Essay written by 2007 DPDF Visual Culture Fellow Ramzi Fawaz, featured in Callaloo, Volume 35, No. 4:
Outer space is not based upon highness. Space is not only high, it’s low. It’s the bottomless pit. There’s no end to it.
Space is the Place
Where are you from? You look like you might be from the South—no way I’m going back there . . . Sometimes I feel I have been taken for a slave up here, you know they have ‘em. White slaves. Arabs, like a whole ‘nother world up there, whole ‘nother planet.
—Bernice, The Brother from Another Planet
What makes you think they’re gonna care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass-end of space?
—Ellen Ripley, Alien
What are the conditions under which the meanings attached to the idea of “going up” might become confused with those attached to the process of “going down”? How do notions of upward mobility become associated with physical orientations to the sky, to the stars, to the reaches of outer space? What might it mean to find oneself at the bottom—economically, socially, physically—just at the moment one appears to be traveling up, up, and away? Does it involve the process of crashing down from on high, or might highness itself be a “bottomless pit”? These are the kinds of questions that trouble racial narratives of planetary exile, stories that are a frequent concern of American Afrofuturist cinema in its attempts to address “’African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture’ . . . to explore how people of color negotiate life in a technology intensive world” (Mark Dery qtd. in Yaszek 42). Doubly indebted to Marcus Garvey’s “back to Africa” movement in the early-twentieth century, and the colonial vision of national expansion into space promulgated by American astrofuturism, the tale of planetary exile narrates the possibilities that lie in the willful relocation of African Americans (and often their diasporic counterparts) to outer space. Such a journey is often depicted as the search for another planet on which to produce a culture free of the racism, genocidal mania, and hierarchical economic systems advanced by Eurocentrism and Western imperialism.
This article tracks the evolution of the trope of planetary exile in a series of Afrofuturist and science fiction films that bookend the rise of Black Nationalism and a US Third World Left in the early 1970s and the neoconservative backlash against the legacy of Civil Rights and the welfare state in the early 1990s (Young 3–5). I argue that the racially motivated flight to outerspace worked to resignify the meanings attached to diasporic identity by articulating the “blackness” of space to Black and African American cultural identity; in turn, outerspace itself was reframed as a generative discursive ground for producing previously unimaginable alliances between a variety of subjects who shared the experience of abjection and social exile on the basis of cultural or biological difference. To engage such a project, Afrofuturist films reinterpreted the relationship between humanity and the cosmos outside the limits of imperial technological progress, depicting diaspora as an act of collective agency and world-making, rather than the enforced migration of colonial expansion.
Despite encompassing a wide variety of cinematic projects that generatively speak to the narrative of planetary exile, three films stand as unique markers of the evolution of this trope in the latter half of the twentieth century. In Sun Ra’s magisterial utopian vision, Space is the Place (1974), John Sayles’s urban exploration The Brother from Another Planet (1984), and David Fincher’s prophetic future-gothic Alien (1992), we see three highly divergent, yet remarkably linked, Afrofuturist projects that consider what kinds of bodies and objects might be oriented towards one another when planetary exile becomes a common goal amongst unlikely allies coded abject or Other by their race, gender, class, sexuality, or ability. Across the creative span between Space is the Place in 1974 and Alien3 in the early 1990s, I explore how the trope of planetary exile evolved from its original grounding in an ideology of racial uplift, to a collective embrace of cultural abjection and an abandonment of the very idea of “uplift” as such.