Sneed, A. Roger. 2021. The Dreamer and the Dream: Afrofuturism and Black Religious Thought (New Suns: Race, Gender, and Sexuality). Ohio State University Press. $ 99.95

Is it possible to rework a religion in order to serve emancipatory ends? From the outset, the project seems not only futile but self-defeating. But less one precipitates, Sneed’s proposal does not apply makeup on some old synthesis. For Black religious thought has been classically a contradiction in movement: a white God can only service white supremacy, exacerbating African-Americans’ extended slavery and misery. With science fiction (novels and films) and experimental music, there emerge promising conceptions of God and religion that are subversive to white supremacy. Artistically, Sneed qualifies these conceptions as Afrofuturism. The book does not claim that blueprints are ready or that meaningful liberation is imminent. Rather, Sneed claims Afrofuturism “disrupts pervasive marking of race and destructive coding of Black bodies and existence as inferior” (p. xii). It is a field of reflection that promises to propagate toward a revolution. 

The book lies in eight chapters. Chapters one and two are an expansion of the introduction. Chapters three to six are the blood-pumping parts of the argument. Seven and eight are an extension of the conclusion and the postscript. The first chapter examines how mainstream science fiction has built quite a reputation for avoiding Blackness, a metastasis of slavery and colonialism, and how Afrofuturism struggles to redress that avoidance. Sneed observes that the science fiction genre remains condescending to Black authors and audiences. And this repurposing functions in ways that are more than just reversals of white supremacy.

The second chapter clarifies the understanding that Black religious thought and Black popular culture are not mutually exclusive or simply different endeavours. It is precisely through Black popular culture that one can understand the evolving practice of Black religious thought. Differently put, Afrofuturism helps set a progressive Black religious thought. Ideologies such as Black liberation or womanist theologies should be viewed as Afrofuturist endeavours seeking to negotiate an empowering Black religious thought. Afrofuturism cannot be dubbed as naively utopian.   

The third chapter finds Octavia Butler, an architect of intersectional Afrofuturism. With the dystopian moments that her Parable series accentuate, women characters, like Olmania, ensure historical continuity and exasperation with heterosexual norms. According to Sneed, Butler galvanizes Black people through Earthseed, a holistic religion that dares to revise sedimented conceptualizations of God. The trickster God proposes openings for integrating Afrofuturism into humanism.

Queerness in chapter four operates as salvation. Janelle Monáe’s select albums and androids critically target misogyny, homophobia, racism, white supremacy, and classicism. The pansexuality that defines her dramatis personae Cindi Mayweather is her signature for reinventing the world so that pathologies damaging Black experiences are reversed through Afrofuturistic imageries. The disturbing recollections that viewers experience in slave auctioning her androids as in: “Many Moons” underline the commodification of bodies; queer dance becomes her blueprint to bypass prevalent instantiations of slavery.

Chapter five specifies how Deep Space Nine (DS9) alters the trajectory set by the Star Trek franchise. With Captain Benjamin Sisko, the protagonist of DS9, Black life is no longer unidimensional. Through his “encounter with the Prophets (or wormhole aliens)” (p. 78), Benny Russel or Sisko offers a sustained critique of Black religious lives who trust in a God who is not outside space and time.

Chapter six interrogates possibilities of emancipation in Black Panther, a 2018 film, where Africa and Africans, through the imaginary republic of Wakanda, have experienced neither slavery nor colonialism. Here, too, men lie beyond salvation while women are saviours. Like her name suggests in Arabic, Nakia stands for pure plentitude. Featuring Afrofuturistic films, western monotheism and toxic masculinity are the invisible enemies.

As with every sedimented concept is contested, Sneed examines in chapter seven those creative attempts by Black liberationists to cancel time in order to undo Christian eschatology. He notes how linear temporality sets Blackness for defeat. In projecting the mythological content of Ancient Egypt into space, Afrofuturists can conceive of an eschatology that targets the destruction of white supremacy. Chronological time coerces African Americans to embrace false history as the authentic ones. 

Chapter eight teases out the possibility of pressing Black science fiction to yield an Afrofuturist identity and an Afrofuturist religious identity outside the church to expand Black emancipation. The chapter reconnects the dots: Afrofuturism and Black religious thought, focusing on the Afrofuturist doing the job of bridging the gap. The conclusion showcases brief excursions into current development and productions to outline future directions for Afrofuturistic religious thought.

In stressing intersectionality (the rejection of hierarchization of oppressions) as the way forward for Afrofuturism, I am afraid that Sneed has not well registered Toni Morrison’s warning that racism functions as a distraction for the work ahead. One cannot miss the postmodernist stance of rejecting causality in intersectionality. Since equal preoccupation with gender or race flattens serious engagement with the class. Besides, it is unclear how readers process Butler’s mythical creation of Earthseed as intersectional and not as foundational. It is one way of claiming that God “…does not need to break into history, as it does not exist outside of history.” (p. 52) and is completely different to say that God is the embodiment of change or a trickster and where adherents have to develop an adaptive belief system literally. The first claim is that Butler sees nothing new under the sun because the core principle that defines humans is timeless. In the second, there is no core principle to begin with. Likewise, deeming “Monáe’s resistance to male consumption [as] not simultaneously resistant to capitalist consumption” (p. 66) questions the relevance of intersectionality as a tenable approach for Afrofuturism.

I cannot agree more with Sneed’s distinction between the erotic and pornographic in Monáe’s Dirty Computer since “Cindi is less Frankenstein’s monster and more the incarnation of the divine in cybernetic form.” (p. 68). Here, radical love becomes accessible through radical alterity à la Hegelian Christ. But while queerness is surely subversive, it cannot be revolutionary. When reading that capitalism is not the enemy, and only white supremacy and heterosexism are, then wonders if Monáe has truly seized why the capitalistic mode of production values estrangement in and for itself. This mode of production cannot stand heterosexual norms because it is precisely in heterosexuality where a real potential for bypassing capitalism lies. Historical continuity dictates the historical necessity to undo the über oppression and class exploitation. That is why eschatological destination, as elaborated in chapter seven, remains nowhere as nearly helpful. Sun Ra’s film points toward the posthuman. But restarting life on another planet is exactly what white supremacists want Blackness to do. This explains why Afrofuturism should avoid apocalyptic preoccupations and the celebration of estrangement lest it engages in half a revolution.  

Fouad Mami

Université d’Adrar (Algeria)

ORCID iD https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1590-8524

fouad.mami@univ-adrar.edu.dz

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s