Duaba Unenra: Black People Exist In The Past, Present AND Future

Duaba Unenra comes from a family of creators. He can trace his own career path back to teachers, architects, musicians and entrepreneurs. He attributes many of his creative impulses to his mother, who is a painter, tailor, and textile designer. It was in her reference books that he learned to read at an early age and began learning about African art and mythology.

“Where I’m from, culture and art is a technology we use to survive,” said Unenra. “There’s a western colonial idea of what culture is, this thing that is static that doesn’t change. As I started to appreciate my own heritage and culture more, I realized, none of the things that exist from the African continent in people’s museums are artifacts, they’re technology because we actually use these as tools to communicate across different dimensions to ancestors, to the spiritual entities that we talk to. We used it to work with the land, and we made them look beautiful.”

While he was in high school Unenra participated in a Pan-African Arts after-school program where he focused on theater performance, poetry, photography. Once he left home he got into the core of his current practice; a combination of writing short stories and cultural critiques, and creating graphic art forms.

Unenra calls himself a “culturesmith.” He says many of his ancestors were blacksmiths and iron workers that were seen as having ‘magic’ because they could take a vision from their head and transpose it onto a piece of metal and bring power out of it. He chooses to be called a culturesmith because he studies his own ancestral traditions and cultural practices and explores new ways to apply them to this current moment. He says he wants to make new practices and processes that are used by collectives of people.

Unenra got into graphic arts by designing logos, flyers and other graphics for different protests and social justice movements. That led him to creating Ki-Kala, a hieroglyphic writing system. “It’s a hieroglyphic system for Black folks that survived the middle passage,” explains Unenra. “I started to create that from my research into the Adinkra of the Akan folks in Ghana and different writing systems from Africa and Afro-diasporic communities in the Caribbean, South America and North America.”

‘Ki’ is a prefix across Bantu language that means language whereas ‘Kala’ is a root word across various other languages that originated in Africa that means black, among other things. Therefore Ki-Kala can literally translate to Black speech or Black language. The symbols are inspired by continental African aesthetics, along with African American graffiti.

A while back, Unenra hosted a workshop for young people out on the West coast to come together and make their own hieroglyphs. He believes that this practice is meant to be communal. Currently his Ki-Kala has 70 hieroglyphs whereas most languages have tens of thousands of words.  He hopes to share the practice with more people to create a usable language system.

Each symbol has a proverb that it stands for, that’s what connects it to the Adinkra back in Ghana. If you know the symbol and the proverb it connects to, then you can interpret the meaning. I’m also hoping that one thing that will happen is people would preserve like proverbs that have been shared within their community through participation in the making their own symbols.

Unenra is a self-proclaimed science fiction nerd. He loves stories about deep space and technology, and military sci-fi that explores what it is like to live in and resist fascist societies. He attributes his love of the genre in part to his Blackness, and also to his experiences in Louisiana during the aftermath Hurricane Katrina as a teenager.

“Being born Black in America, it’s already like the world has ended for you,” Unenra reflects. “You’re already in an apocalypse. The people that you belong to might not exist anymore. The place that you used to have a relationship with may not exist anymore and you can’t return to it. How do you pull your people back together again in the wake of this cataclysm?”

He recalls Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler which was published in 1993, set in Los Angeles in 2024. In the story, global warming has brought drought and rising seawater. The main character Lauren flees southern California and eventually creates her own religion rooted in the idea that “God is change.” Unenra was so moved by the protagonist that he thought to himself “This character in this book is creating her own spiritual system; what’s stopping us from creating our own styles of clothing, languages, and political systems?”

Another source of inspiration is Derek Bell, the lawyer that created Critical Law Studies which later morphed into Critical Race Theory. Central to Bell’s work was the question of how to use the law to uproot institutional racism.

“All of the theories were things that they were applying in court, and one of the things that he [Bell] realized was that racism may be a permanent condition of this nation, and the best way for me to illustrate that is to use science fiction,” Unenra says. Bell wrote parables set 10-15 years in the future to illustrate the ways that racism and oppression are made permanent in our society. Unenra was inspired to follow suit.

In his 2021 speculative fiction essay titled How We Stayed Free: Visions of a Future without Plantations, Prisons, Pipelines, and Killer Peace Officers, Unenra explores abolition, mutual aid and solidarity, as well as dependency on systems of oppression and the colonizer mentality. It’s set in 2040 in Minneapolis. In the story a grandparent talks with their grandchild about the 2020’s, a timeline shaped by the emergence of an abolitionist impulse and the deep desire for self-determination.

“We don’t need to go far into the future to see how messed up things are, and what could be done differently,”said Unenra. “I have a lot of respect for the genre, because it gives you a way to safely talk about the icebergs that you see the ship of your society about to crash into, and hopefully give people the tools that they need to get off the ship, steer in another direction or survive the crash.”

The United States is projected to be majority Black and brown folks by the mid-2040s; Unenra says not enough people are talking about what that’s going to be like and how we prepare for it. His speculative fiction explores those different strategies to see what it would look like if society fully committed to an abolitionist strategy and its unfolding.

Currently Unenra is working as part of a collaborative abolitionist project called REP (Relationships Evolving Possibilities), which was founded in 2020 amidst the uprising that occurred after the murder of George Floyd. It asks the question, ‘What if communities had their own emergency response systems? What would it be like?’

“Disasters and emergencies present this moment of opportunity when the world can be rebuilt in a dramatically different way, and often it isn’t, because we never know what it could have been,” Unenra emphasizes. “If we don’t know what it could have been or what we even want it to be, then it’s hard for us to fight for it while we’re reconstructing.”

Part of his speculative writing practice is also to articulate what it is that marginalized communities really want to build, so that they know how to fight for it better.

Unenra hopes to use the Springboard fellowship to continue work on creating a community-based emergency response curriculum that is informed by artists and culture workers. He said it will center cultural work while helping people through some of the most terrifying experiences in their lives.

“I imagine, and move towards a future where oppressed people who have been displaced from their ancestral land can have self-determination, autonomy and liberation,” Unenra states. “For me, that means, we have complete and total responsibility to take care of ourselves and make sure that we stay free.”

About the author: Chioma Uwagwu is a first-generation American of Nigerian heritage. Her writing and reporting has appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, Urban Creativity Scientific Journal, and the Racial Reckoning Project. She holds degrees in American Culture and Difference as well as Communication Studies from the University of St. Thomas.