Written by Laura Hackshaw
Edited by Veronica Vivi
Illustrated by Daley North
This is a show tune
But the show hasn’t been written for it, yet
Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last
Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer
– Mississippi Goddamn by Nina Simone
‘‘Afro-Surrealism is drifting into contemporary culture on a rowboat with no oars…to hunt down clues for the cure.’’
– D. Scot Miller – Afrosurreal Manifesto: Black is the New Black a 21st Century Manifesto (2009)
*This essay contains spoiler alerts for several TV shows and films
Afro-Surrealism is a movement of artistic expression, preceded by the 20th century Surrealism era, which examined the unconscious mind, dream states, the metaphysical and the fantastical. Surrealism was also a movement several black artists were an integral part of, resulting in a natural progression merging the elements of Surrealism and the African/black experience. This unintentionally formed Afro-Surrealism, which is defined by D. Scot Miller in his ‘Afrosurreal Manifesto: Black is the New Black a 21st Century Manifesto’ as a distortion of “reality for emotional impact” amongst many other “signifiers”. Afro-Surrealism broadly “couples the bizarre with ideas of black identity and power (and) allows for expansive explorations of blackness.” (Miller, Afrosurreal Manifesto). This is the viewpoint adopted throughout this article. Afro-Surrealism is not to be confused with Afrofuturism, loosely defined as a reimagined future produced for and through the eyes of black people with its focus being on technology, sci-fi, art, history as a way of creating new worlds for black people. To name a few instances, Outkast’s ‘Prototype’ music video and Missy Elliott’s ‘She’s a Bitch’, and ‘Black Panther’ are all subtle examples of “It balances a rational vision of life with one that asserts the power of the unconscious and dreams” (Miller, Afrosurreal Manifesto).
Increasingly more often we witness images, representations and symbols of the Afro-Surreal with each turn of the cultural tide; from movies, to TV, literature and music. Kendrick Lamar heavily utilises Afro-Surreal imagery in his music videos such as ‘Alright’, which depicts police officers carrying a car full of black men (the stereotypical assumption of black criminality) on their shoulders. Afro-Surrealism is also present in the TV show ‘I May Destroy You.’ Michaela Coel’s character, particularly in the final episode of the show, regularly disassociates, fixates, and relives her trauma a grand total of three times; giving the viewer their own alternative conclusions to her fate. She, like so many of us as women, is forced to forget it and move on (Coel herself was assaulted while writing Chewing Gum). Coel’s character knows there will be no empathy extended to her outside of her group of friends. Thus, she forges forward, taking on fantastical forms and creating a new version of herself.
In the TV show ‘Atlanta’, Donald Glover (writer/creator of Atlanta and SWARM) uses Afro-Surrealism, to tear down the ridiculousness of everyday life: fake woke liberals oblivious to their privilege and self-absorption playing the saviour, black children in ‘white-face’, the hype around a black Justin Bieber, trans-racialism. SWARM is a crash course through an Afro-Surreal lens. It offers biting truths about the reality of many black women and girls, whose stories get set aside, rubbished, or ripped off. Dre’s trauma is the undercurrent that flows through every action and reaction she displays. Ultimately, Dre is just another lost black girl. She is let down by family, rejected by any sense of community, clearly dealing with some form of mental health issue, possibly grappling with her true sexuality and so fearful of abandonment she would kill to stop it in its tracks. That elusive sense of knowing appears when the detective is astute enough to link another black woman to the murders happening in the show, even though nobody believes her theory. Trauma, pain, self-preservation; black men and women in these stories get to right their own worlds and stamp all over stereotypes.
Another example of Afro-Surrealism is Jordan Peele’s film ‘Get Out.’ The whiteness, the suburbs, suspiciously subdued all-black servants, acres of land, the constant watchful eyes …every small detail in both the audience’s social context and the characters indicates at the very least a foreboding, a sense of being out of the realms of safety. In this context we can see how Afro-Surrealist ideas from ‘Get Out’ have pervaded popular culture; with references made to being in the sunken place. This notion, is in my opinion, underpinned by the folklore and isms that run through our ancestral DNA across the diaspora. Black people have a cultural ‘knowing’ that needs no explanation. It simply is – it is innate and the cost of not trusting can be fatal.
When looking at Afro-Surrealism – certain subtext within our cultural-historical landscape in African folklore and folktales can be found. Whether the mysticism of women of the sea luring men into the deep waters with their siren calls or parables about morality, it has been a form of cultural preservation and at times as potent for the soul as medicine is to the ailing body. However, as Prof. John Demukayor explains in his lecture on the subject of folktales notes, “unlike in Western fairytales, African folktales rarely end with ‘happily ever after’…but always lend themselves as “oral literature, riddles and proverbs.”
The roots of Afro-Surrealism as a medium are deeply rooted. The preceding Surrealist movement also included many black artists, writers’ and painters such as Andre Breton and Samuel R Delaney. In their works different worlds took shape, full of limitless black imagination. Afro-Surrealism is symbolic, it whispers its own rhythmic language in our ears, beckoning us closer to its calling. It’s the Orisha symbolism in Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ album music videos, it’s SWARM, Moonlight, Sorry to Bother You, Atlanta, I May Destroy You and many more. As D. Scot Miller declared: “Only freaky black art – Afro-Surreal art…can save us!” (Afrossurreal Manifesto).
Afro surrealism. Vistprojects, 2022. Available at: https://vistprojects.com/en/afro-surrealism/
Bakare, L. (2018). From Beyoncé to Sorry to Bother You: the new age of Afro-surrealism. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/dec/06/afro-surrealism-black-artists-racist-society
Demukayor, J. (2021). African Folklore/folktales and Cultures. ResearchGate. 10.13140/RG.2.2.11855.20644.
Field, L. (2021). The story behind Nina Simone’s protest song, “Mississippi Goddam”. American Masters. Available at: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/the-story-behind-nina-simones-protest-song-mississippi-goddam/16651/
Miller, D. S. (2009). Afrosurreal Manifesto. FoundSF. Available at: https://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Afrosurreal_Manifesto
Simone, N. “Mississippi Goddamn”. Nina Simone in Concert, Philips Records,1964. Digital.
Spencer, R. (2019). AfroSurrealism: The African Diaspora’s Surrealist Fiction. London, Routledge.
Valade, R.M. (1996). The Essential Black Literature Guide. Visible Ink Press.
Valade, R.M and Kasinec, D. (1996). The Schomburg Center Guide to Black Literature: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present. Gale Research.
Laura is a writer of Caribbean descent born and bred in London. She uses her pen to write all things poetry, prose and journalism.