In Jayna Brown’s Black Utopias, Emma Hanson discovers that the speculative practices and philosophies of Black creatives destabilise current understandings of the ‘human’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘existence’, instead redefining them and envisaging futures past from the privileged position of the periphery.
In this doubly anthropodecentric book, Jayna Brown offers a glimpse towards utopias arrived at through the shedding of multiple realities. Black Utopias: Speculative Life and the Music of Other Worlds (Duke University Press) unravels and strings together the speculative practices and philosophies of black mystics, writers, and musicians: Sojourner Truth, Rebecca Cox Jackson, Octavia E. Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra.
Utopia: All who enter abandon Hope.
A product of black speculative practice, the book’s primary inquiry is the exploration of what it is to be. By weaving together the practices and ways of life engaged in by these mystics, writers and musicians – practices and ways which enabled them to access the consciousness of other worlds – Brown ushers us as readers into gentle acquaintance with a concept that is often met with fearful apprehension: utopia must lie beyond any non-utopian existences, one such being the ‘here’ and ‘now’, where we ‘are’.
Brown displays simply and fundamentally the tendency for human imaginings of utopia to obey human epistemes, one of which is the undeniable failure to incorporate the black human form into definitions of ‘human’. In highlighting that we exist in a non-utopia predicted, in part, in Octavia E. Butler’s prescient, evolution-centred prose, Brown exposes humanist-based utopias as not only dystopian, but also as necessary casualties that must falter to give way to the infinite possibilities for alternative states of being.
The bypassing of this profound alienation – this ineligibility to qualify as ‘human’ – is where Brown assures us that ‘black people have “the freedom not to be”’. Black people, situated on the fringes of a construct or identity, such as ‘human’, are in a privileged position to undo the assumptions that underpin it. In Black Utopias we are shown – particularly through the philosophies of Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra (who both view the self as existing both in and beyond atoms throughout the entire universe) – the power that the dispossession of humanness has in channelling an acceptance of the formlessness of being.
This very relationship with the universe is explored through the music and mysticism of Coltrane and Ra’s sound practices; rooted in the belief that sound is the fundamental generative force, creative energy, and locus where language ceases and metaphysics begins.
For me, this imagining of sound as foundational to existence is the book’s most powerful and most radically anthropodecentric tenet. Where the deconstruction of humanism alone falls short, the active disregard for the temporal shown by so many of the book’s subjects veers us beyond, towards infinite vibrational dimensionalities: towards Ra’s omniverse and new, non-binary, celestial genres of human, which fittingly culminate in the book’s ending.
From Truth’s spiritual theatre to Ra’s Arkestra, black utopias are necessarily removed, at the very least, from temporality and, at the (humanly) perceived most, from all earthly epistemes, such as exclusory humanism and the insufficiency of language to express our existence.
Beyond these limitations and beyond that, the conscious capacity of humans, lie the imaginings of Truth, Jackson, Butler, Delany, Coltrane and Ra – as otherworlds of infinite possibility communicated through equally multimodal refusals of language. Brown’s collection details the self-proclaimed power of deep subversions of so-called existence (from Truth’s multiple defiances of death to Coltrane’s mysterious tapas) to enable us to grace the entryways to portals to newly foundational, atemporal cosmic concepts. Truth’s (also known as Publick Universal Friend) practices challenge the humanly proposed singularities of life, death, health, and gender dating as far back as 1776. In looking ‘back’ at the contemporary origins of black divination of supra-terrestrial or Absolute Consciousness, Brown encourages a greater understanding of many themes featured in ‘present’ utopian and Afrofuturist works, exposing the tension between (science) fiction and (science) fact.
With steady weight, Black Utopias vibrates our thinking towards the genesis of new genres of being human. In it, nothing endures; neither plausibility nor praise for any of the subjects’ philosophies. Brown’s lengthy peer-critique analyses up to and including the non-feminist and biologically determinist stances of Butler’s works, reveal that both black and non-black imaginings of utopias can be flawed, racist, and fanciful when based on contemporary social models.
Additionally – and perhaps more powerfully – these side-by-side comparisons are a testament to both the interconnectedness alluded to by many of the book’s subjects, as well as to the earthly relationality they also warn against. They are evidence of shared ways of thinking – shared ways of being human – and of the urgent need for this to be recognised as a necessary yet partial component of existence.
Brown points pressingly and with poise to the dangers of the continued ignorance of the imperfect reality (dystopia) of ‘here’, where there is a ‘real’ “discomfort and anxiety of being human for black bodies”, so much so that we have to flee to otherworlds. In this work of philosophical anthropology, Brown lays philosophy and black speculative practice side by side, and extracts from their conjoined divinations of holistic health, revelations of telepathy, and invitations to spiritual flow that not only subvert, but also destabilise current frameworks of ‘human,’ ‘knowledge’ and existence. This praxis of rediscovering futures past leaves us with a work of unfettered ontological excellence.
Ultimately, in a ‘human’ time where black hope and black humanity struggle to exist, this book urges us to do away with both, in quest of black utopias. Black Utopias is not so much a call to action, but a call to exist.
Black Utopias: Speculative Life and the Music of Other Worlds by Jayna Brown is published by Duke University Press and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.
This review was commissioned as part of Frankie Dytor’s series, BAROQUE
The ‘baroque’ is an intemperate aesthetic. Once a period term to describe the visual arts produced in the seventeenth century, its use and significance has exploded over the last fifty years. No longer restricted to the fine arts, the baroque has fallen into pop culture and become an icon.
Inspired by the work of Shola von Reinhold, this series takes ephemera and excess as its starting point for a new exploration of the b a r o q u e. It wants to look back at the past and queerly experiment with it, to rip it up and reclaim a new space for the future – or, in von Reinhold’s words, ‘to crave a paradise knit out of visions of the past’. The b a r o q u e is present in moments of sheer maximalism, in ornament, frill and artifice. It celebrates the seemingly bizarre and the unintelligible, the redundant and fantastical. Disorienting and overwhelming, it offers a decadent way of experiencing present and past worlds.
In von Reinhold’s debut novel, the forgotten black modernist poet Hermia Druitt is rediscovered one day in the archives. As Mathilda goes on a hunt to find out more about this elusive figure, a kaleidoscope of aesthetic joy ensues. Mathilda, we are told, is one of the Arcadian types: those with an “inclination towards historicised fragments”, but not one infected with the more insidious forms of history-worship. Instead, as she explains, “I would not get thrown off track: I could rove over the past and seek out that lost detail to contribute to the great constitution: exhume a dead beautiful feeling, discover a wisp of radical attitude pickled since antiquity, revive revolutionary but lustrous sensibilities long perished”. This series likewise wants to use the past in new and unexpected ways, that trans the archive and queer the record.
Join us to celebrate the dazzle of the b a r o q u e!
Submissions for this editorial are now closed. Read the series so far here.
Betye Saar, Window of Ancient Sirens (1979), assemblage, 14 3/4 × 24 3/4 in37.5 × 62.9 cm, The Studio Museum in Harlem, via Artsy.