Of all the twentieth-century avant-gardes the Surrealists took modernism’s radical potential to its farthest logical conclusions. They understood that individual liberty required social, political, and economic equality. That mutually reinforcing dyad of liberty and equality still elides today’s neoliberal thinkers and cruder Marxists.¹ Surrealism’s revolutionary political gestures, unorthodox Marxism, and its radically anti-colonial and anti-racist political program, have long been obscured in official histories. The first European Surrealists held haughty and bourgeois European culture in disdain—tying it, like the Dadaists that preceded them—to the disaster of the First World War and related privations that caused millions of deaths across the continent. Unlike Dada, the Surrealist antipathy to White supremacy and Eurocentrist notions of culture led to a break (albeit in a haphazard and incomplete way) from modern art’s orientalist view of the so-called “primitive,” moving into active collaboration with non-European artists, and support for anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles. Surrealist ideas quickly spread among small groups of intellectuals and artists from the French colonies. Those artists and writers, in turn, reshaped Surrealism and made it their own.²
AfroSurrealism drew as much or more from African and African diasporic cultural concerns as it did from early European surrealism; continually evolving as its own genre and practice
An international and multiracial revolutionary art movement has often been reduced to dead White Europeans “doing weird things” in the interlude between the wars. Black and other non-European Surrealists, as well as their co-thinkers and fellow travelers, have largely been erased from the survey curricula of art schools and creative writing programs.
AfroSurrealism drew as much or more from African and African diasporic cultural concerns as it did from early European surrealism; continually evolving as its own genre and practice. “AfroSurrealism retains Surrealism’s interest in the mind and in non-rational systems of knowledge.” Rochelle Spencer writes, “And, as with all forms of Surrealism, AfroSurrealism is anti-capitalist, and also strongly anti-authoritarian. The AfroSurreal text is concerned, above all, with liberty.”³
At the same time AfroSurrealism deals with the agency and liberty of persons whose liberty has been far more proscribed than that of exploited European laborers. To say this is not to minimize the classic exploitation of labor, but to underline the enormity of what happened (and continues to happen) to those counted in the African diaspora.
All surrealism rejects a teleology of progress—the crude notion that society is constantly progressing toward greater civilization and rationality. For the European Surrealists this anti-teleology was bound up in their disgust at the world wars. As the editors of the irrealist Locust Review argue, all exploited and oppressed persons have a gothic-futurist relationship to time, as both past and future are contested spaces.⁴ The past is both horror and nostalgia. The future is both threat and promise. For those colonized and enslaved by Europe and the United States the rejection of “progress” takes on an additionally anti-colonial and anti-racist concerns. Afrosurrealism—and other irrealist Black cultural projects like Afrofuturism and Animist Realism—often take a disruptive attitude to temporal categorizations of progress and Hegelian ideas about history.⁵ The temporal dislocation of the Black subject, for Afrofuturism, is even more profound, precarious, and uncertain. Rochelle Spencer repeatedly returns to this theme:
“The lack of certainty over the precise cause of the [surreal] event reflects the particularities of life after the Middle Passage. The uncertainty of surviving the voyage; the lack of clarity concerning one’s ancestral background once family members are bought and sold; and generations growing up under a new culture and language with looser cultural ties, produces absences. Time forms a tesseract that includes geographical space and distance, as Animist Realism and AfroSurrealism challenge the idea that temporarily must only be understood as linear . . . ”⁶
This is manifested by narrative subjects who are often forced to negotiate and struggle against disparate threats in hostile or strange environments, as Spencer describes in her reading of Helen Oyeyemi’s boy, snow, bird. The source of the “surreal experience” in AfroSurrealism, Spencer writes, is often “unclear; in the narrative, a strange or nightmarish experience could be explained as the result of trauma, the supernatural, or an unjust society.” But displacement is also expressed in direct disruptions of time—both in narratives themselves and in cultural signifiers (styles and modes of writing, expression, etc.)—as Spencer outlines in her discussion of Mat Johnson’s Pym. In both time and space there is a hybridity, Spencer argues, in Black cultural artifacts.⁷ This echoes and parallels, as she notes in her discussion of Pym, W.E.B. DuBois’s double-consciousness theory.⁸
All surrealism rejects a teleology of progress—the crude notion that society is constantly progressing toward greater civilization and rationality. For the European Surrealists this anti-teleology was bound up in their disgust at the world wars.
The racist location of the Black as “primitive” and the White as “civilized” presents layers of problems for artists and writers who aim to reject European and White “civilization” and aim to celebrate art and literature wrongly called “primitive.”⁹ Many AfroSurrealists—like other irrealists—reject the binary opposition of “magic” and “science.” However, many of the European Romantics (from which European Surrealism evolved) held a reductive celebratory view of nature and magic against science and technology. This was often born of an understandable antipathy toward industrialization and the horrific conditions that faced early industrial workers. The Romantics, however, in their criticisms of capitalism, broke both left and right. Some became supporters of reform, abolition, and universal suffrage, while others became reactionaries. As the philosopher Holly Lewis has pointed out, idealized celebrations of “nature” can easily have transphobic implications.
The repeated sabotaging of privileged locations (in space and time), the repeated disruption of temporal and geographic hierarchy, appears to be one strategy for escaping the teleological Catch-22. “Afrosurrealism opposes binaristic representations of science and magic,” Spencer argues, “while revealing the hybrid, complex, and sometimes contradictory dreams and desires of survivors in the Africa Diaspora.” This may echo, in a manner, the classic Surrealist call to use the “imaginary against the ‘real.’”¹⁰ But it is, by necessity, more than that. The “real,” for André Breton, was about the stultifying “realism” of bourgeois European society; a society that celebrated wealth as if it were virtue, and the next week’s balance sheet as if it were science. The “realism” in this case also includes a thousand sacrifices to colonization, racism, and imperialism. Moreover, the location (by White supremacy) of the Black as “primitive” and therefore closer to an unrefined “imagination” demands the negation (through art and literature) of these categories altogether.
Take the debates about Magical Realism, which Spencer references in her text, noting Wendy Faris’s observation that some see the genre as a “significant decolonizing style, permitting new voices and traditions to be heard within the mainstream” while it is “denigrated by others as a commodifying kind of primitivism.”¹¹ Spencer cites art historian Louis Tythacott on the contradictory relationship the early Surrealists had to the “cultural Other;” celebrating the “Other” in a way that was alien to the White supremacy of the time, but still finding it difficult “to escape the confines of Western thinking.”¹² In this way the early Surrealists, Tythacott argues, like the Romantics before them, sometimes fell into binary assumptions about the “primitive.” The actuality of the cultures (and persons) in question were obscured (or worse).
The racist location of the Black as “primitive” and the White as “civilized” presents layers of problems for artists and writers who aim to reject European and White “civilization” and aim to celebrate art and literature wrongly called “primitive.”⁹ Many AfroSurrealists—like other irrealists—reject the binary opposition of “magic” and “science.”
Part of the answer here is what the Indian artist Anupam Roy calls “the impossibility of representation.” The reason the early European Surrealists could not fully understand the phenomenological experience of non-White subjects was due to their lack of experience in how those persons actually experienced colonialism, racism, and so on, in conflict and negotiation with their constrained individual liberty, and pre-colonial histories. To their credit, the Surrealists supported the voices of Black surrealists in the movement. A multiplicity of voices is needed to adequately and collectively confront what Spencer describes as the hesitation “between dream and reality” where we can “find freedom in the uncertainty.”¹³ But this challenge is also answered within artworks and within stories themselves—as in the radical potential of the grotesque, which Spencer discusses in relationship to Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light and Chris Abani’s The Secret History of Las Vegas, and in the multiple pivots in time and space that recoup the liberty of the subject, what Spencer calls the “traumatic marvelous.”
There should now be little doubt that both Surrealism in general, and AfroSurrealism in particular, have been proven right. Progress has failed. As of writing there is an unchecked plague ravaging the United States. It takes burning down police stations to charge racist murderers for their crimes. Justice has to be wrestled from the hands of so-called progress. “Progress” is fine with millions of people needlessly dying.
To their credit, the Surrealists supported the voices of Black surrealists in the movement. A multiplicity of voices is needed to adequately and collectively confront what Spencer describes as the hesitation “between dream and reality” where we can “find freedom in the uncertainty.”
In this way, Rochelle Spencer’s AfroSurrealism: The African Diaspora’s Surrealist Fiction is a specific contribution to an important cultural genre and milieu. But it is also an argument for how to look at the world. It is particular. But it is also universal, or rather a central part of the potential for something that is both insurgent and universal; born in no small part from the genius of irrealist Black art and literature. Writing of Afrofuturism, Spencer notes:
“Afrofuturism shows how, in a postmodern world of virtual Facebook friends and online LinkedIN colleagues, W.E.B. DuBois’s ideas about double-consciousness apply to everyone, regardless of race and culture (albeit this self-awareness is asymmetrical due to asymmetrical power relationships). Today, we all experience shattered consciousness; we are, as DuBois has suggested, both highly reflective of our interior lives and cognizant of how the world views us.” [emphasis added] ¹⁴
Everyone is fragmented. Some are fragmented more than others. And some benefit from that fragmentation more than others. But in that maelstrom, the freedom and liberty of the subjective individual, the unique hands and minds, all still matter. Maybe more.