Subscribe

Ytasha Womack is an award-winning author, filmmaker, independent scholar, and dance therapist. She is a leading expert on Afrofuturism, the imagination and its applications and frequently lectures on the subject across the world. Her book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci Fi and Fantasy Culture is the leading primer on the subject and taught in colleges and universities. Afrofuturism is also a Locus Awards Nonfiction Finalist. Ytasha directed the Afrofuturist dance film A Love Letter to the Ancestors From Chicago and was a screenwriter of the romantic comedy Couples Night

Ytasha talked to Aleks about her early love of dance, libraries and the movie The Wiz…and about the icon who inspired her scholarship and art. She also talks about how she looks to the past and present to help her understand how the future might be. 

Transcript

Ytasha Womack:
I think in this fascinating time that we’re in there is this desire to explore other futures, there’s a desire to get more of a grasp on the past, past unknown for some, intimately known to others. But more importantly, there’s a desire to pull on those things that keep us resilient, that reminds us of our humanity and afrofuturism is rife with ways to do that. But the imagination is very much the pillar, feeling comfortable thinking about new futures, re-imagining yourself, re-imagining society in a way they value everyone. I feel that’s the space that we’re in today.

Aleks Krotoski:
Hello, and welcome to Standing On The Shoulders, a podcast in which inspiring people tell us about their giants, the people whose metaphorical shoulders they stand on. Across these episodes, you will hear the stories of a number of thinkers and innovators, visionaries who steer clear of well-trodden paths and they build their own elaborate fantastical worlds instead. They’ll tell us about that key moments that shaped their professional journeys. And they’ll talk about the single most meaningful person to inspire them along the way.

Aleks Krotoski:
Hosted by me, Aleks Krotoski and supported by Pearson. And a small caveat here, we are on lockdown recording mode. So the audio quality isn’t as pristine as we might have liked. Our guest today is Ytasha Womack.

Ytasha Womack:
Hello, my name is Ytasha Womack. I am an author, most known for my work in afrofuturism. I’m a filmmaker, I’m a dancer and I am in Chicago.

Aleks Krotoski:
Afrofuturism is the glue that binds the Ytasha’s multihyphenate identity together. The term was coined in the 1990s, but afrofuturist art and culture predates that term by many decades, that encompasses the writing of sociologists W.E.B. Du Bois, the music of Sun Ra Arkestra the science fiction, worlds of Octavia Butler, the criticism of Greg Tate, and also most recently the music of Janelle Monáe and the movie Black Panther. Afrofuturism is an aesthetic and a philosophy that combine science fiction with diasporic African culture. Most of the work tries to dream up black futures using Afro diasporic experiences.

Aleks Krotoski:
Ytasha has written the primer on the subject. Her written output also includes works of nonfiction, afrofuturist scifi novels, and a novella and rom-com. She’s also directed an afrofuturist dance film, which was screened at a number of festivals around the world. Ytasha talked to us about her early love of dance, libraries and the wiz and about an icon who inspired her scholarship and her art.

Aleks Krotoski:
But first we spoke about her somewhat unusual spiritual background. You see it Ytasha grew up amidst the New Thought Community, which was a 19th century movement whose central idea is that divinity dwells within everybody. Growing up in the South side of Chicago, Ytasha I felt lifted up by its inclusive message and the winds of hope and change were all around her because it was politically an eventful and hopeful time for the city, Harold Washington became the first black mayor of Chicago, Jesse Jackson ran for president. People were being registered to vote, this moment felt historic. Ytasha had many heroes to choose from starting with the charismatic priest who was at the heart of the colorful mega church that she attended.

Ytasha Womack:
And it was led by a woman whose name was Johnny Coleman, who became quite popular for talking about prosperity, but was also quite ridiculed for talking about the law of attraction, which we now are familiar with because of the book, The Secret. And she made the discussion about the law of attraction, kind of a cornerstone of her work, but it was really sort of a lens or a foundation for just exploring esoteric wisdom systems that have been cultivated through different societies around the world. That was an exciting space to be in, and she was a woman. It was kind of a thriving, robust community where people felt really comfortable talking about their dreams and thinking about how to create new futures, not always using that language, but certainly looking at how you can value humanity and pursue dreams that make you feel alive and robust.

Aleks Krotoski:
And then there were the black mass media influences that she encountered on TV.

Ytasha Womack:
Let me say this, at a very early age, I had two media moments that really shaped my life. One, I watched the miniseries Roots annually. I remember seeing the miniseries Roots as early as age three. And you’re following this story of a person kidnapped from the African shores and brought to America and enslaved and the narrative of this family that moves along through time and deals with really unusual circumstances.

Ytasha Womack:
And I remember watching this every year, at one point it was after school viewing, another point, it was coming on every night and as a child, it was this really frightening story of someone being kidnapped. And then at some point it became, “Hey, and this is a part of your history too.” Which was an aha moment.

Ytasha Womack:
But then at the same time, I was also watching The Wiz, the remake of The Wizard of Oz on an annual basis. And it was coming on television every year. And there’s just this exciting world of these characters who are on this yellow brick road and these great singers and performers and this sort of lavish environment where this scared lady eventually realizes that she had everything she ever needed. And she gets to go home.

Ytasha Womack:
And somewhere in between those two experiences, I think my relationship to fantasy and history and futures evolved. And so at a very early age, I also realized that if I wanted to find these stories and wanted to have a greater understanding of history, as it related to the culture, I was a part of, I was going to have to do a lot of reading because it wasn’t going to just be showcased. I was going to have to read the history book from A to Z read the chapters that weren’t assigned. I was going to have to read all the books in the library. I was going to have to talk as many people as possible because understanding black life was about looking in the in between spaces. It wouldn’t be as simple as just turning on a television show or reading an average book, because there would be this gaping hole where this other perspective was missing. And it wasn’t just say, the black American perspective or black perspectives, there were other that I wasn’t seeing either. So this absence juxtaposed with how exciting these moments of discovery were just led me on a quest to find these stories and then eventually to write them.

Aleks Krotoski:
And when she wasn’t reading and writing Ytasha danced a lot.

Ytasha Womack:
Well, I don’t remember not dancing. My old family were a part of the stepper scene, which is this partner dancing that’s similar to salsa, but not the same. And I remember that dance was very valuable just within the family space. I remember my first dance class, it was a combination class of ballet and tap, I was six years old. I was very happy to wear a leotard and a tutu and for my entire childhood and teen years, I was in dance classes at least twice a week.

Aleks Krotoski:
But when it came time to further her education, Ytasha majored in journalism at the historically black college Clark Atlanta University. But that doesn’t mean she dismissed her love of dance, no, that drove her to explore the house music scene and parties and bars across Atlanta.

Ytasha Womack:
They would play funk and soul and hip hop, and really intermesh all of these different styles. And it was an opportunity to listen to house, which wasn’t that popular in Atlanta, but it was very popular in Chicago. But it was also a space of discovery to kind of combine all these dance styles I’ve been learning my whole life into a freestyle space. So it was really in that moment where I realized I needed to dance. And as I went off pursuing my journalism career after college, I continued taking classes and found myself really dancing at mostly house music parties, and other kinds of parties dancing, unusually hard as if I’m dancing for my life.

Aleks Krotoski:
I lived downstairs for many years, from a woman who, she had a studio in her house. And she invited people who were newly blind into her studio in order to help them to reacquaint themselves with the physical, with movement. Because as I can imagine, if you are newly blind, it would be quite shocking, it would be quite a sense of enclosure. The fear I can imagine to move around would be incredibly heightened. And that’s always, to me… This is coming from a person who was not a dancer, but who enjoys watching dance and going to clubs and going to parties. That was almost the moment for me when I was like, “This is something that is so part of how we interact with the world.” That for her, it was a way that she was able to allow people the freedom to move again. And there’s an aspect of your dance, of your work that also shares something with that. It shares the healing moment of that. What do you think about that kind of movement? What do you think about it as a way for people to express themselves?

Ytasha Womack:
Well, that is in part why dance is a big element of so many cultures around the world, particularly African and African diasporic cultures, dance is more than, “Hey, I’m out here being sexy.” Dance is a healing space, these movements, moving your hips, moving your chest, you’re electrifying your shocker systems through these movements. And it’s a complete healing experience. It’s not so much about how amazing am I, but it’s about moving these different parts of our bodies to the extent to which we can, because it helps us to better reconnect with ourselves. But more importantly, it’s a deconstruction of time and space. And in establishing this relationship between time and space, you are forging a greater connection with the universe.

Aleks Krotoski:
Can you tell me what afrofuturism is? Can you describe for me what it is?

Ytasha Womack:
Sure. Afrofuturism is a way of looking at the future or alternate realities through a black cultural lens. So it is an intersection of black culture, liberation, technology, the imagination, and mysticism. It’s an artistic aesthetic, but it’s also an epistemology in that it’s a way of looking at the world. And it’s a methodology for healing, particularly if people have an issue around the imagination or have issues with thinking about futures.

Ytasha Womack:
And I think for people who are kind of wrestling with the idea of, well, what is afrofuturism? I think part of that is because we’re in this very westernized worldview where binary thinking is so dominant. Either something’s black or it’s white, it’s good, or it’s evil. There isn’t this multiplicity of interrelationships. There is no valuing of the space in between. And afrofuturism is about the connecting points, but it’s also about the space in between. And in some ways thinking as an afrofuturist helps people to step out of some of the social conditioning that they are often unaware that they’ve been socialized into and just points to these other corners and other spaces of existence that are anchored in resilience.

Aleks Krotoski:
When she was in college in Atlanta, she remembers running into a fellow student at a party. He was talking about the Wu-Tang Clan and quantum physics and ancient African culture, Funkadelic lyrics, and the scifi author, Octavia Butler. Ytasha knew all of these cultural touchpoints, but she had never thought of them as somehow grouped together. So she asked this friend, whether this sprawling culture that he was describing had a name, and he told her, “I don’t know.”

Ytasha Womack:
At some point I was talking to a colleague and she was telling me that she was teaching afrofuturism. And at that I said, “Well, what’s afrofuturism.” And when she explained it, “I said, well, this is everything that I was into in college. I knew people who were afrofuturist, who we’re not using this terminology.” And I got a little annoyed because I’m sitting here thinking, “Okay, I’ve been writing about black culture, immersed in reading about black culture. And I’m just hearing this term afrofuturism what’s going on.”

Ytasha Womack:
And then beyond that, I thought about so many people I knew who were really into comic books or studying quantum physics, or thinking about histories and futures and talking about afrofuturism, but feeling very alienated and alone because it was difficult to situate the work in spaces that they deemed acceptable.

Aleks Krotoski:
And so you Ytasha decided to write a primer about it for people like her and for her friend, so that she could learn more and also help others who were seeking just like her.

Ytasha Womack:
There were a lot of people who were working with these ideas, but they were just fragmented. So I knew people who were excited about say, Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler and the writing and black science fiction, but they were completely unaware of say, the independent comic book scene where you have black creators creating comics. And then the black creators doing comics, maybe they knew nothing about the jazz musicians like Sun Ra or Alice Coltrane and others who were thinking about these ideas. So people who knew about the jazz musicians didn’t know about the hip hop scene and elements of afrofuturism there. Those singing about hip hop were unaware of say, the visual artists and galleries and museums who we’re working with these ideas.

Ytasha Womack:
And I said, “Let me just write a book, kind of creating a framework.” And in the midst of writing the book, I had an experience where I had a desire to write a fiction story, and I wanted to write a story about someone in the future and really kind of make this statement about people of African descent being in the future and coming up with some sort of story, which wound up being the RAYLA 2212 book. And I became so consumed with the story that I had to write a variation of the story and launch it as an ebook on its own website, before I could finish the afrofuturism book itself.

Ytasha Womack:
And in doing that, I feel like there was this larger experience I had to have where I couldn’t look at afrofuturism purely as this third party observer of this culture that I was kind of a part of, but hadn’t quite embraced as my life. And then coming out on that other side, for me personally, I was able to finish the afrofuturism book and really had a transformative experience where I could see the connections between these parts of my identity. I could see how dance related to writing as a space of language and communication. I could see how my interest in history was related to futures.

Aleks Krotoski:
Reminds me of the old media ad show-don’t-tell there is a space for telling, right? But then you’re like, “No, no, no, here, this is what I mean, this thing.”

Ytasha Womack:
Yeah. Well exactly, because there’s this idea that when you’re a black person in the United States, you’re constantly put under this pressure of having to prove that your ideas and your work has an audience. So I remember early in my career kind of writing these romantic comedies before the black film world was kind of flooded with romantic comedies. And there was this whole conversation about, “Well yeah, but if it were action, if you could do like an action film because black people aren’t really trying to see romance.” Or, “Gee maybe if you added more sexuality to it and it could be more erotic.” And so there’s always these things where I had to, in some way, demonstrate that ideas, I had had an audience among black people, and I’ve tried to prove this to these intermediaries who feel they have to justify their frameworks. So whether it was trying to talk about a black romance or a black romantic comedy or a black scifi story or anything with black people that shows we were well rounded individuals. It seemed to be this dynamic laugh and so like, “Prove it.” And maybe there was just a bit of annoyance about having to do that all the time.

Aleks Krotoski:
No, I appreciate that. I think it’s absolutely valid. And we see it in all different kinds of populations where it’s like the dominant perspective, the dominant frame is unable to see the other. And it was interesting as I was researching afrofuturism, how many artists, writers, musicians, et cetera, that I’ve listened to over the years or that I’ve really enjoyed over the years. I was like, “I had no idea that they fell under a banner of afrofuturist. And that to me was very enlightening because I thought to myself, “Well, this is a lens through which I have not seen these artists. And yet it’s something that becomes community.” And also as you’ve described, becomes a framework.

Ytasha Womack:
Yeah. I think because when you see it that way, it explains their work. When you’re looking, thinking about a Great Jones or you’re thinking about [Arthur Kate 00:22:13] or you’re thinking about Alice Coltrane and you’re just looking at these women and you could see if you think afrofuturist or you think someone deconstructing their identities and expression, you see it’s coming from a space and they aren’t these aberrations, they aren’t these outliers. They’re actually at the center of something that wasn’t always given the space to be understood.

Aleks Krotoski:
Tell me about when you first discovered Katherine Dunham?

Ytasha Womack:
I read about Katherine Dunham, I must’ve been in fifth or sixth grade and I was going to the Woodson Regional Library here in Chicago. And they have an exciting children look section, and I was obsessed with the biography. And there was a book on Katherine Dunham, which in retrospect is really exciting, they had a fifth grade friendly book on Katherine Dunham. But Katherine Dunham was an anthropologist and a dancer. And at some point when she was in the thirties, when she was working on her anthropology degree at the University of Chicago, she wanted to study dance. And she went to Haiti and other spaces in the Caribbean and Trinidad, and learned a lot of the spiritual dances that came originally from different cultures in Africa and were preserved in these different countries. And then she studied all of these styles and then she starts a dance company. And as a child, I just thought, “Oh, wow, this is really interesting.”

Aleks Krotoski:
As a teenager, Ytasha didn’t know anybody who had traveled the world. So she was very excited to discover these African Americans who had done so nearly 100 years before, many of them like Arthur Kate started out in the South and then wound their way up to big cities like Chicago or Harlem in New York, and then moved on to Paris or Haiti or to the Caribbean. She thought to herself, who are these people leading these adventurous lives, who is Katherine Dunham?

Ytasha Womack:
And it was exciting because she was a scientist and she was a dancer. I just thought it was pretty intriguing. And I wouldn’t have said in that moment that it made me say, “Gee, I could be a scientist and a dancer.” But as a child, I did want to be a scientist and a dancer. So I think that that kind of work just stayed with me. And obviously as I matured and I read more about her, I just became fascinated by the lengths and her determination. The Katherine Dunham Dance Company was an inspiration for Alvin Ailey.

Aleks Krotoski:
Alvin Ailey was a hugely popular and influential African-American dancer and choreographer who founded his own dance company and school in New York city in 1958, his choreography was exuberant. He blended ballet and modern dance with jazz and African-American vernacular dance.

Ytasha Womack:
I was reading about Alvin Ailey, seeing Katherine Dunham perform for the first time just being so excited about it. So she created a dance language in sort of the Western world to understand and talk about African and African diasporic dance. And it was very much a pillar of modern contemporary dance.

Aleks Krotoski:
And I can obviously see the parallels, the inspiration perhaps was this subconscious thing that you were carrying through, but it’s this aspect of investigation, but then not just writing about it and not just studying it, but doing it yourself, incorporating it in another way that you are documenting it, in another way that you are presenting the information that you have explored. Katherine Dunham did that with her anthropological study of dance, but then brought that back and used it in order to express her herself, but also express the different cultures that she had studied. And the work that you do, it feels very similar. You investigate, and then you transform into something that is then consumable in a different way. Would you say that you could see that parallel as well?

Ytasha Womack:
I do see that parallel and I had not recognized that parallel until somewhat recently, when I realized I was posting about Katherine Dunham almost annually around her birthday. And it’s like, “Oh, wait a minute.” Yeah, because it’s always important for me to acknowledge that the work many of us are doing today, even as black woman, there were black women before us doing more under unusual circumstances and some cases they were doing much more. And to kind of see this lineage of thought and process, I think is invaluable because then you don’t think of yourself as creating in a vacuum. You’re a part of a larger story that interweaves space and time.

Aleks Krotoski:
And indeed by posting about Katherine Dunham and by exploring and investigating her work, I can see that that lineage continues through you. Where does she fit within the framework of afrofuturism, if at all, how would you imagine that she would respond to the framework of afrofuturism?

Ytasha Womack:
That’s a fascinating question. I think Katherine Dunham was very much this intersection in that she respected and acknowledged the interconnections between the African continent and the African diaspora and the value of preserving this element of dance as transformational.

Ytasha Womack:
Katherine Dunham was able to take dance and use it as an artifact, as a lens to the feature and as a lens to the past. So in one sense, she’s preserving these African, African diasporic dance styles and showcasing them on world stages. But in another way, she’s also articulating another sort of modern contemporary dance lens. So she’s really doing both simultaneously and she’s presenting it as entertainment, when in fact it’s really so much more. So to me, Katherine Dunham was very multidimensional and that she she’s taking work and sort of creating something that speaks to the future and the past and the present and in doing so, showing that the times that we think are so different are really intimately connected.

Aleks Krotoski:
That sounds exactly, exactly like what you do when you create your own work, when you incorporate the past and the present and imagine what the future could be. It sounds like as an inspiration, whether or not you have recognized that, it sounds to me like she truly has kind of infiltrated the way that you move, the way that you think, the way that you study and understand how you create output and how you create framework. So it sounds like a very natural inspiration for you Ytasha.

Ytasha Womack:
Yeah. Thank you for helping me make that connection. I think in this fascinating time that we’re in there is this desire to explore other futures, there’s a desire to get more of a grasp on the past, past unknown for some, intimately known to others. But more importantly, there’s a desire to pull on those things that keep us resilient, that reminds us of our humanity and afrofuturism is rife with ways to do that. But the imagination is very much the pillar, feeling comfortable thinking about new futures, re-imagining yourself, re-imagining society in a way they value everyone. I feel that’s the space that we’re in today.

Aleks Krotoski:
To find out more about you, Ytasha Womack, you can go to Twitter and she’s @ytashawomack, or you can go to the fantastically named decolonizingmars.com to read all about her and her work. For show notes and links to stories mentioned in this episode, go to standingontheshoulders.net, Standing on the Shoulders is a Storythings production. This episode was produced by Shruti Ravindran and edited by Ian Steadman. Our audio engineer and sound design was by Kenya Jay Scarlett, artwork by Darren Garrett, website by Eden Brackenbury. Our executive producers are Hugh Garry and Caroline Leary. It’s supported by Pearson and hosted by me, Aleks Krotoski.

Aleks Krotoski:
Now, it takes a lot of time and a big team of people to make this podcast more than most people would imagine. So if you like the show, please go to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you go to get your audio fix and rate it. It really does help people discover us. On our next episode, we speak with serial entrepreneur, Martha Lane Fox.

Martha Lane Fox:
For me and my own history that had very, very defined by lastminute.com, it was a bit like being in an extremely successful pop group that had one massive hit. But it was a big hit, everybody knew it. And sometimes it’s embarrassing at conferences 22 years later, everyone’s like, “Welcome Martha Lane Fox, co-founder lastminute.com”, but then I’m like, “Seriously, am I still defined by that thing?”

Episode Credits

Standing on the Shoulders is a Storythings production.

Hosted by Aleks Krotoski
Written and produced by Shruti Ravindran
Audio engineer and sound design by Kenya Scarlett
Artwork by Darren Garrett
Website by Eden Brackenbury
Executive Producers are Caroline Leary and Hugh Garry
Supported by Pearson

Subscribe