What draws me most to science fiction are the characters and how they can seem so relatable while inhabiting worlds so different from our own. Part of what makes characters compelling are their unique histories and outlooks on life. Afrofuturism is the African experience told through literature, visual arts, or music as liberation. The far future provides a place to explore African and African American culture without slavery, systemic inequality, or racism. It has produced musicians such as Sun Ra and George Clinton, and influential writers like Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany.
Afrofuturism is also the history and the future of African invention and innovation. Egypt created pyramids, written language, and wigs. Modern day African scientists have made advances in bioengineering, probability theory, and nuclear physics. Despite these accomplishments, popular opinion often recognizes black cultural achievements in music and art without recognizing scientific achievements. Afrofuturism emphasizes the breadth of black contributions to society.
Science Fiction studies possible futures from the lense of modern society. Some of my favorite speculative fiction is written by Afrofuturists: Parable of the Talents by Olivia Butler and Trouble on Triton by Samuel Delany. Triton explores various facets of a utopia within a libertarian government. Citizens of Triton can change their physical appearance, gender, and even their likes and dislikes. This allows the main character to explore a radically free society where you can have anything you want, and how this can lead to narcissism and discontent. Parable of the Talents is a deep study of society, race, slavery, and religious extremism in a post-apocalyptic America. Butler and Delany explore what race will mean in America’s future and come to very different conclusions.
My first introduction to Afrofuturism, before I had ever heard the term, was Janelle Monae. Monae is a funk, soul, and R&B singer from Kansas City living in a robotic future she calls Metropolis. Her “Many Moons” short film/music video shows Monae strutting down the runway dressed as a variety of robotic slaves at auction. Prices hover above the androids as they slink down the catwalk and gleeful audience members place bids. In the background Monae sings:
I keep my feet on solid ground and use my wings when storms come around
I keep my feet on solid ground for freedom
You’re free but in your mind, your freedom’s in a bind
Janelle Monae ends the song with a list of many of society’s ills: drugs, war, death, and even Jim Crow laws–then concludes that by coming together and striving for a new future “the old man dies and then a baby’s born” and the listener can begin to imagine a life less burdened by these events.
An intriguing idea proposed in Ytasha Womack’s book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-fi and Fantasy Culture is that blackness itself is a technology. In the past, Womack observes, blackness as technology has been used against people as way of restricting movement, access, and privileges. By understanding how this technology can be used as a tool for “defining and redefining the image,” Afrofuturists can create a new world that exists now only in the realm of science fiction and fantasy. Ultimately, Afrofuturists are aware of the past but hopeful for a future severed from the structural limitations of modern society. Science Fiction is about imagining a different world. Afrofuturism is also about imagining a different world: one where the playing field is level and the future can belong to anyone who will work for it.
Other Afrofurist works:
W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Comet. Du Bois was a co-founder of the NAACP. The Comet uses planetary impact to punch reset on race relationships.
George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic is a chief innovator in funk music and creator of The Mothership Connection.
Black Kirby was an exhibit of comic artist Jack Kirby’s Marvel comic characters reimagined as Afrofuturist superheroes.
DJ Spooky remixed the 1900s film The Birth of a Nation based on the Ku Klux Klan as Rebirth of a Nation, breaking down the film and remixing the images and video as visual samples.