FanBros You Should Know: Rasheedah Phillips, founder of The AfroFuturist Affair
In West Philadelphia born and raised, on the spaceship was where I spent most of my days… From the Big Apple to the City of Brotherly Love, fanbros are everywhere. The AfroFuturist Affair is a West Philadelphia organization founded by Rasheedah Phillips, a strong voice in the Philly afrofuturist movement. I had the pleasure of asking a few questions about the organization, herself and the costume ball on November 8! Afro wha? Rashee who? Costume when? Read the interview below to have all your questions answered.
When did you become interested in afrofuturism?
I became interested in afrofuturism long before I had a name for it. I started reading and writing science fiction and horror around age five, and grew up addicted to shows like The X-Files and The Twilight Zone, and movies like Butterfly Effect and The Matrix. Later, in college, my classes in Sociology and African-American studies pried my mind open to the complexity of Blackness and its multifaceted existence across racial, cultural, gender, social, and institutional lines. For several years, I rejected the traditional sci-fi culture that I loved since childhood because it did not reflect my social identity as a Black woman or the culture of people with whom I shared a history and identity.
Later in law school, a friend gave me a copy of Kindred by Octavia Butler. Hooked from the first sentence, reading this novel renewed my love and enthusiasm for sci-fi. Coming across other Black speculative writers and whole communities dedicated to Black Science Fiction and Afrofuturism inspired me to begin writing my own scifi stories again, and ultimately, to create The AfroFuturist Affair.
What compelled you to create the AfroFuturist Affair?
After law school, I started taking creative writing classes at the local community college, and would visit PhilCon and other local scifi-themed events. I was soon reminded of my feelings of frustration with the sci-fi genre, with being the only Black girl in the room who liked scifi, and with not seeing any representation of this rich and amazing world of Black science fiction that was actually out there. Wanting to combat that frustration, I bounced around ideas in my head for throwing an open-mic style reading event that would bring together other people of color interested in reading and writing sci-fi.
Some time later, I was on the Black Science Fiction Society site in summer of 2011 and saw an invite for an Afrofuturism Exhibit at the Harriet Tubman Museum in Macon, Georgia. That was my first time ever hearing the word “afrofuturism,” but the word itself sparked something intuitive in me, a feeling of “Oh, this is what I’ve been doing this whole time!” I was so fascinated by the idea of the Tubman Museum exhibit, inspired by the artists who were a part of the showcase, and so envious that it was all the way in Georgia, that the only logical next move was to throw my own afrofuturism-themed event here in Philly. Because of the positive response from supporters and the Afrofuturism community, the AfroFuturist Affair has evolved into other collaborative, creative events, blogging and social media, free community workshops, and critical, creative writing on Black scifi and Afrofuturism culture.
Why did you start the AfroFuturist Fund? Who are some of the past recipients?
The Futurist Fund is primarily inspired by my experiences as a young mother and as a public interest attorney. I had my daughter at the age of 14. As a young mother, I had to face all of the stereotypes from society. But after encouragement from others who saw my potential and support from my family and community, I was able to challenge those messages and to consciously create my own future. The Futurist Fund is part of my mission to provide other young parents with that same encouragement and support, so that they may realize their potential and can better direct their own paths.
Also in my work as a legal services attorney, I see the poorest of the poor in Philadelphia, and the effects of poverty every day, and how difficult it can be for a person with limited means and limited income to take care of very basic needs. The Futurist Fund was created with the thought that everyone falls on hard times, and sometimes just a bit of assistance can make all the difference. Although there are many resources in the community for people who fall upon hard times, many people slip through the cracks because there isn’t a resource that can help meet their specific financial needs, or they may not qualify for assistance because of some requirement beyond their control.
Since the grant started in November 2012, it has assisted a mother with past due bills after tragic deaths in her family, a young mother with severe health issues, and an individual in need of assistance with moving costs after incidents of domestic violence. Funds are also used to provide sponsorship and community partnerships to a number of community events, including Psychic Windows Gallery with artist Joshua Mays at Sanctuary Wholistic Arts, the Philly Premiere of The Triptych with AfroPunk and MythMedia Studios, and Rockers! 3rd Annual BBQ Weekend.
How did the idea for a charity ball come to you? (This year’s ball is Saturday, November 8 at 5 p.m. Click here for more details)
AfroFuturist Affair started out as a singular event, which was the first AfroFuturist Affair Charity & Costume Ball on October 28, 2011. I started it because I wanted a safespace for me to read my scifi work and celebrate scifi culture with others who create within the theme. The ultimate purpose of the event is to engage and provide a platform for artists, authors, performers, and other creatives who are creating Afrofuturism-themed work and who are interested in using their creative work to serve communities who have been disenfranchised, undervalued, and underserved, and whose histories and images have been distorted in the reigning social narrative. The charity component was to keep the event affordable and accessible to all people. I also felt that the charity component of giving back to one’s community was indispensable to the mission of the event.
What is the Black Holographic memory?
It is the collective cultural/racial memory of Black people, across all of space and time. Like a hologram, each individual who identifies with the culture contains the whole of the collective memory. We must simply learn how to access it. The event is about the artists and performers finding their own ways to access or unlock those memories within themselves, and then sharing them through their art, music, or other creative output, so that we may slowly piece together the bigger picture
Philadelphia is a very unique city. How does its landscape lend to afrofuturism?
Philadelphia is a tale of two cities – from one perspective, a rich, innovative cultural hub, particularly for art and music. On the other side of the spectrum is the poorest major city in America, rife with educational inequalities, racial segregation, high rates of homelessness, joblessness, and other ills. Consequently, we have a strong activist and revolutionary community here, when you remember that Philadelphia is the home of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and activist Pam Africa of the MOVE Organization. The landscape lends itself well to practicing and advancing some of the ideas of afrofuturism: cycles of trauma, cycles of poverty, institutional liberation and alienation, unearthing our true histories, mapping our futures, understanding our present conditions in the ever-moving flow of time, all through a speculative lens.
A Black Panther film has been confirmed by Marvel. What are your hopes for mainstream media representation of people of color in sci-fi in the next 10 years?
I am not putting much stock in seeing any dramatic shifts in mainstream representations of people of color in scifi in the next 10 years, and I don’t believe we should spend time waiting for that to happen. I believe that the focus should be on supporting independent creators and establishing our own institutions for independent film and media. These films are helping to decentralize the stereotypical, stale narratives and representations of the Black image that Hollywood and mainstream media have forged and held onto for decades. However, without support from our own communities, without us demanding to see these representations, and without us putting the money and viewership behind these projects, we cannot expect them to thrive.
Of course, it would be nice if the mainstream followed suit. Mainstream support would mean reaching the audiences that indie creators don’t always have access to. To some extent, if speculative indie movies starring Black people becomes a popular trend, Hollywood would probably invest in these projects if they could see a return for their money on it. But this, too, becomes the danger of mainstream involvement in telling our stories – they inevitably become whitewashed or made palatable for the consumption of mainstream, non-POC audiences, or become “teaching moments” for non-POC people, instead of being taken for its own merit, without the white gaze and without the story’s contrast to whiteness becoming the central narrative.
You’ve recently published your first book, Recurrence Plot (and Other Time Travel Tales), a collection of stories centered around the concept of time. What was your inspiration for the book?
All of the stories in the book are speculative retellings of my own journey, as well as the stories of people who are part of my family, community, and culture. I wanted to explore particular intersections of experience that are often missing from mainstream narratives of science and speculative fiction. I want to highlight the story of a teen mother, the story of a kid who grew up in foster care, the story of a first generation college student, the story child caught up in the justice system – and how these everyday, real world experiences parallel, or better yet, seamlessly blend into a science fictional world. I was also really inspired by writers like Ted Chiang, Ursula K. LeGuinn, and Tananarive Due, who have this ability to tie science and speculative concepts to very mundane, everyday characters who are in settings that are very “real world” like. This style of storytelling also appeals to me for the reasons of exploring that fine line between the speculative and reality. I am deeply interested in quantum physics and time travel, so I took those concepts and weaved them into everyday situations. I am not so much interested in the idea of time travel or technology that is not accessible to the average person, or technology that is divorced from the very real questions of how it impacts poor and marginalized communities.
Are you working on any new books or other works of fiction?
The characters in Recurrence Plot are not finished telling their stories, so I will begin research and writing Part 2 of the book after the Ball, which I hope to finish in February or March 2015. I am also working on publishing a short collection of essays which explore a theory that I am developing called Black Quantum Futurism, which is a new approach to living and experiencing reality by way of the manipulation of space-time in order to see into possible futures, and/or collapse space-time into a desired future in order to bring about that future’s reality.
What’s next for the AfroFuturist Affair?
My long-term goal for the AfroFuturist Affair is to continue to have the organization be a resource for the local community, and for it to begin to spread its collaborative efforts and partnerships to other states and countries so that we can expand our reach and connections to like-minded individuals and entities who are producing Afrofuturistic work and using it as a tool expression, education, agency, and social justice. The challenge with these sort of ambitions is always time and funding; although I collaborate with a number of people and have had immense support from around the world for what I am doing, it is difficult to balance running this organization with my many other responsibilities and interests. I hope to secure the resources that will allow the organization to evolve and expand. I hope to continue to use the lens and culture of Afrofuturism and its artistic and creative possibilities as a change agent that members of disenfranchised communities can tap into their collective histories and their present social circumstances, and to find agency in shaping their futures.
For more information make sure to visit www.afrofuturistaffair.com. And…..for all Philly area fanbros I will be in attendance at the costume ball! Come and say hi!