Jemisin, Sessing the Symbolic Power of Apocalypse

One of the many books I regret not finding the time to finish is psychologist Robert Jay Lifton’s The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation. While I will discuss the insights and illustrations in The Broken Earth series regarding fragmentation in a future blog post, I would like now to address how Lifton and Jemisin are in conversation regarding the age-old topic: “the end of the world” (Jemisin, 2015, literally page 1). More specifically, why do writers such as Jemisin view apocalyptic scenarios as useful for an exploration of Afrofuturism? The key lies not just in what the Afrofuturistic movement is, but what it is not. 

Youtube channel “Inverse” has a video that explains how Afrofuturism goes far beyond a mere aesthetic inclusivity of people of color within the sci-fi genre. For one, as African American writer, musician, and producer Greg Tate explains, the plight of “the other” throughout sci-fi works aptly mirrors the alienation people of color experience in daily life–a concept discussed in the film we watched in class, “The Last Angel of History” by director John Akomrah, and clearly symbolized by Jemisin’s orogenes. What is Afrofuturism a rebuttal against? Akomfrah’s film answers: nothingness, discontinuity, obscurity…the retroactive and proactive writing out of black individuals in the global narrative. The retroactive aspect is clear with regard to the issue Elena tackled in her insightful blog post, “Standardized Revisionism in Practice,” which compared hegemony-preserving rewrites throughout her own secondary education to Damaya/Syenite’s experience in the Fulcrum. As for the proactive exclusion, the subsequent sense of futurelessness can be powerfully exemplified in the form of an apocalypse–it is through this common symbol that I made the connection between Jemisin’s and Lifton’s works.

Both use the term “shattering” to describe the point at which a society’s/a people’s stability is lost and the future becomes uncertain. For Jemisin, it is the speculative (and later confirmed) Shattering Season which triggered all the subsequent Seasons, and turned the world against orogenes, who were blamed for the cataclysm. While skin pigmentation does not play a literal role in orogenes’ plight, the symbolism is clear, and Essun and Alabaster’s fight against the apocalypse acquires sharp Afrofuturistic undertones. Lifton in turn quotes a New York Times article which used the word to describe the physical and mental aftermath of the atomic bombings of Japan in WWII, an “explosion in men’s minds as shattering as the obliteration of Hiroshima” (Lifton, 1993, 47). He goes on to detail an interview with Jessica C., a “twenty-year-old black woman…unable to imagine anything in her live more than five years ahead because of her feeling that ‘there’s not going to be a world at all'” (Lifton 48).

Interestingly, Lifton’s book was published the very same year the term “Afrofuturism” was coined. The alienation and existential threats built into the sci-fi genre, especially with regard to apocalyptic imagery, achieve powerful resonance when viewed in relation to the African American condition. Brilliant, visionary creators like Jemisin have let this connection fuel their work, and the results are striking.

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