Is the Present Too Much? It’s a Good Time To Take Up Afrofuturism.

Marvel’s ‘Black Panther,’ Octavia Butler’s science fiction and Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ are all prime examples of this movement celebrating the Black experience.

In These Times EditorsApril 23, 2020

(Illustration by Terry LaBan)

Af•ro•fu•tur•ism

noun

1. a move­ment that imag­ines alter­nate real­i­ties and futures from a Black cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal perspective

“What Afrofuturism does is trouble the notion that time only moves in one direction.” —Eve Ewing, sociologist, poet, and visual artist from Chicago

How did this move­ment emerge?

Afro­fu­tur­ism responds to the sub­stan­tial absence of peo­ple of col­or in spec­u­la­tive art and fic­tion. As Ytasha L. Wom­ack writes in her 2013 book chron­i­cling the evo­lu­tion of Afro­fu­tur­ism in sci­ence fic­tion and fan­ta­sy, Even in the imag­i­nary future … peo­ple can’t fath­om a per­son of non-Euro descent.” Giv­en the role these gen­res now play in our col­lec­tive polit­i­cal and social imag­i­na­tion, Afro­fu­tur­ism offers a glimpse of a future with Black peo­ple not only present, but inhab­it­ing worlds where sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy speak direct­ly to the Black expe­ri­ence. The term itself wasn’t coined until the 1990s, but decades ear­li­er, Black artists had already begun fus­ing the tra­di­tions and cul­tures of the African dias­po­ra with sto­ries and imagery cen­tered on tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion and space explo­ration. Pio­neer­ing sci­ence fic­tion writer Octavia But­ler began pen­ning nov­els in the 1970s fea­tur­ing African Amer­i­can pro­tag­o­nists grap­pling with social hier­ar­chies, trau­ma and the lega­cy of slav­ery. Now, Ava DuVer­nay is report­ed­ly adapt­ing for tele­vi­sion Butler’s nov­el Dawn, about a Black woman res­ur­rect­ing the human race after nuclear fallout.

Is Marvel’s Black Pan­ther Afrofuturistic?

Yes, the com­ic book series and hit 2018 film is per­haps the most pop­u­lar exam­ple of Afro­fu­tur­ism. Utopi­an Wakan­da is based on an alter­na­tive his­to­ry of an imag­i­nary African nation. Hav­ing escaped col­o­niza­tion, Wakan­da devel­ops into the most tech­no­log­i­cal­ly advanced soci­ety in the world and must con­sid­er its respon­si­bil­i­ties to those out­side its bor­ders. But Afro­fu­tur­ism is hav­ing a huge pop cul­ture moment right now, too, from Janelle Monáe’s Metrop­o­lis albums (fea­tur­ing the singer’s android alter ego) to Beyoncé’s Lemon­ade.

Out­side of artis­tic medi­ums, what does Afro­fu­tur­ism look like?

As a phi­los­o­phy of his­to­ry and sci­ence, Afro­fu­tur­ism can actu­al­ly help unearth and re-envi­sion the past. The work of soci­ol­o­gist Alon­dra Nel­son, who research­es the inter­sec­tion of race with health and sci­ence, is often described as Afro­fu­tur­ist. Her 2016 book, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Repa­ra­tions and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion After the Genome, explores how genet­ic test­ing revealed new ori­gins and his­to­ries of enslaved Africans and their descen­dants. Some Afro­fu­tur­ists have empha­sized that race is itself a tech­nol­o­gy—a false nar­ra­tive deployed for cen­turies as a tool of oppres­sion and con­trol. Afro­fu­tur­ism opens the space to imag­ine what Black futures might look like out­side this his­to­ry of col­o­niza­tion and white supremacy.

This is part of The Big Idea,” a month­ly series offer­ing brief intro­duc­tions to pro­gres­sive the­o­ries, poli­cies, tools and strate­gies that can help us envi­sion a world beyond cap­i­tal­ism. For recent In These Times cov­er­age of lib­er­a­to­ry Black art and the pow­er of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion, see, Black Pan­ther Engages with Decades of Black Lib­er­a­to­ry The­o­ry — And Is Also a Great Movie,” The Cli­mate Cri­sis Is Mind-Bog­gling. That’s Why We Need Sci­ence Fic­tion,” and Sor­ry To Both­er You Is the Anti-Cap­i­tal­ist Black Com­e­dy We’ve Been Wait­ing For.”

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