As Above, So Below: Space and Race in the Space Race / Black Quantum Futurism (Rasheedah Phillips and Camae Ayewa) 

Black Quantum Futurism (BQF) is a new approach to living and experiencing reality by way of the manipulation of space-time in order to see into possible futures, and/or collapse space-time into a desired future in order to bring about that future’s reality. This vision and practice derives its facets, tenets, and qualities from quantum physics and Black/African cultural traditions of consciousness, time, and space. Under a BQF intersectional time orientation, the past and future are not cut off from the present – both dimensions have influence over the whole of our lives, who we are and who we become at any particular point in space-time. Through various writing, music, film, visual art, and creative research projects, we also explore personal, cultural, familial, and communal cycles of experience, and solutions for transforming negative cycles into positive ones using artistic and wholistic methods of healing. Our work focuses on recovery, collection, and preservation of communal memories, histories, and stories.

We focus on North Philly as an active site of Black futurist liberation that has forged and reified its own temporality in the midst of hostile visions of the futures of the low-income, marginalized Black communities concentrated within its boundaries. In a recent BQF exhibition called “All Time is Local” we consider time’s intimate relationship to space and locality through a text, object, and video installation. Including select pieces from our Dismantling the Master’s Clock, Temporal Disruptors, and Black Space Agency series, the works meditate on the complex, contested temporal and spatial legacies of historical, liberatory Black futurist projects based primarily in North Philly. Some of these projects, like Progress Aerospace Enterprises, have been all but forgotten, while others still stand and persist, such as Progress Plaza, Berean Church, and Zion Gardens. Others still, like Berean Institute, have monuments at the sites where they once stood, while other monuments and murals commemorating these legacies have been covered or removed by luxury and student housing. In spite of the status of the physical remnants of many of these Black futurist projects, their implications stretch backward and forward in the Afrofuturist timescapes undergirding North Philly. It is a temporality that challenges exclusionary narratives of North Philly painting the residents in the area as complicit in their own poverty and disinvestment, and thus deserving of a gentrification that will wipe out the past and move the community into the future of the government’s visions. BQF works to recover and amplify the historical memory of these autonomous Black communal space-times embedded in North Philly.

One of the Black futurist projects we explore is Progress Aerospace Enterprises (PAE). Based in North Philadelphia during the 1960’s, Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, a civil rights leader and minister at Philadelphia’s Zion Baptist Church, established PAE days after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. PAE was one of the first Black-owned aerospace companies in the world. With the moon landing being seen as one of the ultimate milestones of progress of western society and a quintessential symbol of humankind’s arrival into “the future,” Sullivan stated in an interview that “when the first landing on the moon came, I wanted something there that a black man had made”.  PAE had strong connections to the Civil Rights and Black liberation movements, affordable housing, economic stability, the April 1968 passage of the Fair Housing Act, and the space race. Sullivan also founded the Zion Gardens Apartments affordable housing project with members of his church, purchasing the building from the owner after learning that Black applicants had been denied housing there based on their race. He also organized boycotts, workers’ strikes, and community police boards. With members of his church, he founded Progress Plaza (the first Black owned supermarket plaza that still exists today) Progress Garment Factory, Opportunities Industrialization Center, Inc., Zion Investment Association, and other innovative organizations and programs around the country and world. Throughout all of his organizations and at PAE in particular, Rev. Sullivan emphasized hiring of women and young, unskilled laborers and provided them with training opportunities and jobs in engineering and building parts for NASA and, controversially, weapons for war.

Although Rev. Sullivan was a controversial figure, critiqued by anti-capitalists and the more radical Black liberation movements in Philadelphia as being respectable and pro-cop, his futurist vision of progress in the Progress Movement was nonetheless inclusive and innovative for its time. His co-opting of the “progress” narrative and usage of the “future” in slogans were specific forms of temporal reclamation. As Helga Nowotny notes, “temporal control is symbolized by the idea of progress, of economic boom” [1]. Sullivan seemed to grasp the close associations between temporal control, sustainable Black communities existing within the American imperialist project, and the notion of linear progress well. The technology built at PAE and through other Rev. Sullivan projects seemingly allowed for a hacking into future histories where Black people had already been largely erased – such as in the space race – and helped to ensure our appearances in those histories as they play out on the linear, progressive timeline. Or, as Kodwo Eshun puts it, “chronopolitically speaking, these revisionist historicities may be understood as a series of powerful competing futures that infiltrate the present at different rates”[2].

During that decade, the Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements and space race would collide, with a lot of resistance to the space race from the Black community, such as the Poor People’s March at Cape Canaveral. Black leaders across wide and varying political stances from Martin Luther King Jr. to Eldridge Cleaver commented on the race to land on the moon, juxtaposed to the neocolonialism and urban renewal causing displacement of entire Black communities. In a 1966 speech Dr. King remarked that “there is a striking absurdity in committing billions to reach the moon where no people live…while the densely populated slums are allocated miniscule appropriations,” and ended his speech questioning “on what scale of values is this a program of progress?” MLK could not determine a sense of progress where Black people had not yet achieved racial justice and social equity. Reflecting on the archives of Black newspapers and magazines like Jet and Ebony, and even national news publications reveals widespread critiques of the lack of diversity in NASA employees, and the destruction and displacement of Black communities in order to build subsidized housing for NASA employees. Partly in response to such critiques, NASA created programs that designed and utilized spaceship materials in “urban” housing, as well as campaigns to increase diversity in hiring.

Meanwhile, destruction, segregation, and displacement of Black communities across the United States (the space race on the ground) led to riots and uprisings around the country during the 1960’s, including North Philly. Columbia Avenue, now known as Cecil B. Moore Avenue after the late Philadelphia civil rights attorney and activist, was the site of race riots and uprisings in 1964 that destroyed a once vibrant, multiethnic community with a strong economic base – the reverberations of which continue to echo throughout that community in 2019. In present day, gentrification, racialized segregation, and targeted disinvestment has disrupted the landscape, vibrancy, and texture of the neighborhood, forcing its memories and residents to the edges of the city.

Housing and cultural displacement are usually framed in terms of spatial inequality and displacement or erasure from location. However, hierarchies of time, inequitable time distribution, and uneven access to safe and healthy futures inform intergenerational poverty in marginalized communities in some of the same ways that monetary wealth passes between generations in privileged communities. Sociologist Jeremy Rifkin says that “temporal deprivation is built into the time frame of every society,” where people living in poverty are “temporally poor as well as materially poor”[3]. Inevitably, marginalized Black communities are disproportionately impacted by both material, spatial, and temporal inequalities in a linear progressive society. The implications of time and of space in gentrification, displacement, and redevelopment are integrated into the pre-established temporal dynamics of the impacted community, layered over and within the communal historical memory and the shared idea of the future(s) of that community. Nested within those layers are individual, subjective temporalities and the lived realities of the residents, often at odds with the linear, mechanical model of time on which their external spatial-temporal constructs are etched.

But as Giordano Nanni points out, “time has long played a role as one of the channels through which defiance towards established order can be manifested”. [4] By exploiting those temporal tensions, there are several opportunities to develop practical strategies for achieving Black temporal autonomy and spatial agency. Some of these strategies include unearthing afro/retrofuturist technologies and quantum time capsules buried by our forebears.

 

[1] Nowotny, Helga, Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience, Polity, 1996

[2] Eshun, Kodwo, Further Considerations on Afrofuturism, The New Centennial Review, Volume 3, Number 2, Summer 2003, pp. 287-302

[3] Rifkin, Jeremy, Time Wars: The Primary Conflict in Human History, Touchstone Books, 1989

[4] Giordano, Nanni, The Colonisation of Time (Studies in Imperialism), Manchester University Press, 2015