Afrofuturism: The Radical Genre Imagining a Future for Black People
Afrofuturism imagines alternative possibilities for Black people through works grounded in the harsh realities of present day. Could their creations help inspire better real-world futures?
Photos courtesy of Marvel Studios, Getty Images, Wondaland
In Browsing Black History, we celebrate Black History Month by exploring the origins of internet trends and icons popularized by Black cultural producers, too often left uncredited for their work.
In November of 2018, science fiction and fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin posed a question on the cover of her book of short fiction: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? The title was both a challenge and a promise, capping off a year that started with Black Panther’s Afrofuturistic vision of a vibrant, technologically-advanced Black world. Though 2019 is still young, a number of recent or forthcoming releases take up a similarly fantastical approach: Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf; Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams’s co-edited collection A People’s Future of the United States; and Tomi Adeyemi’s hotly anticipated follow-up to 2018’s Children of Blood and Bone.
A growing number of writers are drawing on the tropes of Afrofuturism in a subversive, genre-bending approach to storytelling but despite its recent popularity, Afrofuturism isn’t new: The term has been around since the 90s when writer Mark Dery defined the genre that intersects science-fiction, fantasy, technology, and African mythology. Moreover, some of its seminal works—the novels and short stories of Octavia Butler, the canvases of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the songs of Sun Ra—have existed long before the term was created for their body of works.
Scholar John Jennings describes its current iteration as “Afrofuturism 2.0,” a time where “there are enough powerful folks of color in positions to actualize a Black speculative future that goes beyond just surviving.” Afrofuturism 2.0 reveals itself in Black Panther’s vibranium-run Wakanda, Janelle Monae’s sleek and sensual Dirty Computer album, Tananarive Due’s haunting African Immortals—visions of Black life that draw on its past and present, merging them with technologies of a hypothetical future to imagine the world that could be.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs, author of Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity, sees these rewritings of the past as a way of honoring alternative possibilities. “The way we tell stories reveal a lot about what we have been through and the histories that have shaped us,” Gumbs tells Broadly. “What sort of possibilities might be opened up if we figure those stories differently?”
Given the overwhelming whiteness of sci-fi and the ongoing state violence against Black people, the mere act of asserting a future for Black people is political.
For author Tomi Adeyemi, the Afrofuturist label was one she discovered after people started using it to describe her work. Once she started reading about it, she says, “it didn’t surprise me that I was part of [this conversation] or that my themes touched on it,” she tells me via email. Adding, “That’s really what fiction and fantasy are for me. It’s all based off real things, they’re based off real people, they’re based off real conflicts—but [fantasy] gives you the ability to engage with those ideas in a different way.”
In Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, the first installment of a planned trilogy, readers are taken to the West-African-inspired land of Orïsha where magic has been extinguished by a tyrannical monarch. Those capable of using their powers have been slaughtered en masse, including the mother of Zélie Adebola, the series’ protagonist. When Zélie discovers her own magical abilities, she starts a revolt against the repressive regime, aided by her brother and a rebel princess.
The world that Adeyemi depicts—and the visions of other writers and artists who work in this mode—is one that’s deeply informed by the inequalities and conflicts of the present. Though these works might eschew what we’re used to calling “realism,” their use of more fantastical tropes is done, in part, to illuminate Black activist movements both historical and contemporary.
“The realism is all around us,” Adeyemi says. “What I really wanted to convey [with Children of Blood and Bone] was the emotional truth [that] this stuff isn’t just bad. It’s really hard. It is hard to wake up when you’re worried that this is going to happen to you or your brother or your father. It’s hard to keep fighting when this is what happens the moment you make a little bit of gain.”
Magic and technology might abound, but these imaginative flights are rooted in concrete movements for Black freedom. Perhaps there’s something about Afrofuturism that allows us to approach more closely the truth of Black life; the dual desire to honor the legacy of the past and imagine a better future.
The Ballad of Black Tom author, Victor LaValle makes a similar point in conversation with Marlon James for Vulture. “Literary realism demands that everybody agree on what real life is—and it is really a very specific subset of American or European life,” he says.
A byproduct of trying to imagine a future is a question for young people: What sort of a world will they inherit? Particular attention to youth is a common through-line in these recent Afrofuturist works.
“Young people are already a part of the conversation,” says Gumbs. “Children will ask questions, they will look at situations critically, and it is our job to allow their critical gazes to open us up to the vulnerability of what we don't know.”
Adeyemi believes that young people are already leading the revolution into this future. Though she writes intensely political stories for young adult readers, there’s nothing didactic to her approach. “I don’t see these texts or stories like Children of Blood and Bone as new for them,” she says, “but as ways to support them in what they’re already doing.”