Freedom Ground of the Cosmic Underground
Review by Truth Thomas
The Cosmic Underground: A Grimoire of Black Speculative Discontent is an Afrofuturist manifesto, and a Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM) guidebook. In it, ideas and images are artfully arranged to inform and, hopefully, neutralize the arsenic-like effects of racism on the brutalized body of all black humanity. Featured in the invocation-like pages of this ambitious anthology, readers will find a stellar array of graphic art, essays, poetry, interviews, micro-fiction, and comics. The artwork consistently dazzles. Indeed, this collection aspires to be many things—and it largely succeeds. Arguably, the most intriguing theme that permeates the book is the suggestion that there is no segregation in the space/time continuum as it pertains to the vibrant black past, present, and freedom bound future.
If I were to attempt to describe this anthology in musical terms, I would say it is a kind of afro/techno/hip-hop/jazz—but not exactly. Art can never be pinned down like a butterfly on a page. Although the collection clearly has improvisational qualities in its expression of thoughts and illustrations, it cannot be so easily categorized. Cosmic Underground, edited by Dr. Reynaldo Anderson and John Jennings, with an introduction by Greg Tate, is its own new music—its own new thing. And that “thing” is a movement that embodies concepts that are entirely fresh and gaining strength in the black artistic and intellectual community. It is palpable and energizing evidence of Afrofuturist art as the art of activism in the early twenty-first century.
As I have previously publicly noted, when I was growing up in the 1970s, there was only one black person in space: Star Trek’s Nyota Uhura. She was fine, and I loved her. Still, that was it. No other black people existed in the stars, either on television or in the movies as permanent fixtures. It was widely understood that in Hollywood, and in life, space travel imaginings were exclusively the purview of white people. This was the zeitgeist of times. Indeed, within the context of school-based American history lessons, people of color were relatively nonexistent. Black folks only came into view within the framework of slavery. So, before we were enslaved, just as was the case on Gene Roddenberry’s Starship Enterprise, we had tokenism as our future and redaction as our much-instructed past. Any textbooks that taught otherwise were (by and large) not a part of mainstream curricula in school systems in the United States.
Back then to be a black American meant that you were the outhouse of America. Much as is the case in 2018, black Americans in the 1970s were systematically disenfranchised, oppressed, and repressed. Then as now, people of color were routinely murdered by the police (as well as by many other white people who were not badged as civil authorities). Few, if any of those folks doing the killing ever faced any punishment for their crimes. In fact, long before Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland were essentially lynched by “law enforcement” in America, names like Bernard Whitehurst, Jr., Arthur McDuffie, and José Campos Torres also made that tragic list (Osborne: Dugger: Rincon). I mention all of this because “the problem of the [twenty-first] century” to borrow from W.E.B. Du Bois remains “the problem of the color-line” (Du Bois 19). Undoubtedly, the editors of the Cosmic Underground are keenly aware of this reality. It shows in the work. Black freedom thought, in response to racism worldwide, is presented as what it has been for centuries: ongoing.
It bears mentioning that even after America has seen the election of its first Black President in Barack Obama, few textbooks are written today (especially in the context of Humanities studies) that address the reality of contemporary racism in the context of that continuance. Certainly, fewer books still document black speculative thoughts about countering racism as a global phenomenon—particularly those written by African American scholars and published by black-owned presses. In that light, the significance of Cosmic Underground to the global community of color cannot be overstated.
Notwithstanding my excitement over this work, it strikes me that many young people (younger African Americans and those in the African Diaspora) will probably not find the academic language and intellectual excursions in the anthology accessible. As I know the editors of this collection aspire to arm current and future generations of black people with hope for an emancipated future, I find this realization regrettable. Not far from where I am writing this review (North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore), many young black boys are working the squeegee hustle at traffic lights just off of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. Long and differing definitions of Afrofuturism would likely not be a subject that they would give an ear to for very long. Those kids, stranded in a digital desert are trying to eat, much like many poor black folks in D.C. and many other parts of the country. In that light, Cosmic Underground would not likely be the book that they would easily embrace (although the comics that the collection references would no doubt be of great interest).
However, to be fair, I can think of few books that address serious space/time reflections that are meant to be as easily consumed as popcorn. Perhaps that is as it should be. Great art, great science, great music, all have depth. What Anderson, Jennings and Tate have created in this anthology also has a similar aesthetic and intellectual depth. References to: Sun Ra, Bree Newsome, John Coltrane, Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, Michelle Alexander, MF Doom, George Clinton and many other scholars, artists and activists, frame the pages of their book like paintings in an art gallery unveiling. In that context, I think it is right to say that Cosmic Underground is, undoubtedly, very filling food for thought. It is something to be celebrated—and repeatedly taught—and boldly acknowledged for what it is: documentation of black visibility, moving in the past, stirring in the present, and actively creating a timely freedom future.
Edited by Reynaldo Anderson and John Jennings.
Introduction by Greg Tate.
240 pp. Cedar Grove Books. $26.71.
Click Here to Order.
Dr. Reynaldo Anderson is an Associate Professor of Communication and Chair of the Humanities department at Harris-Stowe State University in Saint Louis Missouri and serves as an executive board member of the Missouri Arts Council. He is the Past Chair of the Black Caucus of the National Communication Association (NCA). He has previously worked for international prison reform with C.U.R.E. International in Douala, Cameroon, and as a development ambassador in Ghana. Anderson publishes extensively in the area of Afrofuturism, communication studies, and the African diaspora. He is the executive director and co-founder of the Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM), a network of artists, curators, intellectuals, and activists.
John Jennings is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies and a Cooperating Faculty Member in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. His work centers around intersectional narratives regarding identity politics and popular media. Jennings is co-editor of the Eisner Award-winning essay collection “The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art” and co-founder/organizer of The Schomburg Center’s Black Comic Book Festival in Harlem.
Greg Tate is a writer, musician and producer, who lives in Harlem. From 1987-2005 he was a Staff Writer at The Village Voice. Tate’s writings on culture and politics have also been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Artforum and Rolling Stone. He has been recognized as one of the “Godfathers of Hiphop Journalism.” His books include Flyboy In The Buttermilk, Brooklyn Kings-New York’s Black Bikers(with Martin Dixon), Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and The Black Experience, and Everything But The Burden–What White People Are Taking From Black Culture His most recent book was published by Duke University Press: Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader. His forthcoming book, Beast Mode: 20 Iconic Gods and Monsters of the Late Twentieth Century Black Atlantic is contracted to FS&G.
Truth Thomas is a singer-songwriter and poet born in Knoxville, Tennessee and raised in Washington, DC. His collections include: Party of Black, A Day of Presence, Bottle of Life, Speak Water, winner of the 2013 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry, and the critically acclaimed children’s book, My TV is Not the Boss of Me, with illustrations by Cory Thomas. His poems have appeared in over 150 publications, including: Poetry Magazine, The Journal of Hip Hop Studies, and The 100 Best African American Poems (edited by Nikki Giovanni) Thomas has been writing reviews since 2008. He is the founding editor of Cherry Castle Publishing.