Afrofuturism: The imaginative sci-fi movement black people need now

"It's a way of seeing us move through the world that doesn't have anything to do with Western impulses."

Sun Ra, still from "Space is the Place," 1974 / Edit by Diana Ofosu
Sun Ra, still from "Space is the Place," 1974 / Edit by Diana Ofosu

Ytasha Womack recalled the never-ending discussions she and her “black nerd” college pals at Clark Atlanta University engaged in as they imagined worlds that placed the lives and experiences of people of African descent at their core.

During the late 1990s, those lively conversations with classmates were abstract and inchoate, Womack told me in a recent interview. They talked about Octavia Butler’s mystical and futuristic novels that placed black people in fanciful, science-fiction adventures. They listened to funky music by George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, studying the comic book-like album covers for insights into alternate realities. They admired black artwork and marveled at the way its color, form, and utility evoked Africa’s past and contemporary American traditions.

And, perhaps more than anything else, they debated their futures, wondering how the past and present circumstances of black people would shape the world they would inherit. In true science-fiction fashion, speculation about an imaginary future can be the precursor to erstwhile-novel ideas that become daily reality. As such, Womack’s conversations foreshadowed the issues of identity, race, culture, and environmentalism that would soon consume their contemporary adult lives.

The internet, for example, was relatively new, not yet the life-defining medium that it is today. Concerns of electronic surveillance and digital identity theft were absurd notions depicted in movies like Blade Runner or on television’s Star Trek. The rash of police shootings of black men, an evergreen and fearful concern in black communities, had yet to be the focus of international attention. Black Lives Matter was neither a slogan, nor a movement.

But these were the concerns, if not as specific and lacking the language to link them into a larger world matrix, that Womack and her friends contemplated in their dorm room debates and dance hall conversations. In time, however, those discussions morphed into her life’s passion and work. In fact, she didn’t have the slightest notion that what they were contemplating a cadre of cultural critics, even then, were working to define and name: Afrofuturism, an emerging cultural concept that places an African aesthetic at the heart of past, present, and future human civilization.

Renee Cox's Yo Mamadonna and Child, 1994. CREDIT:
Renee Cox's Yo Mamadonna and Child, 1994. CREDIT:

“As students, we were consumed with talking about this stuff,” Womack said. “But, of course, we weren’t using the word ‘Afrofuturism’ because we didn’t know it existed.”

Womack, a Chicago-based author and filmmaker, knows it exists now. So much so that she’s written a genre-defining book on the subject, elevating her among a small but growing group of artists, musicians, scholars, intellectuals, and social activists giving who are giving meaning to Afrofuturism. In her 2013 book, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, she defines the cultural phenomenon as:

Whether through literature, visual arts, music, or grassroots organizing, Afrofuturists redefine culture and notions of blackness for today and the future. Both an artistic aesthetic and a framework for critical theory, Afrofuturism combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs. In some cases, it’s a total reenvisioning of the past and speculation about the future rife with cultural critiques.

Cover of Octavia Butler's science-fiction novel, Survivor. CREDIT: Signet 1979
Cover of Octavia Butler's science-fiction novel, Survivor. CREDIT: Signet 1979

Social critic and writer Mark Dery, who is white, coined the term “Afrofuturism” in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future,” where he wondered why few African American writers embraced science fiction to tell their stories.

This is especially perplexing in light of the fact that African Americans, in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees; they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in what unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what what been done; and technology is too often brought to bear on black bodies (branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, and tasers come readily to mind).

Dery’s essay sparked a wave of interest among cultural scholars, notably Columbia University sociologist Alondra Nelson, who had written scholarly papers on the intersection of technology, race and had created a listserv with a following among black sci-fi aficionados. Womack, back in her dorm at Clark Atlanta, was one of the legions of self-described black geeks who eagerly consumed Nelson’s scholarship and participated in online conversations.

“If Nelson hadn’t used and popularized ‘Afrofuturism’ on her listserv, we wouldn’t be using it today,” Womack told me. “For me hearing that there was such a thing and that respected scholars in places like Columbia were studying it, was very liberating. I felt like there were black people interested in the future just as I am.”

Black people have long been interested in and speculated on the future. African and West Indian writers, artists, and musicians have ancient histories of blending spiritual and mystic qualities as inspiration and reflection of the ordinary, daily life of the people around them. In the U.S., some Afrofuturists point to the avant-garde jazz composer and musician Sun Ra, who adopted a stage persona of regal, time-and-space traveling angel, an early example of the genre.

Opening sequence from Sun Ra's science fiction film "Space is the Place" released in 1974. CREDIT: North American Star System productions
Opening sequence from Sun Ra's science fiction film "Space is the Place" released in 1974. CREDIT: North American Star System productions

However, the current rise of attention to Afrofuturism in the United States coincides with an increasing awareness among young, well-educated black people who have sought refuge in the alternate realities of graphic novels, movies, and other forms of pop culture as they grapple with making sense of a world where issues of racial justice, environmental degradation, and political uncertainty are major, future-facing concerns.

Niama Safia Sandy, an art curator and anthropologist in New York, grew up as a self-described history buff. Pursuing those passions left her wondering about the future for people of color because they were often lacking in the images she saw around her.

“I got tired of going to museums and gallery spaces and not seeing representations of my people,” Sandy told me during a FaceTime interview from London, where she was participating in a pop-up art installation of work she curated for Frieze Week. “I felt so strongly that it was time to contextualize the images of black people from around the world and to give credence to where we came from, how we got here and where we are going.”

Njia Ya Maisha, Macho Nne: Brazillian Mask
by Kenyan artist, Cyrus Kabiru, from 2016. CREDIT: smac gallery
Njia Ya Maisha, Macho Nne: Brazillian Mask by Kenyan artist, Cyrus Kabiru, from 2016. CREDIT: smac gallery

A journalism and Caribbean studies graduate of Howard University, Sandy shifted her focus from a public relations career to studying the cultures of the African diaspora and Asia. Her studies led her to art galleries and collectors who were experimenting with imagery that depicted a future for black people. In 2015, she pulled together funding for her first curated show, “Black Magic: Afro Pasts/Afro Futures,” at a New York gallery.

“I consider [the works in the exhibition] magical realism,” Sandy said, noting the Afrofuturistic ideas of that show echo through every exhibition she’s done since. “Those themes are encompassing of everything that has been for black people and everything that will be. It’s a way of seeing us move through the world that doesn’t have anything to do with Western impulses.”

Reynoldo Anderson, an associate professor of communications and chair of Humanities at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis, said he’s observed an acceleration of interest in Afrofuturism in recent years. He sees that rise as a reaction to the emergence of the Tea Party movement, formed in resistance to the election of the first black president, and a demonstration how limited traditional politics was to advancing black interests during the Obama administration.

“It was about then, I said ‘OK, what is our vision for black people in the future,” said Anderson. “I’m sorry but black liberalism doesn’t do it. We’ve got to think of a different vision for our people. We need a new planetary vision, something to give people of African descent a hopeful vision of our future on this planet.”

As one of the leading theorists and advocates for Afrofuturism’s potential to imagine opportunities for people of color, Anderson said he, Maia Williams, founder of Detroit’s Midwest Ethnic Convention for Comics and Arts, and graphic artist John Jennings, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside, have joined forced with a network of artists, curators, intellectuals, and activists to launch an effort to make Afrofuturism about more than art. Their ambition is a social-political effort that they call the Black Speculative Arts Movement, or Afrofuturism 2.0.

In an interview from his campus office in Riverside, California, Jennings agreed that the current social and political environment is giving energy to young people’s interest in Afrofuturistic images. In his artwork, such as his first graphic novel The Hole: Consumer Culture, Volume 1, Jennings explored the concept of consumerism, technology and exploitation of black bodies in a horror science-fiction story.

“What I’m saying in The Hole, which is pretty wild and out there, is that race is a technology,” Jennings said. “The black body is an extension of the Colonial mindset, if you think of the way that black bodies and black culture has been chopped up, commodified, and sold.”

Likening the Black Speculative Arts Movement to the 60s-era Black Arts Movement, which sprang up as an artistic counterpoint to the Black Power movement and racial unrest, Jennings said Afrofuturism is the cultural wing of activism by young people such as those involved with Black Lives Matter.

“These things are related, Black Lives Matter and speculative arts about a future for black people,” Jennings told me. “It’s connected because a black future is a radicalized notion in America. It scares people sometimes, but that’s why it’s so important that we have these images to inspire us.”

Still from art film The Matriarch's Rhapsody by Jacolby Satterwhite, a Queer artist of color, from 2013. CREDIT:
Still from art film The Matriarch's Rhapsody by Jacolby Satterwhite, a Queer artist of color, from 2013. CREDIT:

Now that she’s come to learn that Afrofuturism is, as she describes it, “a real thing,” Ytasha Womack believes there’s power it it beyond mere inspiration. “Imagination is the key to Afrofuturism for black people,” she said. “We need alternate images of what could be. Sometimes in the world of activism, people can get lost in the problem and can’t imagine a solution.”

For example, Womack said the artists, writers, and culture-makers she knows create worlds where everyone has free health care, a job-producing salary, and shelter. “To believe all that is possible is counter-cultural,” she said. “But we’re imagining it and then trying to make it happen.”