The Afrofuturism Chop Shop: What is Freedom?

  • Wisdom Amouzou
  • Stephen Brackett
  • Cory Minkah Montalvo
Cory Minkah Montalvo (L), Wisdom Amouzou (C), and Stephen Brackett (R) recording the Afrofuturism Chop Shop. Photo credit: Jen Wood-Brackett
Photo of three young men, seated on outdoor furniture atop a multi-colored rug with recording equipment in evidence. To the left is Cory Minkah Montalvo, a Black, Latino man in a black baseball cap and flip flops; in the middle is Wisdom Amouzou, a man of African descent wearing shorts and a brown shirt, and to the right is Stephen Brackett, an African-American man wearing a black-and-white patterned shirt and shorts.
Cory Minkah Montalvo (L), Wisdom Amouzou (C), and Stephen Brackett (R) recording the Afrofuturism Chop Shop. Photo credit: Jen Wood-Brackett

In June of 2020, Wisdom Amouzou, Stephen Brackett, and Cory Minkah Montalvo met up for a wide-ranging conversation on Afrofuturism, freedom, Black identity, cowboys, superheroes, and joy. The Transformative Resistance Framework, developed by LatCrit professors Daniel G. Solorzano and Dolores Delgado Bernal, informed their discussion.

Please listen to the audio recording to hear Wisdom, Stephen, and Cory’s engaging and thoughtful conversation in its entirety. An excerpt is presented here, and some sections have been paraphrased for clarity or brevity.

Stephen: What would true freedom look like?

Wisdom: I always go to love. I've had the gift of experiencing true love, and that has actually set me more free than any book I’ve read or work I’ve done. The simplest way for me to describe it is that it’s the kind of love that colors my memories in a golden haze. That kind of love feels free to me—and all sorts of things can be born from that. All sorts of public institutions can also be born from that, but I don't want to go there. True love and an environment where I can thrive: that would be true freedom for me.

Cory: For me it goes back to a Gordon Parks photo, Boy with June Bug. It's on my phone. It’s a boy lying down in a field in the 1960s with a June bug running across his nose while tied to a string. For me that defines peace. I wish that for every Black and Brown child. I wish that for myself—to just be in a state of pure tranquility. Even if it’s just for that moment. It’s a state where you're not weighted with our history, with the state of our politics; you're not weighted with your own identity. You're just in your own existence, lying in a field, dreaming. That state of mind is what I think liberation is.

Stephen: I think freedom is the ability to dream without qualifiers. When I think of Black, Brown, and Indigenous children, it's not very often that we’re able to say, “You can be anything that you want to be,” because we don't believe that's true. But we add that if you are going to be whatever you want to be, it's going to be so much harder for you than it would be for a European-American child. So I think that precious frontier of being able to imagine without limit, without qualification—that would be an earmark of freedom to me. That's the freedom I would like to see.

Cory: I think what you're getting at is the state of an unmitigated self. I've talked to Wisdom about this a lot. We are framed as people, especially as Black folks, by our Black community and by our country. We have very little room to be us. My essential question for my life is: “What is Cory? What does that look like?” I'm still following some type of societal structure that's framing me. I think of Sun Ra and Thelonious Monk—what does it look like when you part from all of your constraints? When you transcend Blackness? I think Obama said it: “I am rooted in my Blackness, but I am not defined by it.” So I think playing with that tension can lead to discovering what liberation means for us as individuals.

Stephen: If we are conditioned to be mitigated, what percentage of our identity do you think is already predetermined by society?

Cory: In my experience it is damn near 100%. It takes many forms. They can place the reductive narrative of the Black male on you, or they can place the exceptional Black male narrative on you. Either way, you are stuck. There is no average. I love to read the books that portray us as normal, everyday, mundane humans. We can never be normal as Black humans. We can either be slaves or MLK. So for me, I ask, “What happens when I'm at the dinner table? What happens when I'm doing laundry? What happens when I'm simply inspired by a bird?” We can’t ask those questions. And that's what bothers me. Everywhere you turn, you are constructed as a preconceived notion based on what people perceive as your history, even in our community.

Wisdom: I laugh because I think we've all had complicated interactions the last few months. I remember a recent one where I was meeting up with an old friend to catch up. I wasn't in the mood to talk about police brutality, but it was my fault because I didn't state that explicitly. In my mind, I have hope for many individuals and communities. But privately, there are also individuals that I have lost that hope for. This person happens to be one of those individuals. So I was asking about their family and their life. You got the sense that this person was chomping at the bit to talk about police brutality. But we were going on a walk through nature. I'm starting to really love nature because it's one of the few places where I can escape these feelings of heaviness and anxiety. So I was way more interested in looking at a smoke bush, which I have never seen, than in people being lynched. So my percentage is 98%. And in those moments of the 2%, I can always recognize that same distinct look on people's faces when they see me look at a smoke bush, when they see my full humanity.

Stephen: What emotional technology is missing in order to get to freedom?

Cory: Could you unpack that question a bit?

Stephen: I look at technology as a way to solve problems. If we were trying to create a society where a person was inherently free from the beginning, what are the pieces that are missing that would be able to get us there?

Cory: I'll answer the question from the frame of my own identity as a Black, Latino male in 2020. I don't think I can reach the level of what I see in that Gordon Parks photo in our current context. This land would have to undergo a metamorphosis that I don't think is possible. So then I think I have to transport myself out of here. I believe that thinking about retro-futurism is important. I always go back to microsocieties and to doing everything small: focusing on your garden, focusing on your neighbor. That’s the only way I could sort of attain that sense of freedom. But otherwise, I would have to leave. I've lived in South Africa; I've lived in Colombia. And those are the places where I’ve found the most peace in my life. They are certainly not perfect, but it isn't this intimate oppression. So a technology could be travel—or seclusion. I think about buying a ranch in the Southwest and having thousands of acres. I could seclude myself from society. I could have a space to live in my unmitigated self and lay in my field. But then you're in a bubble.

Stephen: So often the early Afrofuturism story would reinterpret the origin of our community. There was an EDM group who said they had descended from Black Atlanteans who had jumped off of slave ships and were advanced enough to create a new society.

Cory: I think reinterpreting your reality can be a mechanism as well. Who is to say that Sun Ra didn't travel to Saturn as a teenager? That's true for him, and he made the reality in front of him work within that frame. So I don't want to call it imagination, but I do think your perception can act as a technological means to influence reality.

Stephen: What about you, Wisdom? Especially when you spoke about the foundation of love.

Wisdom: I dig the philosophy that says we are born with the tools we need. I dig this sense of microsocieties. I keep getting ads for permaculture on social media and think to myself, “Don't ruin it for me! This has nothing to do with what you’re trying to sell me.” At the end of the day we're talking about the purity of dirt and seeds. I think we are born with the tools. It's the Wakanda that can shield us from the pain. I think of the quote: “Love is what we're born with, fear is what we learn here.” We need to get out of here. And short of taking up arms or building the wealth to form a protective bubble, I don't know if we will actually create Wakanda. But I know that ideologically we can.

Stephen: I really like the framing that love is what we're born with. So what’s the technology to unlearn that fear? And how do we pass that on to our young ones? When they went to Wakanda in Avengers: Infinity War, I started sweating. I thought, “Why are they coming here?” Whenever we have something, they always try to take it away. And if there's a shield in sci-fi…it breaks. Because if it doesn't break, then that's the end of the story. So here we are in the middle, and the super precious place that I've only seen in fiction was under threat. I was watching a movie about a fictitious place and I was literally sweating. That showed me how even in the imaginative plane I can be traumatized. Thanos had the anti-life equation, and I want to know what the anti-fear equation is. I would love to come up with alchemy for that. But I do suspect a lot of it has to do with being connected to the land that you're from. And that land still being yours.

Cory: A lot has to do with that.

Stephen: Can we create this world without that land?

Cory: No. I think it was Malcolm X who talked about how we got dumped in a wilderness. We got dumped into a wilderness that is not our climate. It's not good for our skin; it's not the environment we are designed for. It's designed for the natives who lived here. So I wonder how we create the environment that is conducive to our thriving. So many of us feel disconnected to that sense. And until you feel connected, you are not whole. The first time I went to Africa, I already felt like a brother from the moment I landed.

Stephen: I wonder about the fact that there are many groups in the world who have diasporic identities, yet are still able to hold on to their sense of culture. I have a great deal of envy for Judaism and its ability to craft stories that give meaning to Jewish oppression and power in the present day. And I think there are several other tribes who have been uprooted and have been able to find that sense of meaning. A friend of mine is talking about how Thor Ragnarok is an Indigenous story. Asgard is not a physical place; it's the people. And as long as the people are there, the place will never disappear. That's one of the tenets of Indigenous culture, and it takes someone from that culture to recognize that. In the African-American diasporic identity—including people who have recently come from Africa—what is the story of us we can build that gives meaning to our place now? Especially since we don't have our spaceships or private wormholes…yet. That's something that I constantly think about. And when I sit through seders, I am absolutely filled with jealousy. I think, “Man, you all came up with a story that has been an axis mundi for you despite how the world has been treating you for thousands of years…Kwanzaa absolutely did not cut it!”

Wisdom: Haha. That should be the title: Kwanzaa Did Not Cut It. That should be the next book. That is real, though. When you were describing the wormholes…damn. Today is my mother's 55th birthday. Fives have always been a big deal to her, so I’m strongly reminded of the joy of home. I know at my most hopeless place, I still have the privilege of going to the place that my parents built before we came here. I think about the place it occupies in my mind. Every time I'm there, I immediately feel its energy. Still, the truth is that the last time I was back home—the first time in 14 years—I felt like a stranger in a familiar place. I always add the asterisk that it's a hundred times better than America—don't be confused. But it is where I first accepted that home is where the people are, and home is the individuals I call family. And yet, home still has that deep connection to the land. Regardless of the microecosystem I set up here, it won't ever replicate what I feel when I go into the wormhole with the people I love.

Cory: I think that the ability for the diaspora to feel rooted in something is the practice of creolization: you're in a foreign land; you've had to adopt the colonizers’ language, culture, and religion. But this act of looking at that and consuming it and regurgitating it back out in your own likeness has a lot of power. You can start to say, “I've made this thing mine, this situation mine, and now I can start to weave it with my roots.” But you have to have a strong connection to what those roots are. When you're undergoing constant systemic murder of your culture, it's really tough. From a young age you're taught the antithesis of where you come from. So I think the ultimate disruption is indeed leaving.

Stephen: There’s this idea that I've been working on. When I look at the matrix of America, I wonder why this cultural stripping is so essential. And then I start looking at whiteness. To be white in America is to be American without a hyphen. That's what it means to be American. That's why the rest of us have hyphens. But losing the hyphen comes with a price. When you become white, your family's migration is gone, because you're always American. Culture, language, food—all gone, oftentimes in half a generation. If you're Irish in America that means you drink green beer on St. Patrick's Day. If you're Italian that means you talk with your hands a lot. You end up with a tropified version of your European roots. That is the price of admission for everyone in America. And that's why people don't bat an eye when they ask it of us. Because they've already done it. But they haven't even processed that they've done it. But we are very aware and have a consciousness around that. We are conscious that our identities are taken and commodified. That's how things work here.

To hear more of this conversation, check out the complete audio recording (above).