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Early Afrofuturism


In the past, African Americans were viewed as less than human and whose purpose was to serve their slave masters. In 1859 a series in Anglo-African Magazine and the Weekly Anglo-African titled “Blake: Or the Huts of America. A Tale of the Mississippi Valley, the Southern United States and Cuba” was written by Martin Delany. This series is one of the earliest Afrofuturistic writings that told of an alternate history of African Americans due to a fictional slave revolt that takes place within the series. This series was not labeled as Afrofuturist at the time, due to the label not existing yet; rather it was just labeled as a short story series. This was due to the public not knowing what Afrofuturism was. Delany writes that, “there have in all ages, in almost every nation, existed a nation within a nation—a people who although forming a part and parcel of the population, yet were from force of circumstances, known by the peculiar position they occupied, forming in fact, by the deprivation of the political equality with others, no part, and if any, but a restricted part of the body politic of such nations, is also true” (Chiles 323). Delany writes about the social divide in the United States between African American and Euro-Americans, and the fact that African Americans are “of” the nation, but also simultaneously alienated from the body of the nation. This trend seems to still be prevalent in some parts of society today.

In the published series, Blake, or Huts of America, Delany presented an all too common story, of African slaves that resided in Mississippi and are soon separated once one was sold to another slave owner. The story provides the insight to what it may have been like to be a slave in America, striped of all human rights and dignity, yet never giving up hope for a better future. The story focuses on the slave Henry Holland, who is described as the “most worthy servant” who “places every confidence in what” he is told by his slave owner (9). As the story opens, Henry, who has returned to the plantation to find that his wife has been sold to another slave trader, and is now residing in Cuba. This causes Henry to question his faith in the Christian God he has been told to worship and the slave master he is forced to obey. The other slaves that reside on the plantation are devout followers and now think that Henry has lost his faith:

“Henry!” interrogated Daddy Joe—who, apprehending difficulties in the case, had managed to get back to the house. “Yeh

gwine lose all yo' 'ligion? Wat yeh mean, boy!”

“Religion!” replied Henry rebukingly. “That's always the cry with black people. Tell me nothing about religion when the very

man who hands you the bread at communion has sold your daughter away from you!”

“Den yeh 'fen' God case man 'fen' yeh! Take cah, Henry, take cah! mine wat yeh 'bout; God is lookin' at yeh, an' if yeh no'

willin' trus' 'im, yeh need'n call on 'im in time o' trouble”. (Delany 21).

In this passage, the reader can now understand that Henry isn’t a follower or a coward, when it comes to what he believes to be right and just. Henry also does not speak in the dialect that the rest of the other slaves do. Throughout the series there is page after page, referencing Negro spirituals and quotes from the bible. Delany could have purposely done this to set a sharp contrast between the character Henry and those who reside on the plantations. Rather than accepting what is told to him, Henry develops the idea that God is just another oppressor to the African American people. Later in the series, Henry becomes a revolutionary figure that spreads the word about a slave rebellion. In this sense, the series is strongly an Afrofuturist text, by Delany offering an intelligent and informed alternate history by having Henry envision a different type of life that would result in the betterment of an entire population of people.

The series follows Henry as he goes from plantation to plantation to tell the captive slaves of the rebellion, “sowing the seeds of future devastation and ruin to the master and redemption to the slave, an antecedent more terrible in its anticipation than the warning voice of the destroying Angel in commanding the slaughter of the firstborn of Egypt” (84). The story of Henry and his desire to spark a slave rebellion is much like that of Nat Turner’s rebellion that took place in 1831, where there was an uprising of slaves that went through the state of Virginia and murdered slave owners to free slaves on various plantations. Like the fall of Nat Turner’s rebellion, Henry and his followers also fail and are captured at the end of the series. Although, Delany decided to further this Afrofuturist text and write a second part to the completed series. Here, Henry is now in Cuba with his now freed wife and now has a plan to overthrow the Cuban government and prevent annexation to the United States. There is a constant theme of rebellion and freedom in the series, Delany writes to suggest that slaves must rise and claim their own freedom, instead of waiting on a God to save them.

The racist views and stereotypes throughout Science Fiction and literature in the past leads Chiles to posit in her article titled, “Within and Without Raced Nations: Intratextuality, Martin Delany, and Blake; Or, the Huts of America,” that, “unlike Emerson’s transcendental subject who effortlessly becomes “part or parcel of God,” Delany’s “nation within a nation” occupies a fraught space both absorbed by and yet unincorporated into “the body politic of such nations” (Chiles 324). Within the short stories, Delany parallels the history of the Haitian Revolution and the expulsion of the French colonial government, to his own Afrofuturistic writings. Though short stories were, “published in two of the most influential African American periodicals of its time, Blake, not only engaged the topics of slavery, black revolution, and emigration but also appeared in proximity to other pieces that addressed these same issues” (Chiles 327). The stark difference was that Delany wrote about the Afrofuturistic history that he envisioned for the past history of slavery as a seventy-four-chapter novel, that was printed in serial form.

Being that in the past, African Americans were only taught about the historical successes of their Euro-American counterparts, the publications by Delany were a huge success. The African American community was in need of uplifting fictions and non-fictions that presented an African American protagonist so much, that the Weekly Anglo-African wrote that it was important for African Americans, “to know something else of ourselves through the press than the everyday statements made up to suit the feelings of the base or the interests of our opponents” (Chiles 334). This editorial statement proves that even in the past, African Americans were aware that they were being negatively stereotyped and given the short end of the stick in American society. Later Delany illustrates how African Americans were treated in a court of law, “in the Blake installment in the May 1859 issue of Anglo-African Magazine, [characters] Judge Ballard debates with Major Armsted and Colonel Franks the “Compromise measures,” and the “just decision of the Supreme Court . . . that persons of African descent have no rights that white men are bound to respect!” Lest the readers miss the anachronistic reference to Dred Scott” (Chiles 336). Dred Scott was an enslaved African American man, who in 1857 sued for his and his wife’s freedom due to the fact that they resided in a state where slavery was illegal. The judge who presided over the case, much like the one in Delany’s series stated that African American people have no rights or claims of citizenship in the United States. And it was ruled that, “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves", whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court” (Dred Scott v. Sandford). Delany’s series provided a way for Delany to rewrite the past history of African Americans by showing that techno modernity was possible, while also publicizing the African American hardships that were faced in the United States in the present. Afrofuturism has always been a reflection of the society in which African Americans reside, and how that society should be changed. Although one may think that Afrofuturism only focuses on the future, it is not without taking a step back into the past in order to see clearly. As Elia states, “Afrofuturism still looks back at the past in order to re-evaluate it, but it primarily seeks to overcome this demoralizing future scenario by showing a positive outlook on the potential of Africa and of the people of the African diaspora in the world” (Elia 85).

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