An Afrofurist Harlem
What happens when people spend their lives being fed visions of the future that don’t include them?
Much of the work located in this portal talks about data from research or my own experience as a transplant in Harlem, but what do others who also live here think. From September 2022-October 2022, I conducted a survey for Black members of Harlem. Prospective participants were told the survey would be used to collective an oral history and vision of Harlem from the perspective of Black residents. A total of 40 questions were asked across the following sections:
- The Harlem Experience
- Afrofuturism + Physical Environment
- Climate Justice
Seven (n=7) individuals filled out the survey and provided some interesting residential data points. In the following section, I will highlight some of the questions asked the common themes that surfaced.
First let’s talk demographics
- Participants n=7
- 100% Black/African-American/Caribbean
- 70% male-identified, 30% female-identified (no one self-identified as Trans, Non-binary or Gender Non-Conforming)
- The average age was 41.5 years
- 66% were not originally from Harlem, 33% were born and raised
- ⅔ were from Central Harlem, while the other ⅓ was from Manhattanville. No other Harlem neighborhoods were represented
Participants were asked questions about Afrofuturism, specifically if they had heard of it before and how they would describe it. The main patterns were dreaming and looking ahead that incorporates Black excellence with art and technological advances. Words people used were innovative, thriving, centering Black people, rooted in joy and possibility.
A participant described this as “A recentering and reorienting around Black ppl and their needs that has not yet fully been realized; rooted in a place of joy possibility and safety” -Anonymous 2022About 50% of people have heard of Afrofuturism--when thinking about the term people talked about all positive feelings. They named things like pride, joy, possibility, innovation and excitement. If people have these positive feelings, how can we use this in climate justice if it is about technology and innovation? The climate crisis is upon us and will require use to think deeply and outside the box around what it means to be climate resilient and preserve what needs to be preserved.
Participants were asked questions about the physical space of Harlem and how they feel connected to this space.
When asked “What history of Harlem are you trying to preserve and archive? Why?”, one participant said: All of it. But I’d say voices of young people around the changing Harlem? rooted in culturally responsive engagement practices is most needed, along with elders insights about change in Harlem-Anonymous 2022
People really want to preserve the spaces that exist that have been built on African culture. They want to use these spaces as a way to critique their environment as it relates to climate justice. They are interested in using these spaces as a breeding ground to think about a vision that is rooted in all people who make this a rich cultural space.
Climate Justice and Abolition
Interesting, a few (n=3) participants did not see a connection between Harlem and climate justice. They mentioned not being able to find aspects of how Harlem was a space of environmental justice. Participants did mention trash, houselessness and crime as major problems in Harlem. As someone who thinks about climate justice all the time, I found this to be very surprising. It makes me think about how climate work has not always been accessible to many people and the compounding issues people are experiencing.
Participants were asked questions about abolition and the connection between Harlem. Words that came to surface were: elimination, the making of a person whole and righting wrongs.
One participant described this as “Collective Freedom by any means. Systems change”
Some patterns I saw were around the aspect of time and how there is this finiteness but afrofuturism requires we think beyond time and what we presently see. That is really hard for people to do.
“In 100 years I don’t want the only Black people we see to exist on street signs. I also want to ensure the destruction/ compounded traumas don’t persist from the inside-out. I want Harlem to maintain a connection to legacy, to striving, to unmet possibilities that are closer to being realized for everyone here”-Anonymous 2022
Organizing is a transformational process through which participants gain the skills and expertise they need to build the power necessary to win the changes they seek. It is built on relationships, trust, leadership development and developing our political analysis. The only way to do this is by understanding the current time and conditions.
What is the current time Harlem is experiencing?
Alondra Nelson says: “Afrofuturism is a critical perspective that opens up inquiry into the many overlaps between technoculture and black diasporic histories. Afrofuturism looks across popular culture…to find models of expression that transform spaces of alienation into novel forms of creative potential. In the process it reclaims theorizing about the future.” Afrofuturism provides us with a framework to think outside of redlining, structural racism and environmental racism offers to us and the power of political imagination. Afrofuturism is a cultural and organizing lens that is used to think about the types of the future. Specifically it aims for people to vision into a future where systems of oppression can be dismantled. For Harlem residents, it can be a powerful tool because it is unapologetic about situating Black people at the center of futures. As stated by a participant, “We have to see ourselves in the future. We have to believe we’re worthy of a future. We need to abolish the silent harms that go unsaid that stand in the way of that. By any means necessary”-Anonymous 2022,
In parable of the Sower, the main protagonist Olamina and the rest of the world are dealing with climate disasters, political strife, war, censorship and amongst all of this a multiracial cross-class group is able to build power, trust, values and principles with one another through the teachings of Earthseed to create their own community that is completely outside and separate from the state.
- What are other examples of socio-political movements that push back against racialized capitalism, similar to Afrofuturism?
- What does the future hold for the community of Harlem and how do we ensure that future is thriving?
- What future are you trying to bring into fruition? Who is present in your future? What do you need to do now to facilitate this vision?
Harlem is a complex place with dynamic and complex individuals. It has been a space known to experience rich cultural growth and progress at the same time while balancing racist policies that have divested from the people. The vision for Harlem isn’t finished and needs every Black person to have their slice of Afrofuturism represented.