There is an old man story about Octavia Butler to whom I often return: a young man once asked the visionary science fiction novelist the answer to end all the suffering in the world. “None,” Butler replied. “So we’re doomed?” he asked, confused. “No,” Butler said. Then he uttered the words that would make me understand the future again: “There is no single answer that solves all our future problems. There is no magic bullet. Instead, there are thousands of answers, at least. You can be one of them if you decide. “
Black futurist artists are often considered prophets and are unfairly expected to preach the path that will lead us to a brighter tomorrow. Butler, who began writing during the Black Power movement and died at the age of 58, in 2006, was considered an oracle of his time. Today, one of Butler’s most vital successors is the versatile artist Janelle Monáe. But if Monáe knows the future, he doesn’t say it at all. Talking to her is less like questioning an oracle than planning with an older, wiser friend.
I’m talking to Monáe about his new book, The librarian of memory, a collection of science fiction stories that he co-wrote with five writers. During our conversation, which takes place via Zoom, Monáe’s voice is soft but without hesitation, catching attention by chance. Always a performer, her face is spectacularly half hidden under a fuzzy black and white plaid bucket hat. In her answers to my questions she speaks carefully, as if the gravity behind her vision and work is holding her back.
Like Butler before her, Monáe works in a genre called Afrofuturism. With a vague definition, imagine the future of the liberation of blacks from a hostile world: ours. Although she publishes a book and stars in films, Monáe is best known as a musician, and it was her 2018 concept album, Gross computer, which defined his Afrofuturist visions. “What Afrofuturism does is allow blacks to tell our stories, from our voice, of how we see ourselves in the future, thriving,” Monáe tells me. With The librarian of memoryMonáe perfectly translates the detailed dystopian world of Gross computer of the sound on the page. We see many of the same characters: an android named Jane, her Zen love interest, some government workers, and civilians. We see that a rebellion is forming against a violent state of vigilance and a strange desire in the midst of an apocalypse.
In his book, Monáe offers us a warning, but also a way out. Look around you, he says. Increasingly, we are stripped of our flesh and blood identities and extracted from our data. But this transformation must not destroy us; even the computerized body, Monáe insists, can preserve its humanity. Defective, dirty, proud, the strange robots in Monáe’s vision refuse to be reduced so easily by 1 and 0. The librarian of memory it may not be the response to the social and political upheavals of our time, but it is a answer, and a fiercely inspiring one: the deepening of the potential of Afrofuturism to arm our dreams for a freer and happier world.
The central proposal of Afrofuturism is that blacks can control their own future and, moreover, they can escape the suffocating limits of the same time. The past becomes the future becomes the present; memory becomes prophecy comes true. Freedom is not just a dream for the future, but a story we know we will relive once again. In The librarian of memory, the titular character of Monáe collects and keeps the memories of the people, exercising a terrifying power. She understands that memory retention can be deployed as a weapon, while its resurgence can act as a means of survival.
This motif of memory plays with a historical truth: whites have controlled the individual and collective memories of black Americans for centuries. When slaves were first brought to the Americas, their names were changed, their languages were suppressed, their marriages undocumented, their graves unmarked. The families were separated; Blacks were stripped of the image of their mother’s face, her sister’s smile. Many black Americans today struggle to trace their family members back more than a few generations. Their lineage, their names, and their identities are only remembered to the extent that whiteness allows.