The Afrofuturist Poetry of Tracie Morris and Tracy K. Smith

By Ranft, Erin | Journal of Ethnic American Literature, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Afrofuturist Poetry of Tracie Morris and Tracy K. Smith


Ranft, Erin, Journal of Ethnic American Literature


The genre of poetry, much like fiction, is a creative outlet in which authors explore varied ideas, images, and issues that audiences may then analyze, critique, and appreciate. What happens when poetry and technology, or poetry and science fiction collide? Generally, the incorporation of notions of the future, science, technology, and African American identity has been a space for fiction, film, art, and music. Those who study Affofuturism (AF), a framework for interpreting the intersections of race and technology or science fiction, often concentrate on novels by Octavia Butler, the musical stylings of Parliament-Funkadelic, and films such as I Am Legend (2007) and The Book of Eli (2010). Indeed, there is a growing collection of works in various genres that lend themselves to Afrofuturist interpretations, yet scholars rarely place poetry in the conversations. Consequently, poets Tracie Morris and Tracy K. Smith incorporate elements of science fiction, technology, and African American histories and experiences in select poems; thus, their works offer important opportunities for reading poetry utilizing an Afrofuturist frame- work.

What, though, is Afrofuturism? As a term, Afrofuturism began formally in Mark Dery's 1993 contribution to South Atlantic Quarterly (also edited by Dery), where he utilizes the term. In 1994, Dery edited the text Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture in which he re-released the article. Dery created the term "Afro-Futurism" to "describe AfricanAmerican culture's appropriation of technology and [science fiction] imagery" ("Black to the Future: Afro-Futurism 1.0," 6). While Dery is credited with the phrase, much is owed to Alondra Nelson, who founded an Afrofuturism listserv in 1998; this was an online community where members discussed issues related to technology, racial identity, diaspora, activism, the future, and various other topics. Within this digital space and through its members, Afrofuturism developed as a theoretical perspective for identifying and analyzing the relationships between Black identities, technologies from before and beyond, and imaginings of the future and its possibilities.

Encouraging the continued development of Afrofuturism, Nelson edited a 2002 issue of the journal Social Text in which numerous scholars and authors detailed in articles, interviews, and poems, the significance and uses of AF. Tracie Morris contributed poems to that special issue of Social Text that are distinctively Affofuturist, for they address concepts of dystopic futures, technologies, and Black identity. As Nelson notes in the introduction to the issue, Morris's poems reveal that she is "less than sanguine about technoscience-each poem conjures the affect of loss and deception-linking it not to the promise of bright new futures but to biological abominations, genocidal campaigns, and environmental catastrophe" (11). In opposition to Tracy K. Smith's poem "Sci-Fi," dis- cussed below, where she envisions a future with opportunities, Morris foresees the disastrous affects of continued US racism, ostensible advancements in technology, and ecological devastation.

The use of an Afrofuturist lens to analyze the poems by Morris and Smith suggests that the genre of poetry allows a creative space for poets to address and challenge the real and imagined lives of African Americans in the past, present, and future (consider, for example, Octavia Butler's novel Kindred, published in 1979, in which the contemporary Black female protagonist travels back in time and, due to events in that past, creates a different future for herself). Science fiction authors have historically utilized the literary genre to address relevant societal, environmental, and global issues; Black science fiction authors such as Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, and Nalo Hopkinson tackle the intersections of identities, including race, gender, class, and technology in their novels and short stories. Morris and Smith do similar work in poetic form. …

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