The creation and distribution of short stories like “The Goophered Grapevine” and “The Comet” as well as novels like Imperium in Imperio and Black No More suggest that Black authors have produced and published speculative fiction for more than a century. Yet, even though Black authors in the early 1900s were writing and publishing speculative fiction, their work was not considered as prestigious as Black realistic fiction authors (Brown, 2014). The late twentieth century, however, brought more attention to Black speculative fiction, as Octavia Butler, Charles Saunders, Steve Barnes, and Samuel Delaney assumed prominent roles as Black speculative fiction authors. Still, there were few Black authors who could claim the same notoriety. The lack of published Black science fiction authors prompted author and cultural critic, Mark Dery (1994), to pose a critical question: “Why do so few African Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounters with the Other – the stranger in a strange land – would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African American novelists?” (pp. 179-180).
Dery’s (1994) query prompted him to examine “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of the twentieth-century technoculture – and, more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future” (p. 180). He used this definition to coin the term, Afrofuturism. To further explain his concept, he provided examples of Afrofuturism through the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the graffiti of Rammellzee, the comics of Milestone Media, the movies of John Sayles and Lizzie Borden, and the music of Sun Ra, Parliament-Funkadelics, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton, Bernie Worrell, and Herbie Hancock. In addition to these examples, he interviewed Samuel Delaney, Greg Tate, and Dr. Tricia Rose about race in science fiction writing and fan communities. He used the interviews to further elucidate his notion of Afrofuturism by tying his initial question to the responses of Black scholars and authors. Thus, in coining the term and providing examples and commentary, Dery defined Afrofuturism and cast his terminology into the public sphere.
However, even though he provided a definition and exemplars, Dery (1994) stated that his work was meant to map a small section of Afrofuturism. Thus, to excavate the possibilities of the term, it is critical to uncover how Afrofuturism has been explored in various academic and public spaces. The purpose of this paper, then, is to consider how Afrofuturism has been conceived by scholars in the fields of English and Children’s and Young Adult Literature and to determine how the term has been taken up in contemporary popular culture. To do this, I provide two short, but separate literature reviews that show how the term is being used in popular culture and academic spaces. I then bring both reviews together to showcase the similarities across popular and academic scholarship and to establish my understanding of Afrofuturism.
Popular culture is a pervasive entity that can include everything from newspapers to billboards to social media. Because popular culture is so omnipresent, it is important to narrow the focus, thus I concentrate my analysis on mediated popular culture (Sellnow, 2017) through Google. I narrowed my review to an analysis of Google’s representation of the term for four reasons gleaned from Danesi’s (2018) text on popular culture: (1) since 2017, digital platforms have dominated the delivery of emerging forms of popular culture; (2) Google’s print literature digitization project has influenced how people access new texts; (3) Google is an important advertisement source for new cultural trends; and (4) Google’s algorithm ranks websites based on “statistically determined popularity” (p. 338). Ultimately, Google has considerable impact on popular culture and is essential for conceptualizing Afrofuturism in the public sphere.
To collect information for the review of public scholarship, I used Google’s search function using the key phrase, intitle:Afrofuturism. The use of “intitle” followed by a colon and key word allows for the Google algorithm to find results with the word directly in the title. Additionally, as there was an uptick in Afrofuturism’s popularity from February 2018 to June 2018 that coincided with the release of Marvel’s Black Panther, Ava Duvernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, and Janelle Monae’s Album Dirty Computer, I narrowed the results to links that were published in those months. The search resulted in approximately 600 articles. I limited my review to the first two pages of the results because the first page of Google results receives over 70% of the search traffic, while the second page receives less than six percent (Shelton, 2017). This left 18 articles to be included in this review.
To collect literature for this academic portion of my review, I searched seven academic databases, including Academic Search Complete, EBSCOHost, Education Search Complete, ERIC, JStor, Urban Studies Abstracts, and Race Relations Abstracts. I explored the databases using the following key words: Afrofuturism and literature; Afrofuturism and young adult literature; and Afrofuturism and children’s literature. Even though there are definitions of the term in studies about poetry (Mayer, 2000; Ranft, 2014), music (English & Kim, 2013), film (Nama, 2008), and comics (Nama, 2009), my focus is on fiction in the form of novels and short stories, so I eliminated these articles from the review.
To further add to my review, I searched the criticism section of Afrofuturism.net, an internet platform initiated by Alondra Nelson and colleagues as a space for various people to discuss the term. I also searched the special journal issues of Science Fiction Studies and Social Text that are dedicated to Afrofuturism. However, even though the issues and website are dedicated to Afrofuturism, the majority of articles did not use the term within the text or title. In fact, only three of seven articles in Science Fiction Studies and one out of eight articles in Social Text explicitly used the word Afrofuturism in the entire article. Additionally, out of over 400 documents listed on the Afrofuturism website, less than twenty included the term in the title. Of course, there are some scholars who equate Black science fiction with Afrofuturism, but because I was specifically looking for how Afrofuturism has been conceived, I searched for articles that centered literature and included a definition of Afrofuturism. After eliminations and additional searches, 27 articles were left to be included in this review.
Afrofuturism and Literature in Popular Culture
On Twitter, Nalo_Hopkinson (2016) wrote, “Be it resolved: the term “Afrofuturism” is more like a hashtag than a genre” in a tweet that was formed out of her concern for the word becoming synonymous with “science fiction by Black people.” In the short Twitter thread, one responder stated that it had become a term that encompassed anything featuring Black people in fantastic settings. Another commented that they personally organized all speculative fiction written by Black authors as Afrofuturism. One other person remarked that they saw it as an art movement or aesthetic. The twitter conversation highlights the confusion surrounding the definition, with some people stating that Afrofuturism is a subgenre of science fiction, some believing that it is all speculative fiction written by Black people, and some categorizing it as a movement or set of principles. Ultimately, the term Dery created over two decades ago has taken on various meanings in the public sphere, as more Black people create speculative stories and more readers attempt to categorize and theorize Afrofuturism. In the following sections, I outline how public scholars conceptualized Afrofuturism in blogs, opinion editorials, and news articles.
Afrofuturism Reclaims the Past to Imagine a Future
Definitions of Afrofuturism included multiple components; however, one of the most prominent ways that Afrofuturism was categorized was through its ability to highlight Black people’s historical and present existence and how both past and present provides the framework for their ability to thrive in the future. Specifically, both Fitzpatrick (2018) and Northington (2018) stated that Afrofuturism referred to science fictional and fantastic media that explored Black individual and communal futures. Northington (2018) also acknowledged that because Black bodies have been historically politicized, Afrofuturism is inherently political, transformative, and revolutionary, while Fitzpatrick (2018) added that afrofuturistic stories often portray futuristic societies in which Black people become leaders through the use of technology. Similarly, Barrett (2018) recognized that Afrofuturism uses the fantastic genres as a way for Black people to figure out who they are and what they believe about the world, now and in the future. More importantly, though, Barrett argued that Afrofuturism’s prominence comes from its ability to center Black people and focalize their connection to history and each other. Thus, a major facet of Afrofuturism is its ability to connect Black people’s pasts and presents to their possible futures, while also providing cultural connections to each other.
Sayej (2018) focused on an art show in Chicago that featured Black artists who used science fiction and futuristic themes in their artwork long before the release of Black Panther. She declared that although Afrofuturism’s roots are unclear, the beginnings are often attributed to Sun Ra and his themes of time travel, technology, heroism, and Black representation. In fact, she suggests that the movement has its origins in the writings of W.E.B. Dubois and the activism of Frederick Douglass because they each speculated on the future and redefined what Blackness could be. Likewise, Sutton (2018) noted the historical legacy of Afrofuturism prior to Dery’s (1994) coining of the term, and he argued that Dery was just one of the many people who were theorizing what is now called Afrofuturism. Although he contended that Afrofuturism existed in many places, though, he stated that there are common themes, including the impact of displacement, the technology of race, and the creation of futures for Black people.
Even though most futures were described in a Western context, Giles (2018) defined Afrofuturism as a cultural aesthetic that traverses the realms of technology, science fiction, and African mythologies and upends the White-dominated genre of science fiction by positioning Black people at the center of the future. He noted that while Afrofuturism is based on African American productions, there is a science fiction renaissance occurring in Africa, where authors like Roye Okupe place African characters at the center of futuristic narratives. Alternatively, Anderson (2018) considered Afrofuturism to be loosely defined. She added, however, that it refers to a philosophy and a cultural aesthetic that contrasts hegemonic futuristic traditions and focalizes a future that centers Blackness and racial diversity. She argued that Afrofuturism is a different version of science fiction because the foundation is completely separate from that of White, hegemonic science fiction. To show this, she provided an example of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, where the premise of the novel is grounded in an African context, not American culture.
Afrofuturism Combats Oppression
Even though some public scholars highlighted Afrofuturism’s focus on the future, other scholars focalized Afrofuturism’s ability to counter specific oppressions. For instance, Staples (2018) proposed that Mark Dery spurred a generation of Black artists and academics to engage in futuristic thinking because if they did not, they “were in danger of being written out of the future” (par. 1). He further described Afrofuturism as artistry that uses the tools of science fiction to dismantle stereotypical images of Africans and envision better futures. Taking a similar oppositional stance, Adlakha (2018) conceptualized Afrofuturism as an artistic philosophy that incorporates African and African American symbolism into a science fictional space as a way to “reclaim modern blackness” (par. 7). Even though the author situates Afrofuturism in both African and African American symbolism, however, they noted that the philosophy is often confined to America’s racial history within the cultural context of the Western world.
Focusing less on historical reclamation, Latief (2018) stated that Afrofuturism was a way for Black people to understand and work through rapid change and combat current racial oppression. He theorized that Afrofuturism was in its third historical moment, where the first occurred during the years of Sun Ra, the second aligned with Dery’s (1994) creation of the term and the emergence of the internet, and the third is during the contemporary moment in which social media has contributed to more global access. Within the third wave, Latief argued that increase in visual terror in recent years has prompted an increased need to combat oppression through speculation. Comparably, the staff at Inverse (2018) contended that although the term was coined by Dery, activists like Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X fought for Black futures while living in a world of peril. They claimed that Afrofuturism is more than just a flashy aesthetic within popular culture because it was an all-encompassing “artform, practice, and methodology that allows Black people to see themselves in the future despite a distressing past and present” (par. 4). They also claimed that Afrofuturism tackled more than race, for the art form also opposed oppressions, like generational trauma, misogyny, and trans-antagonism.
Highlighting the fact that Black pain and suffering in the present often sells and that futuristic existences for Black people are often eliminated, Arboine (2018) situated Afrofuturism as a mixture of Blackness and science fiction that can provide hope and possibility. She noted that Afrofuturism allows Black creatives to take up space in visions of the future, take control over their own experiences and futures, recontextualize stereotypical Western views about Africa and its people. That is, by providing hope and visions of possible futures, Afrofuturism combats oppression because Black people are granted the freedom to use various tools to take control of their futures and re-center their cultural roots.
Afrofuturism Envisions New, Utopic Worlds
Some scholars highlighted the need to combat oppression and place Black people in the future, but other scholars centralized the need to not only place Black people in futures, but to ensure that those futures are more positive. For example, Broadnax (2018) and Alexander (2018) identified Afrofuturism as a reimagining of the future that sits at the intersection of science fiction and African cosmology and focalizes technology, science, art, and music. This mix, they contended, challenges people to imagine better worlds in order to create a more equitable future for all people. Similarly, although McKnight-Abrams (2018) argued that the resurgence of Afrofuturist thought might have arisen due to the more pronounced anti-Blackness in society, she observed that Afrofuturism is a cathartic, cosmically-inspired aesthetic that combines culture and futuristic ideals to imagine more positive futures for Black people.
Rao (2018), stated that Afrofuturism was a cultural aesthetic that mixed science fiction and fantasy with African Diasporic cultures as a way to present utopic futures and Black technological innovations an upend preconceived ideas about race and history. She credited Dery (1994) with the definition, but she also acknowledged that elements of Afrofuturism existed before the term was created. Additionally, she mentioned that contemporary society is rife with Afrofuturist representations in the works of artists like Janelle Monae, Rihanna, and Jay Z as well as directors like Ryan Coogler and Ava Duvernay. Likewise, Clark (2018) defined the term as a malleable, artistic aesthetic and critical framework that often includes political commentary and always highlights imagined and unconventional global Black experiences. Although she commented on Black Panther’s modern success, she provided six cinematic ancestors to the film, including Sun Ra’s Space is the Place and Gerima’s Sankofa, to suggest that modern Afrofuturists often rely on the films for inspiration. In other words, current and previous Afrofuturists used history to create utopic futures for Black people.
Dozier (2018) also described Afrofuturism as an artistic aesthetic that combines speculative fiction, historical fiction, and fantasy with Black and African cultures. However, he was less focused on the contemporary definition of the term because he was interested in the future of Afrofuturism. Thus, he interviewed five self-identified Afrofuturists for their ideas about the future of the movement. The interviewees suggested that Afrofuturism would continue to be a methodological tool that could be used to look at the current world and envision new ones. However, they also cautioned the use of relegating Afrofuturism to cultural aesthetics, for it was also important to center in Black liberatory movements.
Ultimately, these public scholars agreed that Afrofuturism is created by Black people and centers Black histories and cultures. They also agreed that Afrofuturism centers science fiction, fantasy, and history. However, they are divided on whether Afrofuturism is a genre, a cultural or artistic aesthetic, or a movement. Additionally, in defining these terms, the presence of literature was noticeably absent, with most scholars focusing on the presence of Afrofuturism in film, music, and art. Butler and Delaney were often mentioned, but their works were overshadowed by commentary on Janelle Monae and Black Panther. Moreover, the consistent use of African Diasporic creative production suggests that many public scholars situate Afrofuturism in a Western context, mentioning the continent of Africa, but focalizing aspects of Black identities in the Americas.
Afrofuturism in Scholarship
Various academics have grappled with the concept of Afrofuturism. Some align with Dery’s definition, but many believe the initial definition is not enough to encompass the futuristic production of Black people. Specifically, Alondra Nelson (2000) reasoned that the original definition was limiting because it centered Black speculative artistry as reactive, rather than creative and constitutive. George Lewis (2008) argued that scholars must renegotiate the boundaries between technology and spirituality because “one can easily view Santeria as a kind of technology designed to facilitate communication with higher powers” (p. 142). Reynaldo Anderson (2016) claimed that a focus on Western technology marginalized alternative cultures that believed technology was a combination of earthly and unearthly production. He also noted that the original definition failed to account for the new technologies of the twenty-first century, like social media and smartphones. Essentially, Afrofuturism is defined in numerous ways in the academy, as some scholars align with Dery’s definition and others attempt to expand it. In the following sections, I outline how academics have grappled with the term, Afrofuturism.
Afrofuturism Combats Dystopic Realities
Similar to public scholar’s categorization of Afrofuturism as a means to combat oppression, academics often situated Afrofuturism as a form of literature that countered dystopic realities. For example, Moynagh (2018) defined Afrofuturism as a body of writing in which African Diasporic artists produce science fiction and fantasy. She claimed that Afrofuturism is not about escaping the colonial past; instead, it is a way to focalize conversations about the social construction, or technology, of race in the 21st century. To illustrate, she used Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring and Midnight Robber to discuss the author’s ability to discuss and counter issues relating to slavery, Diasporic dislocation, and American racism. Similarly, Allen (2017) considered Paule Hopkins’ Of One Blood, Tananarive Due’s African Immortal Series, and Octavia Butler’s Fledgling to be Afrofuturist feminist texts that utilized the gothic tradition to combat clichéd ideas about race and imagine new worlds free from the constraints of racism. She contended that the authors’ used haunting, psychic power, and vampire mythology to celebrate and honor African diasporic culture. Thus, both scholars used their texts to show how Black female authors used fantastic characters, plots, and settings to focalize and contest historical social relations that negatively impact Black lives in the Americas.
Harvey (2016) positioned Bill Campbell’s novel, Sunshine Patriots, as an example of Afrofuturist literature because of its commentary on race, posthumanism, and imperialism, while also presenting themes of solidarity and spirituality as sources of hope for marginalized people. The main character is a celebrity war hero of Jamaican decent who leads an army bent on the destruction of a small liberal colony, but he eventually fights against the army as they continuously exploit his image for war propaganda. Harvey argued that this story is within the Afrofuturist aesthetic in that it shows the appropriation of Black bodies for imperialistic gain, and he connected the soldiers’ defection from the military to enslaved people fleeing to freedom. Additionally, he argued that a Black character’s belief in the spiritual is a foundation for resistance, and he associated the character’s spirituality to the spiritual songs sung by enslaved people as they endured oppression and believed in freedom from that oppression.
Although most scholars focalized texts with Black protagonists, Allen (2016) examined Charles Chesnutt’s The Colonel’s Dream, a novel about a White colonel who wished to create a utopia for southern Black Americans. She considered it to be a prototype for “the literary tradition of Afrofuturism” (p. 93) because Chesnutt’s main character attempted to create a world that socially and psychologically progressed enough to overcome the history of enslavement. In fact, Allen stated that an Afrofuturist analysis of a book with a White protagonist could provide an example of how scholars can expand conceptions of Afrofuturism to more texts. She argued, without adequate support, that Chesnutt’s focalization of a White, male, upper-class, liberal protagonist is an Afrofuturist act because the protagonist is better situated to critique liberal racism and the myth of a raceless, utopian New South to a white audience.
Various scholars noted Afrofuturism’s commitment to racial commentary, but Lavender (2007) argued that although Afrofuturism is a cultural and literary aesthetic and mode of critique that is specifically about African diasporic experiences, it lacks the critical vocabulary necessary to foreground conversations about race in science fiction. So, he proposed the term, ethnoscape, to describe how Afrofuturist authors present familiar settings in strange ways as an attempt to assist readers in rethinking the connections between race and technology. Using his analysis of Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed, The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, and Babel-17 by Samuel Delaney, Lavender claimed that “while Afrofuturism is primarily concerned with the relationships between New World Blacks and technology, ethnoscape criticism focuses on the racial elements of individual [science fiction] texts” (p. 197). In other words, Lavender was less focused on specific elements that define Afrofuturism. Instead, he coined a critical term that analyzes what Black science fiction writers do with their literary landscapes.
Afrofuturism Reclaims and Recovers Lost Histories
Yaszek (2005, 2006, 2013) defined Afrofuturism as a global, international and popular aesthetic movement that is created by a diverse range of artists, genres, and media and that focalizes science, technology, and race. She claimed that Afrofuturist authors use science fictional strategies to achieve three goals: to tell science fiction stories; to recover lost histories and analyze how those histories impact contemporary Black culture; and to examine how lost histories and cultures might influence the future (Yaszek, 2013). She also noted that Afrofuturist authors have political goals and use science fiction to “put a black face on the future” (Yaszek, 2005, p. 297). To expound upon her definition, Yaszek provided Afrofuturist analyses of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, calling it a central text of literary futurism, or proto-Afrofuturism, though she mentioned that Ellison’s novel did not meet all criteria (2005, 2006). She also used serialized stories like Blake or the Huts of America, anthologies like Dark Matter, and novels like Midnight Robber to suggest that Afrofuturism is a global literary endeavor.
Elia (2016) and Rodriques (2017) also highlighted proto-Afrofuturist works. Elia (2016) analyzed W.E.B. Dubois’ short story, “The Comet”, as an example of early Afrofuturism that was inherently experimentalist, tying radical speculative stories to a political message. He defined Afrofuturism as a transnational and interdisciplinary movement that rethinks Black history and speculatively experiments with time in order to imagine alternative and better futures. The concept of speculative experimentation was also present in Rodriques’ (2017) analysis of Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow. Rodriques defined Afrofuturism as a critical aesthetic framework, a method, and a perspective that is referential, speculative, fragmented, and fluid. She categorized Marshall’s novel as Afrofuturist because it countered the fetishization of Africa by situating “spirituality as a diasporic technology recovered from the past and projected into the future” (p. 2). To show this, she analyzed various aspects of Marshall’s novel and suggested that the story is a diasporic expression of historical longing that uses Caribbean cosmologies of time, community, religion, and space to reclaim history and speculate about possible futures.
Although some scholars focused on proto-Afrofuturism, other scholars highlighted more modern texts. For example, Faucheux and Lavender (2018) conceptualized Afrofuturism as a genre and a movement that uses the histories of oppressed peoples to disrupt linearity and intertwine past, present, and future. Further, they positioned Afrofuturism as paradoxical, “as Afrofuturist writers challenge the very concepts of progressive modernity, the myth of a post-racial world, and the impartial nature of technology” (p. 32). To develop their definition, they focalized the literary trickster trope, noting how Afrofuturist authors transform the trope by situating tricksterism as technology. Using Octavia Butler’s Wildseed and Nalo Hopkinson’s “Granger” and Midnight Robber, Faucheux and Lavender showcased how each author foregrounded a Black character’s manipulation of biopolitical knowledge to influence the environment and ensure survival. In doing so, they connected Blackness with past, present, and future and dismantled the boundaries of futurity and antiquity that guide Western science fiction.
Olutola (2018) argued that Afrofuturism was a literary endeavor that could produce a corrective to the erasure of Black histories and cultures in a White supremacist society that consistently appropriated Black people’s futures. She asserted that Afrofuturism can re- appropriate the stories, histories, and futures of Black people. To illustrate, Olutola analyzed Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring and found that the novel exposed the marginalization of colonized people, but it also provided a potential counter-story to the Eurocentric philosophies that privilege the destruction of Black bodies. Similarly, Sorenson (2014) defined Afrofuturism as a literary form and argued that Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber and The Salt Roads used Jamaican dub-style as a dialectical mode of thought that provided a counter-discourse to Western conceptions of technology that often exclude Caribbean influences. He maintained that Hopkinson used nonlinear narratives that “frequently produce effects akin to dub echoes,” (p. 269) in an effort to evoke Afro-Caribbean history while also eluding to futuristic possibilities.
Enteen (2007) also studied the work of Nalo Hopkinson, arguing that the author produced future scenarios that negate the traditional perspectives of White, Western science fiction authors. To show this, she analyzed how Hopkinson’s novel Midnight Robber countered traditional conceptions of the science fiction subgenre of cyberpunk by centering Caribbean and Jamaican histories. Particularly, she argued that Hopkinson’s novel highlighted social and economic inequities, suggested nuanced relationships between humans and technology, provided novel ideas to inspire technological and social advancement, and fused Black history into the science fiction genre. Comparably, Josephs (2013) analyzed how Jamaican author Erna Brodber’s novel, The Rainmaker’s Mistake, connected Caribbean historical events to the present and used the connection to offer commentary about the ways in which future possibilities are made real through one’s connection to the past and decisions in the present. She analyzed Brodber’s historical fiction novel through an Afrofuturist lens because she acknowledged that Afrofuturism is a descriptive term with no clear definition or list of requirements, so historical texts can be included in the genre. Her findings suggested that writers can use Afrofuturism to rethink simplistic understandings of Black culture by focalizing the complex, nonlinear connections between Black pasts, presents, and futures.
Providing another example of extended Afrofuturism, Banerjee (2017) discussed Evgenii Zamiatin’s novel We as a part of what he called the “global movement” of Afrofuturism. The author noted that Afrofuturism is not commonly associated with Russia; however, she also argued that analyzing We through an Afrofuturist lens could recover the histories of race and revolution in Russia. Specifically, Zamiatin’s novel includes a character who is a poet with “African lips” and “dark curly hair,” a symbolic representation Aleksander Pushkin, the father of Russian literature who had African ancestry. With the inclusion of this character as a key force in aiding the protagonist to understand art’s radical potential, Banerjee situates We as a novel that creates a future “wrought by a planetary avant-garde indelibly marked by, and as, the racial other” (p. 485). Rettova (2017) also called for global Afrofuturism, arguing that conceptions of Afrofuturism focus on Black people within the diaspora and leave continental Africans in the categories of magical realism or parable. To counter the idea that Africa is unable to enter the future, Rettova presented Afrofuturism as a sub-genre of science fiction where African people can reimagine Africa and reinvent African identities. To denote Africa’s history of futurist fiction, Rettova, analyzed the literature of Swahili and Shona authors, showing how the writers play with epistemology and allegory to construct different worlds. She asserted that African literature should be removed from genres of the past and be read through futuristic lenses.
Afrofuturism Addresses Diverse Issues
Many authors focused specifically on race, racism, and the history of enslavement, but some scholars called for a broadening of Afrofuturism, one that addressed more topics, like the environment, gender, sexuality, and religion. For instance, Marotta (2018) argued that literary Afrofuturism attempts to portray Black people positively. Through a short analysis of Nnedi Okorafor’s narratives that include hair motifs, Marotta suggested that Okorafor used her characters to portray the real-life experiences and struggles of Black girls with natural hair. The concern with positive Black representation was also shown in a previous article, where Marotta (2016) analyzed Orleans by Sherri Smith and Tankborn by Karen Sandler as neo-slave narratives. She only described Orleans as an Afrofuturist novel, but she did not give her reasoning, nor did she provide a definition for Afrofuturism. In fact, she only used the term once throughout the entire article even though it is in the title of the paper. She did, however, suggest that race was a superficial element in Orleans and that race should have been highlighted as a way to send positive messages about the strength of young Black women.
Morris (2012, 2016) provided more concrete definitions to the term by outlining Afrofuturism as an aesthetic, an epistemology, a movement, and a tool kit that connects race, space, time, technology, and art in order to analyze contemporary issues and critique stereotypical interpretations of the past and future. Still, she claimed that Afrofuturism must be expanded. To do this, she created Afrofuturist Feminism, a literary tradition that is defined by the existence of “parallel feminist universes, remixed futurist discourses, and powerful Black women as agents of change” (Morris, 2016, p. 36). To illustrate her definition, she used Jewelle Gomez’ The Gilda Stories (Morris, 2016) and Octavia Butler’s Fledgling (Morris, 2012), as both stories showcased how the inclusion of race, gender, and sexuality is essential in not only upending dominant norms in speculative fiction, but also in furthering discussions of systemic change.
Similarly, placing her study within Afrofuturist studies, Black feminism, Black girlhood, science fiction, and disability studies, Davis (2018) analyzed Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring, and Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death to provide examples of the simultaneous vulnerability and power of Black girl magic within Black women’s science fiction narratives. She found that Black science fiction writers create female coming-of-age narratives that show Black girls who assume leadership roles and learn to access their spirituality in the midst of their identity positions as racialized and gendered others. Although she does not give a specific definition of the term, her use of “Afrofuturist studies” while simultaneously focalizing Black women’s science fiction suggest a belief that the study of speculative futurist literature by Black authors situates a paper within Afrofuturist studies.
Also acknowledging that Black female speculative fiction writers have forged new pathways in speculative fiction by transforming traditional tropes and creating new character- types and story conventions, Faucheaux (2017) called for an intersectional approach to Afrofuturism. She argued that new scholarship has expanded the boundaries of Dery’s (1994) original definition, as writers rely on narrative strategies used in speculative genres other than science fiction. Using Black queer theory to undergird her analysis of three narratives by Nalo Hopkinson, Faucheaux attempts to expound upon her concept of queer Afrofuturism, a concept that can subvert the construct of race by “challenging the relationship between power and the body, between visual markers of otherness and identity, and by reclaiming the positions of black and/or queer subjects in historical narratives where they have been violently erased” (p. 567). Although each analysis highlights race and the body, however, commentary on sexuality within the narratives is notably absent from two of Faucheaux’s three literary examinations.
Colmon (2017), on the other hand, explicitly used an Afrofuturist lens to analyze queer representations in Samuel Delaney’s short story, “Aye, and Gomorrah.” He found that Delaney used his narrative to discuss the oft-hidden tensions between race, sexual expression, and social acceptance and to provide a counterstory to normative depictions of race, gender, and sexuality. In fact, Colmon posited that Delaney’s story is a groundbreaking text in queer Afrofuturism, as the author uses the Native American protagonist to explore the sexual implications of social conditioning. Because a Black, gay, male author wrote a story using a non-Black, androgynous protagonist, Colmon argued that Delaney sublimates race and centers queer identities, thereby expanding Afrofuturism to include stories that reimagine heteronormative pasts and futures.
Although some scholars focused on expanding ideas of Afrofuturism to include nuanced conversations about gender and sexuality, other scholars focused on religion. Explicitly, McCormack (2016) argued that Afrofuturism, a burgeoning theoretical discourse and aesthetic movement centered in social justice, could enhance African American religious studies. He contended that Afrofuturism was aligned with Black and womanist religious thought and analyzed both Octavia Butler’s Parable series as well as Ishmael Reed’s play The Preacher and the Rapper to show how the authors depict intervention strategies, expand religious ideologies, and provide new ways to imagine emancipatory Black religious discourse and practice. Ruffin (2005) also used Butler’s Parable series to discuss how Butler connected spirituality and science in her books. In her analysis, Ruffin situated Butler’s novels as Afrofuturist because they center a practice of “recognizing history in the future” (p. 96). Additionally, she situated the novels as Black feminist in the ways that they challenge power and domination from a Black female perspective. In focalizing these aspects of Butler’s work, Ruffin contended that Butler’s Afrofuturism centers the history of Black peoples in discussions about space and future America, while also highlighting the impact of religion and spirituality in the lives of Black people.
Jue (2017) also outlined connections between feminism and spirituality, but she looked toward the environment instead of humanity. Jue situated Nnedi Okorafor’s novel, Lagoon, as an example of petrofiction, a novel within the field of ecocriticism that focalizes the negative social, cultural, and economic history of oil in Nigeria. She further categorized the novel as Afrofuturist because it imagines possible, utopian futures that center Nigerian life and disrupt capitalist-led support of environmental destruction through forced oil production and extraction. From this classification, she examined how one character, Adaora, uses the science of marine biology and the feminist epistemology of intimate objectivity to embrace the spiritual and the unfamiliar with openness, rather than trepidation. Jue’s findings suggested that Okorafor’s novel offered “an Afrofuturist marine biology” (p. 182) that combined African cosmology and feminism with the science fictional trope of alien invasion. In doing this, Jue conceptualized Afrofuturism as a means to combat environmental as well as social and cultural issues.
Essentially, like public scholars, academics have differing opinions concerning the definition of Afrofuturism. Similar to the ideas of public scholars, academics agreed that Afrofuturism contains elements of science fiction, fantasy, and history. Still, they were divided on what Afrofuturism is. Whereas many scholars classified Afrofuturism as a literary tradition, other scholars categorized it as a cultural aesthetic, a liberatory movement, or a critical and methodological tool. Additionally, although many academics focalized their arguments on Black speculative fiction authors who centered Black characters and stories in their works, some scholars eschewed the focus. Instead, they chose to highlight stories where a Black author centered a Native American character (Colmon, 2017), a Black author centered a White character (Allen, 2016), and a White author centered a White character and had a Black friend (Banerjee, 2017). Lastly, although most scholars contended that Afrofuturism centers Black histories and experiences, scholars were divided on its efficacy to address intersectional futures, fostering the creation of terms like Afrofuturist feminism (Allen, 2017; Morris, 2012) and queer Afrofuturism (Colmon, 2017). Thus, although there is some agreement, there is no complete consensus as to what Afrofuturism is, who can write it, and whose stories are focalized.
What is Afrofuturism?
Based on the literature found for this review, I define Afrofuturism as a cultural aesthetic in which Black authors create speculative texts that center Black characters in an effort to reclaim and recover the past, counter negative and elevate positive realities that exist in the present, and create new possibilities for the future. I strategically avoid labeling Afrofuturism as a genre because many Black authors use a hybridization of speculative genres (Hoydis, 2015), so their work does not conform to one specific category. One example of the hybridization is shown in analyses of Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring, where scholars classified the story as cyberpunk (Enteen, 2017), science fiction (Faucheaux & Lavender, 2018), science fiction and fantasy (Moynagh, 2018), and spiritually-influenced science fiction (Davis, 2018). Hopkinson’s novel rests within each of these spaces, so confining it to one genre silences aspects of her work.
Moreover, categorizing Afrofuturism as an aesthetic broadens the possibilities of the term. Specifically, Berleant (2005) stated that cultural aesthetics is “an empirical project, one concerned with identifying what the aesthetic consists of in different cultures and with noting the varying sets of factors that make it distinctive in those contexts” (p. 157). That is, to describe Afrofuturism as an aesthetic focuses on the features the authors use and allows for those features to change depending on specific contexts. This would ensure authors could borrow from science fiction, fantasy, African cosmology, Christian religions, history, and realism to create their stories. Thus, stories written by authors like Nnedi Okorafor can be analyzed for their use of science fiction (Anderson, 2018) or ecofiction (Jue, 2017) as a means to determine some of the features employed by Nigerian-American speculative authors. Similarly, songs created and produced by artists like Janelle Monae can be studied for their inclusion of fantasy, music, and queer representation as a means to determine some of the features used by Black female American speculative artists. In both instances, the focus centers an understanding of common features rather than attempting to force a text into an already created box.
Although many academics aligned Afrofuturism with science fiction, I chose to use speculative texts in my definition. Suvin (1997) argued that science fiction is “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (p. 8). This definition aligns with much science fiction, as it hinges on reality, but connects to alternative or future worlds. Jue (2017) noted, however, that the presence of folklore and African deities within Afrofuturist texts complicates its placement within science fiction. Additionally, Bould (2007) noted that Afrofuturism is not reducible to science fiction. Thus, in the same way that Afrofuturism should not be confined to one specific genre, Afrofuturists should be able to use the range of options available within speculative fiction.
Lastly, I included the distinction of authorship and character focus to explicitly center Black people. Most public and academic scholarship centered the ways in which Black artists created works that center Black characters. There were some academics who attempted to focalize non-Black characters, but even in their rationales, they tried to make the argument that there was still a focus on Black themes, even if Black people were decentralized, because the author was Black or because there was a Black secondary character. Of course, when Dery (1994) coined the term, he centered African American themes and concerns. He also used films produced by White filmmakers, Lizzie Borden and John Sayles, as Afrofuturist exemplars. Still, although it is possible for non-Black people to explore Black themes, if the purpose of Afrofuturism is to focalize themes and concerns related to Black people, then Black people must be centered.
Ultimately, Black people have written and published speculative fiction for at least a century, and Afrofuturism is one of the current words used to describe this art form. There are others, including Africanfuturism, Sword and Soul, Cyberfunk, and the Black Fantastic. Questions surrounding classification and hierarchy will continue, as more Black authors and Black speculative stories gain prominence in the public sphere. Hopefully, though, with the production of more speculative fiction written by and centering Black people, the focus will shift from figuring out what it is to discerning what it does and what it can do.
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