In February of 2018, Nikki Giovanni came to the University of Houston to read a few poems from her newly released collection, A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears & Laughter, and to answer some questions about the past and the present. How have women like Afeni Shakur and Ruby Dee inspired your work? What songs are on your playlist? Tell us about your creative process.
Graciously, she obliged. But not before saying a few words about the future.
“I’m a big Space freak,” she said within minutes of picking up the mic. “The one thing we need the Black kids to start thinking about is: what are they going to do when they go into Space?”
“Somebody’ll say, ‘well Nikki, I’m not a scientist,’ but we need artists in Space. We need to have a couple of Black artists and a couple of songwriters to go into Space.”
She went on with the poetry reading and the question answering—including a rather comedic vignette about some AKA/Delta beef with Rosa Parks—but I only know because I watched the playback on YouTube. In that moment, I didn’t hear another word. I was rapt with the possibilities. I saw writers retreats for Black femmes in Space, with Saturn’s rings shimmering purple and pink in the horizon. I heard new genres of music that captured that zero-gravity feeling, just like the Gap Band captured that Black cookout feeling. New 4c hair conditioning techniques that considered the moisture levels of intergalactic vessels.
Black artists and songwriters in Space. I could think of nothing else.
Prior to that moment, I had been one of the somebodies Sister Nikki was talking about. Of course, there is a long and increasingly robust genre of Afrofuturist art and literature that imagines Black people in fictional, far-off futures in Space. But I never considered it from a nonfiction, near-future perspective, nor had I considered that Space could be viewed through a cultural lens. I saw it only in terms of beep-beep-boop control decks, scientific equations, and stone-faced cadets saying, “yes, captain.” The idea that it would take more than science to explore what it means to be human in Space never crossed my mind.
Her words put the future into focus for me. As corporate and militaristic forces––whose goals are often, singularly, to clear a path for increased civilian/consumer activity––continue to increase operations beyond Earth’s atmosphere, a much less far-off and much less fictional narrative of Space would be sure to emerge. A narrative that appealed to science-averse people like me, with relatable-looking art that would make its way into mainstream songs and sitcoms, conditioning our understanding of human life in the cosmos before most of us have a chance to experience it for ourselves. A narrative that would likely be shaped to suit corporate and militaristic goals.
Considering that those same forces––henceforth referred to as The System––had succeeded in dominating Earth’s media market with consumerist and carceral narratives, there was no reason to believe they wouldn’t try to do the same for life beyond Earth.
In my mind, Sister Nikki was saying that if we’re not careful––if we cede the early concepts of what it means to be human in Space to the same System that has successfully shaped our conceptualization of what it means to be human on Earth––then we will end up with nothing more than stories about wealth accumulation and hoarding, wrapped in glitzy, intergalactic “rags to riches” packaging. Stories that necessitate prisons; that paint wage-based labor as a fixed and unchangeable given; that justify environmental destruction for capitalistic gains. Stories about an individual overcoming oppression and making a way for themselves within The System, instead of groups of people coming together to destroy a system that does not work for everybody, while working to create one that does.
I believe that Nikki’s call to center Black children and artists in the development of human life and narratives beyond Earth was a call that included every marginalized identity or revolutionary idea that’s been subject to The System’s dehumanizing narratives and exploitative practices on Earth. To me, it was a call for The People to lead the way into the cosmos rather than The System. But more than an inspiring, feel-good call, it was also a dire warning: without the active and imaginative participation of The People in each part of the process required for shaping human relations beyond our current atmosphere, the same ideologies that repressed and destroyed life on Earth will come to define life beyond Earth. Don’t let them control the narrative, she was saying.
That warning came back to me a year or so later, when I saw posters for HBO’s Avenue 5 and Netflix’s Space Force. Though fictional, of course, they did not look like the beep-beep-boop forms of the genre that always seemed so far-off to me. The characters’ garb wasn’t ultra-futuristic or highly distinguishable from current times. There didn’t seem to be any alien life forms involved in either show. They were created by popular comedy writers, not people from classical sci-fi genres. It seemed like ground––though already broken––was expanding in the collective imagination around Space. Like the popular narrative was beginning to form.
Space Force, by Greg Daniels and Steve Carell of The Office, is intergalactic copaganda. Sure, on the surface—in the words of The Verge’s Joshua Rivera—it imagines “what it would look like if the military scrambled to make Trump’s half-baked governance-by-tweet a reality.” But beneath that, the show turns the grim, violent, repressive realities of America’s settler colonial project, brutally enforced by the police at home and the military abroad—and which existed long before Trump—into a lighthearted workplace comedy about the process of setting up a military base in Space.
As some critics have noted, the show barely amounts to satire, as it does not “attempt to reckon with the zeitgeist,” declining to prod the viewer toward any critical analysis of what it means that we’re sending a police force into space or to dissect the motives and actions of those who are allegedly doing so on our behalf. In declining to offer a radical, People-centered vision of what increased human activity toward Space could entail, it ensures that we continue to view that aspect of the future solely through The System’s lens.
Before we even see the Space Force’s base in Colorado—the main setting of the series—we see that General Mark Naird, Chief of Space Operations, played by Carell, has put a gas station employee in the trunk of his car, “disappearing” him for a few hours because the employee is merely aware of the base’s existence and its impending activities. Because of course extrajudicial state violence would be baked into the foundation of America’s newest military branch.
We do not witness the actual violence that came with the disappearing—shielding viewers from the true horrors of what is taking place. In fact, this traumatic experience is framed as the kind of justifiable means to an end for whatever arbitrary aims are established by the ruling class and enforced by its militaristic muscle, not warranting further discussion or accountability.
We also see random rocket tests that blow through the cost of “four middle schools,” a government propagandist (PR person) using Naird’s Twitter account to pledge further fealty to the corporatocracy (with tweets that cross-promote Wendy’s hamburgers and Star Wars), environmental protection measures treated with devastatingly little respect, the wanton privatization of military operations, and a recruitment speech at a local high school that markets America’s military expansion into space as: “not for science this time. Not to collect a bunch of rocks. But to occupy. Boots on the moon!”
Each egregious act, which is, of course, standard operating procedure for the current version of America, may elicit a sincere-seeming wince or groan from Naird—casting him as the “good apple” with some semblance of a conscience, who is The People’s trusted safeguard against a System that clearly is not working—but he never truly pushes back or questions any of it. He just tries to manage it; to lessen the depth of impact and potentially bad PR. Ultimately, the show’s attempt to poke surface-level fun at America’s military industrial complex, while leaving its filthy underside unscathed, only serves to affirm the legitimacy of The System, conditioning viewers to expect the same thing from intergalactic military operations that its earthly operations proffer.
Space Force does show that The System is willing to offer neoliberal adaptations and accommodationist techniques which, at most, will reform The System but never abolish it. Naird is not willing to push back on the truly incendiary parts of the empire, but he is willing to accommodate surface-level ideas of gender fluidity and multiculturalism—as if these ideas alone are anywhere near enough.
What struck me most about the series was a side plot featuring a young Space Force recruit, who, at one point, is asked to use his imagination to picture some trivial image in his mind but is utterly lost on what an imagination even is. Yes, it plays as an effort to poke fun at military culture, which prefers that its rank-and-file members think in black and white, eschewing all forms of color. But I was gobsmacked by the underlying implications: how utterly stripped the man was of an essential part of his humanity, and how dangerous someone like that could be. If he—and those like him—had effectively snuffed out the part of himself that might connect him to something beyond The System’s control, then he would not think twice about using whatever tools The System would give him to do the same to me. To us.
It made me think of Audre Lorde’s essay, “Uses of the Erotic,” and how The System both enforces and thrives on “the repression of nonrational knowledge.” How that repression disconnects us from our highest selves and our capacity to think beyond what we can currently see, trapping us in cycles of what The System tells us is possible or not possible. Space Force only made clear to me that the Erotic that must lead the way into Space. We have to lead with our imagination, not with preconceived limitations.
HBO’s Avenue 5—which is essentially about a group of people on an intergalactic cruise ship who are consistently failed by incompetent, profit-driven leaders—also serves up a limited imagination of how humans might approach Space. While it does an okay job of lampooning corporations and Silicon Valley types trying to sell us on tech “disruptions” and privatization as all-encompassing solutions, the show casts The People as incapable of making decisions for themselves and as undeserving of their intrinsic right to self-determination.
When the ship’s leadership fails to adequately address the needs of The People or be honest about their situation and opportunities for collective action arise, The People respond like irrational dummies incapable of any response beyond hysteria or wild-eyed, bloodthirsty mob justice. The show suggests that cries for justice from The People are nothing more than child-like temper tantrums that can easily be soothed with a shiny toy or distraction, like an intergalactic light show. When one of the characters tells the captain that “everything will be okay if we just stick together,” he sarcastically responds: “worked for every extinct species in history.”
Not only do the writers show no faith in the power of The People to organize, self-determine, or improve their collective conditions, they also decline several opportunities to explore the communal problem-solving and culture-building that would be intrinsic to life in Space. For example: how humans could come together to deal with the threat of a loss of oxygen, how we might develop rituals to process death and non-burial in Space, safety protocols we might develop in response to “gravity readjustments,” how a couple experiencing relationship issues could be supported by everyone living in a communal space, or how we might develop rituals around birth and welcoming new life in Space.
Those storylines are not pursued. In fact, nothing that explores how humans can build ways to support each other and righteously struggle through the pains of adapting to a new environment are pursued. Instead, the story insists on the same self-interested, individualist approaches that have defined colonized life on Earth. I want to see a show about a near-future in Space that grapples with humans actively trying to build community, conscientiously connecting to their new environment and creating methods for solving their problems together. For the sake of our species, that might be the type of near-future story we all need to see.
I like to think that Sister Nikki wasn’t just warning us about the potential of The System to project its tired old narratives into Space, but also inviting us to see every aspect of Space—from science to art to culture—as an opportunity for The People to create our own narratives. To imagine what the world can look and be like, and then to share and refine that vision with others. Yes, beyond Earth, but here on Earth as well.
As adrienne maree brown wrote in her book, Emergent Strategy, “we tend to think and speak of afrofuturism as the far off future, something beyond our current comprehension and planet. But now is the only moment. And we hope things will be different in the next now.” [sic] She says that “Black Lives Matter” is an Afrofuturist assertion, and that “all organizing is science fiction” because “social justice work is about creating systems of justice and equity in the future, creating conditions that we have never experienced.”
Indeed. Who would have thought, in January of this year, that we’d be having national discussions about abolishing the police? It took the work of those willing to engage their imagination beyond what we can currently see to set us on a path that might just be better than the one we’ve been on. A mainstream television show about a near-future society that didn’t rely on carceral punishment and policing as a means for conflict resolution would do wonders as a counter narrative to the copaganda that we are bombarded with daily. But The System has proven time and time again that we can’t rely on it for a counter narrative. That it will take the work of The People to imagine something new for humanity.
“At the human scale, in order to create a world that works for more people, for more life, we have to collaborate on the process of dreaming and visioning and implementing that world,” brown writes, going on to note that, “we have to recognize that multitude of realities have, do, and will exist.”
Rumpus original art by Adreinne Travis.