“In Afrofuturism is an exploration and methodology of liberation, simultaneously both a location and a journey.” ~D. Denenge Akpem
So what is Afro-Futurism? Music critic and writer Mark Dery (1994) coined the term to describe the self-conscious appropriation of technological themes in Black popular culture, particularly in rap and other hip-hop modalities. The term is more than just being “weird” or following different trends, but it is, as sociologist and Afrofuturism scholar Alondra Nelson says, “to explore futurist themes in Black cultural production and the ways in which technological innovation is changing the face of Black art and culture” (Nelson & Miller, 2006).
The appropriation of science and technology by marginalized groups has always been an essential component of resistance, and its significance in the Black diaspora all the more so because of the extremes in brutality, subjugation and geographic scope (Eglash & Bleecker, 2001). As a whole, Afrofuturism is a genre that allows artists to present new and innovative perspectives and pose questions that are not typically addressed in canonical works. Afrofuturism is a free space that allows the option to explore, imagine, and discover Blackness tangent to science and technology.
Afrofuturism, much like cyberfeminism, uses science fiction and cyber culture in a speculative manner to escape the traditional definitions of what it means to be Black or African (in exotic terms) within western culture (Bristow, 2012). Stories of aliens and cyber beings that can be found in Afrofuturism literature, film, and music are essentially metaphors that speak to real life experiences of Blacks in the diaspora.
This past week at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA, I had the opportunity to take part in a 2-day colloquium called AstroBlackness: Remaking and [Re]Mixing Black Identity Before, Now, and Beyond. During this colloquium writers, artists, filmmakers, and scholars worldwide came together to discuss Afrofuturism from various angles. The colloquium served as a “space” where the intellectual, creative, literary and even visual expressions of “the black experience” are examined through the prism of Afrofuturism in a manner that is both abstract, plausible, and no longer dominated by monolithic tropes perpetually tied to an urban landscape or exclusively earthbound. The first day’s topics and panels included “The Black Imagination: Issues and Ideas of Afrofuturism as an Aesthetic,” “Science Fiction and Race,” and “Comic Books, Graphic Novels, Animation, and Afrofuturism”.
During the panel discussion on “Science Fiction and Race,” many of the panelist such as Fantasy and Science Fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor would explain the many difficulties in maintaining a certain level of blackness[i] and not allowing the narratives or the characters to be whitewashed or conscripted to a particular storyline. One question that would spark a huge debate from the panel and the audience dealt with whether or not Afrofuturism should be inclusive of everything that is outside of the box that is black and is sci-fi related.
Some scholars such as University of California-Riverside’s Sherryl Vint felt that as a whole, critics spend way too much time policing the boundaries of science-fiction, and not allowing it to be a free flowing entity. From its inception, Afrofuturism and Science Fiction are genres that have always been ‘outside the box’, but yet so many want to prescribe a certain formula. As Harris Stowe State University professor Reynaldo Anderson mentioned, “Afrofuturism, Science Fiction, Fantasy and the Speculative is all about bending racial categories and rethinking these genres as forms of resistance.” Each of them serves as another transportation mode to a particular space which allows for this creative resurgence of blackness on futuristic terms. A common theme that would surface during this panel discussion was simply “reclaiming the future, and presenting it on our own terms.” As a whole, Day One was overflowing with gems and nuggets of knowledge that we hoped would spill over into the next day’s panel discussions.
Day Two delved into topics such as Critical Literature and Radical Race in Science Fiction, Gender and Race conversations, and issues dealing with the Black Imagination and Science Fiction as well as “The Future of the Afrofuture”. Many of the panelists including horror/speculative fiction writer Tananarive Due would discuss how their writing served as a way of survival and a way to find one’s self in life. Afrofuturism, Science Fiction and the imagination offers an outlet for multiple world views to be acknowledged and appreciated. As author Ayize Jama Everett (The Liminal People) would state, “our idea of the future has been colonized…thus we must liberate our imagination.”
All in all, Afrofuturism continues to serve as this intersection between imagination, technology, the future, and liberation (Womack, 2013). As a genre, it not only allows but also encourages individuals to unashamedly experiment, reimagine identities, and activate this sense of liberation (LaFleur, 2011). Using these various avenues mentioned above, Afrofuturism continues to redefine Black culture and notions of Blackness for today and the future.
[i]Several creators and authors at the colloquium spoke about having to change the race of their characters, lightening their complexion, or adding non-black characters (i.e. white males), because the “higher ups” feel that audiences will not understand, it’s too political, or because it is so-called not marketable.
- Bristow, T. (2012). We want the funk: What is Afrofuturism to the situation of digital arts in Africa? Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research, 10(1), 25-32.
- Dery, M. (1994). “Black to the Future”. In Flame wars: The discourse of cyberculture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Eglash, R., & Bleecker, J. (2001). The race for cyberspace: Information technology in the black diaspora. Science as Culture, 10(3), 353-374.
- Nelson, A., & Miller, P. D. (2006, June 28). “About Afrofuturism”: Afrofuturism. Retrieved from http://www.afrofuturism.net/text/about.html
- Womack, Y. L. (2013). Afrofurturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books.
*Grace Gipson is recent transplant to the Bay Area (from the ATL) where she is doctoral student at UC Berkeley pursuing a degree in African American Studies (focusing on gender, race and representation in comic books). In addition to being a budding scholar, you can find Grace trying out new restaurants, catching a concert, or sipping on a tasty glass of wine.