Defining Afrofuturism

The term ‘Afrofuturism’ was coined in 1990s by, cultural critic, Mark Dery in his edited collection Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture.

The term ‘Afrofuturism’ was coined in 1990s by, cultural critic, Mark Dery in his edited collection Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Dery uses the term Afrofuturism to define “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture — and more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.” (Dery 1994: 136) Lisa Yaszek interprets Dery’s definition in two-parts: “as the first part of Dery’s definition suggests, Afrofuturism is closely related to science fiction as an aesthetic genre…However, as Dery argues in the second half of his definition, Afrofuturism is not only a subgenre of science fiction. Instead, it is a larger aesthetic mode that encompasses a diverse range of artists working in different genres and media who are united by their shared interest in projecting black futures derived from Afrodiasporic experiences.” (Yaszek 2006) Other definitions of Afrofuturism come from Ytasha Womack, in which she defines Afrofuturism as “ an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation.” (Womack 2013: 9). Lastly, Adriano  Elia describes Afrofuturism as “a transdisciplinary cultural movement based upon the unusual connection between the marginality of allegedly “primitive” people of the African diaspora and “modern” technology and science fiction.” (Elia 2014: 83) In his article, “The Languages of Afrofuturism,” Elia considers the different languages of Afrofuturism through the art of Basquiat, music of Sun Ra, and literature of W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, and Octavia Butler.Though there are many definitions of Afrofuturism, they all have themes of reclamation, black liberation, and revisioning of the past and predictions of the future through a black cultural lens in common.


In her book, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, Ytasha L. Womack opens her book by talking a time she was Princess Leia for Halloween. The experience filled her fourth grade heart with joy and pride; however she notes that “the absence of such imagery [black and brown people in the space age] wasn’t lost on me” (Womack 2013: 5) . Womack isn’t the only person who wished to see herself represented in sci-fi films and television programs.  Womack also talks about the rise of the Black Geek and the Blerd (Black Nerd). Once an identity that had to be hidden and enjoyed in private, but today, the Blerds and Black geeks need not fear, for their interests are now cool. Black people feel comfortable, now more than before, to participate in events like cosplay and festivals and own comic book stores. But, Afrofuturism does not just create technologically advanced futures where Black people reign; it looks at the past and exposes how Black people have been written out and erased from scientific history. It exposes Black inventors and scientist that were forgotten or replaced with the image of white people. Womack mentions how technology has advanced the way that Black people can communicate and learn from each other, whereas in the past race conversations would be left to scholars and intellectuals, but now, “someone on the internet whose name you don’t know with an online alias can contribute.” (2013: 49) Technology has allowed Black people to better explore and learn about past important Black figures and helped them to explore their own identities. Maybe the future isn’t as far as we think it is.


Though the term ‘Afrofuturism’ was not coined until the 1990s, Afrofuturistic music and aesthetics became apparent and common the 1950s.  The 1950s was a great era for science fiction. There were numerous movies about alien invasions, landing on the moon, and exploration. And there was fear that the development of nuclear weapons would lead to the destruction of mankind. However, there was little to no representation for Black people in these films. So, for many at the time, jazz music was its first encounter with what is now described as Afrofuturism. Musicians such as Sun Ra stepped outside the confines of the contemporary jazz scene. Sun Ra and his band, the Arkestra, declared themselves from Saturn, sent to Earth to bring all peoples

together with their music. Adriano Elia describes Ra’s music as aiming “it was aimed at denouncing racial discrimination by underlining the potential of marginalized black people.” (Elia 2014: 87) They even embodied an Afrofuturist aesthetic by dressing as if they were extras from a sci-fi film. Other jazz artists from the 1950s and 1960s include John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Jimi Hendrix with some psychedelic, sci-fi inspired tunes. The 70s and 80s gave us George Clinton and his band Parliament and Prince. And in the 90s, Afrofuturism combed with multiple genres like hip hop (Outkast), neo-soul (Erykah Badu) and techno, all embracing the ideas of Afrofuturism and giving their own spin on it. All these musicians had their own hand in envisioning the future for Black people and showing how cool Afrofuturism could be in their present time.


Though Afrofuturist music did not begin to bud until the 1950s, the literature can be found as far back as the nineteenth century. Lisa Yaszek cites Martin Delany, Charles Chesnutt, and Edward Johnson (Yaszek 2006) as early Afrofuturist story tellers. These artists told stories of changing science and societal conditions pertaining to African-American history and future.  Writers like W.E.B DuBois and Ralph Ellison are also considered early Afrofuturist contributors. Ellison’s Invisible Manwas seen to serve as a sort of preface to Afrofuturism because it discussed the social conditions and alienation of Black people using alienation and technology, but he failed to create a future in his novel. Other writers who are thought to have contributed a significant amount of Afrofuturist literature are Octavia Butler and, Harlem-born sci-fi writer, Samuel Delany. Butler is credited with making a special connection to women readers through her use o heroines in her Afrofuturist novels. Though, unlink some sci-fi stories set in an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic state, Butler writes about evolution through the unity of race. Adriano Elia described the impact of these writers the best: “…In each of these works, the futuristic and supernatural elements…show a new way to deal with old issues and reveal an innovative Afrofuturist perspective on the condition of people of the Black diaspora.” (2014: 94)


Now that we have looked at Afrofuturism through the lenses of science and technology, literature, music, art, and aesthetics. Where do we go from here? Afrofuturism has allowed for those things that used to be uncool and nerdy to become interesting and at the forefront of our lives. Afrofuturism continues to live on and be reinvented through twenty-first century writers and musicians such as Solange, Janelle Monae, Lupe Fiasco, and others. We see it in films such as Black Panther. Afrofuturism is currently dominating the media and continuing to open up young children to endless ways to interpret and change our Black history through the past and future.


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