BEVERLY — Ytasha Womack was an Afrofuturist before the term even existed.
As a fourth-grade girl living in Chatham, she wore her Princess Leia costume on Halloween and quietly wondered how the "Star Wars" movies would have been different if Lando Calrissian hadn't lost the Millennium Falcon to Han Solo.
Howard Ludwig dives into Womack's inspiration for the book:
Such questions, as well as a demand to see more black faces in science fiction and fantasy culture, are at the root of the literary and artistic movement which Womack helped to define in her book, "Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture."
The 213-page book ($16.95) debuted in October 2013. The inspiration for her work began while she was a student at Clark Atlanta University. Womack graduated from the historically black university in Atlanta in 1997.
"A lot of my friends from college were really immersed in these ideas, but when they graduated they didn't know what to do," said Womack, who also teaches after-school dance and yoga classes at the Beverly Arts Center.
She wrote the book as a starting point for those new to Afrofuturism, also hoping her work would preserve the movement for future generations.
The term Afrofuturism was coined by in 1992 by Mark Dery in his essay, "Black to the Future." The cultural critic and author began his piece with a simple question: Why do so few African-Americans write science fiction?
"This is especially perplexing in light of the fact that African-Americans, in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees," Dery wrote in his essay.
Other scholarly essays followed, and conversations on Afrofuturism continued on early listservs. Many artists and contributors sought to use the emerging movement to reclaim advancements made in science and technology by African-Americans.
Others wanted Afrofuturism to preserve the contributions of artists such as George Clinton & Parliament-Funkadelic as well as Sun Ra, a jazz composer and poet. Science fiction writer Octavia Butler is also considered an trailblazer.
Womack said she's been in regular contact with college students and professors since her book's release. Her work is now being used to teach high-level literature, feminism, African diaspora and more.
She's also seen an influx of upcoming artists and musicians that identify with Afrofuturism, including R&B singer-songwriter Janelle Monae and John Jennings, a graphic artist who works at the University at Buffalo and contributed cover art for Womack's book.
"Afrofuturism" is the second of three books for Womack. Her first, "Post Black: How a New Generation Is Redefining African American Identity," was released in 2010. It's a 224-page cultural reflection of how Generation X and Generation Y are changing black life in the U.S.
"The idea [of Rayla] became really compelling when I was writing the Afrofuturism book," Womack said.
Rayla began tweeting before her story was even released. Strong demand prompted Womack to unveil the first three chapters of "Rayla 2212" as an e-book in December 2011.
Both Rayla's story and Womack's research on Afrofuturism inspired the Race in Space Conference at Duke University in October 2013. The event combined science fiction with science fact, as researchers spoke about the probability and timetable of space travel.
Meanwhile, Womack spoke about how colonization efforts ought to make a conscious effort to avoid the same "isms" that now exist on Earth. She posed many questions, including what existing government's laws would govern an Earth colony? And who gets to settle this new civilization? Would such a place only be accessible to rich adventurers?
Womack is a 1993 graduate of Whitney Young Magnet High School on the Near West Side. She has no plans to leave the city, and believes Chicago plays a significant role in Afrofuturism, she said.
She pointed to the city's past and present jazz musicians as well as the area being home to many of the Tuskegee Airmen. The first African-American, female astronaut — Mae Jemison — also was raised in Chicago.
Womack said Afrofuturism can inspire new leaders. The movement has been used by several teachers and after-school instructors as a jumping-off point to teach children about STEM topics, science, technology, engineering and math.
"It empowers people to use their imagination," Womack said.
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