How We Got Here

Author's Note

by B. Brian Foster

What if you came across a collection of notes from family members past—notes on how your family came to be; notes on some of the cultural traditions that they built over the years; notes that seem somehow dated, out of time, and to the future?

That is the idea that motivated “How We Got Here.” The essay is rendered as a collection of notes from various members of my family. The first note is from my great-great granddaddy Robert Foster, Jr., born in a small town in Alabama in 1887. The second note is from his son—”Q,” my great uncle—born in 1923, after my family fled Alabama for Mississippi. The third note is from Q’s son, Arthur, born in 1954. And the fourth note is from me.

To understand the significance of this progression, you should know a little about the genre and method that motivated the essay: afrofuturism.

. . .

In the 1994 essay, Black to the Future, Mark Dery comments on the scarcity of black writers in science fiction spaces. “It is especially perplexing,” he writes, “in light of the fact that African Americans, in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees; they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done; and technology is too often brought to bear on black bodies.”

In the essay, Dery goes on to coin the term “Afro-futurism”—a genre and method of representation that “treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth century technoculture” (p. 180).

Since “Black to the Future,” a number of critics, scholars, writers, and creatives have fleshed out a rendering of afrofuturism that (1) spans art spaces, academe, fiction, film, music, and politics; (2) is typically (re)presented as, in, and through themes like alienation, water, Egyptian and non-western mythologies, mysticism and magical realism, afrocentricity, modern technology, and otherwordly aesthetics. Most fundamentally, afrofuturism (3) turns on the idea of imagining and imagination. Dery captures this final point with a question: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” [180]

. . .

Which brings us back to this essay. I’m doing some imagining here, but not about the details of the story. This is a work of nonfiction. I spent about six weeks talking with nearly two dozen family members, reading and reviewing dozens of items from family archives and old newspapers, and visiting each of the places referenced—the town in Alabama; Plantersville, MS; and my hometown of Shannon. The thing that I am imagining is time. The first three notes suggest that the temporality of the notes are, generally:

From: some time in the past
To: some person in the future

The fourth note, written in my own voice, suggests something else—that these are, in fact, notes from the past and present, directed to some unspecified person in the unspecified future. That distinction makes the point of the essay: black southerners are not struggling to imagine possible futures. They are them; and they became so through practice and work, and despite the ever-present possibility of violence, death, and erasure.

So much of the practice and work that have allowed black folks from the past to make it to the future have involved food—killing, cleaning, preserving, preparing, and eating food. Not only does each section of the essay represent a different narrator, but it also represents a progression through each step of the tradition of hog slaughtering. In the first note, Robert gives us the lay of the land, literally. He takes us from Alabama to “Plants’ville” and from Plantersville to Shannon, and from Shannon to the land where my family has lived for seven generations and counting. In the second note, Robert’s son Q narrates the first steps of hog slaughtering: killing the hog, removing the hair, gutting the hog, and having the women of the family clean the intestines and other innards. In the third note, Q’s son Arthur narrates the process of cutting various parts from the hog, making “cracklins” and lard, and cooking some small parts (e.g., the kidneys or liver) to eat on the spot. The scenes that Arthur narrates are pictured in a collection of photos from my family archive. Finally, in the fourth note, I highlight the use of the smokehouse, where some parts of the hog—like the ham, bacon, and sometimes the ribs—were cured.

There is a lot more going on in the essay: some references and sampling; some subversion; a second, subaltern story; and a conversation. I would explain those, but sometimes it’s best to quit before you stop.

B. Brian Foster is a writer and storyteller from Mississippi whose first book, I Don’t Like the Blues: Race, Place, and the Backbeat of Black Life is forthcoming from UNC Press in December 2020. He works as an assistant professor of sociology and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.