This month, Marvel Comics’ Black Panther broke box office records as moviegoers took a look at director Ryan Coogler’s live-action portrayal of Wakanda. It is a technologically-advanced fictional African nation, untouched by colonialism.
There was similar elation in December, when Jay-Z’s “Family Feud” video dropped. Directed by Ava Duvernay, viewers time traveled to see the Carters’ legacy reign for centuries. The visual also imagined a future where women revise the nation’s constitution.
Likewise, the CW’s Black Lightning, which has Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil as creators/showrunners, premiered in January. The series follows a retired black superhero’s return to crime-fighting while guiding his daughters, Anissa and Jennifer, who inherited his metahuman powers.
What ties each of these recent popular works together? Afrofuturism.
The concept is a way of looking at the future, science fiction, fantasy, mysticism, and alternative realities through a black cultural lens, Ytasha Womack told Revolt. Womack is an afrofuturist filmmaker and author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture.
“It is an artistic aesthetic, but it can also be an epistemology, which means a way of looking at the world,” Womack explained. “It’s also a way of helping people push past barriers and limitations of [space and time].”
Womack adds that afrofuturism is different from other takes on futurism or sci-fi because it references black culture and values feminine expression and contributions women make to humanity.
It is important to note that the definition of Afrofuturism is ever-expanding. It may mean something a bit different depending on who you ask. Some black creators and thinkers may be invoking its principles without realizing it.
A white critic Mark Dery coined the term afrofuturism in a 1993 essay, “Black to the Future_0.pdf).” Dery interviewed one of the first self-proclaimed black science fiction authors, Samuel R. Delany, cultural critic Greg Tate, and scholar Tricia Rose about the topic. But long before Dery’s publication, black people were reimagining lives for themselves beyond their present conditions.
“I think the idea of dreaming futures and building them into reality is something black folks have done, always,” Walidah Imarisha, scholar and co-editor of the science fiction anthology Octavia’s Brood, told Revolt.
“This kind of time-traveling reality — living with the past which is constantly informing us and engaging with the future — is a central piece in black lives, black community, and black culture.”
Electric Arches (2017), by Eve Ewing, is an afrofuturist work that challenges the idea of linear time. Ewing’s collection of poetry, narrative prose and visual art explores black girlhood and womanhood and takes the reader to different moments in time, such as 1990s Chicago and a future where aliens have arrived.
“Part of what afrofuturism does is trouble the notion that time only moves in one direction,” Ewing told Revolt. The author said she explores identity while toying with boundaries of how people usually see time, space and time travel.
“I've been thinking about A Wrinkle in Time because the movie is about to come out and I think that time in Electric Arches is very, very wrinkly,” explained Ewing. “It pulls up against itself so that the boundaries between the past, present and future are very blurry.”
Artist and filmmaker Selam Bekele also applies an afrofuturist aesthetic in her work. In 2016, she created a public sound installation in her birthplace Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Bekele played recordings she felt translated into the sound of grief. Bekele called on afrofuturism, through the use of digital tools, to express an emotion people may not always have specific language for.
“I think Afrofuturism is seeing reality in a very direct way and intentionally searching for freedom through whatever tools you have: if it's digital, sound, video, text, whatever,” Bekele told Revolt. “Breaking things apart and flipping the script so that we can be free.”
The adoption of mobile technology for example, has given black people a tool to voice new narratives, especially via social media and apps. This could be the latest viral meme reactions to popular culture. It could also be a video game like artist Momo Pixel's “Hair Nah," which exposed the way black women feel when people touch their hair without permission.
“I would say that black folks are really taking over every aspect of social media, whether it's you know emotional, whether it's really funny,” said art curator Erin Christovale in the 2015 documentary The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto. “This digital landscape is a place where black folks are really creating these new ideas for themselves.”
Bekele also channeled one influential afrofuturist work when she created her sound installation.
“I was thinking of Parable of Sower. The main character in Octavia Butler's book has this condition called hyper-empathy, and it's this condition where you're really sensitive to what's going on around you. I think Afrofuturism is what you do with that sensitivity,” said Bekele.
Science fiction author Octavia Butler is often referenced as an influence for afro-futurists. The best-selling novelist also penned her own worlds featuring black female protagonists in Kindred (1979) and Dawn (1987). Others, such as singer Solange, carry on the inspiration of the late experimental jazz musician Sun-Ra and his Arkestra. His 1974 film Space is the Place depicts the liberation of the black race by transporting them to a new planet. In the 1970s, funk legend George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic sung about black inhabitants in a futuristic outer-space. This inspired the West Coast hip-hop genre g-funk. Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, and Dr. Dre have sampled his work.
Several black historical figures’ works have been described as “proto-afrofuturist”: Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man (1952) which has traces of sci-fi and explores the theme of alienation for a black American man; W.E.B. DuBois’ post-apocalyptic story The Comet (1920); and Pauline E. Hopkins’ Of One Blood: Or, The Hidden Self (1902) which contains sci-fi elements. These black authors conjured up worlds outside of the exhausting post-slavery realities they faced during America’s Jim Crow era.
Artist Sanford Biggers paid homage to Harriet Tubman within an afrofuturism context with his mixed-media piece “Constellation 2.”
“I have recently started to think of Harriet Tubman as an astronaut, navigating the stars, trying to develop a trail, a way to escape slavery into freedom,” Biggers told WhiteHot in 2010.
In the present, it is important for black people to continue dreaming of the future and owning what this means. In a current political climate under President Trump, many facets of progress towards equality for African-Americans is at stake, according to the National Urban League’s 2017 State of Black America report. The black unemployment rate, the wage gap, voting rights and community and local police relations are some of them.
Imarisha sees all activists and community organizers working for these changes as sci-fi creators, which she and co-editor Adrienne Maree Brown explore in Octavia’s Brood, named after Octavia Butler. The book featured science fiction tales penned by 20 activists. “That imaginative space organizers hold in our community is one that we felt connected with and complemented the genre of science fiction,” she said.
In her local Portland, Imarisha observed afrofuturism used as a way to give black residents space to design a new future in Oregon, which in its early days banned black people. For two years, the Portland African-American Leadership Forum held community sessions with hundreds of black residents and asked them what a black utopia would look like. The organization then compiled the 2017 “Peoples Plan,” which included actionable steps and policy recommendations to build it.
“I was so thankful for that visionary space — creating space for black folks to dream,” Imarisha expressed. “That to me, is what makes afrofuturism, afrofuturism. It is the insistence on black humanity and the past, present, and the future, and recognizing that those are happening simultaneously. That, this is something that we have held onto in spite of everything trying to rip it away from us.”