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Ever noticed how few black characters there are in sci-fi flicks? How those that do exist are sidekicks,
baddies or set up to die? How the attitude towards space exploration is markedly similar to colonisation?
That the robots are almost always slaves to human masters? (no wonder they end up coming after us in
the other handful of narratives) How economic and racial inequalities either magically become non-issues
or are aggravated even more while everyone remains nonplussed?
These are some of the questions that Afrofuturist writers, artists and filmmakers from Philadelphia to
Lagos, Rotterdam to Cairo and beyond are highlighting, inspired by the likes of interstellar jazz
musician Sun Ra (famous for Space is the Place), and black feminist sci-fi writer Octavia Butler. By using
science fiction to unpack hard-hitting social issues, these voices are saying we need more intersectional
visions of the future that include all races, genders, sexualities, species and religions that make up
What is different to traditional science fiction is that Afrofuturism generally doesnt play out in the distant
abstract future but is set in the impending present. After all, technology-wise were living in the future that
many of us grew up reading about except for the flying cars. Many are also living the proverbial
apocalypse. From the terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Burundi and Baghdad to the earthquakes in Japan
and Mexico, and the continued need for Americans to be reminded that #Blacklivesmatter, how much
more catastrophic does it need to get before we agree that its time to reimagine our collective future?
Thats not to ignore the lived experience of everyday domestic apocalypses such as sexual abuse and
violence. This is what Philadelphia-based social worker Ras Mashramani and lawyerRasheedah
Phillips translate into Afrofuturist fiction. Along with musician and writer Camae Defstara aka Mother Moor
Goddess, the three women spread their work through photocopied zines that deal with issues like
gentrification using the space invader metaphor, and domestic and sexual abuse through the lens of alien

Rasheedah Phillips

Ras Mashramani


For many, along with the one in nine people in the world that go hungry every single day, even the notion
of thinking about a future beyond the existing apocalypse their next meal is a provocation. Here
Phillips, also the founder of the Afrofuturist Affair, proposes revisionist historical narratives that recast
people of colour, women and LGBTI people as heroes of their own destiny.

In mainstream sci-fi, the time-travel paradox in which changing something in the past might erase your
very existence trips up any attempt at changing history. However, says Phillips, this is a linear sense of
time in which we are all slaves to the clock. In Black Quantum Futurism, she bends space and time in
order to see into alternative futures.

Rasheedah Phillips


Unlike the externally imposed Western sense of time, an African sense of time is innately human and its
time when everyone gets there. Egyptian graphic novelist Sherif Adel stretched time in his satirical
depiction of Cairo in 1,000 years. Spoiler: he reckons it will be about the same one giant traffic jam. This
dystopian future expresses the disappointment following the Arab Spring revolution euphoria when mobile
messaging technology was heralded as a rallying cry for the masses to bring down every corrupt state.
And then the dust settled and the same people were still in power, only worse than before.
It is for this reason that novelists such as Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor is addressing political
complexity with magical realism, best seen in Who Fears Death, winner of the World Fantasy Award for
Best Novel. This year she published the prequel, The Book of Phoenix. The books engage with issues of
ethnicity, female genital mutilation, gender equality and colonization.

The work of Egyptian graphic novelist Sherif AdelSherif Adel

Sherif Adel

Charl Landvreugds Movement Nr 8: Destination Inner Space looks at a future vision of art in which a
black body can talk about humanity in general, not just ethnicity. He says that he is from Rotterdam and
the city is his home, but he has multiple homes, as with increasingly more people, regardless of ethnicity,
impacted by migration. Through the black body Im trying to give a glimpse of us in the future.
I see the urgency of Afrofuturism for Rotterdam as a postcolonial, multiethnic city with a strong presence
of the black diaspora. It is the speculative and non-white vision that this city needs, against the currently
dystopian rule driven by angst-ridden white nostalgia, Florian Cramer, says. Because of its experimental
DIY countercultural avant garde quality, Cramer places Afrofuturism in the same realm as the punk,
Fluxus, hacker and movements. It's like being in London in 1977 and witnessing the beginnings of
Still, Afrofuturists are slim on the ground in Europe when compared to the US and Africa. However, as the
neoconservative hatches come down in response to terrorism, there has never been a better time: what
we know from punk is that fascism fuels counterculture. The time is now to make #Blackfuturesmatter.

Author Steven Barnes vividly remembers attending science fiction conventions when
he first started in the field 30 years ago: "For almost 20 years, as far as I could tell, I was
the only black male science fiction writer in the world," he says. The legendarySamuel
R. Delany, who'd written science fiction classics like Nova and Dhalgren, had left the
field, Barnes says, because it had become impossible for him to make a living there;
those early conventions were distinctly unwelcoming to nonwhite voices.

by Samuel R. Delany
Paperback, 801 pages

"I had black friends in the field who would not talk about how they really felt to their
white friends because they were afraid of losing their friendship," says Barnes, whose
science fiction bona-fides are extensive and hard-earned; he has published over two
dozen novels and written for shows like Stargate SG-1 andThe Outer Limits. He's a
black man who has dedicated his life to this genre, but, he says, "It can be very painful in
the nerd tribe."
I get that. Conventions in the world of science fiction and fantasy have an intensity and
outsized importance that strangers to the genre can find puzzling. Nearly 30 years after
Barnes' first experiences, I attended the World Fantasy Convention in Calgary, Alberta,

with writer N.K. Jemisin (who went on to write the muchacclaimed Inheritance trilogy). My first novel had just been published. The whiteness
of this supposedly "world" gathering felt a little extreme, but nothing I hadn't expected.
But then it got odder. Multiple strangers approached me to ask if I'd found my friends
earlier that day. I panicked, thinking I had forgotten some acquaintance. That night,
when I returned to my hotel room, Jemisin started to complain about having had a hard
time finding her breakfast companions. The pieces clicked, and we stared at each other
in horror: They all thought we were the same person. We look nothing alike. But we
were black women, and all too often in our community, that's enough.
I do not know of a single black SF writer who has not experienced this. Memorably,
Jemisin was once mistaken for the great Octavia E. Butler two years after her death.
These are degrading experiences that strip away our humanity and achievements, yet
require no malice on the part of those making these mistakes (and not just in person a
major magazine in the field once printed a convention report mistaking me forAndrea
Hairston). But the trick of institutional racism is that it requires no malice, only
This might make it sound as if the situation is dire for black writers of SF. But as
frustrating as the plague of mistaken identities is, I can't help but take some comfort in
it. When Delany was dominating the field, he was the only black male writer of his
generation. For decades Butler's arresting, mind-bending, diverse visions of the future
were the brilliant but singular offerings of a black female voice. In other words, for years
they didn't have to tell us apart because we were never more than a handful.
For years they didn't have to tell us apart because we were never more than a handful. But what's
happening now? There are more black writers of science fiction than there have ever been.

But what's happening now? There are more black writers of science fiction than there
have ever been. Every year more of us debut to wider acclaim, find ourselves regularly
on genre awards lists for the first time, and experience the pleasure of seeing more and
more diverse faces at conventions. The black community has always embraced science
fiction the famous Dark Matteranthologies, edited by Sheree R. Thomas, included a
work of speculative fiction from W.E.B. Du Bois. And now science fiction has, I think,
finally been forced to recognize us.
But our rise to prominence which can seem sudden if you haven't been aware of the
deep currents of science fictional imagination that have rippled through the black
community for more than a century also brings out dormant hostility. In his article
"Racism in Science Fiction," published in the 1990s, Delany predicted the current
backlash that can make it easy to dismiss SF as more racist than other fields (it isn't).

As long as there are only one or two black writers, Delany wrote, he doesn't expect to
experience much overt racial hostility in a field where people pride themselves on their
liberal values. But that's only "until, say, black writers start to number thirteen, fifteen,
twenty percent of the total. At that point, where the competition might be perceived as
having some economic heft, chances are we will have as much racism and prejudice here
as in any other field."
Here we are, a force for once in numbers as well as talent (we always had that), spinning visions of
futures where our existence is not just a token nod to diversity, but fundamental to our understanding
of the world.

Nearly 20years later, that prejudice abounds: Whitewashed covers, hostile dismissals of
"identity politics" and "political correctness" as a barely veiled attempt to silence us, allwhite panels on diversity, all-white anthologies of "the best" science fiction and
continual institutional barriers to traditional publication based on appeals to
marketability that really reflect the publishing houses' disbelief in the power and appeal
of black storytelling.
And yet here we are, a force for once in numbers as well as talent (we always had that),
spinning visions of futures where our existence is not just a token nod to diversity, but
fundamental to our understanding of the world. "I think that we are in a transitional age
right now and are unapologetically staking out a place to create visions of a future that
includes us," saysJennifer Marie Brissett, whose debut novel Elysium was recently
nominated for the Philip K. Dick award. "As more of us appear, we bring fresh ideas to
the field, offering different insights into what the future may hold and to who we all are
as human beings."

Questions For Alaya Dawn Johnson, Author Of 'The Summer Prince'

'Electric Lady' Janelle Monae On Creating The Unheard

To the extent that science fiction is the literature of ideas, of plausible futurism, of
extrapolation from social trends that can help us locate ourselves better in the present,
we have helped to make science fiction more relevant than ever. Afrofuturism was a
hugely important phenomenon in the black community, but George Clinton or Sun Ra
never got invited to a World Science Fiction Convention. Last year, the groundbreaking
musical artist Janelle Monae, whose work is strongly inspired by afrofuturism, received
an honorable mention for the prestigious Tiptree Award for her album The Electric
Lady. The lines are converging; we are rewriting our futures.

Dark Matter
A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora
by Sheree R. Thomas
Hardcover, 427 pages


"For me, 'science fiction' is the state of being black on the planet," says anthology editor
Sheree R. Thomas. "Living, observing, exploring what it means to be human in times
and spaces that clearly devalue that humanity." The current public struggles in the SF
community are "just a natural part of the process of allowing more voices to speak in a
genre that has long claimed to be the haven for exploring the impossible and the
But what science fiction likes to imagine of itself has long been at odds with reality.
Steven Barnes says that while science fiction writers were no worse than those of other
genres, "they had the hallucination that they were better." Canadian writer Minister
Faust grew up loving traditional SF worlds, "and only later came to understand how
thoroughly Eurocentric and often imperialist they were." If science fiction is a literature
of ideas, it is also one of myths and it is this central role of myth-making that Barnes
feels is particularly important to black writers. "Black Americans have more of a need of
that than anybody. It's important that stories are created about us where we're fully
fleshed human beings."
And if no one else will, then we have to be the first. Nnedi Okorafor, whose science
fiction novels include Who Fears Death and Lagoon, has won and been nominated
for some of the most prestigious awards in the field. She is a Nigerian-American, and it
was not her reading, but her cultural heritage that led her to see the potential of the
genre. "I noticed the future happening in Nigeria in a way that was not being reflected in
literature, science fiction or otherwise." And so she imagined it herself.
To aspiring writers, even just one role model can give us the confidence to write in our
own voices. Author Tobias S. Buckell recalls that when he began to write novels, "just
knowing that Nalo Hopkinson was writing science fiction infused with the Caribbean
granted me a deep strength to write exactly what I wanted to write."
It's important that stories are created about us where we're fully fleshed human beings.
Minister Faust

Sherri L. Smith came to the genre after several mainstream novels, and her Orleans is
one of the very few young adult science fiction works with black main characters. "If this
is a golden age of black science fiction, I hope it's just the beginning," she says. "I'd like
to be on the vanguard of something rich and wonderful, and I think we are just getting

I think she's right, but there's a part of me that feels a little too jaded for complete
optimism. Andrea Hairston an academic, a playwright, a novelist and Tiptree Award
winner (who doesn't look like me) echoes that sense of caution: "I still don't see a
golden age happening with the larger publishing houses." Institutional barriers are high
and hard to break down, not the least because the individuals who build them don't see
anything wrong.
Two years ago, N.K. Jemisin wondered why no one spends time focusing on
blackfutures as well as black history during this shortest month of the year.
She wondered if she'd spent too many years swallowing all-white, "bizarro-world
versions of humanity, and they have become a toxin poisoning my imagination." But
Janelle Monae that afrofuturist electric lady, "is a tiny, fast-footed, pompadour'd
antidote to all of that."
And so is Jemisin herself, and Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler and W.E.B. Du
Bois and the other few dozen of us who have come remarkably, improbably into
literary spaces once so comfortably white and who have sat down, and who have just
begun to speak.

When you walk into the main gallery of the Studio Museum in Harlems current
exhibition The Shadows Took Shape, which explores contemporary art through the lens
of Afrofuturist aesthetics, one of the first pieces to catch the eye is a glittering
procession of black astronauts fanned across a faded landscape. They appear awed
and estranged by their surroundings, carrying a wooden coffin along their wide-eyed
way. Having cleared a ravine, above them stands a figure on a rock cliff, his hands
outspread to the sky, like Moses parting the red sea for the chosen people. As you take
in David Huffmans aptly titled MLK, you dare to dream, have these marooned
spacemen finally reached the promised land?

Hack this: What are we really talking about when we talk about Afrofuturism
a term of art thats made the rounds since its introduction by author and
cultural critic Mark Dery in his seminal essay Black to the Future? According
to Dery, it is speculative fiction that treats African American concerns in the

context of twentieth-century techno-culture. In fact, with the proliferation of

authors and visual and musical artists embracing the aesthetics of the genre
which Dery illustrates with a deluge of references from Octavia Butlers
science fiction, to the robotic synth-pop of Afrika Bambaataa, its clear that
thats just the tip of the intergalactic iceberg.

Janelle Mone, The ArchAndroid (image viaWikipedia)

Today, we need look no further than talented musician and all around Electric
Lady Janelle Mone, who, on her concept album The ArchAndroid, assumes
the identity of a fictional android named Cindi Mayweather circa 2719, and to
television characterizations like the Walking DeadsMichonne the
dreadlocked, katana-wielding survivor of a zombie apocalypse, played by
Dania Guriri to see that no longer is the science fiction genre dominated
by white male writers and readers, or characters for that matter, as Elisa
Edwards observes in the introduction to Race, Aliens, and the U.S
Government in African American Science Fiction.

In the Studio Museums timely show, inspired by jazz musician and cosmic
philosopher Sun Ra, who held that hed been abducted to the planet Saturn
where hed had a prophetic vision of the future, we can trace the genres
evolution, influences and themes. And Huffmans MLK offers the perfect
entry point for this exploration as it establishes one of the key elements of the
genre, insisting that we not only boldly imagine the future, but grapple, at
every turn, with the ever-present past.
This reflection on the past as a function of the future can also be seen in the
work of Sanford Biggers, whose beautiful, psychedelic quilt work in Vex is
disrupted by the trace outline of the famous photo The Scourged Back,
depicting the scarred back of a slave. Similarly, and in keeping with
Afrofuturisms cross disciplinary influence, sci-fi author Otavia Butlers perhaps
most well-known work of speculative fiction, Kindred, centers on the timetravel odyssey of Edana, a black woman living in 1970s California who is
transported, on her 26th birthday, back to the antebellum south.

Sanford Biggers, Vex

That one of the hallmarks of Afrofuturism is a reification of past trauma is

consistent with the argument that Edwards puts forth, that, in many ways, the
experience of African Diasporic communities is essentially one of alienation,
where by black people have already experienced a sort of science fiction
story when they first came to America. Here, the slave trade is interpreted in
terms of an alien abduction.

It would, however, be misrepresentative to assert that the scope Afrofuturisms

understanding of the past as essential to conceptualizing the future an
approach in tension with neoliberal visions of a post-racial society proffered by
our Obama-era geopolitical landscape is limited to the African American
The same analysis can be clearly seen in the dreamy photographs of Christina
De Middel, portraying African men outfitted in DIY space travel accessories
that reference the more recent, if largely forgotten history of Zambias short
lived space program. Started by Makuka Nkolso in 1968, the Zambian space
program aimed to put the first African on the moon during a time when Zambia
was seeking its independence, linking space exploration to the cultivation of a
newly emergent national identity was, for De Middel, a vehicle [for
Zambia] to position itself in the international spotlight.

Christina De Middel, Umfundi

The implied relationship between political self-determination and the ability to

participate in the enlightenment project that sci-fi writer Kodwo Eshun
reminds us imperial racism has denied black subjects, underscores another
point of affinity between the historically marginalized experience of black

people world-wide and the experience of alien otherness that anchors so

many science fiction narratives.
However, at least in the African American and Afro-Caribbean contexts, the
cultivation of an authentic national identity is inhibited by the severance from
origins along the middle passage, raising the question, as Dery astutely
considers, Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out
imagine possible futures? Or, for that matter, an authentic self?
In this sense, Afrofuturism seems interested in imagining the future from
beyond a strictly Afrocentric perspective. It is in communion with a long history
in black culture of re-inventing the black self and the mythology of black
identity by deconstructing Western paradigms in search of what black means
for black people.

Sun Ra in Space is the Place (still via YouTube)

We can see this unbroken struggle for selfhood in Rastafarian cosmology,

which sought to re-imagine black identity in the Afro-Caribbean context at a
time of increasing resistance to colonial subjugation, and in Black Nationalism
stateside, and the emergence of traditions like Kwanza that many argue seek
to reconstruct Black Americas severed roots to the motherland.
The visionary musician Sun Ras statement from the film Space is the
Place (1974) perhaps best captures the essence of this ongoing ideological
process. In the film he appears to a group of black youth decked out in his
space-age regalia, spouting his new age, cosmic philosophies. Skeptical, the
youths question where he comes from and how they could possibly know he is
real, to which he cryptically responds: I do not come to you as a reality, I
come to you as the myth because thats what black people are, myths.
In addition to probing the interstice between past and future all that dark
matter, if you will, another strand of Afrofuturism feels distinctly aligned with
aesthetic naturalism. InPumzi, a Kenyan short film by writer and director
Wanuri Kahiu, featured in Shadows Took Shape, were introduced to a postapocalyptic landscape where water scarcity has driven civilization
underground and all resources are self-generated. (And where, for instance,
our liquid waste is purified for consumption!)

Weneri Kahiu, still from Pumzi

In the short film, one scientist who believes shes discovered fertile soil
escapes to the outside world in search of its source. Along her journey she
traverses a dystopian desert landscape, where she comes to represent the
last hope for supporting natural life (she carries with her a seedling she hopes
to plant in the water-rich soil for which she is searching). One could easily see
how this futuristic construction situates her, the black African woman, as the
source of all life and as natural to the wind-swept future-scape as the
elements that batter her.

Erykah Badu in Didntcha Know (still viaYouTube)

This image of the black woman as water-bearer and life-giver surfaces in

numerous Afrofuturistic representations, echoed, for instance, in Erykah
Badus music video for her 2000 single, Didntcha Know. In the video, as she
croons Which way to go? I think I made a wrong turn back there somewhere,
Badu also migrates alone across a white desert, the sun beating down on her
outfitted in a futuristic exoskeleton as she lurches toward an uncertain future.
Here, we seen Afrofuturist aesthetics and the Afrocentric philosophies
popularized by Badu and attributed to neo-soul the musical genre
embodied by artists like Badu, Bilal, and Maxwell converge, so that Badu,
like the character in Pumzi, comes to represent to the viewer, at once the
original woman and the last woman on earth, the alpha and omega as it were.
An even more interesting construction when read in dialogue with one of
Butlers short stories called, The Book of Martha which places a black woman

at Gods side where she is gifted the power to transform humankind and make
them less wasteful.
In visualizing these revolutionary images of black identity that in many ways
characterize the genre, Im put in mind of yet another, if perhaps less obvious,
Afrofuturistic narrative by way of the X-Men character Storm.
The Marvel comics of the 1980s introduced a storyline in their Uncanny XMen series entitled The Days of Future Past the X-Men, in the spirit of all
great sci-fi, offer a capacious allegory for the realpolitik, in this case the
universal narrative of a marginalized and alienated community discriminated
against for their inherent difference. This branch of the series contemplates a
dystopian future where the mutant race is systematically persecuted and
imprisoned in internment camps. They (the mutants) essentially have no place
in the future. The X-Men, in order to change the course of history, must travel
back in time to prevent a fatal moment that leads to the mutant holocaust.
(Interestingly enough, this imagined future is in the year 2013.)
What seems crucial to note here, and perhaps chief amongst Afroturisms
interests, is a resistance to conceptualizing the future as divorced from the
past. It is only by vigilantly recalling and revisiting the past unable, in a
world where history has repeated itself time and again, to take anything for
granted that we ensure that the future remains an imaginative province to
which all have access.

In his introduction to the 1989 re-issue of Invisible Man Ralph Ellison provocatively
notes, a piece of science fiction is the last thing I expected to write (xv). Both this claim
and the way Ellison phrases it are striking. Literary scholars usually talk about Invisible
Man as a prime example of the Great American Novel, but throughout his career Ellison
carefully distanced himself from that phrase. Indeed, when he accepted the National

Book Award for this work in 1953 he rather cheerfully described it as a failed example of
the Great American Novel. But Ellison does not just flip the script and call Invisible
Man a work of science fiction, either at most he implies that there is something
fantastic about it. Thus it seems that Ellison could not make sense of his own novel
because he did not have a name for a literature predicated upon both realist and
speculative modes of storytelling.
Recently, however, artists and scholars have indeed coined a name for this kind of
storytelling: Afrofuturism. Over the past three decades both science fiction and
Afrodiasporic scholars have become increasingly interested in what Sheree R. Thomas
calls speculative fiction from the African diaspora. Leading science fiction journals
such as Extrapolation and Science Fiction Studies regularly include essays about black
authors in their pages, and as early as the summer of 1984, Black American Literature
Forumdevoted an entire special issue to the subject of race in science fiction.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, however, there was little discussion of this fiction as a
literary mode with its own distinct themes, techniques, and relations to other kinds of
black cultural production.
This situation changed with the emergence of Afrofuturist studies in the 1990s, when
cultural critics including Mark Dery, Greg Tate, Tricia Rose, and Kodwo Eshun first
drew attention to the centrality of science fiction themes and techniques in the work of
many black authors, artists, and musicians. The term is generally credited to Dery, who,
in his 1994 edited collection Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, introduces
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 to explore how people of
color negotiate life in a technology intensive world (136). As the first part of Derys
definition suggests, Afrofuturism is closely related to science fiction as an aesthetic
genre; indeed, contemporary authors whom critics such as Dery, Tate and Rose identify
as Afrofuturist (such as Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, and Nalo Hopkinson)
explicitly identify themselves as science fiction authors. 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.
More recently, sociologist Alondra Nelson has been instrumental in developing
Afrofuturism as a coherent mode of critical inquiry. According to Nelson, the task of the

Afrofuturist scholar is to explore futurist themes in black cultural production and the
ways in which technological innovation is changing the face of black art and culture
(Nelson & Miller). Because this kind of cultural production crosses conventional
aesthetic boundaries (including the hypothetical boundaries between canonical and
popular culture), Afrofuturist scholars must be prepared to work both within and
without the academy. And indeed, Nelsons own work on Afrofuturism does just that. In
1998 Nelson and multimedia artist Paul D. Miller created the Afrofuturist listserve
(which includes scholars, musicians, authors, and artists) and in 2000 they In 2002, Nelson introduced her groups work to
academia with a special issue of Social Text, which demonstrated how the insights
generated by members of the Afrofuturist listserve could open up new areas of scholarly
This new critical perspective enables us to understand Afrofuturism as a coherent
narrative tradition in its own right. Sheree R. Thomass Dark Matter: A Century of
Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000) and Dark Matter: Reading the
Bones (2004) have introduced readers to stories from dozens of African-American
authors ranging from Charles W. Chesnutt and W.E.B. Du Bois to Samuel Delany and
Amiri Baraka. Nalo Hopkinsons Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean
Fabulist Fiction (2000) introduces readers to the more global dimensions of
Afrofuturism through stories by well-known Caribbean authors including Jamaica
Kincaid and Wilson Harris as well as tales from newcomers including Tobias S. Buckell
and Marcia Douglas. Taken together, then, these anthologies demonstrate how literary
Afrofuturism has developed across both time and space and both within and without
the science fiction tradition.
But of course one of the primary ways that artists project black futures in writing is by
adopting the tropes and narrative techniques of science fiction or by writing from an
Afrodiasporic perspective from within the science fiction community itself. Accordingly,
in this essay I specifically explore how Afrofuturist literature has developed over the past
century in tandem with science fiction. After briefly reviewing the history and aesthetic
mission of Afrofuturism I will consider what I see as one of the central texts of literary
Afrofuturism: Ralph Ellisons Invisible Man. Here, I will examine how Ellison uses
science fictional motifs to aggressively critique American institutions and practices that
erase black people and their history from the future imaginary. In the second half of this
essay I will discuss a series Afrofuturist stories written between 1920 and the present
that restore people of color to this future imaginary. I am particularly interested in
demonstrating how these stories follow a specific historical trajectory. While early

Afrofuturists are concerned primarily with the question of whether or not there will be
any future whatsoever for people of color, contemporary Afrofuturists assume that in
the future race will continue to matter to individuals and entire civilizations alike. In
doing so, they expand our sense of the possible and contribute to the ongoing
A Brief History of Afrofuturism
The history of Afrofuturist storytelling both parallels and intersects that of science
fiction. Science fiction scholars generally agree that science fiction developed from the
scientifically- and technologically-inspired stories of classic nineteenth century authors
including Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells in Great Britain, Jules Verne in France, and
Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne in the United States. In essence, these
authors updated older, well-established story forms including the gothic, the fantastic
journey, and utopian fiction with detailed references to modern scientific theories and
technological developments. In doing so they took the first important steps in creating a
new mode of speculative literature that directly engaged the changing relations of
science and society as a whole.All laws here are the laws of the white man, designed to
keep us in subjugation and perpetuate his rule. All the means of education and
information, from nursery to college, from newspaper to book, are mobilized to
perpetuate white supremacy; to enslave and degrade the darker peoples. No student of
the race problem, Slater, can escape that conclusion But white people havent got all
the brains. We are going to out-think and out-scheme the white people, my boy. I have
the organization already, Slater, scattered all over the world; young Negroes like
yourself: intellectuals, scientists, engineers. They are mentally the equals of whites.
They possess superior energy, superior vitality, they have superior, or perhaps I
should say more intense, hatred and resentment, that fuel which operates the
juggernaut of conquest You will see in your time a great Negro nation in Africa, all
powerful, dictating to the white world. (Schuyler 14f)
Afrofuturist stories also begin to appear in this period, and, more often than not, were
also written by respectable mainstream writers including African Americans Martin
Delany, Charles Chesnutt, and Edward Johnson. Much like their white counterparts,
nineteenth-century Afrofuturists wrote in a diverse range of fantastic and proto-science
fictional forms. For example, Delanys 1857 novel Blake, or the Huts of America, is an
alternate history novel in which Cuban and American slaves engineer a successful
revolution; Chesnutts 1887 short story The Goophered Grapevine combines elements
of gothic and trickster narratives to examine the relations of northern whites and

southern blacks; and Johnsons 1904 novel Light Ahead for the Negro depicts an
African American man who travels into the future and explores a racially-egalitarian
socialist America (S.R. Delany 383f). Whatever narrative forms they worked in, then,
nineteenth-century Afrofuturist authors were bound together by a shared interest in
representing the changing relations of science and society as they specifically pertained
to African-American history including, of course, the history of the future.
Although American science fiction evolved into a distinct genre replete with its own
authors, editors, and magazines in the first decades of the twentieth century,
Afrofuturist authors of this period were still more likely to publish in black magazines
and newspapers such as Crisis and the Pittsburgh Courier. Of course, this does not
mean that there were not any black science fiction authors since science fiction
magazines such as Amazingand Astounding Stories carried out most of their business
by mail, it would have been impossible to determine the race (or even gender) of any
individual authors unless they announced it publicly. What it does mean, however, is
that authors associated with these magazines generally did not write stories that
addressed racial issues in meaningful ways (Delany 384).
There seem to have been two broad reasons for this silence. The first has to do with the
cultural status of science fiction in America at that time. Because early American science
fiction magazines were made of cheap pulp paper featuring crudely drawn images of
exploding planets, scantily-clad women, and bug-eyed monsters, they were often
perceived as somewhat immature and disreputable (James 37). As such, they were
hardly ideal forums for authors interested in serious speculation about the future of race
The second reason is more directly political. While individual members of the science
fiction community were often advocates of civil rights, science fiction storytelling as a
whole tended to revolve around futures that were implicitly and sometimes
explicitly racist ones. Consider, for instance, Stanley G. Weinbaums A Martian
Odyssey (1934). This story holds a special place in science fiction history because it is
one of the first sympathetic depictions of the alien other, emphasizing the intellectual
similarities between technologically advanced humans and aliens over their obvious
physical differences. Unfortunately, it does so in a spectacularly racist manner: the
predominantly white humans who populate Weinbaums story know that the Martians
they encounter are intelligent and rational beings precisely because their knowledge
classification systems are more sophisticated than those of African people back on
earth. Even at their literary best, then, early science fiction authors seemed incapable of

writing stories about tomorrow that did anything other than reflect the prejudices of the
current day.
After World War II, new sciences and technologies including everything from the atom
bomb to the automatic coffeemaker seemed to propel Americans into a brave new future
that would be radically different from the past. Not surprisingly, science fiction became
an increasingly popular and increasingly respectable way to make sense of these
changes. Although Afrofuturists still did not have much formal contact with the science
fiction community in the postwar era, their storytelling practices became an increasingly
central aspect of another popular art form: jazz music. Indeed, many Americans first
encountered what we now call Afrofuturism in the work of 1940s, 50s, and early 60s jazz
musicians such as Sun Ra and Lee Scratch Perry, who depicted themselves (and by
extension all Afrodiasporic people) as the descendants of aliens who came to Earth to
prepare humanity for its eventual destiny among the stars. Thus these artists projected
noble pasts for people of color while carefully crafting a heroic black face for the future
as well. Eventually, Afrofuturist storytelling became a regular aspect of black popular
music, informing the work of funk musicians such as George Clinton in the 1970s, rap
artists such as Public Enemy in the 1980s, and techno DJs such as Spooky: That
Subliminal Kid in the 1990s and 2000s.
As the explosion in Afrofuturist music over the past 40 years suggests, science fiction
has woven itself into the fabric of everyday life. Indeed, scholars including Darko Suvin
and Fredric Jameson sometimes even talk about science fiction as THE literature of
late capitalism because it so effectively captures the experience of living in a high-tech
world (Yaszek 2002: 97). If nothing else, films including The Matrix from
America, Tetsuo: The Iron Man from Japan, and Night Watch from Russia indicate the
very real extent to which science fiction pervades global culture.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Afrofuturist authors increasingly ally themselves
with the science fiction community. These new alliances began in the 1960s and 1970s
with pioneering black authors such as Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Charles Saunders,
and Jewelle Gomez. Today, this community is home to dozens if not hundreds of black
authors from around the world. And indeed, science fiction and Afrofuturism have come
together in a number of other ways as well: through the rise of conferences such
as Black to the Future, the publication of books such as Sheree R. Thomass Dark
Mattersanthologies, and the establishment of author collectives such as The Carl
Brandon Society.
Afrofuturism has evolved into a coherent mode not only aesthetically but also in terms
of its political mission. In its broadest dimensions Afrofuturism is an extension of the

historical recovery projects that black Atlantic intellectuals have engaged in for well over
two hundred years. According to author Toni Morrison these projects do more than
simply combat the erasure of black subjects from Western history. They also
demonstrate how African slaves and their descendants experienced conditions of
homelessness, alienation, and dislocation that anticipate what philosophers like
Nietzsche describe as the founding conditions of modernity (see Gilroy 178). Thus
Afrodiasporic histories insist both on the authenticity of the black subjects experience
in Western history and the way this experience embodies the dislocation felt by many
modern peoples.
As a popular aesthetic movement centered on seemingly fantastic tropes such as the
encounter with the alien other and travel through time and space, Afrofuturism holds
the potential to bring the Afrodiasporic experience to life in new ways. As Alondra
Nelson explains, the science fictional elements of Afrofuturism provide both apt
metaphors for black life and history and inspiration for technical and creative
innovations of artists working in a variety of traditional and new media. Furthermore,
by harnessing one of the signature languages of modernity the language of science
fiction Afrofuturist artists automatically create new audiences for their stories: those
primarily young, white, Western, and middle-class men who comprise the majority of
science fiction fans and who might never otherwise learn much about the history of their
country save what they haphazardly pick up in the high school classroom.
As its name implies, Afrofuturism is not just about reclaiming the history of the past, but
about reclaiming the history of the future as well. Cultural critic Kodwo Eshun proposes
that mainstream understandings and representations of the future derive from three
closely related sources. These sources include big science, which generates data about
the past and the present in order to predict the future; big business, which funds
scientific research and acts upon its results; and the global media, which synthesizes
scientific and corporate activity into a relatively coherent narrative and then
disseminates this narrative throughout the world. Together, these institutions constitute
what Eshun calls the futures industry. More often than not, the agents of this berindustry conflate blackness with catastrophe. For example, Eshun writes that African
social reality is overdetermined by intimidating global scenarios, doomsday economic
projections, weather predictions, medical reports on AIDS, and life-expectancy
forecasts, all of which predict decades of immiserization (2003: 291f). Other places
populated by descendants of the African diaspora such as the Caribbean islands and
the inner cities of North America receive similar treatment in futurist scenarios. As

such they become sites of absolute dystopia; imaginary spaces where the persistence of
black identity signifies a disastrous failure in the ongoing progress of global capital
Afrofuturist artists fight these dystopic futures in two related ways. First, they use the
vocabulary of science fiction to demonstrate how black alienation what W.E.B. Du
Bois called double consciousness is exacerbated rather than alleviated by those
visions of tomorrow that are disseminated by the futures industry. Second, they disrupt,
challenge, and otherwise transform those futures with fantastic stories that, as Ruth
Mayer puts it, move seamlessly back and forth through time and space, between
cultural traditions and geographic time zones and thus between blackness as a
dystopic relic of the past and as a harbinger of a new and more promising alien future
(556). These acts of chronopolitical intervention, as Eshun calls them, double, triple,
quadruple, and even quintuple our consciousness about what it might mean to live in a
black future (2003: 298).
Fighting the Futures Industry: Ralph Ellisons Invisible Man
Although Afrofuturism, like science fiction, has developed over the course of two
centuries, I begin my own history of this aesthetic tradition in the middle of the
twentieth century with Ralph Ellisons Invisible Man. Ellisons novel is a particularly
compelling example of Afrofuturism because it invites readers to think about how the
rhetoric of the futures industry impacts people of color. As readers are likely to
remember, Invisible Man follows the adventures of an unnamed protagonist who tries
to become an American leader by allying himself with various organizations: the historic
black college he attends as a young man in the south, the paint factory he works for
when he first moves north, and then finally the leftist political group known as the
As I read Ellisons novel in the history of Afrofuturism, what the invisible man is looking
for is the possibility of a black future that he cannot find. In each case his dreams of
self-realization are thwarted because he is treated as little more than a blank slate upon
which institutional authority projects its own vision of the future. The most explicit
acknowledgement of this comes from Mr. Norton, the rich white college trustee who
tells Ellisons protagonist: You are my fate, young man. Only you can tell me what it
really is Through you I can observe in terms of living personalities to what extent my
money, my time and my hopes have been fruitfully invested (42, 45). Here then the
black subject is figured as venture capital, a natural resource available to white investors
speculating in the stock market of tomorrow.

Although white members of the Brotherhood explicitly oppose themselves to capitalists

like Norton, they, too, treat black men as natural resources rather than human beings.
This attitude is clearly encapsulated in a Brotherhood poster entitled After the Struggle:
The Rainbow of Americas Future. The poster depicts a group of heroic figures. An
American Indian couple, representing the dispossessed past; a blond brother (in
overalls) and a leading Irish sister, representing the dispossessed present; and [black]
Brother Tod Clifton and a young white couple (it had been felt unwise simply to show
Clifton and the girl) surrounded by a group of children of mixed races, representing the
future (385). Much like Norton then, the Brotherhood equates blackness with futurity,
but only insofar as the black subject conforms to a predictable and carefully controlled
vision of the future.
Eventually Ellisons protagonist learns to say no to these whitewashed histories of the
future predicated on the erasure of black subjectivity. He learns this lesson from Brother
Tarp. As a young man in the south Tarp refuses to give up his possessions to a white
man; later, he refuses to accept the sentence of life imprisonment he receives for doing
so, and after nineteen years of patient waiting, he finds his opportunity and escapes to
the North. As he tells the invisible man: I said no to a man who wanted to take
something from me; thats what it cost me for saying no and even now the debt aint
fully paid and will never be paid in their terms I said no I said hell no! And I kept
saying no until I broke the chain and left (387). I think this passage is significant
because it does more than demonstrate one mans refusal to play the role that has been
socially scripted for him. It shows how, in refusing this role, one man can change the
future: Tarps debt such as it is will never be paid because he refuses to become the
subservient black man he is supposed to be. Instead, he removes himself from the bad
future that has been imposed on him and allies himself with the Brotherhood in hope of
a better tomorrow.
But if Ellisons protagonist says no to all those whitewashed futures that deny the
complexity of his history and identity including those offered by the Brotherhood
what is left to him? Toward the end of the novel he encounters two possible black
futures, but neither is very satisfactory. On the one hand, Ras the Exhorter/Destroyer
dreams of a Black Nationalist future in Africa, but these dreams turn out to be little
more than recycled scenarios from old Hollywood films. Indeed, one observer directly
compares Rass warrior-king clothes to the kind you see them African guys [wearing] in
the moving pictures and his horse to Heigho, the goddam Silver (563f). On the other
hand, Rinehart the gangster suggests that black Americans might do best to resist

predetermined futures and open up new sections of reality by embracing whatever role
is most appropriate at the moment: preacher or pimp, lover or fighter, criminal or
informer. Unfortunately, when the invisible man tries this out on his political
constituency it backfires horribly and Harlem explodes in a night of apocalyptic rioting
that tears the community apart and leaves the invisible man trapped in the sewer system
beneath New York City.
At first this seems to be a fortunate fall for Ellisons protagonist. Once the invisible man
is outside or underneath American society he finds that he can begin to exert some
control over it. Indeed, he becomes a kind of proto-hacker, stealing electricity from
Broadway to light his hiding place and power his Louis Armstrong records. He also
becomes a proto-Afrofuturist author, rethinking the relations of his past and present
and mapping the networks of power that would propel him into various futures not of
his own making. Thus the basement becomes a kind of time and space vessel that carries
Ellisons protagonist toward a new identity, a new aesthetic practice, and perhaps,
finally, a truly new future.
But the invisible man never quite gets there. In the final pages of Ellisons novel he
admits, it escapes me. What do I really want, Ive asked myself. Certainly not the
freedom of a Rinehart or the power of [the Brotherhood], nor simply the freedom not to
run. No, but the next step I [cant] make, so Ive remained in the hole (574). As such,
the invisible man remains perpetually on the edge of revelation and the edge of action,
aware that he holds within himself the possibility of a new future, but one that doesnt
seem quite ready to be born just yet.

Making It New: Afrofuturist Fictions of the Twentieth and Twenty-First

Although Ellisons invisible man may never be ready to confront the future, many other
Afrofuturist artists have done just that and in a range of provocative ways. Consider
the visions of tomorrow crafted by two Afrofuturist authors from the first half of the
twentieth century: W.E.B. Du Bois and George S. Schuyler. In many ways, Du Bois and
Schuyler could not be more different from one another. Du Bois was a radical sociologist
and civil rights activist who firmly believed that people of color from across the world
should come together to fight racism. By way of contrast, Schuyler was a conservative
journalist for thePittsburgh Courier who fiercely condemned racism but who also
rejected the notion of a globally unified black art, culture, or politics. Nonetheless, both

men were committed to using speculative narrative forms to imagine how black people
might participate in the creation of the future.
For example, W.E.B. Du Boiss short story, The Comet, which first appeared in the
1920 collection Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, both invokes and rewrites the
science fiction disaster story. According to science fiction scholars David Pringle and
Peter Nicholls, disaster stories generally imagine how vast biospheric changes might
drastically affect human life (338). The stories appeal to modern Western readers
because they represent everything we most fear and, at the same time, perhaps, secretly
desire: a depopulated world, escape from the constraints of a highly organized industrial
society, [and] the opportunity to prove ones ability as a survivor (338). This is certainly
true of Du Boiss story, which uses the natural disaster of a comet passing through
Earths atmosphere to explore whether or not there might be a future in which humans
finally escape the constraints of a highly racist industrial society.
The Comet follows the story of Jim Davis, a talented young black man who quietly
resents that his skin color has doomed him to the menial job of errand boy for a large
New York City bank. Indeed, as Jim rather grimly notes to himself upon being ordered
to retrieve some ancient records from an abandoned subterranean vault at the
beginning of the story, of course they wanted him to go down to the lower vaults. It was
too dangerous for more valuable men (5). Somewhat ironically, this dangerous errand
actually saves Jims life when the comets poisonous tail passes through the city and kills
everyone aboveground. At first Jim is understandably horrified by the comets
destruction because it seems he is the only person left alive on Earth. And yet once he
eats a meal in an upscale whites-only restaurant and liberates a car from its dead white
driver, Jim begins to see some distinct advantages to the situation. For the first time in
his life, he does not have to worry about his skin color but can instead enjoy all the
luxuries available to white people in a high-tech society.
Jims newly enlarged sense of humanity is further confirmed by his chance meeting with
one other survivor: a rich young white woman who happens to be working in her
basement darkroom at the time of the comets passage. Although she initially sees Jim
as a man alien in blood and culture (12), the young woman quickly casts off her race
and class prejudices and discovers that she truly likes Jim. Moreover, once she realizes
that she and Jim might be responsible for repopulating the entire Earth, affection
quickly becomes something else:

Slowly the mighty prophecy of her destiny overwhelmed her She was no mere
woman. She was neither high nor low, white nor black, rich nor poor. She was primal
woman; mighty mother of all men to come and Bride of Life. She looked upon the man
beside her and forgot all else but his manhood, his strong, vigorous manhood She
saw him glorified. He was no longer a thing apart, a creature below, a strange outcast
of another clime and blood, but her brother humanity incarnate, Son of God and great
All-Father of the race to be. (15)
Thus Du Bois suggests that the comet is not really a disaster for our hero. Rather it is an
extremely fortunate event that catapults him into a brave new world where sex matters
more than race.
But alas, this future is not meant to be. Just as Jim and the young woman prepare to
consummate their love, they are discovered by a rescue party whose leader informs
them that the comet tail only affected New York City; that the rest of America is just the
same as it ever was and that normal services and relations are already being restored to
the city itself. He then promptly demonstrates this, of course, by trying to lynch Jim for
touching a white woman. Although the young woman intervenes to save Jims life, she
quickly loses interest in him once she is reunited with her rich white fianc. And even
though Jim is finally reunited with his own wife, it is only to learn that the comet has
killed their baby. Thus Du Bois ends his story by suggesting not only that it will take a
natural disaster to eradicate racism in America, but that without such a disaster there
may no future whatsoever for black Americans.
By way of contrast, George S. Schuyler combines elements of two other science fiction
story types the military adventure and the utopian journey to depict a future in
which diasporic blacks join forces to conquer the world. American science fiction written
between the two world wars often revolved around battles with alien races in which
sympathetic humans saved the day with their superior knowledge of science and
technology (Stableford, War 1297). This is certainly true of Black Internationale and
Black Empire, two interlocking serialized stories that Schuyler published in
thePittsburgh Courier between 1936 and 1938. Schuylers stories follow the adventures
of Carl Slater, a young journalist for The Harlem Blade who is swept up into a global
battle between two alien races on Earth: white people and everyone else. This global
battle or, more properly, this global revolution is led by the wealthy and brilliant
Dr. Henry Belsidus. Belsidus begins his revolution by gathering together a Black
Internationale comprised of Afrodiasporic scientists, soldiers, artists, and

businesspeople from around the globe. Although they have little common history or
culture, these future world leaders are bound together by their frustration with the
inability to succeed in a racist world and, more altruistically, by their commitment to
actively creating a new future for black men and women everywhere.
And this is precisely what they do. After decimating the United States with biological
warfare, the Black Internationale liberates Africa from its European colonial oppressors
and announces the birth of a new Black Empire. When the Europeans protest, Belsiduss
second-in-command General Patricia Givens masterminds a series of air raids that
quickly bring Europe to its collective knees. Givenss efforts are greatly enhanced by
timely aid from Martha Gaskins, a young white stockbroker who becomes Belsiduss
lover and, eventually, the head of his European espionage unit. Thus Schuyler suggests
that the battle for racial equality will naturally appeal to right-thinking people
everywhere, regardless of race and gender.
Even though these scenes of carnage must have been great fun for Schuyler to write
nearly seventy years later, they are certainly still great fun to read it is important to
note that Schuyler balances the carnage with scenes that celebrate Afrodiasporic
intellectual prowess and preview the utopian future in store for subjects of the new
Black Empire. Indeed, Carl Slater decides to join the black revolution precisely because
Belsiduss people have already done so much. They have invented new crops to
eliminate world hunger, new information networks to create global community, and
even new religions to instill both individual dignity and racial pride in their
worshippers. And herein lies the central irony of Schuylers story. As Bellarius
dramatically explains to Slater, it is precisely the experience of slavery and racial
discrimination that has prepared Afrodiasporic people for world domination:

Like any good science fiction author, then, Schuyler uses his utopian society to estrange
readers from their assumptions about the past, present, and future of their own world.
InBlack Internationale and Black Empire, recent Western history is not just a
confirmation of white supremacy, nor is it just a racist tragedy. Rather, it is a series of
fortunate events that facilitate the evolution of Afrodiasporic people into supermen and
superwomen who will lead all humanity into a new age.
Much like Ralph Ellison, then, early Afrofuturist authors such as Du Bois and Schuyler
wrote stories that revolved around a specific issue: the ability of Afrodiasporic blacks to
make a place for themselves in Western and even global futurity. By way of

contrast, contemporary Afrofuturist authors such as Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson
readily assume that people of color will indeed be key players in the history of the future.
But this does not mean that they simply create Technicolor versions of traditional
science fiction stories, making a few heroic scientists black or brown and a few evil alien
others white or pink. Rather, they actively draw upon Afrodiasporic history and culture
to tell complex and sometimes contradictory stories about how and why race relations
might continue to matter in the future. In doing so, they also contribute to the ongoing
development of science fiction itself.
Consider, for example, Octavia Butlers short story Bloodchild, which first appeared
inAsimovs Science Fiction Magazine in 1984. At first glance Bloodchild seems to be a
simple variation on the classic alien invasion story, revolving around the pseudoDarwinian notion that species must compete with one another to ensure that only the
fittest survives (Stableford, Aliens 16). Butlers story takes place in a far-off future
where a group of humans have migrated to an alien world to escape persecution on
Earth. When they arrive they promptly attempt to exterminate the bug-like Tlic who
live there. Unfortunately for the humans, the Tlic are highly advanced people with
problems of their own: they are facing certain extinction because the mammals they rely
on to incubate their larvae have all but died out. Not surprisingly, the Tlic quickly
conquer the human invaders and drug them into submission so human women will bear
as many children as possible and thus the Tlic can use surplus human men as hosts for
their own larvae, thereby endowing the men with a traditionally female biological
function. Given this situation, an apocalyptic struggle between the Tlic and humanity
seems inevitable.
However, Butler refuses to indulge in apocalyptic storytelling, instead drawing
inspiration from African American history to explore how different races might survive
and co-evolve through compromise and cooperation. Bloodchild revolves around a
human adolescent boy named Gan whose family lives with TGatoi, a powerful female
Tlic politician who has already radically improved human-Tlic relations by stopping the
sale of human men away from their families, creating preserves where humans can live
without Tlic interference, and encouraging progressive-minded Tlic and humans to join
together into new interspecies families. What TGatoi hasnt done, however, is
adequately prepare Gan for childbirth, which the Tlic think of as a highly private
matter. Its also a dangerous one: if the larvae are not surgically removed from their
hosts at a precise time, they will kill the host by trying to eat their way out from inside
him. Understandably, when Gan sees a birth go wrong, all his fears about Tlic control

over human host animals come rushing to the surface and the young boy threatens to
kill both himself and TGatoi.
Gan refrains from doing this, however. Instead, he and TGatoi talk out their differences
and then, more importantly, recognize their similarities. As the alien neatly puts it:
the animals we once used began killing our eggs after implantation long before your
ancestors arrived. Because your people arrived, we are relearning what it means to
be a healthy, thriving people. And your ancestors, fleeing from their homeworld, from
their own kind who would have killed or enslaved them they survived because of us.
We saw them as people and gave them the Preserve when they still tried to kill us as
worms (137).
Recognizing that their species can no longer survive without one another, Gan puts
down his gun, reaffirms his love for TGatoi, and promises to bear her children. TGatoi,
meanwhile, vows to make political amends for her cultural short-sightedness. And thus
the story ends with Gan and TGatoi in one anothers arms, conceiving the children that
will affirm the possibility of human-Tlic co-evolution.
Significantly, although this is a happy ending for Gan and TGatoi, it is probably a very
uncomfortable one for Butlers readers. The Tlic still have more power than humans,
human women still give birth to human men who will, in turn, give birth to alien babies,
and we simply do not know if TGatoi will really be able to convince her peers to do right
by their new human partners. What Butler does insist upon, however, is that much like
African American slaves of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the captive humans
on TGatois world do have a choice: they most likely cannot win their freedom by
violence, but at the same time, they do not have to be doomed victims or martyrs.
Instead, they can forge new kinds of emotional and physical connections with other likeminded individuals to ensure that everyone lives to see a better day. As I read it, then,
Gans choice to bear TGatois children is a risky but incredibly brave one because it
affirms the complexity of historical reality over simple misrepresentations of so-called
biological necessity.
I end this essay at the new millennium with Nalo Hopkinsons short story Ganger (Ball
Lightning). First published in Sherree R. Thomass Dark Matters: A Century of
Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000), Ganger (Ball Lightning)
updates Isaac Asimovs classic robot puzzle stories. Throughout the 1940s Asimov wrote

a series of stories about robots whose behavior was guided by three immutable rules
designed to protect humans against harm by robots. In each tale a robot does something
unexpected, and the reader races against Asimovs characters to see who can solve the
puzzle first. Hopkinsons story follows a similar, if saucier, pattern. Ganger relates the
story of Cleve and Issy, who have recently bought full-body sex suits in a desperate
attempt to save their marriage (readers learn at the beginning of the story that the only
time Cleve and Issy actually communicate anymore is in bed). One night the couple
swaps suits to see what it is like to be the opposite sex, and are so surprised by the
intensity of the experience that they rip off the suits and throw them in a corner. In the
morning Issy wakes up to find out that the suits have merged and come to life. As a kind
of electrified double of Cleve and Issy, the doppleganger or ganger, as Hopkinsons
characters call it wants nothing more than to have sex with its owners. But because it
is made of almost pure electricity, this will obviously kill them.
And hence the puzzle of the story: Where did the ganger come from? How can Issy and
Cleve stop it? Like any good Asimovian character, Hopkinsons sex suit hackers quickly
and logically figure out what happened: the suits merged and took on a life of their own
because Cleve and Issy failed to follow the manufacturers warning to discharge and
separate the suits after every use. They then figure out how to stop the ganger just as
quickly and logically. As Issy explains to Cleve, the suits are their doubles, and so the
ganger will probably respond to stimuli in much the same manner as Issy and Cleve.
Therefore, since the one thing they never want to do anymore is talk, then talking to
each other is whats most likely to kill the ganger. And thus Issy and Cleve finally talk,
the ganger is destroyed, and their marriage is saved.
In its broadest dimensions, then, Hopkinsons story does not seem to be about race. And
yet, it is profoundly engaged with race at two very different levels. First and most
obviously, race is the key to unlocking the puzzle at the heart of this tale. During the
final battle with the ganger, readers learn why Cleve and Issy do not talk anymore. Cleve
reveals that he is afraid to express his feelings because look at the size of me, the
blackness of me. You know what it is to see people cringe for fear when you shout?
(151). Issy, meanwhile, admits that she channels her anxiety about personal
relationships into more abstract anger at racial injustice, thereby allowing herself to
talk around stuff, not about it (150). Here then Hopkinson extends the tradition
initiated by Du Bois, Schuyler, and Butler, insisting not only that race will matter to
entire nations in the future, but that it will matter to individual people in their everyday
lives as well.

Second, race is central to Ganger (Ball Lightning) and indeed all of Hopkinsons
fiction in a much more celebratory way as well. Science fiction has traditionally been
thought of as the literature of engineers; accordingly, authors generally use the same
standard American English that is found in engineering textbooks. Hopkinson, however,
departs from this tradition by allowing her narrators and characters to speak in the
dialects of her pan-Caribbean childhood. In doing so she fulfills the goals of both science
fiction and Afrofuturist writing. She reminds us that science fiction is not just the
literature of engineers, but the literature of all people who live in a high-tech world.
Conclusion: Black to the Future
In conclusion, I want to propose two reasons why it is important to recover the history
of Afrofuturism as it has unfolded over the past two centuries. The first reason is a
scholarly one, and has to do with our understanding of literary and cultural history. The
past two decades have been marked by an explosion of interest in literary
representations of science and technology. These studies tend to follow a very specific
and very raced trajectory: they tell us that white authors including T.S. Eliot, Thomas
Pynchon, and William Gibson are the real founders of modern technocultural narrative
and that authors of color did not engage in this kind of storytelling until identity politics
exploded in the 1960s. Thus it seems that white authors got there first, and that people
of color have been mere respondents to the new literary forms of twentieth and twentyfirst centuries. But this just isnt true! By recovering Afrodiasporic future story telling
traditions we gain a better understanding of the important intellectual and aesthetic
work that these authors have performed on both national and global cultural fronts. In
doing so, we also learn more about how Afrofuturism transforms science fiction and
other modes of technologically engaged literature today.
My second reason for wanting to direct attention to Afrofuturism is political. From the
ongoing war on terror to Hurricane Katrina, it seems that we are trapped in an historical
moment when we can think about the future only in terms of disaster and that
disaster is almost always associated with the racial other. Of course, there are many
artists, scholars, and activists who want to resist these terrifying new representations of
the future. As a literary scholar myself, I believe that one important way to do this is to
identify the narrative strategies that artists have used in the past to express dissent from
those visions of tomorrow that are generated by a ruthless, economically self-interested
futures industry. Hence my interest in Afrofuturism, which assures us that we can
indeed just say no to those bad futures that justify social, political, and economic
discrimination. In doing so this mode of aesthetic expression also enables us to say yes

to the possibility of new and better futures and thus to take back the global cultural
imaginary today.

iven the frequency with which we see black people in the United States being
killed or attacked by police for protesting, its no surprise that a packed house
turned out on Thursday night at Civic Hall in New York City to attend the
panel Afrofuturism: Imagining the Future of Black Identity. Right now, there
is a palpable hunger and desire to know more about Afrofuturism as a lens to
better understand our lives and their possibilities beyond our present
At the outset, Afrofuturism was described as a black perspective on the
politics, aesthetics and cultural aspects of science, science fiction and
technology. Slate culture writer Aisha Harris guided a discussion about what
the term means between author Ytasha Womack, Nigerian artist
and designer Wal Oyjid, and lawyer and Arizona State University
professor Michael Bennet. It quickly emerged that what Afrofuturism is, and
how its lens may be turned on the global world, is very personal. In the way
that film noir functions as a genre, or jazz as a musical style, Afrofuturism is a
philosophy that can be simultaneously obvious and vague in its identity,
bounded and porous in its edges. It can include Sun Ras Space is the Place,
Greg Tates cultural criticism, and even sociologist Alondra Nelsons work
on DNA and race.

Afrofuturism: where space, pyramids and politics collide

Read more
Womack, the author of Afrofuturism: the World of Black Sci-Fi Fantasy and
Fantasy Culture, began by explaining that to her, Afrofuturism offers a highly
intersectional way of looking at possible futures or alternate realities through
a black cultural lens. It is non-linear, fluid and feminist; it uses the black

imagination to consider mysticism, metaphysics, identity and liberation; and,

despite offering black folks a way to see ourselves in a better future,
Afrofuturism blends the future, the past and the present.
To Womack, one of Afrofutrisms central functions is to explore race as a
technology, utilised for specific reasons. The deployment of this technology
has created racism (indeed, as one audience member pointed out, technology
itself can be racist as news broke on Thursday that Apples Siri
defined bitch as black slang for woman.) But just like technology,
Afrofuturism can be upgraded. Indeed, as the story of Rachel Dolezalpointed
out in the summer, race is a fiction which has only existed as we presently
conceive it over the past few hundred years, since European colonialism and
American chattel slavery began peddling its mythology. But despite being a
fiction, its effects are so real in our lives that it can be difficult to imagine
ourselves outside our present hell. Afrofuturism offers us a way out through
the black imagination.
The foundational pyramid (pyramids come up a lot in Afrofuturism) of the
very loose Afrofuturist canon, Womack said, includes the science fiction
writersSamuel Delany and Octavia Butler, and the musicians Sun
Ra and George Clinton. But despite the occasional references to music, the
evenings conversation dealt much more with writers than musicians. (For a
much more complete exploration of Afrofuturism in music, see Lanre
Bakares Afrofuturism takes flight: From Sun Ra to Janelle Monae or Ashley
Clarks Inside Afrofuturism: a Sonic Companion).
Womack found Afrofuturism to be a journey of self-discovery which she
encountered before she knew it had a name. The term itself was coined in
1992by the writer Mark Dery but the ideas go back much further (indeed , a
century-old WEB DuBois science fiction story was rediscovered just this
week), and Womack found a lot of people were engaging these ideas but felt
that they were alone before a category tied it all together. She said she had
loved both science and history as a kid, but had been taught to believe these
things had nothing to do with each other.

To me, a tenent of Afrofuturism deals with black people being told they must
adhere to divisions which dont exist, and only accept a limited number of
stories about ourselves, such that we have an extremely limited concept of
what material reality can be. Racism can give black Americans the impression
that in the past we were only slaves who did not rebel; that in the present, we
are a passive people beaten by police who cannot fight back; and that in the
future, we simply do not exist.
Bennett spoke about how the three most important writings to him coming up
were comic books, the Bible and the writings of Delany. He said he believes
Afrofuturism has become more relevant than in the early and mid-1990s
because back then hed feel weekly that I was living in a science fictional
environment. These days, he says, the rate at which I sense that now is five
times a day, considering the daily insanity of gun violence, police violence,
and the violence to the environment in the age of the anthropocene.
Offering an international perspective on Afrofuturism, Oyjid spoke about
watching Star Wars and Star Trek in Nigeria, and how he and friends hoped
to see ourselves on screen. Too often, he said, images of the African continent
only offered doom, gloom and terrorist attacks, full of faceless brown people
used as puppets. To him, Afrofuturism offered a way out of the present
nature of depicting black people in a limited way, and instead offers a vision
of of us with a shout out to the future.
When it comes to science fiction on the continent, Oyjid found the 2009
film District 9 to be an awesome film but pretty problematic for Nigerians.
This is why he says he has no interest in seeing Beasts of No Nation, with a
similar critique as bell hooks had of 12 Years A Slave: We have this fatigue of
suffering from only seeing people slaughter each other.
A recurring figure and discourse of Afrofuturism that help imagine a different
reality are seen when the captured slave is recast as the abducted alien. Harris
noted this can employ certain tropes but also many types of black resistance.
Seeing black people as aliens, and imagining ourselves on other worlds, is
radical, Womack noted, because black people have had their imaginations

hijacked: we have been duped into only believing one narrative about
ourselves. And this creates a co-constitutive process in which we imagine a
limited sense of possibility and create limited lives in this image.
But, Womack told the audience: Youre a universal being thats in a threedimensional space. Afrofuturism allows black people to see our lives more
fully than the present allows emotionally, technologically, temporally and
Harris asked the panelists to weigh in on Lupita Nyongos appearance in the
upcoming Star Wars movie, and that its reported that she will not appear on
screen, but simply as a voice and motion-capture model for an alien. How,
Harris wanted to know, did it feel to see a black woman hidden as an alien?
Did that work with Afrofuturisms vision of black people abducted as aliens, or
was it a convenient way to make a black Oscar winner disappear?
None of the panelists seemed happy about this (and no one, interestingly,
brought up the black Storm Trooper controversy, or the exciting ways John
Boyega has been centrally featured in the trailers). Womack said she has to see
the film before making judgments, but she spoke to the general lack of black
people in visions of the future, which makes black viewers believe we are
erased from the past, erased from the future, and youre hovering in the here
and now, waiting for someone to write a story with our complexion in it.
From the 1950s onwards, sf in the US magazine and paperback tradition
postulated and presumed a color-blind future, generally depicting
humankind as one race, which has emerged from an unhappy past of
racial misunderstandings and conflicts (James 47; see also Kilgore). This
shared assumption accounts for the relative absence of people of color from
such sf: if race was going to prove unimportant, why even bother thinking
about it, when energies could instead be devoted to more pressing matters,
such as how to colonize the solar system or build a better robot? And so
questions of race remained as marginalized as black charactersat best, it

seemed, Chewbaccas Jim to Hans Huck. A year after Star Wars, DC

Comics put Superman in the ring with Muhammad Ali and then concocted
a convoluted narrative that culminated in the speedy declaration of Alis
victory by a technical knockout as, stripped of his superpowers, the wellwhupped Man of Steel refused to hit the canvas (until a split second after
the referee announced the result).
The exclusion of people of color from sfs future had already been noted by,
among others, Gil Scott-Heron, whose 1970 track Whitey on the Moon
(1970) contrasts the corporate profiteering of the US space program (so
close, ideologically, to much of the Campbell-Heinlein tradition) with the
impoverishment of black urban communities: I cant pay no doctor bill
(but Whiteys on the moon)/Ten years from now Ill be payin still (while
Whiteys on the moon). The space race showed us which race space was
for. This sense of exclusion even registered in white-authored sf. For
example, in Survival, a 1971 episode of UFO (1970-73), Commander
Straker (Ed Bishop)the white, American head of SHADO, a secret
military organization charged with defending Earth from alien invaders
believes white Colonel Paul Foster (Michael Billington) to be dead and so
offers command of the vital moonbase to Lieutenant Mark Bradley (Harry
Baird). Initially, this West-Indian officer turns down the promotion, saying
that Straker has done his duty by offering the job to the next most senior
man, even though he is black, and that he himself has done his duty by
refusing it. When Straker demands an explanation, Bradley indicates his
skin color. Strakerperhaps forgetting that the series is set in 1980, less
than a decade in the futureresponds, Dont give me that. Racial
prejudice burned itself out five years ago.How would you know?
Bradley demands.
Whatever their intentions, sfs color-blind future was concocted by whites
and excluded people of color as full subjects; and because of the
particularities of US history, the most obvious omission was that significant
proportion of the population descended from the survivors of the WestAfrican genocide, the Middle Passage, and slavery. This is not to say that
the dominant US sf tradition did not occasionally attempt, with varying

degrees of equivocation, to consider issues of race and prejudice in

contemporary and future worlds. For example, Allen De Graeffs Human
and Other Beings (1963) collects sixteen such stories, published between
1949 and 1961, by Raymond E. Banks, Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Fredric
Brown, Theodore R. Cogswell, C.M. Kornbluth, George P. Elliott, J.T.
McIntosh, Frederik Pohl, Mack Reynolds, Eric Frank Russell, Robert
Sheckley, Evelyn E. Smith, William Tenn, and Richard Wilson.1 It is not
insignificant, though, that only one-third of these stories addressed the
position of African Americans with anything like directness; only two or
three of them could be seen to have black viewpoint characters, despite the
growth of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and such high-profile
events as McLaurin vs. Oklahama State Regents (1951), Sweatt vs. Painter
(1951), the announced desegregation of the US Army (1951), Brown vs. the
Board of Education (1954), the murder of Emmett Till (1955), the
Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56), and the desegregation of Little Rock
This problem, too, is perhaps best addressed by a marginal black sf
character from the 1970s. In 1972, Marvel Comics launched Luke Cage, Hero
for Hire (later Luke Cage, Power Man). Long before Robert Morales and Kyle
Bakers wonderful Truth: Red, White and Black (2002) reworked the Captain
America origin story (reasoning that if medical experiments had been
conducted on US soldiers in the 1940s they would have been on black
soldiers), Luke Cage opened with Lucas, a black prisoner imprisoned for a
crime he did not commit, consenting to be the subject of an experimental
treatment in order to help sway a parole board. When a racist guard
sabotages the procedure, Lucas undergoes a remarkable transformation. His
already muscular physique becomes hypermuscular, his body mass
increases in density, and his skin becomes as hard as steel. He busts out of
prison, punching his way through its walls. Back in New York, he tries to
clear his name while working as hired muscle, Shaft-like detective, and
raging black Robin Hood. He finds himself embroiled with various white
superheroes: Iron Man, who, as billionaire Tony Stark, financed the
experiment that created him, and the Fantastic Four, whose skyscraper

headquarters belongs to an entirely different world from his run-down

office over a Times Square movie theater.
In a comic whose unabashed linking of discrepancies of wealth, prestige,
and access to technology with skin color provides no more analysis of the
situation than one would find in most blaxploitation movies of the period,
it nonetheless powerfully articulates the alienated black identity that
W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon described in terms of double
consciousness and colonized subjectivity. We never know Lucass surname,
and the one he adopts alludes to an imprisonment he feels even though no
longer incarcerated. From the moment Lucas becomes Luke Cage he is
always Luke Cage. For all that he must conceal a past from which he cannot
escape, he has no conventional off-duty secret identity to protect, no mask
to put on or take off. He is always visible in the role he must play to
survive. Moreover, despite his superpowers, he does not feel that he is a
superhero. Rather, as he muses in issue 2 (1972), superheroing is one line a
work where powers like mine seem natural, the one chance this big, black
man has of passing. (Contemplating a change of sobriquet in issue 17
[1974], he rejects Ace of Spades as too ethnic.) As his superpowers
consist of hitting things really hard, while withstanding being hit really
hard, he embraces this stereotype of black masculinity, occasionally chiding
himself for betraying his intelligence (although fortunately his
performance of black male rage is so convincing that his opponents, and
perhaps his readers, rarely notice that he also outsmarts them). In issue 9
(1973), Cage makes his way to Latveria, where Doctor Dooms robot slaves,
led by the alien Faceless One, are in armed revolt. The Faceless One seeks
Cages help: The plight of these machines is heart-rending, Cage. Other
countries have, in the past, imported slaves ... but Doctor Doom
manufactures his! Surely you can comprehend their feelings? Cage replies:
Dont play that song for me, darlinI can dig it right enough!But jivin
dont hook Luke Cage, an you couldnt care less bout American history!
Just as Lieutenant Bradley points to white ignorance of black subjectivity,
the oppressors ignorance of the oppresseds life, so Luke Cage points to the
problem of sf that uses the indirection of metaphor or allegory to consider

issues of race and prejudice. Just as the Faceless One elides all experiences
of slavery, thus stripping both fictional robots and real African Americans
of specific identities and histories, so the satirical sf tale in which the alien
or the android is the subject of prejudice, whatever its merits, also avoids
direct engagement with the realities of racialized hierarchies and
oppressions. This is evident in the brief discussion of race and sf offered by
Scholes and Rabkin in the 1970s:
because of their orientation toward the future, science fiction
writers frequently assumed that Americas major problem in
this areablack/white relationswould improve or even
wither away. The presence of unhuman races, aliens, and
robots, certainly makes the differences between human races
seem appropriately trivial, and one of the achievements of
science fiction has been its emphasis on just this feature of
human existence. [Its] tacit attack on racial stereotyping
has allowed science fiction to get beyond even liberal
attitudes, to make stereotyping itself an obsolete device and the
matter of race comparatively unimportant. Science fiction, in
fact, has taken the question so spiritedly debated by the
founding fathers of the United Statesof whether the rights of
man included black slaves as well as white slave-ownersand
raised it to a higher power by asking whether the rights of
being end at the boundaries of the human race. (188-89,
emphasis added)
While Scholes and Rabkin are clearly involved in the important struggle to
get sf recognized as being worthy of academic studytheir book was
published by Oxford University Pressand thus might be merely overegging the pudding in the battle for acceptance, this passage is nonetheless
redolent of the criticism of the genre that accepts the genres own selfimage, promulgated in the pulps and some fandoms, as somehow being in
the vanguard of literature because of the supposedly more objective stance
enabled by its affiliations to science, particularly the longer and broader
perspectives opened up by the contemplation of cosmic space and time. The

problem with such a gesture, of course, is that rather than putting aside
trivial and earthly things, it validates and normalizes very specific
ideological and material perspectives, enabling discussions of race and
prejudice on a level of abstraction while stifling a more important
discussion about real, material conditions, both historical and
contemporary. And by presenting racism as an insanity that burned itself
out, or as the obvious folly of the ignorant and impoverished who would be
left behind by the genres brave new futures, sf avoids confronting the
structures of racism and its own complicity in them.
Edward James, in his rather more nuanced essay quoted above, found the
message that humanity is one race perpetuated without any fuss or
foregrounding in a sample of stories from 1990. We may trust, he
concludes, this is a hopeful sign (47). Slavoj ieks critique of
multiculturalism suggests that this is unduly optimistic. Multiculturalism,
he argues, is
a disavowed, inverted, self-referential form of racism, a racism
with a distanceit respects the Others identity, conceiving
the Other as a self-enclosed authentic community towards
which he, the multiculturalist, maintains a distance rendered
possible by his privileged universal position. Multiculturalism
is a racism which empties its own position of all positive
content (the multiculturalist is not a direct racist, he doesnt
oppose to the Other the particular values of his own culture),
but nonetheless retains this position as the privileged empty
point of universality from which one is able to appreciate (and
depreciate) properly other particular culturesthe
multiculturalist respect for the Others specificity is the very
form of asserting ones own superiority. (44, emphases in
Sfs color-blind future is multiculturalist in this wayas is evident when
Commander Straker, who has profoundly missed the point, tells Lieutenant

Bradley, I dont care if youre polka dot with red stripes, youre the best
man for the job.2
The term Afrofuturism is normally attributed to Mark Dery, coined in an
interview with Samuel Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose that appeared
in South Atlantic Quarterly in 1993, but even without this term to hand,
Mark Sinker was outlining a specifically black sf in the pages of The
Wire the year before. To many readers of SFS, Sinkers pantheon of black sf
which included Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, as well as Sun Ra,
Public Enemy, John Coltrane, Anthony Braxton, Miles Davis, Wayne
Shorter, Jimi Hendrix, Afrika Bambaataa, Ishmael Reed, and Earth Wind
and Firemight not sound much like the sf we know. But sf is a point of
cultural departure for all of these writers and musicians, because it
allows for a series of worst-case futuresof hells-on-Earth and being in
themwhich are woven into every kind of everyday present reality
(Loving the Alien). The central fact of the black sf they produce is an
acknowledgement that Apocalypse already happened, that, in Public
Enemys words, Armageddon been in effect.
Taking in contemporary music and sf, Sinker positions hip-hop in the
grand syncretic tradition of bebop, not ashamed to acknowledge that
technological means and initial building material are always simply what
falls to hand: but that meaning is nonetheless a matter of energetic and
visionary redeployment, not who first owned or made this or that fragment
(Loving the Alien). Although cyberpunk has typically been discussed in
terms of European avant-garde detournement or Burroughsian cut-up, its
parallels and affinities with bebop and hip-hop3 have generally gone
unacknowledged. Sinker does more than merely point to this omission,
however. Just as Thomas Foster argues that cyberpunk didnt so much die
as experience a sea change into a more generalized cultural formation (xiv),
so Sinker suggests that the black, urban, proletarian experience central to
the development of these musical forms speaks directly to the experience of
the global underclass created by the intertwined logics of capital, Empire,
and race: more-or-less concomitant with the growth of hip-hop, cyberpunk,
the radical leading edge of white SF, was arguing that the planet,

already turned Black, must embrace rather than resist this [relationship to
technology]: that only ways of technological interaction inherited from
the jazz and now the rap avant garde can reintegrate humanity with the
runaway machine age.
While Extropians, Transhumanists, and other rich white guys can reimagine
white flight not in terms of suburbs, gated communities, or off-world
colonies, but of libertarian, pro-market, digital disembodiment, the
overwhelming majority of the global population can only play in the ruins
they leave behind. In musical terms, this is signified by Detroit Techno,
which yearn[ed] for [the] impossible SF futures projected by Kraftwerks
semi-ironic celebration of the excellence of robot-being, but whose
consumers could only find purely temporary paradisiac freedom, beyond
sex rules or racial boundaries in the wordless total immersion culture of
beat-pleasure.4 In sf terms, this utopian impulse is suggested by the danceparty in Zion while tunneling Sentinels prepare for a final onslaught that
will universalise the Matrix. Blackness as a signifier of the multiethnic
underclass, as well as an increasingly commodified image of resistance, is
signalled by the presence in The Matrix (1999) and its sequels of Keanu
Reeves, a Lebanon-born Canadian Asian-Pacific, passing as white, cast
instead of a black man (Will Smith), who fights like a Chinese (specifically,
Jet Li), and desperately wants to be as blackas coolas Laurence
Just as the Sentinels seek to eradicate the Zionites, so western culture
generally constructs Blackness as always oppositional to technologically
driven chronicles of progress (Nelson 1). This is evident, for example, in
such a quintessentially sf story as Tom Godwins The Cold Equations
(1954). While much of the criticism of this story has focused on its
construction of a newer and higher frontier as a space of transcendent
masculinity, and of femininity as that which must be ejected, the one
colonized person who fleetingly appears in itthe Gelanese native girl
who does the cleaning in the Ships supply office (445)has gone largely
unnoticed. While the manly colonists do all they can to allow the white girl,

Marilyn, an existence in their space, however briefly, the native girl is

utterly excluded.
Afrofuturism, described by Dery as speculative fiction that treats AfricanAmerican themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context
of 20th-century technocultureand, more generally, African-American
signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically
enhanced future (736), is not restricted to images of exclusion from white
technological progress, because only within a certain ideological field is
black experience the opposite of technoculture. Just as the futures of The
Cold Equations and UFO exclude the experience of the subaltern from
their self-perception, so Mark Bradley and Luke Cages resistances to
certain interpellations indicateeven if they struggle to imaginea much
more varied and complex set of relationships between domination and
subordination, whiteness and color, ideology and reality, technology and
race. In this context, it is not insignificant that much Afrofuturist writing
focuses on real-world black access to and use of digitial technologies, or
that the second @froGEEKS conference should shift its emphasis from
2004s From Technophobia to Technophilia to 2005s Global Blackness
and the Digital Public Sphere.5
It is not the intention of this special issue to incorporate Afrofuturism into
sf. Afrofuturism is every bit as irreducible to sf as Bradley is to SHADOs
white hierarchy, or black Americans to Latverian robot slaves, or Luke Cage
to the buck stereotype. Rather, it is the contention of this issue that sf and sf
studies have much to learn from the experience of technoculture that
Afrofuturist texts register across a wide range of media; and that sf studies,
if it is to be at all radical, must use its position of relative privilege to
provide a home for excluded voices without forcing assimilation upon
them. Resistance, as the Borg never said, is utile. It would be easy, in a
postmodern multiculturalist age, to fall into the trap of merely celebrating
Afrofuturism as resistance (and thus practicing the disavowed, inverted,
self-referential racism iek describes). In the era of digital sampling
and the shift of emphasis from the diachronic to the synchronic encouraged
as much by late capitalism as by the linguistic turnit is easy to lose track

of history. The future proposed by Marinetti and the Italian Futurists was
young and masculine, obsessed with speed and the foreclosure of the past.
In its frequent emphasis on bridging the digital divide, Afrofuturism tends
towards the typical cyberpunk acceptance of capitalism as an
unquestionable universe and working for the assimilation of certain
currently marginalized peoples into a global system that might, at best,
tolerate some relatively minor (although not unimportant) reforms, but
within which the many will still have to poach, pilfer, and hide to survive.
It is the hope of this issue to bring together Afrofuturism and sf studies in
anticipation of a transformation.
Isiah Lavenders idea of the ethnoscape proposes a new way of looking at
sf. In producing an estranged world, the sf author can formulate an
imaginary environment so as to foreground the intersection of race,
technology, and power; likewise, the reader of any text can transform its
contours by a similar foregrounding of the texts treatment of these
discourses. Focusing on the ethnoscape transforms the perceived object.
Afrofuturism can help sf studies to recognize the ethnoscapes in both the
texts and practices it studies, as well as in those it constructs itself. Each of
the articles in this issue performs a similar task.
Darryl Smith considers short fiction by W.E.B. Du Bois, Amiri Baraka, and
Derrick Bell, signifying on the image of the singularity or spike, inverting
it, so as not to contemplate the Tip of white, posthuman, post-historical
transcendence but the Pit of black, material, human, and historical being.
Bould examines a group of African-American novels from the 1960s and
1970s that postulate a now that cannot be gone beyond, and that respond by
trying to imagine a black revolution against white power. Inverting the
utopian form, they bring the reader right up to the brink of historical
rupture that makes utopia possible from this side, but are stopped short by
the immensity of the ontological cataclysm their revolutionary action must
provoke. While not always superficially resembling sf, these novels are in
the vanguard of the current tendency Jameson notes of finding visions of
total destruction and of the extinction of life on Earth more plausible
than the Utopian vision of the new Jerusalem (199).

Sherryl Vint considers two novels, Toni Morrisons Beloved (1987) and
Octavia Butlers Kindred (1979), that initially retreat from the future so as to
better understand how to approach it. Critical treatments of the neo-slave
narrative have typically neglected the significant use made of fantastic
devices so as to trouble and confront the history of slavery in the New
World (which includes its ongoing legacies). Kindred can perhaps be read
as an early third-wave feminist inversion of Marge Piercys late secondwave Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). In broad terms, Piercys naturalist
slumming with Connie Ramos tends to dematerialize difference through a
future-orientation that can reach no further into the past than Connies
present, and makes all of future history hinge on her agency. Butler (whose
novel is set, in part, in 1976) insists that present and future are inextricably
caught up with the past. As Vint demonstrates, Morrisons gothic
confinements and hauntings suggest the importance of not being trapped
by history, while Butlers time travel argues against any precipitate flight
from a history that has not yet been adequately resolved. While Butler is an
author who has moved freely among fantastic genres, this essay
reconceptualizes her work as always-already neo-slave narratives.
A similarly deep engagement with the history of imperialism and
colonialism is evident, Jillana Enteen reveals, in Nalo
Hopkinsons Midnight Robber (2000), a novel that tells a cyberpunk story
from the point of view of the colonized even as the colonized play the
colonizers in a planetary romance. Hacking and splicing genres as deftly as
it does language, telling its contradictory tale(s) in North American English
and Trinidadian and Jamaican creoles, Midnight Robber activates both
sides of history, digging deep to imagine a future. Examining sonic
Afrofuturism, Nabeel Zuberi reveals an even more tangled historical weave
in the refusal of Afrodiasporic culture, and music in particular, to
dematerialize into nothing more than disembodied digital bits in the
circulation of globalized information-capital. For William Gibson, dub
might have been merely a sensuous mosaic cooked from vast libraries of
digitalized pop (104), but as Zuberi demonstrates, culture is embodied
and history is bodies. And maybe that color-blind future can still be told so
long as it is motley, mottled without hierarchy, rather than blanketed in

whiteness, and so long as it is told by those and for those who are propelled
towards the Pit rather than those who clamber over them to the Tip.
The articles in this issue bring to our attention generally neglected texts,
some of which might conventionally be considered as of only marginal
interest to sf, while also casting relatively familiar texts in a new light by
considering them alongside non- or marginally-sf texts. Collectively, they
not only draw attention to the ways in which sf has traditionally been
constructed to privilege white American pulp-and-paperback and European
literary traditions but also, inextricably, to exclude black voices and black
I would like to thank Raiford Guins, who set the ball rolling and later put
me in touch with Rone Shavers at a crucial juncture; the patient and
sympathetic editors of SFS; and my anonymous reader, my hero for hire,
whose reports were prompt, precise, detailed, and insightful.
Every month, the Brooklyn Museum presents Target First Saturdays, in which
current and prospective patrons can explore the museum free of charge and take
in the current exhibits as well as multimedia programming linked by theme.
Patrons attending this months event had the opportunity to learn about the
Yoruba tradition of masquerade, take in a screening of the documentary Paris
Is Burning, and attend a book club in which N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and
Ibi Zoboi read from their novels while the performing arts collective BKLYN
ZULU presented audio and visual soundscapes inspired by their work.
As the exhibit Disguise: Masks and Global African Art explains, masquerade
can be a form of disguise, a tool for exchanging power, a way to hide and a way to
be seen. Taking in the exhibit before the book club was incredibly rewarding, as
the aforementioned themes became a backdrop against which to consider
Okorafor and Jemisins selectionsa chapter from Lagoonand The Effluent

Engine, respectively. BKLYN ZULUs work combined visuals of masquerade,

the Internet, and the streets of Detroit (where Zobois forthcoming
novel, American Street, is set). There were a number of unintentional
connections, as well: Lagoon and American Streetboth conjured up Legba, the
Yoruba trickster god of language, communication, and the crossroads. And, in
one of the nights best moments, Okorafor said that one of the BKLYN ZULU
members was dressed just like one of the masquerades who used to chase her
around the streets of Nigeria with a whip as part of teasing children when the
Americanized Igbos would visit. (When the panelists offered that she could
move, Okorafor joked, I know exactly where he is!)
The authors (who are all friends) discussed writing from behind or in front of a
mask, how they were initiated into their identities as writers, and the usefulness
(or not) of Afrofuturism as a label. Read on for the highlights!

Creating in Plain Sight or Masked in Metaphor?

To open the discussion, Zoboi read the first few lines from Paul Laurence
Dunbars poem We Wear the Mask:
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Zoboi then asked Jemisin and Okorafor if their writing within SFFa genre that
we all know has historically excluded marginalized voicesis creating,
protesting, and innovating in plain sight, or masked with the aforementioned
myriad subtleties?

Jemisin explained that she does both: Some of what I do is overtly reimagining
the world as it is. As we all know, Haiti has been the target of several centuries of
sustained attack by the Western world because it represents in a lot of ways the
things that the Western world was built upon, and that they were terrified of
getting loose. So, of course, writing a story in which the people of Haiti are
becoming a superpower through the use of steam technology and rum was
something I did for fun, as a mental game. I also do a lot of writing in secondary
worlds, worlds that are not Earth. In these worlds, Im playing with race and class
and culture because these cannot be classes and cultures of our world. I cant say
that the people Im writing about are African-American because theres no Africa,
theres no America, but theyre black. I can write allegories for racial oppression;
in The Fifth Season, the people who are oppressed are people who have the
magical ability to start earthquakes, which is not racial. [But] the experiences that
they go through, the suffering that they undergo, the techniques and
methods used by the oppressors to keep them in place, were all taken from realworld events. [] Even though these are not our people, you can see the bones of
people who have really died.
I create in plain sight, Okorafor said, citing her reasoning for starting to write
African-based, magical realism stories (theyre my realism): I started writing
these stories because I wasnt seeing them, I wasnt seeing reflections of myself.
Ive always been a blunt person. I knew that even when I started writing these
stories, I didnt want to shorten my name, I would not write under a pen name; I
wanted my whole name to be on there even if it scared readers away because its
so complicated. The same goes for the characters, too. I never wanted to hide the
race of my characters. If Im writing a black, African character who is darkskinned with black hair, I will say that. Im not going to leave it up to my readers
to figure it out because we all know about something called the default. If you
dont specify, you know what especially Western readers are going to fill in.

Masquerades as Initiation
The most interesting discussion of the night reflected the themes of masquerade
presented in other exhibits at the museum. Zoboi invited Okorafor and Jemisin
to envision themselves as masked initiatives, whose creative process is both
sacred and transformativeritual drama that is transportive and presents their
words and stories in a different light. Zoboi then asked them to each explain their
initiation process, and shared her own as an example: Im being initiated into
the bowels of [] the written word, the history of publishing as being
exclusionary to certain voices. I find myself in meetings where Im the only
person of color there, and I have to go through a personal transformation in order
to be able to sit there and feel that I belong there, that my voice belongs there.

Why is that not an initiation of the publishing industry into finally speaking the
voices and telling the tales of the whole society thats supposed to be
represented? Jemisin countered. Thats not your initiation to society. [] That
is that industry finally maturing into the industry it was always supposed to be.
Okorafors initiation was her experience with paralysis as a teenage athlete, a
difficult period during which she had to relearn how to walk but during which she
also turned to writing as a way to cope. Her first story was about a flying woman,
because when you can fly, you dont have to walk. She explained, I know that
that experience was my initiation into becoming a writer. When I look back,
when it was happening, I didnt know. I just knew that I was learning how to cope
and going deep like that, being so distraught that the only way I [could] stay sane
was to go into myself, was how I discovered that thing, that storytelling. From
that point on, there is this mystical aspect to storytelling; Ive had several times
where Im writing stories and I just go somewhere, and something is there. An
hour will go by and Ill look at what Ive written and it will be new to me and Im
like, Who wrote that? [] That actually is very scary to me, but over the years
Ive come to deal with that fear and be comfortable with it and expect it, and
know to just sit back and let it happen.
While Okorafor turned into herself, Jemisins initiation was the inverseshe
went outward through countless adventures as a child and extensive traveling as
an adult. Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, the kind of child who would make little
books out of construction paper tied together with yarn, she would visit her father
up in New York City (specifically, pre-hipster Williamsburg). This was my
wonderland, she said, remembering how her father would give her a handful of
money and mark a spot on the map, then send her out to traverse the subway
system and find her way to her destination. This was the place I came to become
my true self, she said, where I shed the masks that I had to wear in Alabama in
order to be safe, in order to fit in, to be accepted. I came here, and I could be my
little nerdy self and be where I needed to be. Those childhood adventures

prepared her for adulthood as an author navigating the publishing industry: Ive
always been the little black face, the little ink spot on the page. It did not feel to
me like having to go into that space and ask for acceptance or fight to be
understood. It felt like You need to reshape yourselves. I am here, this is the
industry that you claim to be, you need to be what you claim to be. And the
industry has been changing in that way, in the last few years. I dont think its me;
its a lot of people. But the fact that I felt that has been built from that earlyadapter stuff I had to do.
Zobois own initiation was stepping out of her comfort zone to attend conventions
and writing workshops in various cities around the country, and especially her
time studying with Octavia Butler.

The Influence of Octavia Butler

Each of the women had a Butler story. While attending the Clarion Writers
Workshop in 2000, Okoraforwho had never heard of Butlerbought a copy
of Wild Seed because there was a black woman on the cover. It was the first
time I saw a person who looked like me in a science fiction novel, she said. It
gave me permission; it told me that what I was doing was not strange or bizarre,
that it was possible. Upon learning that Butler had taught at Clarion, Okorafor
got her on the phone to talk.
Ironically, when a teenage Jemisin first read Dawn, she didnt realize that Butler
was black, because of the lack of author photo and the books whitewashed cover.

Zoboi admitted that the first time she talked to Butler, she was a little
disappointed that Butler was not as radical as Ntozake Shange (for colored girls
who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf): She was not
that. She was more than that. She was not about lets say black liberation or panAfricanism or what have you. She was a humanist.
I think one of the most radical things that anyone in this world can do, Jemisin
added, is imagine that black people have a future.

Historical/Allegorical Figures
One of the audience members challenged the authors to write more historical
figures into their workspecifically, Harriet Tubman. I dont write Earth ninety
percent of the time, Jemisin said, so [] space Harriet Tubman?
She does have a lot of superhero qualities, Okorafor chimed in.
Zoboi made the point that a lot of magical realism pulls from not necessarily
historical figures but mythological onesnot mythological as in built of lies, but
as in deities that they rename.
Im actually more interested in writing the invisible, Okorafor said, in writing
those people and individuals whose stories have not been told.
I do tend to write historical figures, Jemisin said, theyre just allegorical.
In The Fifth Season, for example, theres a Margaret Garner moment
referring to the escaped slave who decided to kill her children rather than let
them be recaptured, also the inspiration for Toni MorrisonsBeloved.

Afrofuturism as Category and Constraint

While the panelists reflected that BKLYN ZULU looked very Afrofuturistic in
their headdresses contrasting with dinged-up laptops, they
challenged Afrofuturism as a categorization. I am still not sure what that is,
Jemisin said. I write what I write; you put whatever label makes you feel
comfortable, have fun with it. I would write these stories whether they were
getting published or not. [] I dont have a problem with labeling, as long as its
not too restrictive or conservative. People do try to hammer me into this little
slot, but I dont let them. I write what I feel like writing.
Okorafor finds categorization as a whole reductive, even the never the two shall
meet separation of science fiction and fantasy. I think also in a lot of ways,
thats culturally specific, she explained. In non-Western culture, the mystical

coexisting with the mundane is normal. That is a specific point of view; you take
it and move it into the future, and you have science fiction with mystical elements
in it. She also pointed to the history of Afrofuturism being associated with
music, especially in the United States with African-American musicians and
artists, with African artists as an afterthought. In short: I understand the
necessity of it, I understand the uses of it, but I do not consider myself an
In times of economic and political crisis popular culture tends to turn to the
fantastical, providing an escape from the harsh realities of life. However, what
is usually represented as Utopian in mainstream science fiction is often
culturally European with a story that frequently revolves around a white male
character. Even when depicting "multiracial" future societies, culturally the
tropes of that imagined culture are regularly not representative of the races
seen. If we accept that all humanity will be present in the future, why is it that
non-European cultures seem to disappear once we get through the Earths
In 1993, Mark Dery created the term Afrofuturism to describe science fiction
by African-American writers such as Samuel R Delany and Octavia Butler,
whose work "treats African-American themes and addresses African-American
concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture and, more generally,
African-American signification that appropriate images of technology and a
prosthetically enhanced future". The term is now used to describe works that
explore black experience in the science-fiction genre. However the ideas and
aesthetics that form Afrofuturism go back further than the work of these
authors, with Afrofuturist elements being found in music, art and film.
Afrofuturism also goes beyond spaceships, androids and aliens, and
encompasses African mythology and cosmology with an aim to connect those
from across the Black Diaspora to their forgotten African ancestry.

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If there was ever a figure who was the embodiment of Afrofuturism it would
be Jazz musician, Sun Ra, although to place him within the borders of a
musical genre does not do him justice as an artist. With no legal birth
certificate, it is believed he was born in the Jim Crow state of Alabama. Sun Ra
created a mythical, ethereal persona that merged science fiction with Egyptian
mysticism, producing an otherworldliness that matched the music he made
from the 50s to his death in 1993. Adding to his legend, he also claimed to not
be of this Earth, explaining:
I never wanted to be a part of planet Earth, but I am compelled to be here, so
anything I do for this planet is because the Master-Creator of the Universe is
making me do it. I am of another dimension. I am on this planet because
people need me.
When one considers the social position of African-Americans during this
period and their violent exclusion from society, leading to an overwhelming
sense of otherness, believing oneself to be from Saturn doesnt seem that farfetched. In fact, it expertly communicates the confusion and alienation of the
black male experience in 20th century America.
A musical son of Sun Ra, George Clinton, concocted a world of outlandish
fictional characters with his groups Funkadelic and Parliament. Continuing
the alienation narrative created by Sun Ra, in Clintons P-Funk musical
mythology African-Americans needed the "Mothership Connection" which
brought to them the holy Funk (the source of life) so they could make the
journey to their true home in outer space. Again incorporating Egyptian
mysticism, the P-Funk characters Starchild and Doctor Funkenstein hid
information about the true source of the universe in the pyramids until
mankind was mentally and spiritually ready to receive it. Afrofuturistic themes
can also be seen in the music of Afrikan Bambattaa, Janelle Monae, Outkast,
Ras G and more.

Not all Afrofuturist works are as colourful, outlandish and, well, funky. Said to
be the first science fiction novel by an African-American, George Schuylers
Black No More is a satirical look at race relations in 1930s America. An
African-American doctor invents a serum that removes all pigmentation from
the body, making those who are black appear white. In a society divided by
shade, Schuyler shines a light on how economic power is constructed and kept
by a small white male elite. Reluctantly associated with the Harlem
Renaissance, Schuyler showed no fear in sending up African-American
political icons such as W E B Dubois and Booker T Washington or exposing
the internal race and class politics of African America. If you want to read
more on this, P Djeli Clark examines Schulyers changing cultural and political
phases in his piece Diesel Punk: Myth and Metaphor.
In the Art world, Ellen Gallagher who last year had her first major solo
exhibition in the UK at Tate Modern creates images that touch upon the idea
of a mythical Black Atlantis. Manipulating and transforming images from
vintage black hair adverts of the past, she gives them new meanings in
futuristic settings freeing them from the social constructions of beauty present
at their time. We can also see Afrofuturism in Africa with Kenyan director
Wanuri Kahius short film Pumzi, which explores a post-apocalyptic future
where water scarcity and a poisonous atmosphere have destroyed all of nature
and forced humans to live underground and rely on renewable energy.
Afrofuturism creates a space for those from the Black Diaspora to explore
issues in the present and how they will manifest in the future. As Michah
Yongo points out, just as the language used in Orwells 1984 has been used to
frame the debate around increasing government surveillance, black science
fiction can provide a new language to address the increasingly complicated
frameworks of discrimination. If we are able to name these frameworks in the
same way we recognise Big Brother when we see him, it is the first step in
being able to dismantle them. In this sense, Afrofuturism provides a lot more
to the black experience than simple escapism, silver Dashikis and pyramidshaped spaceships, although I will always have time for that too.