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Give me liberty, or give me Afrofuturism: Frank Miller’s dystopian America

Give me liberty, or give me Afrofuturism: Frank Miller’s dystopian America

A short-lived but popular collaboration between Frank Miller and Dave Gibbon titled Give me liberty raises the question of what Afrofuturism is. The four-part miniseries depicts the epic life of Martha Washington, a Black girl from the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing project in Chicago. She is born just as fictional president Erwin Rexall wins his first term in 1996. The series saw publication during the presidency of George H. W. Bush (1989-1993), a rare occasion when one of the USA’s two parties managed to win a third term.  Indeed, the post-Reagan America that was emerging triumphant from a decade of neoliberalism and following the collapse of the Soviet Union had an incumbent flavor. In the story, Rexall repeals the 22nd amendment that blocks re-election and then keeps winning them. But his victories come at a steep cost for the nation: every inaugural parade features an increasingly repressive cadre of security forces surrounding the presidential motorcade.

Life in Cabrini-Green is a microcosm of the American carceral state for Blacks that was enhanced during the Reagan years. The housing project is more of a jail than a home, with apartments that resemble prison cells and sleeping rooms filled with bunk beds. These conditions are no stranger to the immigrant families currently being detained at the border with Mexico either in the Trump or Biden administrations. After the police murder her father during a protest over harsh conditions at the housing project, and her self-defense killing of a bully who assassinated the only teacher who recognized her talents and tried to help her, Martha is institutionalized. But budget cuts enacted by President Rexall’s neoliberal policies close the hospital, and Martha is left homeless.

Mirroring the actual USA, the act of joining the armed forces in this dystopian version is one of the few economic opportunities afforded to minority youth from low-income backgrounds. Renamed PAX, the American army is still busy fighting a variety of wars around the world. Martha soon joins and is shipped to the Amazon Forest, the newest flashpoint of America’s never-ending war on something. PAX forces are fighting to protect the rainforest from cattle ranchers bent on destroying it to make room for more grazing land. The enemy consists of burger chains, and at this point, the dystopia verges on the satirical.

Meanwhile, the USA appears poised to fragment into a thousand different factions amid its growing contradictions. Threats turn to action, and soon America is mired in a Second Civil War, split among such factions as the beef-oriented Texan Republic and an autonomous indigenous territory in the Southwest, a European-style confederacy in New England, an anarcho-capitalist Manhattan at war with Brooklyn, and a biopolitical breakaway region in the Pacific Northwest ruled by a maniacal Surgeon General. Martha proves to be an almost superhuman soldier who plays a pivotal role in the emerging war. Despite this, she stays oppressed by an Italian-America officer who takes credit for her exploits. Nevertheless, Martha always survives whatever abuse is thrown at her. In a bildungsroman of sorts, she persists until maturity gives her enough agency to turn the tables on the world that seeks to nullify her.

Give me liberty is at its most sophisticated when dealing with political and ecological overtones, and surprisingly prophetic too, especially in light of the events of 2020 and early 2021. Miller imagined an ever-chaotic America rapidly spiraling out of control, unlike the managed decline attempted by President Barack Obama and now brought back by his VP. It also serves the usual dose of action scenes and gore for a teenage audience. But for CoFutures, we can dispense with the fighting and stick with the complex subtext of this graphic novel and ask: is this Afrofuturism? Does Give me liberty offer an empowering message, reconstitute the meaning of the past by proposing a better future, or expose the infrastructures of racial oppression? There is a fair amount of exposure in this work, but the result is mildly empowering at best. At one point, Martha and her Native American lover find themselves in an ecotopia of sorts hidden from the dystopian and disintegrating America. Modeled after Ernest Callenbach’s eponymous work from 1975, it ends up serving as yet another backdrop to the internecine clashes driving the narrative. The imaginative universe is subdued by violence as entertainment, resulting in an engaging but philosophically and ethically restrained work. As the story progresses, technology starts breaking down and Miller seems bent on vilifying the unionized workers who keep the imperial gears working. The leap of imagination only goes so far.

After 1998 and despite good sales, the character only returned in less inspired new installments and re-issues. The series’ title is key to understanding it, as it refers to a famous 1775 speech by American revolution leader Patrick Henry (Give me liberty, or give me death!). Martha herself shares the name of George Washington’s wife. At its heart, the series is more about the breakdown of the USA than Afrofuturism, and cannot escape dystopia. The last installment, published in 2007, features the death of Martha Washington in 2095. At the ripe age of 100, she has achieved almost saintly status, but the political situation has deteriorated beyond repair. We never understand precisely what is pursuing the freedom fighters amid the ruins in this decontextualized epilogue to Martha’s epic. In the end, there is only more death.

Raised by Wolves: colonial fantasies of moral ambiguity


Often, knowing what you shouldn’t be looking for can be as valuable as the opposite. The HBO series Raised by Wolves provides the perfect example, as the Ridley Scott-SF-industrial-complex keeps churning out ideas inspired by his earlier, more innovative works. The newest progeny, a dystopian tale of humans raised by androids, religious strife, and colonization, is rife for a CoFutures picking apart.

Spoiler alerts are damned: In the 22nd century, Earth was destroyed by war between believers and non-believers. Humanity is spreading out in search of new worlds, presumably to also obliterate them with war and attrition like the home planet.  An atheist scientist reprograms a highly advanced war android know as Necromancer to become an artificial mother to six mechanically assisted embryos, who are sent to the Earth-like world Kepler-22b in an impossibly small interstellar ship. Conveniently enough for our analysis, the producers picked South Africa as the primary shooting location. The Mithraic, a stand-in for Jesuits or the Templars, soon follow with their spaceship.

One wonders how such a technologically advanced civilization could not somewhat get along before destroying itself. Plausibility gets lost in the sophisticated art direction and careful acting of the series. We get plenty of androids splattering milk-like substances in place of blood and the usual trope of artificial intelligence going rogue due to human interference or reprogramming.

Acting and interpersonal relationships are the series’ strongest points. The nuclear family representing the last hope of human civilization serves as the backdrop for a compelling web of relationships, motivations, and responses that drives the narrative. But Raised by Wolves also has a clear colonialist mindset, one that researchers of science fiction indeed are acquainted with thanks to such authors as John Rieder.

Colonialism somewhat updated, let us be clear: the strong White android mother gets aided by a Black “service model” android. Meanwhile, the Mithraic androids are primarily black; the believers’ clothing and iconography strongly resemble Christianity. Following unexpected developments, they are reduced to a roving gang blinded by a superstitious faith, no more different than Cristopher Columbus or Hernán Cortéz rampaging through “virgin” lands. The challenges of surviving in an unforgiving, desert-like world of utter darkness after leaving a declining, war-torn homeland fit neatly with the overall context driving European colonialism and mass migration to the New World.

This aesthetically well-crafted series is problematic when viewed through the lens CoFutures is developing. This research project seeks to go beyond genre studies and understand how future fictions can help find solutions for the present. As a futuring strategy, Raised by Wolves does not help us with that mission precisely because it fails to offer a redeeming or innovative vision of the future. Enjoying a slick space melodrama is fun, but looking under its hood to understand how the engine works can be one strategy to understand that not all SF is futuring, and not all futuring is SF.

One could even argue that it is not science-fictional despite its use of conventions, given how little innovative it is. Humanity is destined to replay endlessly the same cycles of destruction and exploitation, so it goes because the future has been canceled, and one can only return to the past. From the opening sequence, in which a nursery rhyme juxtaposes scenes of nuclear explosions and post-apocalyptic landscapes that keep proving Susan Sontag’s thesis in “The Imagination of Disaster,” to the moral ambiguity of its characters, especially its terrifyingly nurturing Mother, Raised by Wolves may be in tune with its time, but not with the future.

Further reading:

Ehrlich, Lara. Allure of the Antihero. The Brink. http://www.bu.edu/articles/2016/anti-heroes/

Sontag, Susan. The Imagination of Disaster. Against interpretation and other essays. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York. 1966. https://americanfuturesiup.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/sontag-the-imagination-of-disaster.pdf