Afrofuturism was coined in 1993 by Mark Dery in his book Flame Wars, in an essay titled Black To The Future, a debate between Dery, and black science fiction writers and cultural critics Samuel Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.
Afrofuturism is a cultural movement that envisions the reimagined history and identity of black people as transformative, in rejection of racial traumas and focusing on liberation in order to proactively reclaim the future of black people.
Rooted in themes of science fiction and fantasy genres, it sits under the umbrella of the speculative fiction subgenre, as well as, recontextualizing the black identity, placing black people in a positive light as leaders, innovators, & influencers of societal change.
The foundation of cultural critics, science fiction writers present an intersection of perspectives, proving a creative lineage in the advancement of many fields: science, technology, metaphysics, aesthetics, visual arts, music, literature, film & critical theory.
The existence of the black aesthetic in science fiction has been written since the early 1990s and evidence of black futurist thought has existed since before the 1950s.
Black To The Future
In Black To The Future Dery describes Afrofuturism as: “Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and concerns in the context of 20th-century techno-culture and more generally African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future — might for want of a better term be called Afrofuturism.”
Afrofuturism is indeed transformative. It is an uncovering of histories.
It is an ongoing process of reclaiming black histories and reimagining black voices, futures, and narratives.
Afrofuturism uplifts the historical significance of black cultural contributions, that are not covered as much as the traumatic reminders of slavery and Jim Crow.
While historical contributions are not always in an Afrofuturistic context, the inventions of ideas and concepts are by black inventors, are indeed creators in black speculative and imaginative thought.
Certain inventions by black people including Garrett Augustus Morgan who invented the traffic light, or Jerry Lawson who invented the videogame cartridge system, can be considered Afrofuturistic.
While Afrofuturism isn’t necessarily a movement — even though it has increasingly gained momentum in the last two decades — it has gradually evolved throughout pop culture and academia.
Alondra Nelson in Past-Future Visions, describes Afrofuturism as “a term to describe analysis, criticism, and cultural production”. “a critical perspective”, that addresses many overlaps that include race and technology…”
She continues to describe Afrofuturism as “Neither a mantra nor a movement, Afrofuturism is a critical perspective that opens up inquiry into the many overlaps between technoculture and black diasporic histories.”
Afrofuturism is not bound by a singular concept, definition, or movement, it is clear its advancement that is indeed open-ended. Nelson acknowledges that Afrofuturism overlap of critical perspectives that makes room for the genre to have an open-ended dialogue.
In Afrofuturism, science fiction, and the history of the future (2006) Lisa Yaszek describes Afrofuturism as “a larger aesthetic mode, a diverse range of artists working in different genres and media who are united by a shared interest in projecting black futures derived from Afrodiasporic experiences.”
How Ytasha Womack explains Afrofuturism in Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (2013) has now become the universal description we know today. She calls Afrofuturism an “intersection”, that “redefines notions of blackness for today and the future”, an “artistic aesthetic and framework for critical theory”, “a total re-envisioning of the past”.
Womack also lists multiple subgenres around Afrofuturism including “science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, magical realism (with non-western beliefs).”
Yaszek and Womack both encompass Afrofuturism’s size, scale, and intersection, across a shared interest of art practices, engaging in multiple artistic aesthetics, genres, and media.
This is an important distinction in Afrofuturistic analysis, criticism, and cultural production because it sets itself apart from being pigeonholed as a singular movement or genre. It creates its own framework for critical theory when the notion is a constant redefinition of blackness, from past, present, and future.
Earliest Recollections of Afrofuturism
Some of the earliest known examples of Afrofuturism are historical juxtapositions in what would be considered Afrofuturistic.
A West African tribe called the Dogon had astronomical knowledge of the star system known for discovering the orbits of the stars ‘Sirius B’ and ‘Sirius A’ as early as 3200 BC, before Galileo’s “invention” of the telescope in 1609.
In the 1800s enslaved peoples described the concept of “flight” as a secret language, passed down as oral history in folktales, the story of Igbo Landing and the “myth” of The Flying Africans, has been explored by authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Lorna McDaniel.
W.E.B. Dubois, mostly known for his nonfiction writing on black studies, published The Comet, an apocalyptic science fiction story appearing in his collection Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil in 1920.
These examples are some of the historical juxtapositions that Afrofuturism is known for, apocalyptic speculative fiction in the 1900s, written accounts of flight during slavery, ancient knowledge as technology separate from the western world.
These instances open many doors for contextual nuance and layered storytelling in the analysis of diasporic history in future decades.
Afrofuturism in Visual Art and Popular Culture
Afrofuturism had a surge in popularity in the visual arts in the last 20 years, where the intersection of artists, writers, musicians convene together under the same roof. Notable exhibitions include: Moondance: A Night In the Afrofuture curated by King Britt, The Shadows Took Shape curated by Naima J. Keith and Zoe Whitley. Unveiling Visions: The Alchemy of the Black Imagination and curated by artist John Jennings and scholar Reynaldo Anderson, Curating The End of The World by Reynaldo Anderson, Stacey Robinson of the Black Speculative Arts Movement and guest-curated by Tiffany E. Barber, Afro-Tech and The Future of Re-invention curated by Inke Arns and Fabian Saavedra-Lara.
Artists include Derrick Adams, Cyrus Kabiru, Wangechi Mutu, John Akomfrah, The Otolith Group, Sanford Biggers, Robert Pruitt, Cauleen Smith, Wanuri Kahiu, Rammellzee, and DJ Spooky.
Afrofuturism in Film and TV
Space Is The Place is Sun Ra’s mythology, front, and center, set in Oakland, CA in 1973 presumably lost in space, lands his spaceship on earth to recruit black people for the Outer Space Employment Agency.
The Wiz is a black fantastical version of the 1930s original with an all-star cast and remarkable soundtrack set in Harlem, New York instead of prairie in Kansas.
The Last Angel of History, a meta-narrative documentary film directed by John Akomfrah, written by Edward George with appearances by musicians and theorists such as George Clinton, Juan Atkins, A Guy Called Gerald, Goldie, Underground Resistance, and Kodwo Eshun. The story follows the data thief in an archaeological search of fragments of a black secret technology with commentary on Afrofuturism’s origins in black musical tradition including techno and P-Funk.
Hidden Figures explores the true story of three black women known as “human computers”, working as mathematicians at NASA during the 1960s.
Black Panther, Prince T’Challa returns to the African nation of Wakanda to take his throne as king and leader of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced country in the world, untouched by European colonization.
Lovecraft Country, the HBO series, is a continuation of the novel of the same name, fuses black horror, Afrofuturism, and speculative fiction in the era of 1950s, Jim Crow.
Afrofuturism in Music
During Sun Ra’s emergence in the 1950s & 1960s, he introduced an astro-black, afro-cosmic mythology in the genre of free-jazz, performance, and film that set the tone in the decades that followed.
Afrofuturism is mostly recognizable for its cultural production in black music from the 1970s -1990s. The rise in familiar Afrofuturist imagery in black music and pop culture is commonly aligned with Earth Wind & Fire and Parliament-Funkadelic. Their album art, music videos, fashion, and musically spiritual philosophies are still memorable today.
EWF’s album covers distinct renderings of Egyptian iconography. Parliament-Funkadelic’s P-Funk album covers displayed their mythology constructed by Pedro Bell with detailed surrealistic illustrations and album titleswith an entire vocabulary.
In the 1980s & 1990s many genres of electronic music were thriving, including Detroit-techno artists such as Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Robert Hood, Underground Resistance, Drexciya— all of these black artists and musicians taking a sonically focused approach to craft an intentional sound with sophisticated production and direct subject matter.
The musical artistry within the mid-1990s especially in with Andre 3000 and Big Boi from Outkast, the black southern futurist declaration as ATLiens, mixing Afrocentricism and astrology with Aquemini.
Also, the directorial work of Hype Williams, the ghetto surrealist cinematics in ways hip-hop & R&B hadn’t been perceived before. Seeing Missy Elliot and TLC in a black futuristic environments at the height of their careers, centered as ahead of the times is notable.
In the late 90s and mid-2000s artists like Erykah Badu proclaiming herself as an analog-girl-in-a-digital-world on Mama’s Gun and Janelle Monae proclaiming herself as an Archandroid and Electric Lady.
More recently visual albums like on Solange’s When I Get Home, she honed in on her inspirations like The Wiz and Stevie Wonder’s Secret Life of Plants to form a nostalgic love letter to her hometown of Houston.
Beyonce’s Black Is King, a Sankofic love letter to the continent of Africa, prominently displaying both African and African-American cultures intertwined.
Many of us are still awakening to the endless possibilities of Afrofuturism, since has so much to offer and so much room to grow. Since the 1990s, the creative lineage spans hundreds of years and has proven to be is an intersection of growing engagement of black perspectives from past, present, and future.