This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. On Thursday, Dec. 3, Future Tense will host “Afrofuturism: Imagining the Future of Black Identity” in New York. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
Afrofuturism pioneers such as jazz musician Sun Ra—who walked around the streets of Chicago with custom-made electric space suits in the 1950s—and science fiction author Octavia Butler wouldn’t have used the label Afrofuturism during their lifetimes, because it hadn’t been invented yet. It wasn’t in common parlance even a decade ago. As World Fantasy Award winner Nnedi Okorafor put it: “My first novel was published in 2005 when I’d never heard the word. Now it’s being retroactively labeled. Why?”
In the early ’90s, academic Mark Dery coined the term Afrofuturism to encompass a wide variety of creative explorations across numerous fields—music, art, film, and literature—over nearly a half-century in black culture. Afrofuturism is loosely marked by a passion for technology and innovation, as well as mysticism rooted in African-American and African culture. Narratives often feature black protagonists, and the aesthetic can draw upon design elements sourced from the rich traditions of the diaspora. Authors may reach back into the tribal histories of the Igbo, while mingling myths with spaceships or alien invasions.
Afrofuturism—the idea, if not the word—appears to be bubbling up into the mainstream. National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, is writing an update of the Marvel comic book Black Panther, which was originally created by Stan Lee. Jaden Smith starred alongside his father Will Smith in 2013’s After Earth. Neil de Grasse Tyson is the most popular astrophysicist on the planet today. While I write this, I’m drinking an IPA with a black superhero on the label and the fourth Lagos Comicon just wrapped in Nigeria.
But it’s unclear whether Afrofuturism is taking permanent hold or whether science fiction is merely featuring a few additional cast members of color. If, like me, you grew up believing that characters like Lando Calrissian and Princess Leia would soon become commonplace in popular entertainment, you’ve learned that empowerment across racial, gender, and ethnic lines isn’t guaranteed. (For instance, Will Smith was already a bankable star when he made After Earth—which wasn’t exactly a roaring success.) There is a bright utopian vision of Afrofuturism, and a much bleaker dystopian possibility of exclusion from mainstream culture once again.
Ytasha Womack, author of the seminal work Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, is upbeat about the movement. “As people create more works and more spaces to share their work, growth will continue,” she said. “Ultimately, creating more intersections of thought and works will create a web of healing and inspiration that anyone can connect to and grow from.”
Making the utopian vision come to fruition will require a few things. Lisa Lucas, publisher of the art and politics magazine Guernica, and a woman of color, says, “There is this ever-growing, snowballing movement of people who are interested in alternate storytelling forms for writers of color and for readers of color.” But she says the movement requires growth outside the creative spotlight, among what she calls “administrators of color.” These are the expediters who drive the business decisions surrounding entertainment—the producers, editors, and owners. Administrators of color would look to cultivate new audiences instead of relying on sales metrics that tend to exclude marginalized voices. The notion could be extended to the boardrooms of major publishing houses and studios, neglected spaces for advancing progressive causes.
Afrofuturism will also thrive when writers immerse themselves in technology in their studies or in their work. Speculative fiction can succeed through narrative discipline and intellectual curiosity alone, while sci-fi subgenres like space opera tend to be written by engineers. It helps to know some physics when you’re writing about a spaceship that is five kilometers long. Only about 1 percent of engineers at Facebook and Google are black Americans. And this has been my experience working in tech, too—meeting a black employee is like happening upon a crocus peeking through the snowmelt.
A truly transformative Afrofuturism would find creators confronting prejudices within black culture. They would question laws that force LGBTQ writers to flee from Africa, or fight gender discrimination couched under arguments of tradition. It could become a liberation movement of the imagination for all people.
This utopian vision of Afrofuturism is enticing, but it hasn’t arrived yet. Right now there are a number of very real challenges for Afrofuturism to overcome in order to take hold in mainstream culture.
In the dystopian vision, no one on the business end of creative industries—the agents, marketers, publishers, producers—takes risks on creators of color. Artists might be forced to revert to addressing explicitly black themes. “We have to write a slave narrative,” Lisa Lucas said, “or a story about civil rights, a retelling of Rosa Parks, some kind of better understanding of what it was like in 1960 or 1830, or what it was like on a slave boat.”
It’s a mistake, too, to think that crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Patreon can solve the problem of structural exclusion. The impressive speculative fiction collection Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History was created from a Kickstarter campaign. The volunteer-run Tumblr blog We Are Wakanda, which is named for the fictional African kingdom in Marvel’s Black Panther series, publishes an incredible volume of content about black comics and science. Founder Lionel Queen recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to develop a new app to support underrepresented creators. It’s a great idea, well worth supporting, but an Afrofuturism that relies upon crowdfunding to survive is dystopian. It means there’s no sustainable investment.
Afrofuturism also needs to overcome its geographic myopia. Nnedi Okarafor, one of the most prominent science fiction writers working today, said: “My issue with Afrofuturism is that it has traditionally been based and rooted far too much in American culture.” She champions what she calls “Africa-based sci-fi.” Authors such as Fred Strydom, Lauren Beukes, and Sarah Lotz are writing engaging fiction set on the continent. But it’s dangerous to oversimplify this trend. To my knowledge, not a single black sci-fi writer has been published by a major publishing house in Africa, and most writers working in Africa-based sci-fi hail from South Africa or Nigeria—not coincidentally, the largest economies on the continent.
There are other threats to Afrofuturism, too. Safe online spaces could become mired in hate and vitriol. The recent controversy surrounding the Hugo Awards—one of the most prestigious awards for science fiction writing—shows that the “administrators of color” whom Lisa Lucas supports tend to be missing from sci-fi culture. In that distasteful example, white authors attempted to game the voting system to fight against the rise in sci-fi of nontraditional and marginalized voices, such as LGBTQ authors. (They did not succeed.)
In some ways, the new film Star Wars: The Force Awakens exemplifies both the utopian and dystopian visions of Afrofuturism. The film stars the black British actor John Boyega as Finn, reportedly a major character in the storyline. Boyega can inspire the next generation of black sci-fi actors, but none of the credited writers will become a role model for the next generation of black writers—they’re all white.
Whether you call it Afrofuturism or another name, creators of color have developed support networks to imagine their own futures, ones in which they have agency, intellect, and purpose. Something special is happening.
“Afrofuturism existed before it was called Afrofuturism,” Ytasha Womack says, “and it will always exist. It’s a human desire to want to shape your present and future. It’s a human desire to embrace the imagination.”