the side-by-side circular monstrosities known to us natives as Yankee Stadiums I and II.

If that’s not odd enough, check this out: If you call up Harlem’s 155th Street corridor on Google maps, you will not find any evidence of these gargantuan buildings when you zoom in. What you will see instead is a huge empty white space marked "Polo Grounds." The online information readily available about the Polo Grounds says nothing about those four Tolkienesque towers, or the folk who live there.

Instead, it blathers on about the forgotten baseball stadiums, long demolished, that once stood there for the New York Giants, the Yankees, and the Mets. Think about it — 4,200 folk of color vertically stacked in their own Babel but erased from human consideration on the virtual map of the world and replaced by fanboy baseball lore. If that’s not black science fiction, I don’t know what qualifies.