Afrofuturism: Where Technology, Culture and the Black Experience Meet

By: Yves Jeffcoat  | 

Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer
Singer/songwriter Janelle Monae performs during her "Dirty Computer" Tour at The Tabernacle on Aug. 4, 2018, in Atlanta. Monae has always incorporated Afrofuturist themes into her work. Paras Griffin/Getty Images

At first glance, Afrofuturism seems like it was made for this moment. That seems fitting, considering Blackness is the commodity du jour (see: hip-hop, viral dances, popular slang). And science fiction, fantasy and magic dominate Hollywood storytelling (see: Marvel, "Star Wars," "Game of Thrones"). From a cynical perspective, it could seem like the math is simple: For maximum effect and financial gain, add the two.

Recently, we've seen Black stories aligned with speculative narratives in works like the 2018 movie "Black Panther," and the miniseries' "Lovecraft Country" and "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier." ("Speculative" means the book or movie has a setting other than the real world — for instance, it might take place in a future world or in a fantasy realm.) These tales address contemporary conversations around race, technology and progress while remaining rooted in speculative fiction traditions. But we can't imply that these kinds of stories are new and chalk their rise up to the opportunism and business savvy of media executives alone.

Afrofuturism isn't a product of the Hollywood machine or even the 21st century. It's actually a layered movement that has blossomed since critic and author Mark Dery coined the term in his 1994 essay "Black to the Future: Interviews With Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose."

In the essay, Dery questions why so few Black Americans wrote science fiction, especially since the genre seemed like the perfect vehicle for illustrating the complexity of Black American history and life.

"The conspicuous absence of African-Americans is especially perplexing when one considers that their African ancestors suffered a sci-fi experience very much like an alien abduction," Dery wrote. "[African-Americans] inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has 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.)"

He went on to say that speculative fiction that treated African American themes in the context of the 20th century technoculture might be called Afrofuturism "for want of a better term." In Dery's shaping of it, Afrofuturism offers commentary on Black American concerns through a lens that incorporates science, technology and culture. You can see it in the music of Parliament-Funkadelic, the artwork of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the novels of Octavia Butler. Afrofuturism is not just about placing a Black person in a futuristic landscape. It takes into account the specific challenges that Black people face and allows them to imagine futures of their own making.

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The Roots of Afrofuturism

Dr. Reynaldo Anderson is the co-founder of the Black Speculative Arts Movement and editor of "Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness." "The Black speculative tradition is not a sub-genre of science fiction," Anderson says. "Science fiction emerged out of the context of the Industrial Revolution and the European Enlightenment. In contrast the Black speculative tradition emerges out of the context of the trans-Atlantic and Arab slave trade, scientific racism, imperialism and colonialism."

In the American literary context, Afrofuturism has roots in the work of writer and abolitionist Martin Delany, Anderson says. Written in the mid-1800s, Delany's novel "Blake; or the Huts of America" is about an escaped enslaved man who attempts to build a Black nation-state and overthrow white supremacy. Pauline Hopkins and W.E.B. DuBois also wrote stories that could be considered forerunners of Afrofuturism. And many of the ideas and practices that form the conceptual basis of the movement can be traced all the way back to precolonial Africa.

In the wake of Dery's naming, other writers and theorists — such as John Akomfrah, Kodwo Eshun, and Kali Tal — began engaging with Afrofuturism as a distinct movement comprising literature, film, visual art, music, multimedia art, performance art and theory. They looked to the mid-20th century as a time rich with thought and cultural production that re-envisioned the past and visualized the future for Black people. Scholars identified musician and performer Sun Ra as a pioneer of the movement, as he blurred the lines between space, technology, art, mythology, and race.

Sun Ra
Sun Ra and his Sun Ra Archestra perform with a steel sculpture on Sept. 23, 1978, at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Leni Sinclair/Getty Images

"In contrast to its '90s emergence as a response to the digital divide in the United States, Afrofuturism has grown from its American origins to an international African diasporic and African continental movement," says Anderson. And Afrofuturism is expressed differently around the world. "For example, in Brazil their tradition refers to Afrofuturism as Afrofuturismo andincorporates African practices like the celebration of elements of the African Traditional Religion into their work."

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The Future of Afrofuturism

Afrofuturism might conjure up visions of the shiny, technologically advanced landscape of the kingdom of Wakanda (in "Black Panther"), musician Janelle Monáe's android alter ego Cindi Mayweather, and artist Wangechi Mutu's contorted figures and grotesque scenes. But it's not just about eccentric visuals.

Afrofuturism can be a tool for personal and societal transformation. It provides counternarratives to stories and experiences that imply Black people do not belong and are not worthy of living, affirming Black existences. And it often functions as the starting point or framework for initiatives with real-world impact.

John Jennings, an Afrospeculative artist and professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside, says that Black people have always used their culture as a form of passive and active resistance.

The book "Octavia's Brood," an anthology of stories that explores the connections between speculative fiction and social movements, brought this home for him. "Speculative design fictions give us a sense of distance from an issue that can sometimes allow us to think about solutions differently," he says. "Stories are empathy engines through which we can connect and change how we see each other."

Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther
Actor Chadwick Boseman gives the "Wakanda salute" at the Los Angeles world premiere of "Black Panther" in Hollywood, California, 2018.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

"Black Panther" made more than $1 billion and was a global hit, and discussion of its Afrofuturist themes consumed mainstream media. But Jennings says that "Black Panther" and Jordan Peele's horror film "Get Out" sparked a renewed interest in Black speculative culture that was already bubbling under the surface. "Since then, we've seen an international craving for this type of narrative because of the access to like-minded individuals, affordable digital production tools, and easy distribution and promotion," Jennings says. "Now we have an Afrofuturist movement that has become a lens through which any area can be studied." These areas would include theology, economics, as well as the arts, he adds.

"The other thing that has happened is that Afrofuturism has become highly formalized. It's taught in colleges and universities every year. I teach three separate courses on various aspects of Afrofuturism at UC Riverside," he says.

There are other examples of Afrofuturism in popular culture: "We Are the Caretakers" which bills itself as an Afrofuturist role-playing video game, was released in April 2021. And the sequel to "Black Panther" is slated for a 2022 release. Jennings himself is the curator of Megascope, a line of graphic novels that showcases speculative and nonfiction work by and about people of color.

"I am just impressed by the breadth and nuance of experience my colleagues can produce," says Jennings. "Each one of them is a miracle. Why? Because none of us were ever supposed to be here doing what we do. Our ancestors were Afrofuturists and sowed seeds and those trees have grown strong."

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