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Afro-Surrealism or Afrosurrealism is a literary and cultural aesthetic and liberatory framework that seeks to cultivate alternative and expanded ways of knowing and being for Black people. In 1974, Amiri Baraka used the term to describe the work of Henry Dumas. D. Scot Miller in 2009 wrote his famous Afrosurreal Manifesto in which he says, "Afro-Surrealism sees that all 'others' who create from their actual, lived experience are surrealist..." The manifesto delineates Afro-Surrealism from Surrealism and Afro-Futurism. The manifesto also declares the necessity of Afro-Surrealism, especially in San Francisco, California. The manifesto lists ten tenets that Afro-Surrealism follows including how "Afro-Surrealists restore the cult of the past," and how "Afro-Surreal presupposes that beyond this visible world, there is an invisible world striving to manifest, and it is our job to uncover it."
Afrosurrealism has a complex genealogy, but its origins can be traced to Black francophone intellectuals and poets from Senegal, Martinique and Guadeloupe. Léopold Sédar Senghor referred to an African tradition of the Surreal in 1965. Négritude, a pan-African, anti-colonial cultural and literary movement was too grounded in Afro-surrealism. Suzanne and Aimé Césaire edited and contributed to Tropiques, a literary publication on Afro-Surrealism in the Caribbean, along with other Martinican poets.
Afro-Surrealism, in its origins and its ethos as a movement, is fundamentally global and diasporic. It is practiced and embodied in music, photography, film, the visual arts and poetry. Notable practitioners of Afro-Surrealism include Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, Krista Franklin, Aimé Césaire, Suzanne Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, René Ménil, Kool Keith, Terence Nance, Will Alexander, India Sky Davis, Yetunde Olagbaju, Kara Walker, Samuel R. Delany, Starr Finch, Romare Bearden, Christopher Burch.
The AfroSurreal arts movement came about after D. Scot Miller penned The Afrosurreal Manifesto for The San Francisco Bay Guardian in May, 2009. Until that time, the term "Afrosurreal Expressionism" was used solely to describe the writings of Henry Dumas by Amiri Baraka. Later that year, Miller spoke with Baraka about extending the term by shortening the description. It was agreed by the two of them that "Afrosurreal" without the "expressionism" would allow further exploration of the term. Afrosurrealism may have some similar origins to surrealism in the mid-1920s, in that an aspect of it [Negritude] came after André Breton wrote the Surrealist Manifesto, but as Leopold Senghor points out in Miller's manifesto, “European Surrealism is empirical. African Surrealism is mystical and metaphorical.”.
Afro-Surrealism incorporates aspects of the Harlem Renaissance, Négritude and Black Radical Imagination as described by Professor Robin DG Kelley in his definitive work Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (2003), and further with his definitive Afrosurreal historical anthology, Black, Brown, & Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora (2009). Aspects of Afro-Surrealism can be traced to Martiniquan Suzanne Césaire’s discussion of the “revolutionary impetus of surrealism” in the 1940s.
Though much has been written and said about artist/activist/statesmen Aimé Césaire, much more needs to written about his partner Suzanne, a brilliant surrealist thinker, and mother of the Afrosurreal aesthetic. Her quest for “The Marvelous” over the “miserablism” expressed in the usual arts of protest inspired the Tropiques surrealist group, and especially René Ménil.
“The true task of mankind consists solely in the attempt to bring the marvelous into real life,” Ménil says in “Introduction to the Marvelous,”[1930s] “so that life can become more encompassing. So long as the mythic imagination is not able to overcome each and every boring mediocrity, human life will amount to nothing but useless, dull experiences, just killing time, as they say.”
Suzanne Césaire’s proclamation, “Be in permanent readiness for The Marvelous,” quickly became a credo of the movement; the word “marvelous” has since become re-contextualized with regard to contemporary black arts and interventions.
In his 1956 essay for Présence Africaine, Haitian novelist Jacques Stephen Alexis wrote: "What, then, is the Marvellous, except the imagery in which a people wraps its experience, reflects its conception of the world and of life, its faith, its hope, its confidence in man, in a great justice, and the explanation which it finds for the forces antagonistic to progress?" In his work, Alexis is seen to have an acute sense of reality that is not unlike that of traditional surrealism, and his coining of the term "Marvelous Realism" reflects his influence by the earlier works of the Negritude/Black Surrealist Movement.
The term "Afro-Surrealism" was coined by Amiri Baraka in his 1974 essay on Black Arts Movement avant-garde writer Henry Dumas. Baraka notes that Dumas is able to write about ancient mysteries that were simultaneously relevant to the present day. The idea that the past resurfaces to haunt the present day is crucial to Afro-Surrealism.
Cinematographer Arthur Jafa expanded the field of Afro-Surrealism by experimenting with film. Jafa introduces the idea of "the alien familiar," in order to represent the Black experience and its innate surreal characteristics. "I want it to have something that I and my friends call 'the alien familiar.' If a work succeeds in a way or is able to conjure what a Black cinema would be or what this hypothetical manifestation of this particular tradition in the cinematic arena might be, it should be both alien because you’ve never seen anything quite like it, and at the same time, it should be familiar on some level to Black audiences." This focus on the alien aspect of Black experience, and on Black folk culture, are what separate Afro-Surrealism from magical realism and surrealism.
 Unlike Afro-Futurism which speculates on black possibilities in the future, Afrosurrealism, as Miller describes, is about the present. Rather than speculate on the coming of the four horseman, Afrosurrealists understand that they rode through too long ago. Through Afrosurrealism, artists expose this form of the future past that is "RIGHT NOW." Most Afrosurrealists reject the study of the future pushing themselves to focus on the present, the future that has already past.
The everyday lived experience
Much of Afro-Surrealism is concerned with the everyday life because it is said that there is nothing more surreal than the Black experience. According to Terri Francis, "Afrosurrealism is art with skin on it where the texture of the object tells its story, how it weathered burial below consciousness, and how it emerged somewhat mysteriously from oceans of forgotten memories and discarded keepsakes. This photograph figures Afrosurrealism as bluesy, kinky-spooky."
Present day realism
In the manifesto from which present day Afrosurrealism is based, writer D. Scot Miller states in a response to Afrofuturism:
"Afro-Futurism is a diaspora intellectual and artistic movement that turns to science, technology, and science fiction to speculate on black possibilities in the future. Afro-Surrealism is about the present. There is no need for tomorrow’s-tongue speculation about the future. Concentration camps, bombed-out cities, famines, and enforced sterilization have already happened. To the Afro-Surrealist, the Tasers are here. The Four Horsemen rode through too long ago to recall. What is the future? The future has been around so long it is now the past."
As The AfroSurreal Manifesto and Afrofuturism come to the fore in artistic, commercial and academic circles, the struggle between the specific and “the scent” of present-day manifestations of Black absurdity has come with it, posing interesting challenges to both movements. For Afrofuturists, this challenge has been met by inserting Afrocentric elements into its growing pantheon, the intention being to centralize Afrofuturist focus back on the continent of Africa to enhance its specificity. For the Afrosurrealists, the focus has been set at the “here and now” of contemporary Black arts and situations in the Americas, Antilles, and beyond, searching for the nuanced “scent” of those current manifestations.
Examples of Afrosurrealist Works
Zong!, M. NourbSe Philip and Setaey Adamu Boateng
InZong!, M. NourbSe Philip crafts a powerful counter-narrative surrounding the events of the Zong massacre. Utilizing the words from the legal decision to build her poetry, Philip rejects the idea of an archival past. Instead Philip looks to the present moment to understand how to read this legal decision and understand the case. Following the footsteps of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Philip presupposes the notion of a past that is not past allowing these past artifacts to haunt the present moment. Rather than organize the fragments, Philip allows the fragments to tell themselves. This is not to say that Philip gives the fragments voices, but instead gives them space. The space in the poem allows Philip’s audience to hear the silence of these voices, to truly understand the missing narratives form the past and the role that has on the present.
Beloved, Toni Morrison
As mentioned earlier, Toni Morrison’sBeloved remains an important milestone for Afrosurrealists. Here, Morrison imagines a narrative of a slave women grieving the death of her baby daughter, Beloved. With no trace of a past, Beloved reappears of on the steps of 124, confused and looking for her mother. Following this moment, the novel crafts a haunting tale of a woman seeking to understand the sudden reappearance of her daughter and the scars left behind from slavery. In Beloved, Morrison attempts to come to grip with the legacies left by slavery, challenging the notion that these legacies exits only from the past. From the epigraph, “Sixty Million and more,” Morrison presupposes there is no way to count those affected from slavery and additionally, that the number is ever-growing into the present. In her award-winning novel, Morrison expands the idea of the past, attempting to demonstrate the past is ever present and moreover, that the past is RIGHT NOW.
- Baraka, Amiri (Summer 1974). "Hendy Dumas: Afro-Surreal Expressionist". Black American Literature Forum. 22 (2): 164–166. doi:10.2307/2904491. JSTOR 2904491.
- "Call it Afro-Surreal".
- "A Conversation with Robin D.G. Kelley". Open Space.
- "Project MUSE". muse.jhu.edu.
- "Editor's Notes". Black Camera. 5 (1): 1–2. 2013-01-01. doi:10.2979/blackcamera.5.2.1. ISSN 1947-4237.
- "Afrosurreal: The Marvelous And The Invisible 2016". Open Space.
- Francis, Terri (2013-01-01). "Introduction: The No-Theory Chant of Afrosurrealism". Black Camera. 5 (1): 95–112. doi:10.2979/blackcamera.5.1.95. ISSN 1947-4237.
- "Henry Dumas Wrote About Black People Killed By Cops. Then He Was Killed By A Cop". NPR.org.
- Arthur Jafa, “The Notion of Treatment: Black Aesthetics and Film, based on an interview with Peter Hassli and additional discussions with Pearl Bowser,” in Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era, ed. Pearl Bowser et al. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 18.
- Miller, D. S. "Afrosurreal Manifesto: Black Is the New black—a 21st-Century Manifesto." Black Camera, vol. 5 no. 1, 2013, pp. 113-117. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/525948.
- Francis, Terri (2013-01-01). "Meditation". Black Camera. 5 (1): 94. doi:10.2979/blackcamera.5.1.94. ISSN 1947-4237.
- "The Electrical Scent of Damas: Negritude, The Harlem Renaissance, and The Afrosurreal". Open Space.
- Philip, Marlene Nourbese. Zong! Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2008. Print.
- Morrison, Toni. Beloved: A Novel. New York: Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1987. Print.