The Afrofuturism Conference at the 32nd annual Zora Festival traced the history of Afrofuturism from its origins to its manifestations in society today. The conference examined the history of Afrofuturism with a special focus on the literature of Zora Neale Hurston.
What is Afrofuturism?
Afrofuturism, as coined by Mark Dery, is “speculative fiction that treats African American themes and addresses African American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture.” In other words, it uses the lens of Black history and Black experience to craft fictional stories that incorporate futuristic themes.
Most African American history has been erased or watered down in order to create a whitewashed narrative of fabricated white American history. According to University of Copenhagen Musicology Professor Dr. Erik Steinskog, because curriculums omit certain truths and narratives, they can, in a sense, be defined as fictional. Storytelling was a tool used to pass down knowledge and information from generation to generation.
Sociologist Dr. Alondra Nelson broadly defines Afrofuturism as wielding African American voices to tell stories about culture, technology and things to come. Nelson further described it as “a term of convenience to describe analysis, criticism, and cultural production that addresses the intersections between race and technology.”
Many of the classic ideas of futuristic fiction, alien abduction in particular, are inspired by historical experiences of Black people. Depicting the capture of individuals by foreign beings to another land is a supernatural conceptualization of slavery. Afrofuturism is heavily rooted in conveying lost stories; this establishes hope by empowering Black people in an alternate world.
Afrofuturism provides a medium to tell these stories through a blend of fantasy and fact. Products of the genre incorporate Black heroes and heroines and create a safe space. The genre centers the Black experience by creating alternate universes and blending spirituality with extraterrestrial legends through various creative mediums from literature to fashion.
Afrofuturism in Literature: W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Speculative Fiction
Afrofuturism originated in literature. Most famously, W.E.B. Du Bois’ science fiction post-apocalyptic short story The Comet has an Afrofuturistic focus; the story goes beyond segregation and imagines a world where interracial love can exist. The story was written during the 1920s when Jim Crow laws were in full effect and the idea of unapologetic interracial love did seem fictional and futuristic.
During the Afrofuturism Conference, Texas Southern University Professor Dr. Toniesha L. Taylor describes Zora Neale Hurston’s as working to link the past when things occur and the future where they live. In Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Dr. Taylor analyzed a particular passage that describes the Watcher and his dreams being “mocked to death by Time,” pointing to the idea that time has no regard for humans.
According to Dr. Taylor, Hurston’s work is dedicated to protecting and preserving the “future past” by writing the “future present.” In doing so, Dr. Taylor brought Hurston’s work from the author’s present moment into our present moment. Dr. Taylor said, “The way we understand Hurston’s ‘future present’ is by the way we position ourselves in our present moment with an understanding of how that turns into a future space.”
Octavia E. Butler is also known for writing novels that project Black women into spaces where they can thrive. In her most known work Kindred, she uses time to tell the history of enslaved people through a protagonist who lives in the future. Toni Morrison also draws upon elements of Afrofuturism. In Beloved, Morrison mixes past and future memories and sews them together with the spirit of “Beloved” to create a recollection of slavery and its horrors.
Contemporary writers such as Nnedi Okorafor and Ytsasha Womack continue the practice of incorporating the Black experience into the sci-fi realm while emphasizing the openness of the genre. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti has a Black girl protagonist who travels to a galaxy to attend a prestigious university. Ytasha Womack, author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, exposes the dimensionality and complexity of Afrofuturism by examining both literature and visualization.
Afrofuturism: Visualization & Fashion
Another way Afrofuturism has developed is through contemporary art and fashion. Solange’s film When I Get Home emphasizes her southern routes by placing Black people in futuristic spaces and alternate universes using imagery of flying horses and spaceships to transcend the Black space. The piece was displayed at art museums including New York’s Brooklyn Museum.
Before Solange’s artistic debut, many artists were exploring themes of reinventing the perceptions of Blackness. Kerry James Marshall was recognized for his pitch black portraits. Marshall’s work responds to westernized art by reimagining Black people in scenes of history and the present moment. Ellen Gallagher, another modern artist, mixed media of collage paper to create images alluding to racial stereotypes and tropes with the recurring theme of fantasy and reality.
Other women artists focus their work on reimagining society’s image of the Black woman. Wangechi Mutu uses mixed media pieces with collage clippings of pornogrpahic magazines to make empowering images of women, often crossed with nature and animals. Fabiola Jean-Louis is best known for her portraiture placing Black women in Renaissance-period style paintings. Renee Cox is known for addressing controversial topics regarding racism and sexism; she uses her own body as the subject, placing herself in different dimensions of time and experience.
Another visual form Afrofuturism takes is through fashion. Grace Jones, Rock and Roll artist and model, is known widely for her Night Clubbing album cover where her skin glows a metallic black and her shoulders are wide and sharp from a blazer. Her retro style consists of futuristic, superhero-like one pieces and ensembles with vibrant colors and reflective material. More recently, FKA twigs broke down walls in the music industry for her abstract visuals in music videos, album covers, and on stage with carefully detailed costumes often shifting her appearance between human, creature and extraterrestrial goddess.
Designers like Daniel Obasi use editorial fashion to address topics in the African community such as sexuality and beauty. Jerome LaMaar most recently gained exposure for his custom designed unit for Beyonce’s Black is King film, combining styles across the African diaspora to create a floral textured dress and headpiece in a rich turquoise blue. The piece was only one example of Afrofuturism’s manifestation in film.
Afrofuturism in Film: Black Panther, Coming 2 America, and Lovecraft Country
Marvel film Black Panther had elevated Afrofuturism to the forefront of the Black cultural conversation. The film centers the fictional Wakandan country located in Sub-Saharan Africa in a technologically advanced future where vibranium is a powerful element containing kinetic energy. Black Panther combines these elements with the the history of African American slavery. The Marvel movie reached the masses and made history as the top-grossing superhero film in the U.S.
Before our advancements in CGI animation, Blade cast Wesley Snipes as a Black, immortal protagonist who also possesses a sense of morality. Blade changed the narrative of the quintessential white vampire.
The classic film Coming to America starring Eddie Murphy, addressed the disparities around the African diaspora. The sequel, Coming 2 America is forthcoming in March and will continue the original story whilst also incorporating popular comedians such as Tracey Morgan and Leslie Jones.
The recently released Christmas movie Jingle Jangle also fuses West African music and fashion into a Victorian fantasy. In doing so, Jingle Jangle transforms an era traditionally depicted as predominantly white.
On television, adaptations of Black sci-fi books and comics have taken the mainstage. HBO’s Watchmen imagines a society in the past where white nationalists are the oppressed enemy. The main character in Watchmen is in love with an alien played by Black actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.
In Lovecraft Country, set in the heart of the Jim Crow era, Black people have the advantage of magic, time travel and extraterrestrial creatures. Netflix’s Fast Color and Raising Dion also center Black characters who have the gift of magical superpowers. In addition to on screen visuals, the art of sound adds another dimension to the cultural movement.
Afrofuturism in Music: Sun Ra, Parliament Funkadelic, and the 90s
In Black culture, music has long been a vessel to transcend space and time. The Blues, for example, is a multi-dimensional genre fostering the “notion of being happy and sad at once” as described by New York artist Ariel Jackson.
Sun Ra, musician and philosopher, brought electronic sounds and synths to his music and a celestial presence to stage with extravagant costumes and stage sets. Parliament Funkadelic landed their P-Funk Mothership on stage in Houston, creating a more elaborate display of Afrofuturism. More recently, Janelle Monae’s film Dirty Computer heavily uses the Afrofuturistic aesthetic along with futurism, sci-fi, and feminism in a dystopian society.
Visually, the aesthetic became popular in the 80s and 90s. Earth Wind and Fire enhanced their music videos with psychedelic kaleidoscope colors. Later, artists like Aaliyah, Missy Elliot and Michael Jackson brought audiences into alternate realities from the futuristic aesthetic of The Rain to the spaceship graphics in Scream. The use of green screens to transportBlack bodies into different spaces in time was a wide trend across the R&B and Hip Hop genres.
Afrofuturism also provided a way to differentiate trends within Black culture. Erykuh Badu stood out from her R&B peers due to her psychedelic music style and fashion. OutKast’s album ATLiens touched on themes of belonging and reflected upon the way Southern rap was entering the Hip Hop scene. Their musical force was an example of how Black people continued pushing the culture forward and helped it blossom.
The Future of Afrofuturism
The sequels to Black Panther and Coming to America will continue the dialogue around Black creativity and the fusion of experiences in the African diaspora. Highlighting differences between African and African American experiences and fusing them with science fiction and technological advancement causes the audience to contemplate another dimension of Black culture.
The emergence of these films will reinforce the dynamic nature of Afrofuturism on a wider scale, especially given their availability on streaming platforms like Disney+. The genre will continue creating potential for more Black directors, filmmakers and actors to develop original Afrofuturistic stories or adapt them from literature in mainstream entertainment.
As the African American experience continues to showcase the diversity and complexity of our culture, Afrofuturism continues to exhibit how our culture has evolved. The genre has gained traction in the predominantly white media and continues to challenge the norms of entertainment where only whiteness thrives.
Afrofuturism dares the arts of film, literature, and music to recognize the duality of Blackness and its contribution to them. The representation of Black people in the arts continues to strive forward, pushing the movement into the fields of sci-fi and fantasy promoting diversity and equity. Black Panther won’t be Marvel’s last Black superhero.
What’s your favorite Afrofuturism piece? Tell us in the comments!