He says “good morning” to me most days from the apartment stoop he frequently sits upon, sometimes as early as 7 am, but most often I see him on a hoverboard. Traversing the space of our apartment complex ethereally, wearing a thin padded black backpack close to his back, black shades, and diamonds in his ears.
“Every time I see you, you look like a superhero” I said to him one day beginning a long sequence of utterances bringing us closer in meaningful ways in which I learned more than I was expecting about the black male body and soul.
On August 22nd, 2015 rapper Wiz Khalifa, while traveling through customs in Los Angeles, CA, was tackled by 3 police officers for his legal use of a new technology, a hoverboard. The film taken of the incident reveals the arresting officers screaming “stop resisting” while Khalifa simply said “I’m not resisting, I’m doin’ what I want.” After the fact, once Khalifa was asked why he refused to get off his hoverboard he declared “I stand for our generation and our generation is gonna be riding hover boards so if you don’t like it eat a dick!” Hall and others describe the conservative view of human nature and crime as an assumption that all people have within them something evil and only through ‘whiteness’ can we truly defeat it (Hall et al., 1978, p 166–167). In order to build him up into a body worth caring for, and strip him of the evil they believe is within him that he is naturally unable to strip himself due to his blackness, they begin by making certain cultural artifacts illegal in certain spaces, and create stereotypes surrounding black men and hoverboards stating “Black men are so lazy they don’t even want to walk anymore.” When worthiness is understood as an ideological status to be assigned to certain bodies, withholding that status reveals itself as an act of dehumanization. Using a hoverboard, then, could be a “demand for recognition of one’s worth as fully human, rejecting the imposition of the alienation that antiblackness imposes” (Browne, 2015, p. 143).
English suggest that Afrofuturism is “African American cultural production and political theory that imagine less constrained black subjectivity in the future and that produce a profound critique of current social, racial, and economic orders” (English, 2013, p. 217). That said, while perhaps believing Afrofuturism to be a way of engaging in what he considers to be a “counter-memory” or belief in a possible “counter-future,” Eshun reminds us that this way of studying, and representing of the past and future was and still is often “looked upon with suspicion, wariness, and hostility” (Eshun, 2003, p. 288). Drawing from Dery’s definition of Afrofuturism as African American signification of modern Technoculture I share a story of a friend to highlight the ways in which the everyday cultural practice of Hoverboarding invites us to think about who can occupy public space, as well as how young black men are using hoverboards as a way to resist common notions of who is allowed to use certain technologies and for what purpose.
“I heard hoverboards explode” I said to him as I walked passed, my arms full of grocery bags.
“I know, but I have to learn all the tricks before I have to stop,” he responded whilst taking a few bags off my arms to help bring them to my apartment, zipping around me skillfully on his hoverboard.
Back to the Future, the film trilogy that displayed a young white male stealing the invention of rock and roll from black Americans, rewriting history in favor of whites, brought into public consciousness the idea of the hoverboard, a futuristic invention with the ability to help people travel from place to place, hovering just above the Earth, without ever touching the ground (Dery, 1994). A piece of futuristic technology with rigid boundaries, some bodies can use, while others cannot. I argue here that young black men use hoverboards as a sign of resistance, a way to float themselves into the future, by their own choice, and under their own terms despite the inflexible ways they are permitted to move through public and private spaces, the speed and ease in which they are not allowed to progress into the future, and the way they are expected to contribute to a capitalist society. Lastly, I will address how the hoverboard, as an extension of the black male body, eludes to a fear of black men progressing too quickly and in ways the dominant culture may not understand or feel comfortable with or, “freedom achieved through the technological” (English, 2013, p. 222). I wonder if some believe the widespread use of hoverboards by young black men may be a sign of unexpected and uncomfortable change and transcendence for black men.
I opened my car door to hear the sound of my cell phone hitting the ground and the engine of his hoverboard abruptly approaching to pick it up for me. His feet never touched the ground. He wiped the gravel off the screen and checked for scratches.
“How ya doin, sweetie?” He had grown accustomed to calling me “sweetie” because up until this point we hadn’t exchanged names, or any other intimate information. I asked him his name and he made a face alluding to me that he doesn’t often get asked that question and is unsure how to answer.
“I’ll tell you what. I will tell you my real name but you cannot tell anyone. You can’t trust anyone. Even the people you trust you can’t trust. Okay? My name is Ramone.” He whispered all this as we stood within 5 inches of each other, every once in a while bouncing backward then forward again on his hoverboard. This marks the first of several intimate moments communicatively between me and Ramone.
I learned then that we were both born within the same week in the same year, that he has a daughter living in Jamaica, and that he is known as “Dread” in the neighborhood due to the fact that he is Jamaican and illegally sells weed, putting him in a position where he doesn’t want too many people to know his real name. In that moment I was given a responsibility, and his trust, that I continue to take seriously. He learned, and still remembers, that I study communication and consider myself a writer. When he introduces me he always says, “This is Amber. She’s a writer” almost as if he is proud to know me.
“Speculative fiction that treats African American themes and addresses African American concerns in the context of twentieth century Technoculture — and more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future — might, for want of a better term, be called Afrofuturism (Dery, p. 180).”
Afrofuturism explores time-space travel to provide a counter narrative for whitewashed histories and futures. Popular culture is a site where black futures are imagined. For example, George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, in the 1970s, coined the phrase “Mothership Connection” as a way to bring together African Americans in solidarity of a shared desire for a new land and future “light years in time ahead of our time” promoting a kind of otherworldliness and encouragement to reclaim a sense of identity free from expectation (English, 2013, p. 217–218). English then suggests this place of transcendence as “an alternative space and time for unadulterated (uncut) blackness and black joy” to “revolutionize [their] lives and find a way out” (English, 2013, p. 220, 223). The hoverboard can be looked at the same way Harries looks at dub, or Sun Ra’s Ark, as “a spacecraft leaving earth for other worlds” (Harries, 2015, p. 48). What can also be likened to hoverboards is Sun Ra’s obsession with flight that has been equated to “lightness” or a sense of weightlessness. He claims “being light is a refusal of the limitations of what is considered human. . . . To be light, to be able to fly away, is to be able to imagine something beyond what we see” (Harries, 2015, p. 50). Harries reminds us that Ra’s goal must have been to promote “lift” or defy gravity (Harries, 2015, p. 51).
Law enforcement parked their cars just outside my apartment building for several days. Though I wasn’t sure why I did notice I didn’t see Ramone throughout that time frame. I began to think he had been arrested and wondered if I would see him again. I never stopped looking for him until many days later when I saw him, walking. I never saw Ramone with a hoverboard again after that.
Because Ramone’s body is marked as intrinsically criminal, existing independently of a system of law and order he is posited as a Folk Devil, an intrinsically criminal entity constructed in opposition to morality and law-abiding society, “arising from the breakdown of social order” (Hall et al., 1978, p. 160). Browne illuminates the ideas of body, racialized space and power as a way to bring to light the ways in which black bodies, their memories, experience, and what Browne refers to as “racial baggage” was and still is ignored, all the while taken advantage of in public spaces. Browne in “What did TSA find in Solange’s Fro” (2015) tells us about “racial baggage” held only by black bodies in liminal spaces of travel, and the ways in which this baggage profiles, surveils, and weighs down some, while others “travel lightly” free from the scrutiny, mistrust, and public humiliation that comes with their body in that particular space. She suggest this mistrust of the black body keeps them stuck in time, unable to move forward. Put simply she writes that “the weight of race is at once a racist weight” (p. 132).
Shaw, while describing Erykah Badu’s performance of her song “Window Seat” where she chose to walk through a busy street while methodically removing her clothing, suggests that black bodies are easily Othered in certain physical spaces and places where they are deemed to not naturally belong (Shaw, 2015, p. 47). Calling her performance a “public spectacle,” Shaw then suggests Badu was urging her audience to “question dominant ideologies” of how black bodies are allowed and not allowed to move through public spaces, and the consequences of certain behaviors deemed appropriate for some, and unacceptable for others (Shaw, 2015, p. 48). In this case, Badu is suggesting that spaces are “alterable terrains” where black bodies can reclaim for themselves the way in which they move about in the world (Shaw, 2015, p. 49). Lastly, Weheliye suggests that technology consequently creates a “haunting effect that aestheticizes surveillance practices” (Weheliye, 2002). All this to say, that perhaps the hoverboard allows for young black men to float through spaces prohibited to certain bodies, in haunting, ethereal ways, defying traditional rules of what it means to progress for particular people.
Deemed as “without religion and at the mercy of the “Devil” Black bodies were not seen as human, “right” or “noble” in their way of being in the world, by the dominant white, Christian ideology that bases what it means to be truly human on their own specific image (Mignolo, 2015, p. 108, 111). Similarly, Weheliye suggests that black bodies are deemed “beyond the grasp of human” and urges a re-articulation of race as a political and social construct and not that of biology or culture (Weheliye, 2014, p. 19). The intentional and political use of the hoverboard by young black men can relate to what English writes, of a black “bodily presence, palpable reality, political intentionality” that causes the black body to “shimmer with the aura of presence” (English, 2013, p. 218). Harries refers to the cyborg the way the musician Perry suggests, as “a machine being… indistinguishable” from the black human body, down to cellular levels (Harries, 2015, p. 47).
For Janelle Monáe, a renown and proclaimed Afrofuturist recording artist and performer, the future will indefinitely be overrun with what she refers to as “humanoid others” or “androids” who’s brains will be well more advanced than that of the human (English, 2013, p. 219). For Monáe, English, and Harries, this blending of human and machine is a positive step into the future, one to be embraced, while the dominant white culture may see this, and the use of hoverboards by young black men, as a threat. Lastly, Mignolo suggests there is a progression for the black body from African slave, to working class, to the current vision of black bodies as being considered a consumer in the capitalist culture (Mignolo, 2015, p. 112–113). Though the android can represent a figure out of this world, a representation of transcendence above and beyond current and historical circumstance, it too can and often does succumb to current consumer and capitalist habits and expectations (English, 2013, p. 225). Habits in this case being the purchasing of hoverboards, by bodies who are often assumed to be unable to contribute in these ways. The idea of a black body having the resources needed for such futuristic technology can be seen as unexpected, confusing, and threatening. Schor also discusses the important social implications of being a consumer — “class status is gained, lost, and reproduced based on your consumer behavior,” they are helping to maintain the very structures that promote power and inequality (Schor, 2000).
In ’The knockout game’: moral panic and the politics of white victimhood, the game is described culturally, politically, and through the media, as a mythical crisis consisting of young black men “jumping” white men randomly just for the fun of it. He calls this a ‘racialized moral panic’ that resulted in specific legislation just for instances of ‘the knockout’ game that were not in fact empirically proven to exist on any sort of statistical stand point. In other words, it wasn’t really a phenomenon at all, but the ensued panic was. The specific target in this instance were black male youth that which he described as “a readily available composite image” for the enemy of a moral society, and that this indeed is the core of the growth of white supremacy (2015). These moral panics that continue to ensue surrounding black bodies lead to fear of objects adorned or used by those bodies resulting in fake news headlines like “Black Teen Shot After Police Mistake Hoverboard for Machine Gun” as a possible foreshadowing of what these panics can lead to.
Just as Browne found that “a passenger’s clothing and appearance can mark her as either suspicious or a trusted traveler” (Browne, 2015, p. 142–143). In The Hoodie as Sign, Screen, Expectation, and Force, Nguyen does not hold back from describing in great detail the actions people make when viewing a certain item of clothing on a specific body, telling us the consequences of such a connection between assumed identity and clothing. She uses words like: ‘murder’, ‘creeping’, ‘lowered light’, and ‘a hundred heartbeats later’ helping us to experience, through words, what Trayvon experienced. She compares fabric to ‘flesh’ multiple times to get across to the reader the personification of clothing that causes certain bodies to be the targets of violence. Later proclaiming that his hoodie acted as witness of the atrocity, “blood stained…and flattened between two panes of glass.” It is through the aesthetics of vivid imagery and evocative wording that she is able to get her argument across. She puts the reader in the hoodie with Trayvon. You can feel the hundred heartbeats. You can hear the gun shot. You begin to feel empathy (2015).
“How are you today?” I asked Ramone before getting into my car one afternoon.
“Not good, actually.” He said through watery eyes, looking at the ground, not into my eyes the way he usually does. “My mom died yesterday.”
His speech began to get choppy as he attempted to detail the situation to me although I didn’t ask. I could tell he wanted to talk about it and I was there to listen.
“She’s squeezing my hand… she’s breathing from the breathing tube… I couldn’t stand seeing her that way… I can’t sit in my apartment because if I sit alone I’m just going to cry and cry… my friends are not letting me do anything so that I could get over this… when I was talking to her last she is just going ‘uh huh uh huh’… I knew something was wrong when they were calling me to tell me to go to the hospital… she could barely breathe… she died from cancer… I’m just weak, I can’t move, I can’t stand up… I’ll just sit there and ill cry… I’m just a weak body”
The next day as I walked to my car, Ramone ran toward me, “Hey, my mom’s service is this Friday. If you want to come when I get the information I can tell you.” He was looking at me in ways he hadn’t before.
“There is still life in the most extreme degradation…a form of life that begins where dignity ends” (Weheliye, 2014).
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