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An Afrofuturist Reading of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

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This article examines Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man in light of recent thinking about Afrofuturism. As an international aesthetic movement concerned with the relations of science, technology, and race, Afrofuturism appropriates the narrative techniques of science fiction to put a black face on the future. In doing so, it combats those whitewashed visions of tomorrow generated by a global ‘futures industry' that equates blackness with the failure of progress and technological catastrophe. Although Ellison claimed that his novel was not science fiction, I propose that he none-the-less deploys a range of science fictional tropes and references throughout his work in ways that profoundly anticipate later Afrofuturist thinking about the future of black history and culture. In the novel proper, Ellison uses these tropes and references to signify a number of dystopic futures where blackness is technologically managed. However, the opening and closing scenes of Invisible Man hold forth the possibility of a different relationship between technology, race, and art: by hiding out under New York City and stealing electricity to power his turntables, Ellison's protagonist creates a space outside linear time where he can begin to rewire the relations between past and present and art and technology. In doing so, he becomes, however tentatively, the figurehead for a hopeful new Afrofuture.
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Keywords: Afrofuturism; Futures industry; History of the future; Invisible Man; Ralph Ellison; Science fiction

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2005

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