Reimagining Black Pasts and Futures

In honor of Black History Month, these volumes consider creative and radical modes of reframing the Black experience.

book covers

Afrofuturism in Black Panther: gender, identity, and the re-making of Blackness, ed. by Renée T. White and Karen A. Ritzenhoff. Lexington Books, 2021. 382p bibl index ISBN 9781793623577, $125.00; ISBN 9781793623584 ebook, $50.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE July 2022

Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) is not only a billion-dollar superhero film but also a profound examination of Black life in the global diaspora. Given this, a collection of essays on the film was inevitable. The essays White (The New School) and Ritzenhoff (Central Connecticut State Univ.) gathered are not only impressive but also surpass expectations in considering Black Panther and its importance to new conceptions of Blackness in US culture. The essays survey a wide range of topics, connecting Coogler’s film to such subjects as neoliberalism, Black lesbianism, Afrofuturism, action aesthetics, Black manhood, colonialism, and the cosmopolitan. What binds the essays together, however, is the commitment to exploring the film in its historical and cinematic contexts, tying it to films such as Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Peter Farrelly’s The Green Book (both also 2018) but also paying close attention to cinematic production and industry issues. The essays gathered in this collection speak to one another fluently despite their wide variety of topics, making the collection cohere in insightful ways. This collection is required reading for anyone seeking to understand the enduring importance of Black Panther to understanding Blackness in US culture. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. —D. E. Magill, Longwood University

The Blacker the ink: constructions of black identity in comics and sequential art, ed. by Frances Gateward and John Jennings. Rutgers, 2015. 343p bibl index ISBN 9780813572345, $90.00; ISBN 9780813572338 pbk, $29.95; ISBN 9780813572352 pbk, $29.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE December 2016

Responding to the recent interest in black identity in American comics, this volume provides what has been lacking in some previous work—variety of content, precision of approach and execution, and depth of analyses. The 15 essays Gateward (California State Univ., Northridge) and Jennings (SUNY, Buffalo) bring together treat a wide range of topics, including the formal aspects of, audience for, production of, and content of comics. Organized thematically, the essays offer enlightening discussion of black comics both familiar (e.g., The Boondocks, Nat Turner, Jackie Ormes’s strips, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire) and less known (e.g., Daddy Cool, Stagger Lee). Essays examine, among other things, Ivorian femininity and masculinity in Aya, Cold War censorship, fashion and comics, black nationalism, “Afrofuturism,” superheroes, blues comics, performance geography, and miscegenation in Jimmy Corrigan. The theory is adequate but not overbearing, and the contributors provide information about the creators and plot synopses to help readers understand textual interpretations. Though the publisher slacked on editing (e.g., boxer “Joe Lewis,”  “Ronald Regan”) and image quality, The Blacker the Ink advances the study of black comics significantly by offering new insights and a wealth of information free of gobbledygook. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. —J. A. Lent, independent scholar

Furious flower: seeding the future of African American poetry, ed. by Joanne V. Gabbin and Lauren K. Alleyne. Northwestern University, 2019 (c2020). 441p ISBN 9780810141544 pbk, $34.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE  November 2020

Gabbin and Alleyne (both, James Madison Univ.) are executive director and assistant director, respectively, of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, established to honor the Black poetic voice. Gabbin’s previous scholarly work includes Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition (1994); Alleyne has published two collections of poetry, Difficult Fruit (2014) and Honeyfish (2019). The third in a series of anthologies—preceded by The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry (1999) and Furious Flower: African American Poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the Present (2004)—the present volume brings together poetry from more than 100 poets, presenting it in six thematic sections: “Collective Power,” “Black Aesthetics,” “Pan African Poetics,” “Renovation,” “Writing the Body,” and “The Collective.” Each of the first five sections is enhanced with a critical essay, contributed by a respected Black scholar or poet, pertaining to the section’s theme; the final section intertwines creative essays with poetry, analysis, and personal stories. Rita Dove contributes a foreword. Looking to the future through artistic expression, this timely anthology is a formidable resource. Summing Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals; general readers. —T. L. Stowell, Adrian College

Hunter, Marcus Anthony. Chocolate cities: the black map of American life, by Marcus Anthony Hunter and Zandria F. Robinson. California, 2018. 291p bibl index ISBN 9780520292826, $85.00; ISBN 9780520292833 pbk, $29.95; ISBN 9780520966178 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE July 2018

Sociologists Hunter (UCLA) and Robinson (Rhodes College) offer a refreshing, in-depth analysis of how networks among African Americans in cities have created what is known in everyday parlance as “chocolate cities.” Arguably, the most famed among them are Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. However, the authors take readers through a labyrinth of history via various personalities, historical figures in music, and the African American experience. The study is from Emancipation to the present day. After reading this book, readers will have a solid comprehension of life within the context of black lives in the cities forged in the crucible of struggle. In other words, Hunter and Robinson offer an insight into the ways black folks have eked out a social world regardless of the racism, segregation, and brutality often concomitant in cities across the North American experience. The irony is that in their pursuit of inner-city happiness, African Americans have actually altered the landscape of mainstream “milky” America. Indeed, as the authors conclude, “… Black is a map. Black is a country. Black is a city. Black is a village. And its future is wrapped in chocolate.” For undergraduates, graduates, and any lay reader interested in black life in the US. Summing Up: Essential. All public and academic levels/libraries. —M. Christian, Lehman College

Literary Afrofuturism in the twenty-first century, ed. by Isiah Lavender III and Lisa Yaszek. Ohio State, 2020. 264p index ISBN 9780814255964 pbk, $34.95; ISBN 9780814278154 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE July 2021

Afrofuturism has exploded visibly onto the cultural scene in recent years (though it has been around for much longer), and it stands to reason that scholarly assessments of this field would follow. This collection stands out for its respected editors, who are both top-notch scholars in the field, and for its breadth of focus. Lavender (Univ. of Georgia) and Yaszek (Georgia Tech) have compiled an impressive list of contributors in developing this important conversation about literary Afrofuturism, and they open the book with a roundtable discussion of genre by such top practitioners in the field such as N. K. Jemisin, Nalo Hopkinson, and Minister Faust. The essays discuss contemporary Afrofuturist texts ranging across the Black Atlantic, thus encompassing the genre’s diasporic vision. The contributors challenge a present-time ideal of Afrofuturism by revealing the genre’s long history, which dates back to Phillis Wheatley and forward to Janelle Monáe and Black Panther; by recovering authors such as John M. Faucette and Amos Tutuola; and by articulating the connections between Black speculative literature and African diasporic culture across time. This book is an important addition to the conversations on Afrofuturism and its necessary place in literary studies and African American studies. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty. —D. E. Magill, Longwood University

Marable, Manning. Living black history: how reimagining the African-American past can remake America’s racial future. BasicBooks, 2006. 266p ISBN 0465043895, $26.00. 
Reviewed in CHOICE January 2007

Marable proposes a thorough reimagining of African American history through a revolutionary process that involves such disparate approaches as radicalizing the view of W. E. B. Du Bois and other African American leaders by preserving and analyzing their exact words; initiating public history activities to preserve, protect, and analyze the physical sites and artifacts of African American history; and exposing the “massive evidence of crimes against humanity routinely sanctioned by corporate and state power” against African Americans. The first of five ambitious chapters (really essays) outlines the radical agenda for African American history. The second surveys historical black intellectual leadership and defines the new leadership necessary for implementing this radical agenda. The third and fourth essays reevaluate Du Bois and discuss the importance of acquiring and interpreting African American historical sites, beginning with the Audubon Ballroom and other Malcolm X locales. The final and most interesting essay provides an autopsy of the Brown decision as well as the author’s prescription for a post-Brown strategy. Marable, who is clearly radical and an advocate of Marxist historical analysis and radical nonviolent activism, provides a very provocative agenda and an equally provocative reassessment of African American history’s role. The book may offend or anger some readers, but no one will find it boring. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Most levels/libraries. —C. D. Wintz, Texas Southern University

Rickford, Russell. We are an African people: independent education, black power, and the radical imagination. Oxford, 2016. 368p bibl index afp ISBN 9780199861477, $34.95; ISBN 9780199861484 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE March 2017

In the period after the Brown decision focused on integrated education, several leaders recognized that integration, while in many ways beneficial, also was costly. The cultural pride that had been nurtured in African American schools was replaced by what was sometimes called neo-colonialism, in which minority culture was replaced by aspirations to make minorities become copies of the dominant culture. Historian Rickford (Cornell) identifies the emergent movement to create an African-cultured base from its origins in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school, where parents wanted to choose the curriculum and lessons for their children, to the approximately 350 Afrocentric schools that survived in a 1991 count. There were also surviving curricular focuses in public institutions that maintained a loyalty to a Pan African culture. In an intelligent, quite intense narrative, the author shows how common threads of theory and practice brought together ideals of liberatory pedagogy, black arts, pan-African nationalism, black sovereignty, black renaissance, pragmatic black power, and African re-identification. In this objective scholarly volume, which highlights a very significant, often-overlooked movement, Rickford encourages the crafting of more resilient movements in the future. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. —J. H. Smith, Wake Forest University

Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth. The dark fantastic: race and the imagination from Harry Potter to The hunger games. New York University, 2019. 221p bibl index ISBN 9781479800650, $28.00; ISBN 9781479864195 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2019

The need for diversity in literature for children and young adults extends to the need for literary criticism focused on this diversity (or the lack of it). Thomas (Univ. of Pennsylvania) offers an excellent analysis of the portrayal of black female characters in speculative fiction, and she points out “an imagination gap” for black readers, who can only rarely imagine themselves as the character on the page. A creative blend of autoethnography, literary analysis, and counter-storytelling, this volume is intriguing, accessible, and raises important questions that will likely generate additional research on this topic. Thomas focuses her lens on characters in several of the most popular speculative fiction stories, including The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Merlin, and The Vampire Diaries, and she looks at both the written text and the film/television versions of these stories. In examining how these characters reflect the ways black girls are treated in the real world, Thomas demonstrates how far literature for young people still has to go to provide a mirror for all readers. A must read, especially for current and future educators. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals; general readers. —P. J. Kurtz, Minot State University

White, Carol Wayne. Black lives and sacred humanity: toward an African American religious naturalism. Fordham, 2016. 164p index afp ISBN 9780823269815, $90.00; ISBN 9780823269822 pbk, $25.00; ISBN 9780823269839 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2016

White (philosophy of religion, Bucknell Univ.) has written a brilliant philosophical treatise on alternatives for African American religiosity. Rather than focusing on theistic models, she constructs a concept of sacred humanity derived from the writings of Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, and James Baldwin. In her chapter on Cooper, White writes that she borrows from Cooper’s vision of the US as an “unfolding, relational whole and the interplay of one and all.” Cooper’s southern, black, female voice proclaims a potential future for a US where liberty, justice, and freedom reside. Although Du Bois was critical of institutional religion, he held to a religious naturalism that enabled him to see human beings as centers of value and creativity. Finally, from James Baldwin’s radical criticism of American racism and homophobia, White draws on Baldwin’s views of love of humanity. Baldwin was acutely aware of the effect of religion as a system of meaning on the lives of individuals and of the ability of religion to provide an overall frame of reference for life. The Pew Research Center indicates that less than 1 percent of African Americans are atheists or agnostics, so the question of contextual relevance must be raised, but this book deserves a wide audience. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates and above. —L. H. Mamiya, Vassar College

Zamalin, Alex. Black utopia: the history of an idea from black nationalism to Afrofuturism. Columbia, 2019. 182p bibl index ISBN 9780231187404, $80.00; ISBN 9780231187411 pbk, $26.00; ISBN 9780231547253 ebook, $25.99.
Reviewed in CHOICE March 2020

Black American life has largely been dystopian, but black American thought includes a serious and longstanding utopian tradition. In Black Utopia, Zamalin (Univ. of Detroit Mercy) reveals and revisits this tradition and its relationship to the questions of liberation, justice, and freedom that are central to African American political thought. One of the book’s major contributions is to introduce readers to important American authors who have mostly been lost to history, such as Martin Delany. Zamalin also resituates more familiar figures, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Octavia Butler, as part of the black utopian tradition. In doing both, he shows readers a new way to conceive of the contours of black political thought, expanding the sense of its dimensions. The author also argues that in the present moment, with its unarguably dystopian dimensions, black utopian thinking can help guide and invigorate our own political imagination, to untangle current assumptions about the way the world must be. Black Utopia is an instructive guide for all those who are interested in deepening their knowledge of American history and thinking critically about American politics. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; professionals. —S. M. Barndt, Pomona College