Black To The Future Series: A Conversation with D. Scot Miller
Using a title borrowed from an essay by cultural critic Mark Dery, the Black To The Future Series is a sequence of interviews with artists whose practice has started to define a new generation of work in the realm of AfroFuturism and AfroSurrealism. This series has been created to spark conversation, to hear various points of view on something that is constantly changing and transforming, and with the hopes of allowing the practitioners to be at the center of determining what these movements are.
To kick off the series we spoke with Chicago-based artist and writer Krista Franklin who cites the AfroSurreal Manifesto as being a seminal work to many artists with AfroSurealist and/or AfroFuturist ideas as well as an important part of her own understanding of these terms and how her written and visual work fits into these movements. Naturally, the next step in the series is to pose a few questions to D. Scot Miller–the one who crafted the declaration that has blazed a path from The Bay to the Windy City, influencing many along the way. Miller is a Bay Area writer, visual artist, teacher and curator who has been a very important part of today’s conversation around the AfroSurreal and the ripples of that influence have shaken up and helped define pieces of AfroFuturism.
Tempestt Hazel: Do you consider yourself an AfroFuturist, an AfroSurrealist or both?
D. Scot Miller: I would consider myself primarily an AfroSurrealist with an AfroFuturist background. Due to my work with giovanni singleton and Nocturnes Literary (Re)View, I was invited to be a member of the original list-serve group with folks like Alondra Nelson, DJ Spooky, and Tracie Moore when Mark Dery coined the term Afro-futurism in the mid-90s. Though I found a great deal of support, information, and fellowship there, I also felt something lacking. I’m not a techie. In fact, due to my luddite tendencies, I had to be dragged into the information age. I still prefer books to Kindles and hugs to friend requests.
In 2004, I truly had an artistic vision. I’d been pulling together notes for an as-yet-titled novel and a suite of blues poems. As is my way, I’d pulled out every scrap, note, journal, dog-eared-underlined paperback, and abused cassette seeking the voice that would speak again through me. At some point, I cannot say exactly when, it all fit together. Post-apocalyptic Blues Suite in the blues issue of Nocturnes (#3), and my 1st chapbook version of Knot Frum Hear were products of this epiphany.
I’m curious about writers and artists who do not turn to science, technology, or science fiction but still speculate about the past, present, and future. Writers like Ishmael Reed, Zora Neal Hurston, Darius James, and Victor LaValle, and visual artists like Kara Walker, Wifredo Lam and Krista Franklin who create fantastic works from a place of speculation with no regard to the neo-liberal imperative of “progress” through technology.
In an introduction to Henry Dumas‘ 1974 book Ark Of Bones and Other Stories, Amiri Baraka puts forth the term Afrosurreal Expressionism for what he described as Dumas’ “skill at creating an entirely different world organically connected to this one …the Black aesthetic in its actual contemporary and lived life.” When I first ran across the term Afro-Surreal Expressionism in Amiri Baraka’s introduction, I experienced an instant recognition that changed the course of my artistic life. I am AfroSurreal. My writing, my way of thinking, my life is AfroSurreal. As I pulled together my work, I began to frame my writing around AfroSurrealist Expressionism, in the traditions of Bob Kaufman, Amiri Baraka and Henry Dumas. Because of my personal inclinations towards direct engagement, the supernatural, and the “be here now” ethos of the Bay Area, AfroSurreal offered an alternative to the luddite, mystic and, later on, anti-consumerist in me.
As I started exploring my own aesthetic practice, AfroSurreal became a more apt description of my work. So, in my personal experience, I see them both on a continuum where one compliments the other. To me, they are not mutually exclusive terms. It does seem, however, that many would like there to be an either/or situation. AfroSurreal is about the “both/and”.
TH: How do you define AfroFuturism and AfroSurrealism?
DSM: I began using AfroSurreal in the articles and essays I published in various arts and music publications. In May 2009, editor Johnny Ray Houston and I collaborated and co-curated the AfroSurreal issue of The San Francisco Bay Guardian [titled Call It Afro-Surreal].
For that issue, I wrote The AfroSurreal Manifesto, encouraging exploration in this emerging aesthetic and method of inquiry that addresses the radical imagination of the Diaspora and its influence on Western civilization, pop culture, and theory. I see the term “AfroSurreal” and its various appellations as both a descriptive and practice of seemingly disparate elements and cultures/narratives merging to emphasize their similarities in a wholly new culture/narrative.
As I was writing the AfroSurreal Manifesto, I looked for a succinct definition of Afrofuturism. The closest I got was from Wikipedia back in April of 2009:
“Afro-Futurism is a Diaspora intellectual and artistic movement that turns to science, technology, and science fiction to speculate on black possibilities in the future,” which I quote in the manifesto.
After The AfroSurreal Manifesto came out in May 2009, the Wiki definition of AfroFuturism was changed to, “Afro-Futurism is an emergent literary and cultural aesthetic that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy and magic realism with non-Occidental cosmologies in order to critique not only the present-day dilemmas of people of color, but also to revise, interrogate, and re-examine the historical events of the past,” that very month.
One of the beauties of Wikipedia is being able to see that my work made an immediate impact through the revision history. I think it’s important to point this out because of the discoveries that were made after May 2009, and how disturbing and exhilarating it’s been watching AfroFuturism morph as a result of AfroSurreal. That’s AfroSurreal within itself!
TH: I’m a big fan of manifestos as documents that establish a clear(er) understanding of artistic movements and also set some parameters for artists working within that realm (whether they follow them or not). Manifestos, for me, are very important and almost a lost practice. What led you to write the AfroSurreal Manifesto?
DSM: “Afro-Surrealists restore the cult of the past. We revisit old ways with new eyes.”
I think you said it best here. Manifestos are often misunderstood documents. These days, people use the word to mean “declaration” or “mandate”, but the arts manifesto has a long and active history dating back to early industrial Europe. The Dada Manifesto, The Futurist Manifesto and the many Surrealist manifestos of Breton and Artaud made serious impacts on the tenor and tone of a period or movement. Mary Ann Cawes’ book Manifesto: A Century of Isms was very helpful in showing me how to formulate a working arts manifesto in that tradition. I see art manifestos – as opposed to political or economic ones – as works of art in their own rights. They are living documents that can breathe, grow, and even reproduce.
TH: You explain this beautifully in your manifesto, but can you talk a bit about the difference between AfroFuturism and AfroSurrealism?
DSM: I think the primary difference between AfroFuturism and AfroSurreal is a deep and undeniable one: history.
In the 1932’s The Legitime Defense, was a limited-run, red and black journal, put together by a twenty-something Martinique student in Paris, Etienne Lero, and his black and brown expatriate comrades. The group of free-thinkers and radicals had all rejected the “either/or” of burgeoning Marxist politics for the “both/and” of surrealism. For them, it was about poetry and politics, social and cultural revolution. Lero declares in his manifesto, “…it is only by horribly gritting our teeth that we are able to endure the abominable system of constraints and restrictions, the extermination of love and the limitation of dream, generally known by the name of western civilization.” It is from this small group of radical artists and theorists, and the first small book they produced eighty years ago, that Franklin Rosemont and Robin D.G. Kelley use as the platform for Black, Brown and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and Diaspora (University of Texas Press), the most comprehensive anthology of the AfroSurreal to date.
When Black, Brown and Beige’s surrealist chronology reaches the United States, Rosemont notes that after Richard Wright attended an immense exhibition called “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism” in 1937 that he “recognized surrealism as revolutionary method of learning, a means of resolving immobilizing contradictions, a way of seeing things whole and thereby changing the world.” While the mainstream American Arts and Letters community of the time (Decidedly pro-fascist, pro-capitalist and staunchly conservative) rejected surrealism, it was the African American writers and artists who whole-heartedly embraced it, modified it, and made it their own.
Beginning with Richard Wright, Zora Neal Hurston, and Ralph Ellison, the seed of American Surrealism is Black American Surrealism (The AfroSurreal).
The 1950s can easily be categorized as the second most anti-surrealist period in American history, and Ted Joans in New York and Bob Kaufman in San Francisco stand as the only American surrealists of the decade and slightly beyond it. Along with the emerging Beat Movement (of which Joans and Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) were initial members), black radical imagination – always an inspiration to the surrealists – came to the forefront and began to write itself into the pantheon. To Joans, surrealism was more than a way to write a poem or paint a picture, but a way of life that not only demanded “complete freedom of the imagination and radical social change, but also a far-reaching moral revolution.”
Joans’ sentiments can be placed directly alongside Kaufman’s–“I acknowledge the demands of surrealist realization.” His 1959 Abomunist Manifesto, published by City Lights in 1959, still bears the wit and danger it held over fifty years ago. Celebrated as “The Black Rimbaud” in France, Kaufman was overlooked for both The San Francisco Renaissance issue of Evergreen Review and The New American Poetry anthology of 1960. Rosemont says, “Such omissions cannot be considered innocent oversights. After all, what is most important about Kaufman is the fact that he was the author of some of the most beautiful, playful, and effective poetry of the last four hundred years.”
Self-defense (Legitime Defense, in French) was the key word of the Black Power movement, and afrosurreal writers emerged at the vanguard. Ted Joans points out that Richard Wright coined the term Black Power in 1954, and with the emergence of the Black Arts founder and revolutionary genius, Larry Neal, fire-spitter Jayne Cortez, and mystic-seer, Henry Dumas; the surrealist-tinged black power and black arts movements found homes all over the globe.
In 1974 (The same year Baraka wrote “The Afrosurreal Expressionism of Henry Dumas”), San Francisco’s City Lights published the seminal City Lights Anthology: Surrealism in the United States, featuring the writings of Ed Bullins, Huey Newton, and a tribute to Bob Kaufman, marking the beginning of new interest in the old form.
Poet, writer, philosopher and theorist, Will Alexander has been a self-proclaimed black surrealist for over thirty years. His poem My Interior Vita, from “Compression and Purity” (City Lights, 2006) rings like an AfroSurrealist’s Manifesto. When he says, “Yet, above all, the earth being for me the specificity of Africa, as revealed by Diop, and Jackson and Van Sertima, and it’s electrical scent in the writing of Damas/ Because of this purview I have never drawn to provincial description, or to quiescent chemistry of condensed domestic horizon,” he seems to be speaking for those who have rejected the quiet servitude that characterizes existing roles for African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and queer folk. Even as he’s speaking from a universal mind with a universal tongue, he always seems to land on the side of “otherness”.
I see my explorations of AfroSurreal in the ‘00s, ’10s and beyond, as merely a continuation of work that began so long ago.
The second difference is far more surface and superficial, but still should be noted and noted well: Mark Dery, a white academician, coined the term “Afro-futurist” in the mid-90s. Amiri Baraka, a black artist, coined the term “AfroSurreal” in the early-70s.
TH: How do these concepts influence and reveal themselves in your practice and the form that your work takes?
DSM: As an artist whose medium is the word, I feel that I’ve done my job when I can write a manifesto that truly manifests.
The SF Arts Commission supported The Afrosurreal SF literary event at The Luggage Store Gallery last year, the SFSU Poetry Center had an AfroSurreal panel with Maria Damon and Will Alexander, and the San Francisco Public Library hosted AfroSurrealist film-makers Shy Hamilton and Devin Cain from Chicago. Poet and Scholar, Ruth Ellen Kosher presented The AfroSurreal Manifesto to AWP in Washington, DC in 2010.
There has been an AfroSurrealist film festival every summer since 2010 in Negril, Jamaica. An AfroSurreal issue of Black Camera, is scheduled for release fall 2013. Liverpool Tate’s 2010 “Afro Modern” show drew on many of the same elements, artists, and methods outlined in the manifesto. In March 2012, poet and visual artist Krista Franklin presented The AfroSurreal Manifesto as part of her Crit Week presentation at Columbia College Chicago.
AfroSurreal is growing of its own accord. A Samba band in Washington DC was formed under the name, and several individual artists, scholars, and organization representatives have begun to use AfroSurreal as both an expression and method of inquiry. Artists, curators, editors, academics, DJs, musicians, and that guy on the corner have responded, recognizing the need for AfroSurreal. A need that becomes evident in its absence (or invisibility).
I’m now being invited to universities to give talks and workshops; I also have hosted salons and curated readings for the west coast version of AfroFuturists known as The Black Futurists. Through all of this, I’ve been blessed to continue building community in ways and places that I never could have imagined eight years ago. Artists like Simone Leigh seem to be getting more, much deserved attention and those discoveries allow me to be, to quote Suzanne Cesaire, “In permanent readiness for the marvelous.”
TH: What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions about AfroSurrealism?
DSM: I can’t speak on AfroFuturism, but for me, the biggest misconception of the contemporary AfroSurreal movement is that it encourages exclusion, segregation, and any form of nationalism.
AfroSurreal, as a concept, falls more in line with pirate utopias and temporary autonomous zones than a place to fly a flag or build a fort. My studies have shown me that, “Afro-Surrealism rejects the quiet servitude that characterizes existing roles for African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, women and queer folk. Only through the mixing, melding, and cross-conversion of these supposed classifications can there be hope for liberation. Afro-Surrealism is intersexed, Afro-Asiatic, Afro-Cuban, mystic, silly, and profound.”
TH: Sun Ra has very deep roots here in Chicago, is often referenced as inspiration and continues to influence the work that is made under the names of AfroFuturism and AfroSurrealism. Do you remember when you first became aware of Sun-Ra?
DSM: My father is a jazz-head, so Sun Ra has always been a part of pantheon. Though the old man is mostly a “bopper,” he did have a few Sun Ra albums in his collection. I distinctly remember Spaceways Inc. Next to Richard Pryor, Sun Ra was the second man I ever heard say “motherfucker” on vinyl.
TH: What is it about his philosophy that resonates with you?
DSM: In Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, Afro-futurism is a place “where the material culture of Afro-American folk religions are used as sacred technologies to control virtual realities,” this is the most apt definition of Sun Ra’s creative movements towards Afro-futurism, but I find his techniques for expression Afrosurrealistic. The book Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra El Saturn and Chicago’s Afro-Futurist Underground 1954-68, illustrates Afro-surrealism in practice because he created real-world, present time applications to his theories.
What best illustrates this from this thin volume is the “notes and ephemera” section where the entire cosmos of The Arkestra is distilled to catch phrases on an evolving series of business cards and ticket stubs. “Those Atonites Are At It Again,” says an early one. “Beta Music for Beta People,” says another. There’s even one from El Saturn offering to record the local church sermon which “Enables the pastor’s voice to be within reach of every member when spiritual guidance is needed.” That spiritual element calls back to Leopold Senghor’s distinction between Surrealism and AfroSurreal, “European Surrealism is empirical. African Surrealism is mystical and metaphorical.” I think this also holds true the contemporary, “every dot and tittle” literalism of many other contemporary movements.
TH: The career and influence of early 20th century artists and later Sun Ra prove that the principles of these movements were relevant decades ago. But what do you think it is about this moment that creates an environment which is conducive to a magnified resurgence of these philosophies as well as the receiving, uplifting and celebrating of these ideas on so many levels by artists, institutions and scholarship alike?
DSM: “Afro-Surreal presupposes that beyond this visible world, there is an invisible world striving to manifest, and it is our job to uncover it.”
We can document explorations in the name of AfroSurreal as far back as the 1930s, and even then it changed the landscape on three continents. AfroSurreal has always been a mighty force that can be applied to everyday life. It’s also, like Bob Kaufmann, Ted Joans, and the Jazz they loved, been overlooked when most vital due to its black, poor/working-class origins, especially in the United States.
Being from West Virginia, the grandson of Georgia share-croppers and Alabama domestics, I’ve always seen class erosion as inevitable. I think it’s a good thing too. Maybe our forgotten prophets will finally get their due.
TH: What are the current questions and explorations in AfroFuturism and AfroSurrealism adding to the dialogue that has already happened around these concepts and ideas? What is different about these movements today that perhaps doesn’t align with historic concepts of the past that have served as an influence for it?
DSM: I’m interested in seeing how AfroSurreal can use AfroFuturism to address the digital divide differently. Like I said earlier, I’m not hi-tech, I’m lo-tek. Lo-tek is a term used by William Gibson in Neuromancer to describe the re-appropriation of obsolete or discarded technology for unforeseen uses by the Rastafarian hackers in the story, on some “the stone that the builder refused.”
As we speak, there are poor people from Nigeria to Sao Paulo, Egypt to Greece who can build cell-phones from several broken ones. People are hacking into sophisticated monitoring systems with hand-made computers housed in milk-crates and wooden boxes. I’m intrigued by the technology of Brazil’s favelas and the squats of Berlin that allow whole communities to get electricity and water while living entirely off the grid. We have to remember that AfroFuturism was born before the dot-com bubble bursts, taking a whole lot of the utopian sheen of the internet with it. We now have an over-dependence on technology that aligns with a conspicuous hyper-consumerism that forces conformity better than any world philosophy could have hoped to achieve.
In response to this the AfroSurrealist life is in the moment, fluid, filled with aliases and census- defying classifications. It has no address or phone number, no single discipline or calling. AfroSurrealists are highly-paid short-term commodities (as opposed to poorly-paid long term ones, a.k.a. slaves). AfroSurrealism is about the present. There is no need for tomorrow’s-tongue speculation about the future. Concentration camps, bombed-out cities, famines, and enforced sterilization have already happened. To the Afro-Surrealist, the Tasers are here. The Four Horsemen rode through too long ago to recall. What is the future? The future has been around so long it is now the past. Or as the mystic journey-agent Le Sun-Ra would say:
“It’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet?”
To learn more about D. Scot Miller and the work that he does, visit his websites: