There’s an old story about Octavia Butler that I often return to: A young man once asked the visionary science fiction novelist the answer to ending all the suffering in the world. “There isn’t one,” Butler replied. “So we’re doomed?” he asked, confused. “No,” said Butler. Then she delivered the words that would remake my understanding of the future: “There’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers—at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”
Black futurist artists are often regarded as prophets, and expected, unfairly, to foretell the path that will lead us to a brighter tomorrow. Butler, who started writing during the Black Power movement and died, at 58 years old, in 2006, was looked to as an oracle of her time. Today, one of Butler’s most vital successors is the multifaceted artist Janelle Monáe. But if Monáe knows the future, she’s not quite telling. Speaking with her feels less like questioning an oracle than it does scheming with a wiser, older friend.
I am talking to Monáe about her new book, The Memory Librarian, a collection of science fiction stories she cowrote with five writers. During our conversation, which takes place over Zoom, Monáe’s voice is soft yet unhesitant, casually commanding attention. Ever a performer, her face is dramatically half-concealed under a fuzzy, black-and-white-checkered bucket hat. In her responses to my questions she speaks carefully, as if slowed by the gravity behind her vision and work.
Like Butler before her, Monáe works in a genre called Afrofuturism. Loosely defined, it imagines the future of Black liberation from a hostile world—ours. Although she’s publishing a book and stars in movies, Monáe is best known as a musician, and it was her 2018 concept album, Dirty Computer, that defined her Afrofuturist visions. “What Afrofuturism does is it allows Black people to tell our stories, from our voice, of how we see ourselves in the future, thriving,” Monáe tells me. With The Memory Librarian, Monáe seamlessly translates the detailed dystopian world of Dirty Computer from sound to page. We see many of the same characters: an android named Jane, her love interest Zen, a smattering of government workers and civilians. We see rebellion forming against a violent surveillance state, and queer desire in the midst of an apocalypse.
In her book, Monáe offers us a warning, but also a way out. Look around, she says. More and more, we are being stripped of our flesh-and-blood identities and extracted into data. But this transformation doesn’t have to destroy us; even the computerized body, Monáe insists, can preserve its humanity. Flawed, dirty, proudly glitching, the queer robots of Monáe’s vision refuse to be so easily boiled down into 1s and 0s. The Memory Librarian might not be the answer to the social and political upsets of our time, but it is an answer, and a fiercely inspiring one: a deepening of Afrofuturism’s potential to weaponize our dreams for a freer, more joyous world.
Afrofuturism’s central proposition is that Black people can control their own futures and that, moreover, they can escape the suffocating limits of time itself. Past becomes future becomes present; memory becomes prophecy becomes reality. Freedom is not just a dream for the future but a history we know we’ll relive once more. In The Memory Librarian, Monáe’s titular character collects and keeps people’s memories, wielding a terrifying power. She understands that the withholding of memory can be deployed as a weapon, while its resurgence can act as a means of survival.
This motif of memory plays on a historical truth: White people have controlled the individual and collective memories of Black Americans for centuries. When slaves were first brought to the American continent, their names were changed, their languages suppressed, their marriages undocumented, their graves unmarked. Families were separated; Black folks had the image of their mother’s face, their sister’s smile, taken from them. Many Black Americans today struggle to trace their family members back more than a few generations. Their lineage, their names, and their identities are remembered only to the extent that whiteness allows.