Their past is not our future: Afrofuturism and the colonizer’s gaze

"In Context" by Tasha Fierce

collage by me

When I interact with people in my day-to-day life, I try my best to consider them as whole human beings with a lifetime of distinctive experiences up to and including the moment before I began my interaction with them. I balance their mannerisms and reactions against the knowledge that they might be having a stressful day, or they might have had a stressful life. I’m not gonna lie and say I’ve perfected this practice—I have particular difficulty being graceful while driving—but I do practice.

I want the films I watch and the books I read to have this same consideration for their characters. I want characters that are whole beings, not flat caricatures and cutouts leveraged to further a plot. Homogenizing diverse experience is a tactic of oppressors, and I intensely dislike hearing echoes of the colonizer in the art I consume.

In District 9, the audience is locked into the colonizer’s mindset with no option of seeing reality any other way. Although we are presented with a number of interviews from social scientists and other talking heads speculating as to the structure of the aliens’ society and the nature of their distress, we only get brief dialogue from the perspective of the alien Christopher Johnson that references their home. We never learn what the aliens call themselves, instead being forced to either refer to them as the depersonalizing “aliens” or the derogatory “prawns”.

The movie’s treatment of the Nigerians is similarly dismissive. There are, again, interviews with white sociologists and talking heads who attempt to explain why the Nigerians are eating alien body parts and such. We never really see the lives of the Nigerians in this world from their perspective, so their actions seem completely irrational since we can only judge them from our context and that of the fictional documentarians.  Nearly everyone is treated as disposable by MNU, in particular the aliens, the Nigerians, and Wikus after his transformation. This speaks not just to capitalism’s prioritization of profit, but also to Whiteness’ perpetual concern with purity, its fundamental need to posit itself opposite an Other, and its need to punish those who transgress racial boundaries—although I’m unsure if that’s what the filmmaker was going for.

All I know is, once the initial novelty of an alien-invasion story that begins with us subjugating the aliens wore off, I just had this discomfiting feeling. I’m not a fan of the violence, both physical and psychic, and it just seems like the movie captures the worst of humanity. The cutout aliens were better people than most of the humans in the film, aside from the brother who got arrested for exposing MNU’s alien experimentation program. As Tananarive Due remarked, District 9 is less Afrofuturism than science fiction set in Africa; it is certainly lensed through the colonizer’s gaze.

After watching District 9, I began to appreciate Steven Barnes’ Lion’s Blood even more. It depicts an alternate history where Africans colonized Turtle Island using enslaved European labor—which, I admit, also makes me uncomfortable. But Barnes constructs his characters to be so multifaceted that I don’t feel like I’m forced into one viewpoint. He gives us both perspectives, the enslaved and the slaveowner, and in each perspective right and wrong are formulated slightly differently relative to the context the character is living in. I’m uncomfortable while reading because I hate to see my people doing wrong—I think colonialism and chattel slavery are wrong no matter who engages in them—and I’m uncomfortable because Barnes is forcing me to empathize with slaveholders: not just because they now look like me, but because they are portrayed as complete human beings. I’m not uncomfortable because I feel locked into a colonizing gaze.

Lion’s Blood illustrates how we can avoid reproducing the past of our oppressor in our futures. Even as it revisits our traumatic past and recasts its players, it portrays that past in a way that cherishes an essential and shared humanity. It stays true to what I know of the spirit of Afrofuturism: honoring the past and allowing it to inform the present and future, divesting from colonial and white supremacist rationalistic frameworks of understanding, and constructing narratives of our experience as Black people in fantastic realms that maintain our integrity as whole beings. Our history; our bodies; our beings are flawed yet magical. To reject the harmful dichotomies of white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy, we must extend grace and the freedom to be self-actualized to all our constructions—whether they’re futures or characters.

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