Back to the AfroFuture

When the Black Panther movie was announced it sparked renewed interest in Afrofuturism. What is it? What are its characteristics? Is the Black Panther even a good example of Afrofuturism? Like all of the great debates of our time, the debate about Afrofuturism happened on social media: on the Elysian plane of reason and measured rhetoric that is Twitter.

The question, “Is Black Panther an example of Afrofuturism?” became “Should African-Americans be central to Afrofuturism?” Lines were summarily drawn on black Twitter. Author and scholar Dr. Nnedi Okorafor argued that Afrofuturism should be centered primarily on African creators as opposed to Black American creators. Author and activist Mikki Kendall argued that since Black Americans created the aesthetic, they should, in fact, be its central figures.

Author and educator Nalo Hopkinson moved the conversation from Twitter to her Patreon where she erected herself as an intermediary between the two factions. The problem, she suggested, may be with the term; it may not mean what it says it means.

I can give you a pedantic definition of Afrofuturism: it was created by academics after all and I learned about Afrofuturism in a graduate seminar. But what does it actually mean to the writers, artists, musicians, and thinkers who operate under its mantle? The term Afrofuturism was coined in 1993 by a white man, but the idea had existed long before that. Charles Chesnutt and W.E.B. Du Bois wrote short stories in the early 20th century that were proto-black science fiction if not strictly Afrofuturistic. In the 50s and 60s, the cultural aesthetic that is philosophy of Afrofuturism, gained prominence with the work of Sun Ra Arkestra and arguably, the Black Panther. Sun Ra’s film Space is the Place used Afrofuturism to imagine a space for Black people in the future.

George Clinton and his Parliment-Funkadelic Collective combined science fiction and funk immersed in this facet of black culture and its creative possibilities. They did not allow the realities of racism to stifle their creativity or allow their creativity to be limited by the supposed parameters of race.

Today, Janelle Monae draws inspiration from Afrofuturism and asks the question, “what is blackness?” She refuses to be limited. Her music exists in the intersection of imagination, technology, and liberation. She’s aware of her history but does not let her history limit her art. Monae often performs as her alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, an android from the future. “I speak about androids because I think the android represents the new ‘Other,’” Mayweather says. “You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman… What I want is for people who feel oppressed or feel like the ‘Other’ to connect with the music and to feel like, ‘She represents who I am.’”

Samuel Delaney and Octavia E. Butler became the godparents of Afrofuturism in literature, pioneering black science fiction in the mid to late 20th century, and forging a black literary identity that has endured.

Contemporary Afrofuturistic literature, however, is largely helmed by black women. In their work, these authors destabilize previous conceptions of blackness. In her book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, Ytasha L. Womack writes that “Afrofuturism as a movement itself may be the first in which black women creators are credited for the power of their imaginations and are equally represented as the face of the future and the shapers of the future.”

This year, a grand total of four young adult fantasy novels with black protagonists has or will be published. They’re fantasy novels, but are they afrofuturistic?

Afrofuturism is revolutionary in part because it should not be revolutionary. Science fiction, fantasy, and the peripheral genres thrive on imagination and while most genre films, books, stories are able to imagine worlds resplendent with orcs, fairies, elves, and dragons, they rarely ever represent people of color. In the media, with few exceptions, black people are servants or maids or criminals, and in mainstream fantasy we don’t exist at all. If we don’t exist in the past as anything but slaves and we don’t exist in the future at all, then where do we exist as free beings with our humanity intact? Afrofuturism may be that space.

To me, Afrofuturism defies normal boundaries of genre and subject. There’s so much to explore and find within Afrofuturism that any attempt to narrowly define who can and can not be included is a breathtaking waste of time. Afrofuturism imagines possibilities through a black lens, any black lens, and any attempts to qualify blackness only limit possibilities. Afrofuturism, Black Science Fiction, African Science Fiction…does it matter what we call it if, through it, we are liberated?