(Photo by Tony Abraham)
Rasheedah Phillips is fiercely engaged in a cross-dimensional struggle to reclaim her cultural identity from historically oppressive social systems.
It’s a battle 32-year-old Phillips fights on two seemingly opposite fronts: When the Community Legal Services attorney isn’t protecting low-income Philadelphians with the law, she’s moonlighting as a science fiction writer re-examining Blackness from a time warp.
Phillips is on the vanguard of that second front, a quantum dimension where time is cyclical and alternative futures can be realized simply by manipulating the fragments of a collective cultural memory.
It’s not as confusing as it sounds.
Regardless, it’s a very real concept for Phillips. The notion of a tapping into shared history — an unabridged cultural hivemind — serves as the general idea behind a way of life she’s coined Black Quantum Futurism.
The concept itself is influenced heavily by Afrofuturism, an artistic movement Phillips described as “mixing the past and present with the future” of Afrocentrism, unobstructed by the influence of Western culture; Phillips has authored a number of books and essays within the genre. Yet, Black Quantum Futurism is just as much influenced and fueled by Black sci-fi as it is the very real effects of poverty that Phillips watches her clients experience every day.
Black Quantum Futurism is just as much influenced and fueled by Black sci-fi as it is the very real effects of poverty that Phillips watches her clients experience every day.
Phillips is no stranger to those experiences. By age 14, the Trenton native was living in Philadelphia with her newborn daughter and ready to drop out of high school.
“My mom was a teen mother. I wanted to shift the cycle for my own child,” Phillips said. “That motivated me to go to college.”
Phillips graduated from Temple University in three years while simultaneously working and caring for her child. She decided to go to law school because she considered it a “guaranteed path to a career” — even though her true passion was literature.
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“I always wanted to be a writer or artist,” she said. “But as a young Black kid, I wasn’t told that was a possibility for me.”
After graduating from law school in 2008, Phillips landed a gig at CLS. Phillips was able to break out of the cycle of poverty. Many of her clients are not able to do the same.
“We see the same clients coming back to us again and again with the same issues,” she said. “I was really interested in thinking about Afrofuturism as a practical application to communities to help them envision their future selves.”
Phillips said she sees reflections of herself and her experiences in her clients, many of whom are Black women from Philadelphia’s marginalized neighborhoods. Their trauma isn’t something she can just “put away.”
“I live in these communities. I don’t separate [that feeling], and I feel an obligation to use whatever medium I can to work on these issues,” she said.
Those experiences have a tendency to make their way into Phillips’ writing. Afrofuturism, she said, is a medium for exploring poverty.
“I try to center the Black women in these stories, but also think about how these systems and institutions we’re a part of are like sci-fi,” she said. “They’re not even like sci-fi. They are sci-fi.”
To Phillips, who sees the effects of racial inequity firsthand every day, the line between reality and science-fiction continues to skew. To Phillips, who just landed a grant to implement a community futurism project in Sharswood, public interest law and Afrofuturism aren’t polar opposites at all.
In this fight, they’re two sides to the same sword.