Hope reimagined: making the world that ought to be | Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy [ANVIL vol 36 issue 3]

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Maya Angelou

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”

George Orwell

Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy

We have all witnessed the drama that unfolded on a street corner in the city of Minneapolis as the lifeless body of a then anonymous black man was carried on a stretcher, away from the gaze of the onlooking crowd. As I first watched the video, incredulous and unsure of what I was witnessing, a familiar protest and a rage slowly arose from my soul. Once I understood what was happening, I tried to avert my eyes, but the images of this agonising man were indelibly etched in my mind and the sound of his dying pleas continued to haunt my mind with echoes of the anguish of a life accustomed to powerlessness and abuse. In him I saw myself and a host of black lives violated and stripped of all humanity. In this scene, I saw played out 400 years of history in which the full weight of a society imbued with white supremacist logic and ideology refuses to lift its knee from black necks.

In that instant, through that story, I was acutely reminded both of my identity as a black man and of how the fetishisation of black bodies has, throughout modern history, been the locus of fantasies that have contributed to cultural, spiritual and physical decimation. This murder was not an isolated incident, but belongs to a narrative with well-rehearsed themes and motifs; one that penetrates and permeates all spheres of the racialised spaces we inhabit.

The ghastly murder of George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, would have likely remained just another inconsequential and unfortunate incident of twenty-first century America if it had not been for the diligent work of a 17-year-old schoolgirl. As Darnella Frazier posted her 10 minute and six second long video in the early hours of 26 May, little did she imagine the impact that these images would have on her community, let alone the world. Indeed, this tragic event triggered an unprecedented worldwide wave of protest calling for an end to systemic racism and affirming in a global chorus that Black Lives Matter. Darnella has since been heralded as possibly the most influential filmmaker of the century. As such, her actions in posting this video may be interpreted less as reporting that titillates our voyeuristic tendencies, but instead as an invitation to unlock an essential characteristic of human identity: imagination.

If she is the filmmaker we want to celebrate, we ought to recognise that the script from which she captured this scene is directly drawn from the heart of a society whose essence is forged in the ideology of white supremacy. Sadly, as the evidence suggests, it comes with provision of a multiplicity of prequels and sequels that all follow a similarly tragic story line. It is indeed impossible to understand George Floyd’s death without understanding the personal, cultural, social, legal, structural, philosophical and moral scaffolding that supports and sustains a society that assigns intrinsic value to some lives while denying that same value to others. Recognising that is choosing to see the ubiquitous reality of racism in all aspects of life.

As a young black woman, Darnella attempts to escape what seems like an inextricable narrative that perpetuates the genocidal intents of its architects. Her publication of this gruesome video becomes therefore a prophetic performative act that invites the viewer to question the status quo and challenge the architectonic structure of ignorance, exclusion and abuse. In this simple act, this black teenager invites the viewer to reexamine the narratives that we are so keen to preserve.

Through the eyes of this inconspicuous teenager, George Floyd’s callous murder becomes an allegory of the world we are entrapped in, one that is destined to devastate, colonise, and subjugate all areas that make for mutual flourishing. Her short film becomes a witness against what disfigures, commodifies and objectifies. Her video is a protest against a world that marginalises and minoritises. This allegory asks questions of us. It interrogates and challenges our assumptions and invites us to imagine, or better to reimagine, this world beyond exclusivist universalism preoccupied with categorisation and classification.

Darnella Frazier’s video is an implicit critique of the status quo. It firmly locates us at the intersection of race, power, violence and gender. It names our collusion and silences, and provokes us out of the numbing grips of privilege into committed action. It invites us to explore oppression and resistance, and to break the hold that imperialist narratives so easily have on humanity. Crucially, it demands that we rethink personhood beyond categories that foster fracture in order to reset a vision of humanity freed from the diktat of mastery1.

The challenge, I find, is to think of a world beyond the default assumptions that we have been fed, where identity is not experienced as being bound by what we know about life, but where we experience a liberative expression of personhood that transcends circumstances. This world becomes possible and viable through imagination. Indeed, imagination has powered in no small way radical changes throughout history, fostering a collective narrative of a world none of us have lived in, but long for. William Blake encapsulates it beautifully as he states that “What is now proved was once only imagined.”2 Andy Sterling refers to it as the stickiness of imagined futures. This is, in essence, the mark of afrofuturism.

The future re-imagined

The term afrofuturism was conceived in the 1990s by the white American author Mark Dery in his essay “Black to the Future”, in which he explores speculative fiction within the African diaspora. He defines afrofuturism as a reimagining (not merely reinterpretation) of the future through black culture and African tradition. Afrofuturism finds its expression in any field from literature, arts, cinema and music to science and technology, and is infused with Afrocentricity. Its influence is evident in the work of Octavia Butler, in the music of Sun Ra, Erykah Badu or Janelle Monae. More recently, the successful movie Black Panther, from the Marvel universe, brought to the fore themes of afrofuturism.3 This is what Malorie Blackman does in her speculative fiction Noughts and Crosses, where she depicts a version of history in which twenty-first century Britain is ruled by people of African descent who have colonised and enslaved white Europeans. Part of Blackman’s aspiration, like many of the proponents of afrofuturism, is an attempt to release the imagination in order to sublimate the impossible, to reimagine a different world, a better world. This reimagining is inexorably turned towards the future, a future in which what was alienated is sublimated.

This rethinking of history beyond existing categories creates a sense of agency. It is an extension of the mind, a quest for transformative and liberative novelty. In this perspective, the use of imagination is not mere escapism, but a tool of resistance and resilience helping to deconstruct the epistemology that commodifies and objectifies black lives. In many ways, it could be argued that this imagining advocated by afrofuturism is an intentional bridging of past, present and future. Indeed, afrofuturism is about a vision of life harkening to the past, rooted in the present and pointing towards the future. As in biblical prophetic chronology, there is a shift from a linear vision of time to a dimension where past, present and future collapse into each other, carrying the seeds of hope for a redeemed future.

Furthermore, this radical rethinking of history does not hypothesise the devastation of other worlds in order to build itself. Instead, it is concerned with an imaginative effort to build the true, the good and the beautiful. It critiques homo-social and heteropatriarchal environments that enforce particular ideas of what it means to be human. One of its implicit questions is how to deconstruct the learned ways of entering the world and how to develop an ethics that will help us inhabit the world to come. From an afrofuturist perspective, this only becomes possible when we recognise that our relationship to the world is never a priori, but always mediated through history and human interrelatedness.

This has strong resonance with the vision of the temporal and spatial continuum as understood in many African cultures. For my own people, the Luba of Katanga, it is best illustrated in the fact that we use the same word for yesterday and tomorrow; the difference only informed by the context. Yesterday determines today and tomorrow. Equally, tomorrow will define a future yesterday. The corollary is that no single act, no single moment, exists in isolation from all others. Therefore, memory and legacy become vital categories in defining human agency and interaction with the environment they share. Furthermore, our cosmogony does not envisage a binary and polarised universe. Instead, it believes in a world order where the sacred and the profane are intricately intertwined, thus framing the socio-spiritual ecology in ways that affirm mutuality and interdependence. It is often best encapsulated in the notion of Ubuntu, the African philosophy of life that postulates personhood in relational terms, highlighting mutuality in responsibility and resisting the attempt to imperialise perspective. It sets collaboration and deliberation at a premium.4

Inevitably, this approach causes us to rethink some fundament theological questions, in particular on issues pertaining to eschatology. If we accept the hypothesis of a vision of time that is not linear, we may also presume that history is not geared towards a climatic point, but that every moment in time is both a genesis and an apocalypse. Every moment in time holds all the potential and aspiration contained in the moment and movement of creation. Relatedly, every moment contains all the force of the eschaton that calls for justice and judgement. In any case, both genesis and apocalypse are predicated on the vision of a world as it ought to be, reconciled with and within itself.

Such a world vision collided with the one promoted by western missional ventures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, established on a radically different narrative of the world and subjected to a rhetoric of mastery and subjugation. This missional approach contributed in devastating and colonising not merely the land, but also the imaginative capacity of a people, stripping them of agency. Western Christian missionary enterprise typically served as an extension of the imperial and colonial project. Furthermore, western mission, in its inability to divorce its epistemology and hermeneutics from imperialist and colonising narratives failed to incorporate subjugated people in the narratives they built of the future. The church and society that emerged out of it still bear the scars of these dehumanising and objectifying narratives.

Interruptions and the imaginative reframing of the future

In light of this past, Mark Dery’s question resonates with renewed pertinence and urgency: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?”5

I would argue that part of the answer dwells in our capacity to rethink and critically examine the past as a redeemable category. To that end, we have to name the faultlines of history and discard the postulation that it has a neutral footprint. We need the courage and humility to face the disruption and interruption that can only emerge out of a refusal to yield to absolutist processes and narratives. Perhaps this is the kind of wisdom echoed in Kierkegaard’s claim that life is only understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.

It could be argued that in the story of faith as shared in Jewish and Christian traditions there is an expectation to embrace the dislocation and disruption of history that leads to radical reorientation. Indeed, biblical narrative is saturated with stories of disorientation, interruption and dislocation, as if to remind the reader/hearer of sacred literature that God does not operate in straight uninterrupted lines. Instead, there seems to be a bias towards interruption. The story of incarnation is itself framed in interruption, dislocation and reorientation.

It is to me evident that as we reassess the legacy of historic missional enterprise and reframe the Church’s mission and ministry for the future, we need a new hermeneutical imagination to see that the world-thatis is not the world-that-ought-to-be. We need to draw wisdom from the black intellectual tradition that is not categorised, but has to interface with all aspects of the experience of black life as it sets the foundation for a future in which all flourish, including black bodies.

Any faithful reading of Scripture and any redeeming expression of the Church’s mission may therefore require a commitment to expose received wisdom to the scrutiny of imaginative reframing of personhood and history in ways that foster mutuality and effect liberation. Only then are we able to build a sense of shared identity that is not bound by what we know of life but transcends it. Only then can we envisage a truly culturally and ethnically integrated expression of the church in her mission and ministry.

The ethics and aesthetics of afrofuturism do not set the questions a priori, but promote a continued and concerted action. This means that it cannot solely depend on categorisation, but needs to take experience seriously. Such an approach is less susceptible to the diktat of imperialist and exclusivist narratives. Instead, it stands as an invitation to an ethics that is communal, global and planetary. It reminds us that our rapport to the world is mediated by history. We are conditioned by memory, and therefore any aspiration towards a redeemed world demands honest engagement with memory (especially the kind that induces trauma) and bold assessment of history’s legacy.

In this vein, Jessie Sutherlands, in her work fostering community change, often speaks of the need to do radical emotional composting. She argues that we cannot do away with the disfiguring power of the past, but we can channel it into a gift to help heal the same world that hurts us.6 However, as with afrofuturist philosophy, the commitment is towards the emergence of a new world, emancipated from the values and norms of the old one. Both perspectives require interruption of the forces of subjugation and objectification and posit agency that leaves a legacy of community as the ultimate expression of personhood in this new world. In substance, our embodied selves can be an interrupting presence that help dismantle narratives that foster fracture and disintegration and ultimately suffocate hope.

Crucially though, this process engenders the kind of repentant reflection and action that should lead to redeemed and reconciled relations in solidarity with the historically excluded, persecuted and oppressed. It persists in the face of the violence and the abuse and insists that we practice togetherness and accept the invitation to live together in love. It requires of us an unrelenting denunciation and renunciation of philosophies preoccupied with category and classification and that we oppose systemic racism that is, in many respects, their ultimate brainchild.

A future and a hope

Afrofuturism is only another critical lens among so many. However, as an artform, a practice, a methodology, it invites us to reconsider the vital question of who can tell a story of the future and who can feature in it. Moreover, as a possible theological frame, it helps us consider the question of what might it mean for black people (and indeed all historically marginalised and minoritised communities) to have a future despite a distressing past and present. The 6 Jessie Sutherland is the founding director of Intercultural Strategies, an organisation committed to helping divided people, communities or groups to work more cohesively and achieve a sense of mutual belonging. divine promise of a future and a hope (Jer. 29:11) helps crystallise the question and give it a definitive theological category. The question of hope and future is an essential concern of the God who is invested in human history and committed to transform it in partnership with humanity.

Hope is the imagination that unlocks us from the cage of the worlds we build away from solidarity. In other terms, hope helps us develop a “we” that is not constructed as an alternative “I”, and therefore takes us beyond the readily available reality of our own construction that only serves our own narratives. Hope makes possible the emergence of a new community that is communal and holistic in ethos. Such community helps us demystify and demythologise the pragmatic approach that is often predicated around the primacy of the individual at the expense of the collective.

When it comes to capturing new realities, we ought to be mindful of the iconography that informs our understanding of reality. We live in a world where we are not only creating our own images, but we are being fed them continuously. They then conjure up a vision of the world, not as it is, but as it is imprinted by the stories we are subjected to. And people of African descent have tended not to be incorporated in many of the storylines about the future, including those stories told through western-centric missional narratives. And yet, afrofuturism reminds us that black stories matter, because they are as much my stories as they are the stories of white bodies. We should therefore care about each other’s stories and use them as imaginative ferment for the redeemed future many of us long for.

What might tomorrow’s mission look like? Afrofuturism might give us an insight in the possibility of such a world. It might help us to use imagination to retell the stories of our lives and of our world, to actively take action that helps to value our shared humanity. Like apocalyptic literature, afrofuturism invites us to reimagine a world that transcends the limitations of the world that entraps us. It resets the concept of personhood, of time and our own sense of reality and some of the paradigms we function under.

Rev Canon Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy is the BAME mission and ministry enabler for Leicester diocese. He is an ordained Anglican minister with a passion for social justice and a desire to see global voices amplified in theological discourse. He is a trustee of St Mellitus CollegeChurch Army, and deputy chair of the Board of Initiatives of Change UK.

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Notes

1 A helpful exploration of the question of mastery can be found in the compelling work of Julietta Singh, Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and
Decolonial Entanglements (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018).
2 William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
3 Mark Dery, Ed, “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tata, and Tricia Rose” in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyber
Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 180–222.
4 For more insights into the concept of Ubuntu, a good starting point could be the recently published volume by Ogunde James, Ed., Ubuntu
and the Reconstitution of Community (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019).
5 Mark Dery, ibid.
6 Jessie Sutherland is the founding director of Intercultural Strategies, an organisation committed to helping divided people, communities or
groups to work more cohesively and achieve a sense of mutual belonging.

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