The Postapocalyptic Black Female Imagination, by Maxine Lavon Montgomery
Reviewed by Sladja Blazan
Bard College Berlin
Review of Maxine Lavon Montgomery’s The Postapocalyptic Black Female Imagination, Bloomsbury, 2021. 192pp. Hardcover (ISBN-13: 978-1350124509). Kindle (ASIN: B093VZ7CSW).
Maxine Lavon Montgomery’s The Postapocalyptic Black Female Imagination opens with a description of the cover of a record by the British Afro-Punk musician Ebony Bones, in which the singer is riding an upside-down white horse with a crystal ball in her hands. In this image, Montgomery recognizes “the biblical end-of-times” (2), which is to exemplify the current popularity of postapocalypticism not only in music but also among “authors, visual artists, filmmakers, moviegoers, superhero comic book fans, as well as literary and cultural critics worldwide” (2). Apocalyptic and particularly post-apocalyptic scenarios are, indeed, enjoying significant popularity. The Postapocalyptic Black Female Imagination inscribes itself in the growing discourse concerning end-of-the-world scenarios with a specific focus on the “manner in which a non-hegemonic positioning transforms representations of futurity in distinctive ways” (2). As such, it is an important intervention into an ongoing discussion that has not yet paid enough attention to non-occidental apocalyptic traditions. Montgomery corrects this omission by drawing from the enormously rich Black culture relating to the fantastic.
The book consists of five chapters. The first chapter offers an overview of the aesthetics of the Black female fantastic, presented as a vehicle to accessing power. The second chapter focuses on Black girlhood and the coming-of-age narrative in Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling (2005), and Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light (2013). The third chapter is organized around the notion of “queering” the New World in Michelle Cliff ’s Abeng (1985) and No Telephone to Heaven (1987). “Queerness” in Montgomery’s reading is shifted into the center of emergent reconfigurations of “Black subjectivity” that exists apart from white, male, middle-class, cis-gendered norms. The fourth chapter moves on to what Montgomery terms “unzombifying Blackness” in Erna Brodber’s Myal (1988) and Gloria Naylor’s Bailey’s Café (1992). In this chapter, the author interprets “zombie-ism” as a cultural metaphor for “border subjectivities” that the protagonists of the analyzed texts manage to escape. Un-zombifying therefore is presented as an oppositional strategy of resistance. To conclude, the last chapter looks into the trope of the broken romance as an apocalyptic scenario in Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby (1981), Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (2011), and Beyonce’s Lemonade (2016): focusing mainly on literature, the study spans a dramaturgical bracket from music in the opening pages to a reading of Beyonce’s music album at the book’s end.
While some of the examples, such as Butler’s Fledgling, are obvious, others are less predictable or straightforward additions to the discussion, bringing novel interpretations and perspectives on the topic. For example, Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light at first sight does not relate to the eschatological trope of postapocalypticism. Yet, once it is understood that Montgomery’s notion of the apocalypse departs from the Judeo-Christian paradigm, calling for a recognition of not-yet-acknowledged postapocalyptic scenarios such as those that attend to genocide and slavery that resulted from colonization and imperialism, Danticat’s novel becomes a revealing postapocalyptic narrative that fully exposes the ethics of exclusion that—as Sylvia Wynter and others have pointed out—engineered this moment in time when we think about our self-made extinction. Giving the concept a different framework enables Montgomery to highlight ways in which the speculative genre can be put into the service of rethinking history and recoding seemingly firm identity structures.
Montgomery, a professor of English at Florida State University, is not new to the topic. In her first monograph, The Apocalypse in African American Fiction (1996), she presented an Afrocentric analysis of the classic trope of apocalypse. The Postapocalyptic Black Female Imagination can be understood as a continuation of this work, but with a focus given more to the possible futures conceived in apocalypse. It is a study of speculative futures born through cataclysm. Refreshingly, the study does not dwell on the familiar dichotomies—natural vs artificial, human vs nonhuman, or control vs chaos. Instead, it discusses the necessity to collapse the boundary between history and the future.
One of the strongest of the arguments in the book is that “Black women’s postapocalyptic imaginaries” do not only address the experience of BIPOC but also transform the “representation of futurity” in their “non-hegemonic positioning” (Montgomery 2). This argument could have been taken further. The premise that Black women necessarily “deploy fantasy and the fantastic as a means of social critique and in a manner reflecting the cultural history of the group as a whole” cannot, for example, do justice to the rich history of Afrofuturism (Montgomery 3), a genre that often breaks the limitations of representation even within the confines of postapocalypticism. It is perhaps because of her insistence on the collective that Montgomery asks her readers to recognize “the utility of reading Black women’s postapocalypticism as an unacknowledged subgenre of science fiction” (4). Yet, Montgomery’s perspective is not genealogical. Hers is a focus on current narratives and transformative potentialities of the post-apocalyptic moment. Rather than a subgenre, postapocalypticism is a prominent element that keeps resurfacing in the “Black female imagination” as a framework for reconstructing and redefining history and reconstituting fluidity and indeterminacy. In this way, it discards hegemonic control, as exposed in the detailed readings of the literary narratives in this study. The book’s preoccupation with transformative moments that ensue in moments of crisis and ways in which “the postapocalyptic Black female imagination” enables historical reclamation is important. Given the need for revising history for purposes of constructing sustainable and just futurities, we can only hope that Montgomery is going to continue with her important interventions into who gets to imagine the future and for what purposes.
-28 July 2022