Black Kirby NOW: An Interview with John Jennings

An Afrocentric future is born out of the inspiration and aspiration of a growing African diaspora. Of course, this promising future is a reflection of a troubled past and contested present.

John Jennings, Associate Professor of Visual Studies, and Stacey “Blackstar” Robinson comprise the collaborative entity that is “Black Kirby”. The project is an exploration of legendary comic creator Jack Kirby’s work through an Afrofuturism lens. A term coined by writer Mark Dery in 1994, Afrofuturism describes a genre that infuses African Diaspora sensibilities into science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism frameworks. The resulting creative work explores a pan-Africanism rooted in future realities.

With roots in the political and social tumult of the 1970s, the first stirrings of Afrofuturism are linked to musical artist such as Sun Ra and to a lesser extent George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic. In reality the broader contours of an imagined future free from contemporary limitation allow us to consider deeper historical roots to Afrofuturism. W.E.B. Dubois’ 1920 short story “The Comet,” which tells the story of a black bank messenger who emerges from bank vault to discover he and the beautiful daughter of wealthy business man are the only people alive after poisonous gas from the comet’s tail kills the entire city, is perhaps the first example of Afrocentric science fiction. Hinting at the taboo subject of miscegenation, Dubois’ story suggests possibilities unthinkable in the public consciousness. In a similar vein, Zora Neale Hurston’s work celebrating African American folk culture in works such as Mules and Men leverage tall tales and legend to validate an African-American culture obfuscated by white society. By exploring the fantastic, Hurston created a context to understand the black experience.

Afrofuturism, then, offers a space for artists, academic, critics, and activist to explore the cultural tension around a future state whereby economic, social, and political anxieties linked to the African Diaspora will be resolved. Seen in this light, the 1970s origin resonates with the U.S. domestic experience of African-American grasping political and economic power in the wake of 1960s liberal activism and global realignment out of the postcolonial reorganization on the African continent.

An Afrocentric future is born out of the inspiration and aspiration of a growing African diaspora. Of course, this promising future is a reflection of a troubled past and contested present. Forever linked to a narratology of a past reclaimed and a present contested, the “future” becomes what Hayden White described as “a realization of projects performed by past human agents and a determination of a field of possible projects to be realized by living agents…”4 Afrofuturism sketches the boundaries in a manner that calls into question the status quo and hints at future realities. Within Afrofuturism, assumptions about imperialism, postcolonialism, globalization, identity and culture can be interrogated. With these issues in mind, I reached out to John Jennings to explore the inspiration and meaning behind Black Kirby.

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Your work has been described as Afrofuturist. What do you think of that label?

John Jennings: Even though I sometimes have issues with the pre-fix “Afro” futurism, I embrace that label. I think it’s positions the work in a historical context and also keys into a collection of themes that artists who work in this vein seem to be attracted to.

In some circles, Afrofuturism is seen as resonating with the African-American experience as either outsiders or exemplars in the white mainstream. Afrofuturism, they argue, lets African-Americans (and others) make sense of the world. What are you trying to make sense of with Black Kirby?

JJ: I wonder if it’s more in line with “creating” a new world instead of making sense of this one. I think we, as Black people, have a pretty decent grasp of reality. What we are just now getting to understand is that we need a space of play, speculation, and imagination. I think that’s where the notion of a space of agency exists is vital. Sun Ra was very concerned with other realities. You can see that from his film and album called “Space is the Place”. He was dreaming of a future/fantasy space of freedom. So, I think that these notions of a realm where Black folk have a place is something that the Afrofuturistic or Black Speculative project is engaged with.

I also feel that Afrofuturism is engaged with a “pan technological” viewpoint. It sees everything as a type of technology that can be hacked into, decoded, and made to function for new agenda. This includes, race, religion, gender etc.

Traditionally, I think Afrofuturism is assumed to open a door to new ways of thinking and seeing that liberates racial minorities to “be”______(fill in the blank). Black Kirby seems to blur this idea by fusing old and new. Is this a deliberate rethinking of Afrofuturism?

JJ: “liminal”. Usually people who are minorities are stereotyped and forced to live inside of that tiny little box of identity. Then, historically, public policies have been put into place to police that box. The speculative space allows minorities to imagine another self that is in another space and by doing so provides a release from that box.

I think that Afrofuturism has always been about the idea of “sankofa”; reaching back and getting the past and bringing it forward. The very idea of that is magical or sci-fi.

So, it’s not necessarily a rethinking in my opinion. It’s an uncovering of ancient ways of moving through the world but filtered through the metaphors of speculative thinking. Black Kirby is just the scion of a fusion of different creative practices that we have been undertaking for generations.

Clearly Black Kirby is linked to U.S. superhero genre through Jack Kirby. Yet, we know questions about lack of diversity in superhero comics loom large. Are you hoping to inspire superhero comic fans and creators with Black Kirby?

JJ: Black Kirby is both a celebration of the superhero genre and also a critique. It is basically signifying on the name of Jack Kirby as a jumping off point to discuss the lack of diversity in the superhero genre, deal with making historical connections, and investigate new ways of making meaning by fusing various modes of production found in numerous pop culture artifacts. Black Kirby is just as much Hip Hop as it is comics culture, sci-fi, or postmodern.

Some of your statements about Black Kirby have reference creator’s rights. I think of this having powerful intersections with the black experience. Am I reading too much into your work or do you see Black Kirby resonating with this issue?

JJ: Creator’s rights is definitely something that we (Stacey and myself) are concerned with. We are both advocates for free expression in the medium and are both seasoned independent publishers. Jack Kirby’s contributions to our culture is immeasurable. We felt insulted that Disney wouldn’t see fit to share their bountiful profits with his family. It’s just another example of how capitalism, as a religion, reshapes all aspects of morality when it comes to valuing what is actually important in our society.

Black Kirby acknowledges some of the symbolic parallels inherent in Kirby’s original work (Magneto is Malcolm X and Martin Luther King as Professor X) while at the same time some of the images use iconic figures from Black history in Kirby’s fantastic world. Can you talk about your thinking in reflecting, refracting or refuting these parallels?

JJ: That symbolism was a retcon. It wasn’t that apparent in the original stories that Kirby and Lee did. Magneto was just another would-be ruler. The fact that he was a Jewish concentration camp survivor was added much later in the character’s background. It’s that idea of representation and re-presentation that Black Kirby is concerned with. Again, we are using that creative space as a way to critique the narrative and make some of those connections more apparent between the Jewish American story and the Black American story. Black Kirby deals with how both peoples have used the comics page as a space of survival and resistance.