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“The Future is Black”: A Dive into the World of Afrofuturism

While envisioning the future, whether it be through literature, movies, music, art, or the general media, there has been a recurrent trend that portrays white people as the only central figures of tomorrow’s progress and prosperity. Meanwhile, Black individuals appear either in limiting and stereotypical roles or as short-lived and meaningless characters, if they are not entirely absent from the narrative. This approach deliberately overlooks the relevance of Black people in shaping the world’s future, resulting in extremely damaging consequences for their sense of self-image, self-worth, and belonging to this earth (Anderson, 2016).

The persistent lack of an honest representation especially when it comes to futuristic plots seems to conceal a deeper and disheartening implication for Black folks as a whole: “You do not belong to the future”. Needless to say, such an assumption is utterly wrong and racist. However, centuries of imperialism and colonial practices have contributed to this belittling attitude towards Africans and their descendants, explaining why they are still today treated as less than their whiter counterparts. This is where Afrofuturism takes action by striving to recover Black people's image and revealing the deep connections between Black history, culture, and futuristic elements. Going beyond merely painting a future for Blackness, Afrofuturism also celebrates the significance of re-shaping and re-claiming the narratives of the past as the first and fundamental step towards liberation. In this regard, the following article delves into the curious world of Afrofuturism. Initially, it explores the historical context that led to its development. Successively, it presents the key features of this unique Black-labeled movement of resistance, by simultaneously illustrating some of the works of its exponents. In the last section, the final thoughts on Afrofuturism will reveal a close connection between the birth of this new cultural movement and Black people's ongoing struggle for emancipation.


Historical Premise


Afrofuturism came into existence in response to Black people’s urgent need to break free from the ongoing burden of colonial imperialism, a system of expansion that lasted for over five centuries in which European powers exploited and subjugated Africans and their indigenous lands. During this extremely long period, race theories, white supremacy, and anti-black feelings began to sediment and develop into false narratives portraying Black people as inherently inferior, thus justifying their marginalization and mistreatment to the entire world. Not only that, Europe, and later on America as well, took advantage of their newly-acquired dominance to systematically exclude Black folks from participating in any activity concerning the Enlightenment project (Eshun, 2003), a period starting from the 17th century known for its significant advancements in science, technology, arts, politics, and many other relevant fields. In such a way, Black people’s marginalization from history began, eventually leading to a proper ostracization of their agency in influencing cultural narratives, policies, and societal advancements.



Figure 1: Apartheid Signage at Hout Bay Beach (Brown, 1981).

Why Representation Matters


At the beginning of her book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (2013), Ytash L. Womack, a prominent figure in the movement, tackles the impact of colonialism in damaging Black people’s self-image by use of a firsthand account. One of her young black students in screenwriting had expressed the desire to write historical fiction featuring black characters but struggled to develop a single empowering story that ended with a positive outcome. The author recalls:


She was incredibly frustrated because she wanted to write a historical fiction narrative with black characters but felt thwarted by the realities of racism in the past. There could be no cowboy hero, no Victorian romance; no antebellum South epic, or any other story without the cloud of slavery or colonialism to doom her character’s fate. She couldn’t come up with a single story idea that could have a happy ending, at least not one that took place in the past five hundred years, up to, say, 1960 (Womack, 2013, p. 15).


When suggested genres like science fiction, known for its imaginative and futuristic settings, or fantasy, with its magical worlds and creatures, Womack’s student could still not think of how to incorporate black culture into her stories, thus proving the ongoing legacy of colonialism in shaping and limiting Black narratives, despite its official termination. The difficulty this person had in imagining black characters outside of their tragic stories, although alarming, is not at all surprising. From the '50s to the '90s, a recurring trend in the sci-fi genre was known to depict Black characters always in unfavorable situations (Womack, 2013). For instance, in the original Night of the Living Dead (1968), the courageous Black man who played a pivotal role in saving the day ultimately met a tragic end due to the actions of trigger-happy cops (Womack, 2013). Similarly, in the original Planet of the Apes (1968), the talented Black character who accompanied Charlton Heston was swiftly captured and exhibited in a museum (Womack, 2013). Another significant example is the one black scientist in Terminator 2 (1991) who became the villain for almost causing the end of the world and the near-extinction of mankind (Womack, 2013). This limited choice in roles for Black individuals as either the silent, the victim, the slave, or the frightening villain serves as clear evidence of centuries of falsification and mystification of black bodies in history. Precisely these recurrent and degrading narratives are what had prevented Womack’s student from fully exploring the possibilities of her imagination, thus embracing her Black heritage (Womack, 2013).


Figure 2: Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel playing Scarlett O’Hara's house slave in "Gone with the Wind" (MGM Studios/Getty Images, 1939).

Considering the inhumane historical backdrop of colonial racism, which has shamelessly distorted the representation of Black folks to cater to white supremacists' agendas, Womack (2013) passionately urges us to be proactive and take meaningful action in changing the course of history, writing what follows:


It’s one thing when black people aren’t discussed in world history. Fortunately, teams of dedicated historians and culture advocates have chipped away at the propaganda often functioning as history for the world’s students to eradicate that glaring error. But when, even in the imaginary future -a space where the mind can stretch beyond the Milky way to envision routine space travel, cuddly space animals, talking aped, and time machines- people can’t fathom a person of non-Euro descent a hundred years into the future, a cosmic foot has to be put down (p. 7).


In this passage, the author vividly illustrates Black people’s struggle for self-determination and creative expression, exemplifying the lingering influence of their historical legacy, even in modern times. The constant depiction of African people as hunted and marginalized across various media and genres has, in fact, led to the development of feelings of self-doubt and self-deprecation especially among racialized communities. In this regard, Afrofuturism recognizes the vital importance of equitable and empowering representation not only in shaping one's self-worth and sense of belonging but also in enabling Black individuals to envision themselves as active contributors to the world’s destiny (Womack, 2013).

Now that the historical premises on which Afrofuturism lays its foundation have been addressed, the reader has gained a more empathetic and informed approach to understanding Afrofuturism in terms of Black people’s quest for self-determination and resistance against the dominant culture.



Figure 3: Afrocentric image collaged with themes of space and science fiction (Mackey, 2017).

Origins


Although Afrofuturism, as a cultural movement, became theorized in the latter half of the 20th century, proto-Afrofuturistic works can be already found starting in the 1920s, when W. E. B. Du Bois's short story The Comet was first published (Samatar, 2017). At its core, the story presents some of the elements that align with the main ideas of this cultural and artistic movement: it is set in a future where a cataclysmic event of a comet striking New York wipes out humanity, leaving only two survivors —a young black man named Jim and a white wealthy woman named Julia, taking on the exploration of race, identity, and the potential for racial harmony. Finally, Du Bois characterizes Jim to become the vital source of human life, thanks to whom humanity, especially Black humanity, is finally restored and redeemed (Samatar, 2017).


Another early example of Afrofuturistic tendencies is Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Goophered Grapevine (1887). While it is not considered afrofuturistic in the strict sense of the word, it does foreshadow themes explored in Afrofuturist works, in that it addresses issues of race, power, and folklore within the context of post-Civil War America (Samatar, 2017). It revolves around a black narrator who encounters an old black man with the ability to "goopher", or curse, grapevines. The narrative touches on themes of African cultural practices, the supernatural, and the impact of slavery and racism on black communities. Although The Goophered Grapevine does not envision a futuristic world or explore technology as seen in modern Afrofuturist works, it reflects a part of the African-American literary tradition that engages with imaginative and speculative elements. In this regard, it is worth noting that Afrofuturism is not solely limited to futuristic or science fiction-based narratives; it can encompass works that engage with the black experience, history, and culture in creative and imaginative ways. In this sense, The Goophered Grapevine can be seen as proto-Afrofuturistic, as it touches on themes and ideas that later became part of the broader Afrofuturist movement that explores themes of identity, heritage, and the resilience of black communities in the face of historical oppression.



Figure 4: "Dressing for the Carnival" (Homer, 1877).

Considering this, traces of Afrofuturism were discernible in the works of distinctive black artists and writers way before its theorization. A significant shift, however, occurred in the 1990s with the rise of Afrofuturist studies, propelled by the influence of cultural critics like Mark Dery, Greg Tate, Tricia Rose, and Kodwo Eshun (Yaszek, 2006). These scholars are known as pioneers in shedding light on the prevalence of Afrofuturistic elements in the creative works of various black authors, artists, and musicians across the globe.


Definition


The term itself, "Afrofuturism", is largely attributed to Mark Dery, an American author, cultural critic, and early observer of the movement, who coined the word in his 1993 essay “Black to Future”, to describe: "[A] speculative fiction that treats African American themes and addresses African American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture —and, more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future" (p. 180).


Although Dery's definition provided an official name for the kinds of experimentation that Black writers and artists were doing within this genre, it is important to note that it does not define its full scope and potential. A more nuanced and expansive definition provided by author Ytasha Womack (2017) during a talk entitled “Afrofuturism: Imagination and Humanity” best describes what Afrofuturism is and how it functions:


Afrofuturism is a way of looking at the future and alternate realities through a Black cultural lens. Black cultural lens means the people of the African continent in addition to the Diaspora, the Americas, Europe, etc. It is an artistic aesthetic, but also a kind of method of self-liberation or self-healing. It can be part of critical race theory and in other respects its an epistemology as well. It intersects the imagination, technology, Black culture, liberation, and mysticism. An artistic aesthetic it bridges literature, music, visual arts, film, and dance. As a mode of self-healing and self-liberation, it's the use of imagination that is most significant because it helps people to transform their circumstances. Imagining oneself in the future creates agency and it's significant because historically people of African descent were not always incorporated into many of the storylines about the future (n.d).


Womack’s definition correctly ascribes Afrofuturism not as an exclusively American phenomenon, but rather as a transnational movement that puts “emphasis on blackness rather than nationhood” (Samatar, 2017, p. 176), thus embracing the myriad of black creatives “without regard to their position on the planets” (Samatar, 2017, p. 176). Additionally, the movement recognizes how neglecting the various aspects of Afrofuturism not only risks overlooking opportunities for meaningful discussions but also goes against the essence of Afrofuturist philosophy, which seeks to reject the dominant historical narrative that portrays non-Westerns as being left behind in primitive times, while others progress towards civilization (Anderson, 2016).



Figure 5: Image from the cover of "Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture" (Jennings, 2013).

With the rise of the internet and increased global connectivity, Afrofuturism became even more transnational, transcending geographical boundaries to foster a dynamic exchange of ideas, art, and narratives from different corners of the world, thus contributing to a diverse and vibrant movement that challenges traditional notions of race, identity, and history (Womack, 2013). The internet's power to amplify marginalized voices has played a crucial role because it facilitated "for the first time in history, people of color[‘s] greater ability to project their own story” (Womack, 2013, p. 10), enabling them to reach a wider audience and inspire transformative conversations about their past, present, and future history.


Another way of explaining Afrofuturism is by means of the term itself, in that it challenges the stereotypical divide between "Africanness" and "Future". Historically, the concept of "Africanness" has been misused to evoke negative images of primitivism and backwardness, perpetuating harmful stereotypes about Black people (Elia, 2015). On the other hand, the notion of "Future" has often been celebrated through the lens of Eurocentric modernity, excluding Black individuals from participating in these visions of progress and technological advancements (Elia, 2015). Afrofuturism seeks to bridge this gap by reclaiming and redefining "Africanness" in the context of a diverse and progressive future (Elia, 2015). Moreover, it encourages the fusion of African and African diasporic cultures, histories, and traditions with speculative elements to create new and empowering narratives (Elia, 2015). By doing so, Afrofuturism aims to inspire and uplift Black individuals, offering them a space where they can see themselves as active agents in shaping their own destinies and the future of the world.


Figure 6: Caribbean Sun (Kabiru, 2012).

Key Features of Afrofuturism


Afrofuturism stands as a vital movement with a central goal: recovering African history, culture, and identity from the Eurocentric narration of Africans as primitive or backward. Rather than accepting such biased portrayals, Afrofuturism actively promotes the rejection of the dominant narratives that define the journey of progress as a march from primitive savagery to enlightened civilization (Samatar, 2017), leaving black people of the world completely out of the picture. According to Reynaldo Anderson, an esteemed Assistant Professor of Humanities at Harries Stowe State University and a writer on Afrofuturist critical theory, the power of Afrofuturism lies precisely in its ability to carve out a space for Africans and people of African descent in the future (Womack, 2013). It enables them to take control of their own imaginations and shape their own destinies. Without being dismissive of their past; they do not allow history to restrict their creative impulses and the imagination of a better future (Womack, 2013). But how does Afrofuturism achieve this? The following section focuses on a few examples highlighting the movement's main techniques and methodologies.


1. Data Theft


The Last Angel of History is a video essay by John Akomfrah and Edward George from 1996 that explores Afrofuturism through the character of the data thief, interpreted by the film’s writer and researcher Edward George, who travels through cyberspace to uncover collective memory (Samatar, 2017). The video presents a future internet where each image holds traces of its past, allowing the easy recovery of "racial memory", a term that refers to "the body of experiences, beliefs, and general recollections transmitted from one generation of humankind or of a race to another" (Merriem-Webster, n.d), and that now Afrofuturist seeks to reclaim and reimagine positively. Through the data thief's journeys, the video captures sights and sounds from various historical locations, including the pyramids of Egypt and the techno-beats of Detroit, underscoring the interconnectedness of black history, culture, and technology across time and space (Samatar, 2017). This ability of the data thief to move effortlessly through time and space symbolizes the Afrofuturist dream of access and freedom.



Figure 7: Still of the Data Thief from "Last Angel of History" (Akomfrah/Black Audio Film Collective, 1996).

2. Bricolage


In Nnedi Okorafor's novel Who Fears Death (2010), the protagonist Onyesonwu embodies the concept of a bricoleur. This term, borrowed from Claude Levi-Strauss's work The Savage Mind (1962), refers to someone who creatively uses whatever resources are available to construct something new (Samatar, 2017). In contrast to the scientific approach of engineers associated with Western thinking, the bricoleur represents a mythical and "Primitive" way of thinking, making use of whatever materials and ideas are at hand, often in a haphazard manner (Samatar, 2017). By appropriating this term, Okorafor reclaims and repurposes it as an Afrofuturistic project, challenging the notion of a "savage mind" and infusing it with redemptive potential (Samatar, 2017). The data thief, and bricoleur, engage in seemingly random tinkering, but in reality, this process is a method of excavating buried history (Samatar, 2017). By piecing together historical fragments, the bricoleur constructs visions of the past, present, and future (Samatar, 2017).


Afrofuturism cherishes the histories embedded in discarded, leftover, and scattered materials. It celebrates a different attitude from mainstream Western thinking, valuing objects not based on their origins but on their potential usefulness (Samatar, 2017). Similar to the data thief, bricolage is seen as a time-traveling practice, one that challenges linear notions of progress and embraces a transgressive temporality (Samatar, 2017). This bricolage dimension of Afrofuturism is exemplified by the AfriGadget website, which showcases African inventors bending limited resources to their will, highlighting the right of black individuals to embrace technology without assimilating into a global monoculture (Samatar, 2017).



Figure 8: Re-using plastic containers in Kenya (Kahumbu, 2009).

In summary, the concept of the bricoleur exemplifies an Afrofuturistic approach that seeks to reclaim history, embrace diverse temporalities, and creatively use available resources to shape a unique and liberated future, thus celebrating the richness of black culture and its ability to navigate the technological landscape while maintaining its identity and autonomy (Samatar, 2017).


3. Remixology


In the context of music, mixology can refer to the technique of sampling, where artists take snippets of pre-recorded sounds and incorporate them into their compositions (Samatar, 2017). The British Art and Film Collective (BAFC) artists embraced the idea that music wasn't just made with instruments but could be "caught" by sampling ambient residual energy, like funk, left over from the past (Samatar, 2017). In the film Space is the Place (1974), Sun Ra, a musician who named himself after an Egyptian deity, believing he was from Saturn sought to use music as a mode of transportation to create a peaceful space colony for African Americans (Samatar, 2017). Music, like the data thief, travels light and carries elements from different eras, blending past rhythms with future figurations (Samatar, 2017).



Figure 9: The avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra in John Coney’s "Space Is The Place" (Newman, 1974).


4. Aliens


Due to the colonial legacy, Black people's experience is marked by a double alienation: they are distanced from both a violent and exclusionary Western modernity and a disrupted tradition (Samatar, 2017). This complex alienation has led to various engagements with dystopian science fiction and the use of the trope of the mutant or alien in African literature (Samatar, 2017). In Afrofuturistic arts, the alien is charged with deeper meaning, in that it is not merely an escapist concept but a resource for imagination. It represents an identification with the potentiality of space and distance within a world of perpetual racial hostility (Samatar, 2017). In other words, the concept of the alien is utilized imaginatively to explore identity and possibilities beyond human limitations, reflecting time travel that moves in both directions, past and future, while critically engaging with the complexities of history and cultural heritage. In such a way, Afrofuturists criticize the exclusion of black subjects from Western humanism while embracing possibilities beyond the human (Samatar, 2017). Moreover, the concept of the alien enables time travel in both directions, reflecting the entangled nature of memory and forgetting (Samatar, 2017), thus embracing a unique understanding of time that transcends traditional linear perspectives.

Figure 9: Serengeti Cyborg (Feyissa, 2020).

Final Thoughts


Afrofuturism serves as a powerful response to the persistent lack of honest representation and damaging stereotypes that have marginalized Black individuals in narratives of progress and prosperity. For far too long, the dominant media has relegated Black people to limiting and stereotypical roles or erased them from the narrative altogether, perpetuating a false narrative that they do not belong in the future. In this context, Afrofuturism emerges as a movement that challenges this harmful notion and seeks to recover the image and agency of Black people in shaping the world's future. Rooted in historical contexts of colonial imperialism and centuries of oppression, the movement aims to reclaim Black history, culture, and identity by exploring alternate realities and speculative futures. By embracing technology and blending it with African heritage, it allows them to break free from the limitations of tragic historical narratives and envision themselves in positive and empowering roles. Key features of Afrofuturism include data theft, bricolage, mixology, and the use of aliens as metaphorical tools. Data theft involves retrieving racial memory to uncover collective history. Bricolage celebrates the creative use of available resources to construct new narratives and visions of the future. Remixology embraces sampling and blending historical fragments to envision alternative futures. Aliens symbolize the entangled nature of memory and identity, representing a unique understanding of time that transcends linear perspectives.


In conclusion, Afrofuturism emerges as a transformative movement that challenges historical narratives empowers Black individuals, and envisions a future where diverse cultures and identities are equally valued and celebrated. It invites us all to embrace an inclusive and empowering portrayal of Black people and people of color, where their agency and contributions are seen as essential components of our shared history. Afrofuturism stands as a cultural and artistic movement that merges imagination, technology, history, and culture to pave the way for a more just and equitable world.


Bibliographical References

Anderson, R. (2016). Afrofuturism 2.0 & The Black Speculative Arts Movement: Notes on a Manifesto. Obsidian, 42(1/2), 228–236. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44489514 Elia, A. (2014). The Languages of Afrofuturism. Lingue E Linguaggi, 12, 83-96. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1285/i22390359v12p83 Eshun, K. (2003). Further Considerations on Afrofuturism. CR: The New Centennial Review, 3(2), 287–302. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41949397

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Race memory. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved August 11, 2023, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/race%20memory

Samatar, S. (2017). Toward a Planetary History of Afrofuturism. Research in African Literatures, 48(4), 175–191. DOI:https://doi.org/10.2979/reseafrilite.48.4.12 Womack, Y. L. (2013). Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Chicago Review Press. https://books.google.at/books?id=pTXVAAAAQBAJ Womack, Y. L. (2017). Afrofuturism: Imagination and Humanity [Speech audio recording]. Sonic Acts. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlF90sXVfKk&t=3s

Yaszek, L. (2006). Afrofuturism, science fiction, and the history of the future. Socialism and Democracy, 20(3), 41–60. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/08854300600950236

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