Embodying the Afrofuture as a “New Amerykah”: Afrofuturism, the Rhetoric of Redress, and the Cover Art for Badu’s “Return of the Ankh” – Part 2: The “Rhetoric of Redress”

Posted: July 12, 2014 in Uncategorized
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In its attempts to engage the past while looking toward the future, Afrofuturism is part and parcel of what art historian and cultural critic Huey Copeland calls a “rhetoric of redress”–a concept to which he refers in his close reading of such works as African-American artist Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum (1992).

In Part 2 of this blog series on the ways in which an Afrofuturist “rhetoric of redress” factors into neo-soul singer Erykah Badu’s album art for Return of the Ankh (2010), I summarize Copeland’s interpretation of Wilson’s exhibition, which sees Mining… as an act of reparation aimed at healing the social ill of racism. In this, I hope to explain further what Copeland’s “rhetoric of redress” entails as a form social activism geared toward healing the wounds of historical trauma associated with the (neo)colonial subjugation of bodies rendered “other” according to a web of racist, classicist, sexist, nationalist, and homophobic notions of personhood that lie at the heart of the formation of the modern nation-state.

Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum: Reclaiming Black History in Institutional Space

Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson

An exhibition which displayed prized objects housed in the annals of the Maryland Historical Society (MHS), Wilson’s Mining functioned to critique the use of the museum, broadly speaking, as an institutional space which disciplines its attendants to view what is on display according to its own logic. Along the lines of Wilson’s critique, the museum, as a cultural institution, essentially freezes cultural formation–or the development of cultural traditions–in time and space.

In so doing, it creates a distance, or imagined border, between the museum as a community resource and the ongoing cultural dynamics of the community it supposedly serves.

The museum is meant to be a tool for engaging, or “mining,” history for a deeper understanding of one’s present context and the past which shapes it. According to institutional critique, however,  it often fails to include history’s untold narratives in the ways it frames its exhibitions. In so doing, the community it serves cannot claim a sense of ownership, that is, “mine,” the history being represented. Put another way, the museum occasionally misrepresents the community/ies it is meant to represent. This is particularly the case in terms of histories that relate to the experiences of those on society’s margins–those whose histories have been silenced by the various displacements of European-American colonialism, which manifests in the contemporary moment as global capitalism.

Predicated on subjugating the racialized other–be it in Haiti or America–capitalism operates through a system of wage slavery structured to maximize business profits by way of cheap, outsourced labor exported  to the  so-called “Third World” and a concomitant process of de-industrialization, or the replacement of the manufacturing with a service sector, in the so-called “Developed World.”

In the failure to adequately represent the narratives of those excluded from ownership over the means of production, the museum, generally speaking, meanwhile perpetuates colonial power-relations as they exist between the oppressor and the oppressed–that is, those who have historically held a monopoly on political power and those who have been castigated as abject, or “wretched,” to use Frantz Fanon’s terms. The latter are those who are subjected to White hegemony, or the consolidation of power into the hands of a white “ruling elite,” through an economic system rooted in class- and race-based prejudices that place the non-White Other at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

The museum, which can function as a means of White self-preservation, or the preservation of “White culture” over and against the non-White Other, creates “hierarchical modes of seeing, framing and memorializing the [cultural] other.”[1] In other words, the museum operates as a kind of “scopic regime.” A term coined by film theorist Christian Metz, the notion of “scopic regime” refers to the “power of looking […] to assess, surveil, and represent the visual world.”[2] As black cultural theorist Nicole Fleetwood writes, “Scopic regime more broadly theorized gets deployed to describe the use of vision and visual technologies in a given historical or cultural context to maintain power relations.”[3]

The Maryland Historical Society (MHS) Library

The Maryland Historical Society (MHS) Library

In this regard, the museum, generally speaking, acts as a kind of “scopic regime” insofar as it implicitly tells its viewers what to see and how to see it, assuming authority for determining a rather static and fixed conception of culture, frozen on display, while excluding other cultural narratives viable for representation that exist outside of the museum’s institutional and colonizing gaze.

Against this threat of cultural stasis and the exclusion of under-represented populations, such as those in the African-American community, from the museum space, Wilson’s Mining the Museum reclaims (i.e. “mines”) the cultural institution that is the museum for the purposes of disclosing the unheard narrative of African and Native American subjugation that is the often ignored shadow-side of the American democratic project–contextualized, in the case of Mining, by Baltimore City’s history of race antagonism that is deeply embedded in the formation of the Maryland Historical Society (MHS) under the whims of its primarily “white male board” [4].

Playing on MHS’s exclusion of subaltern narratives from the collection of cultural artifacts it houses, Wilson reordered the space in a way that brought history’s shadow to light. He did so by “mining” the museum’s collection to recover those objects which give visual testimony to the violence of slavery and white domination as it exists in the history of a once slave-holding state, Maryland. In this way, Wilson’s Mining worked to bring consciousness of race relations (read: race differences) to the fore through a re-staging of local history using artifacts of the local culture, artifacts that the museum itself owned, rife with the terrific memory of slavery.

Metalwork 1793-1880

“Metalwork 1793-1880,” Fred Wilson, 1992. A set of shackles is placed inside a glass case displaying silver objects and prized possessions of the landed nobility whom American slave served.

In this, Wilson played, or signified, on the concept of the museum as a “scopic regime” by guiding his audience to see the installation as a counter-narrative to a history of racialized oppression in which MHS itself played a part by its failure to account for the untold histories of slave society, abolition, and colonization to which its collection, as Elisabeth Ginsberg notes, implicitly refers. To do so, Wilson introduced the exhibit with a televised recording of himself on a TV monitor, flanked with black nationalist flags, by which he familiarized viewers with the story being told inside the museum.[5]

Cabinet Making 1920-1960

“Cabinet Making 1920-1960,” Fred Wilson, 1992

He meanwhile situated the museum’s collection in such a way as to to implicate it in a history of slave capture and punishment. “Cabinetmaking, 1820-1960” is one such example, whereby Wilson centered antique chairs around a “Baltimore Whipping Post” gifted to MHS. In this, he restaged lynching “as a kind of living-room leisure sport”[6] to satirize the ways in which the brutal act functioned as a spectacular kind of white entertainment, or enjoyment, at the expense of the subjugated black body in an ante- and post-bellum South. In a manner of irony, he meanwhile indicts the MHS for its complicity in silencing the history of black subjugation by previously refusing to acknowledge the history of suffering that such objects embody.

“Mining” the Past to Make the Present “Mine”: The “Rhetoric of Redress” and Afrofuturism

Speaking to this, Copeland notes that Wilson’s practice articulates a “language of redress” which, through its “varied aesthetic means—objects, texts, space, artworks, and sound”—reveals a “fundamental imbrication,” or deep-rooted linkage, with “rhetorics of reparative speech,” or ways of speaking, that seek to repair social relations and which “seek justice for the subjects of racial oppression.”[7] Copeland therefore frames the “rhetoric (or language) of redress,” especially as it is operating in Wilson’s work, as a form of cultural expression, a “language,” oriented toward correcting (i.e. “redressing”) social ills symptomatic of white supremacist ways of being. With Wilson’s work in mind, he writes that the task of redress “is terminally unfinished, requiring constant repetition and renewal to keep the past alive and the present under scrutiny.”[8]

Quoting literary theorists Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman, he further delineates the “rhetoric of redress” as “‘the kinds of political claims that can be mobilized on behalf of the slave (the stateless, the socially dead, and the disposable) in the political present.’”[9] As with “Cabinetmaking,” Wilson’s Mining, according to Copeland, revealed racialized violence so that it “might be turned back on itself”[10]–brought to the viewer and white society’s attention so as to awaken them from the slumber of what Marx would call “false consciousness.” In other words, Wilson’s Mining is a kind of archaeological dig that seeks to excavate cultural objects, or artifacts, in order to reveal experiences of oppression related to sexism, racism, classicism, etc. through the vantage point of the oppressed themselves. The work of redress therefore serves as a means of waking people up, shaking them out of apathy, and disclosing the reality of racism as it operates, mostly unacknowledged, in the social practices of everyday life within an advanced capitalist society such as our own that was built on the black backs of slaves.


“Homework,” Fred Wilson, 1992. A Ku Klux Klan hood is placed inside of a black baby carriage to signify the fact that racism is a learned condition and a legacy which carries across generations.

For Wilson’s intent and purposes, Mining was a way to address the historical specificity of black suffering, rooted in slavery, while engaging the MHS collection as charged space in which to assert black self-determination through an act of “re-membering” that used found objects, the collection itself, as tools for bringing the past of black blight to bear on the present–this as a means to mediate race relations and cultivate the anti-racist consciousness as well as discourse necessary for creating a more egalitarian society.

Wilson’s work in this sense served to awaken in his viewers a sense of historical consciousness that accounts for social injustices–one which holds itself accountable to the diversity of histories which shape the local community–and in turn reorients historical discourse, the way we remember the past, from the perspective of the dispossessed.

In the same way, the tropes, or themes, used for seeing the world as found in Afrofuturist thought cultivate an epistemology (a way of thinking) deeply rooted in black historical consciousness that figures on the past as a means to bring reparative justice to a post-industrial present—one characterized by the horrific memory of slavery as it is relived in the loss of a strong manufacturing sector in North American cities; the introduction of drugs into urban communities and the subsequent proliferation of the drug trade therein; poor housing standards; and what Marc Anthony Neal calls the “juvenizaton of poverty,” or the militarization of the black urbanscape through gang violence and turf wars associated with the drug trade.[11]

In such a blighted context as this, Afrofuturism became, and remains, an imaginative means to ask important questions rooted firmly in a black radical stance that aims to deconstruct  what cultural theorist George Lipsitz calls the global “austerity economy”[12]–that is, a global economic system in which transnational corporations control the flow of capital through the workings of free-market structures, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which exclude black, or minority, ownership over the technological means of production through the State-sanctioned business practices that solidify class- and race-based divisions of labor.

Against the triple threat of economic disenfranchisement, social dislocation and existential angst wrought by the global “austerity economy,” Afrofuturism embodies the kind of critical inquiry necessary to dismantle the spectacle of capitalism. This is the case inasmuch as it asks not only why black people are so beset, but what black people can do to change a social system in which relations between individuals are essentially reduced to the status of an economic transaction–one that capitalizes on the exploitation of the non-White body.

Noted above, such critique mandates a preoccupation with history embedded in a longing for roots that, in the case of Afrofuturism, finds a home in a prehistoric, Egyptian past—one which precedes modernity, yet signifies a kind of modernism (read: “futurism”), or turn toward the future, associated with technological advancement in the present era. In this, Afrofuturism professes the innate creativity of the “Black” (wo)man as the original (wo)man[13] endowed with a capacity for constructing the technologies deemed necessary to human progress.

As black cultural theorists posit, Afrofuturism is rooted in a “b(l)ack to the future” kind of thinking that signifies on themes of technological progress through the lens of science fiction “as if to signal to African Americans,” writes cultural critic Graham Lock, “that the only way to define personal identity, to experience a form of rebirth, to be ‘saved’ in fact, [is] not by following the old myths of the Christian Church and its Bible, but by embracing a future in which (as [Sun Ra] sang in one song, based pointedly on the spiritual ‘No Hiding Place’): ‘The space age is here to stay / Ain’t no place that you can run away.’”[14]

outerspaceways incorporated

Cover Art, Sun Ra, Outer Spaceways Incorporated, 1968

Constitutive of an “Astro Black” mythology, this “mythic consciousness” of Afrofuturism articulates its message through a “rhetoric of redress” that ultimately incorporates a “mixture of black Bible interpretations, [mystic] texts, modern science, Egyptology and science fiction”[15] to imagine new ways of black being in and for the world.

Taken in context of the wider historical narrative of the black freedom struggle and the narrower specificity of Afrofuturism itself, the ideology engages in various “aesthetic means”–or artistic-cultural practices –to capture what Jewish political philosopher Walter Benjamin terms, “now-time,”[16] referencing the “production and performance of what is to come” by arresting “the ‘fierce urgency’ of its moment”[17] through elaborate sci-fi costumes and visions of outer space grounded in a prophetic turn toward present historical conditions, particularly as they relate to the marginalized.

In this way, Afrofoturism is an engagement with the present moment which gives evidence to history’s catastrophes, namely as experienced by “real life” black people in the unpictured “then” of racialized oppression that has implications for the ongoing “now” of the current black struggle for fuller participation in the American democratic project. As a kind of historical documentation (read: “mining”) of the past and a nod toward the political possibilities inherent in the future of humankind, Afrofuturism ultimately crystallizes reflection on the historical present–what’s fucked up about it, what’s great about it, and what could stand to change.  Afrofuturism is in this way rife with potential for inspiring future, movement-oriented action as related to the black freedom struggle in which it is situated, and in the struggle that extends beyond the context in both time and space of the present moment. In short, it is a way to claim ownership of (read: “mine”) the present.

Afrofuturism is thus deeply invested in an historical process that offers a “promise of an alternative future”[18] (such as Erykah Badu’s “New Amerykah”)  pregnant with the tension born between despair and hope—between the “then” and “now”—that Badu, through Emek’s deft hand, engages in her visual, Afrofuturist articulation of a “language of redress.” It is to an interpretation of her album cover as an expression of Copeland’s “language of redress” that this blog series turns in Part 3.

[1] Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 31.

[2] Nicole Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 16-17.

[3] Ibid., 17.

[4] See Elisabeth Ginsberg, “Case Study: Mining the Museum,” http://beautifultrouble.org/case/mining-the-museum/, accessed July 12, 2014.

[5] Darby English, How to See A Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 200&), 156.

[6] Ibid., 165.

[7] Copeland, op. cit., 26.

[8] Ibid., 35.

[9] Quoted in ibid., 34.

[10] Ibid., 47.

[11] Mark Anthony Neal, “Postindustrial Soul: Black Popular Music at the Crossroads,” in That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader 2n ed., edited by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal, 477-502 (New York: Routledge, 2004): 477.

[12] See George Lipsitz, “Diasporic Noise: History, Hip Hop, and the Post-colonial Politics of Sound,” in Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place (New York: Verso, 1994), 27.

[13] Riffing on Kerry James Marshall, “The Legend of Sun Man Continues,” in Traveling the Spaceways: Sun-Ra: The Astro Black and Other Solar Myths, edited by John Corbett, Anthony Elms, and Terri Kapsalis (Chicago: WhiteWalls, 2010), 59.

[14] Graham Lock, “Right Place, Right Time, Wrong Planet [Chicago Talk Remix],” in Traveling…, ibid., 33.

[15] Ben Schot, “Astro-Black Mythology,” Blastitude, Ethics 13 (August 2002), accessed January 11, 2014, http://www.blastitude.com/13/ETERNITY/sun_ra.htm

[16] As referenced in Leigh Raiford’s evocative discussion on the way in which SNCC posters used in civil rights marches captured the “fierce urgency” of the historical moment. See Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 2011), 96-97.

[17] Ibid., 97.

[18] Playing off of Raiford in her discussion of Civil Rights movement photography, ibid., 79.


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