What is Afrofuturism?

October is Black Speculative Fiction Month and it’s perfect time to talk about Afrofuturism. Ofeibea Loveless gives you a primer.

Space Gold Afro

 In the early ’90s, cultural critics began to talk about the reinterpretation of aspects of African-American life through the lens of speculative fiction. Thus, the term “Afrofuturism” was born. It’s become a surefire way to categorize the quirky, the deep and the cosmic visual, sonic and literary elements of all things black and speculative.
Octavia ButlerIt’s generally defined as the “literary and cultural aesthetic that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies in order to critique not only the present-day dilemmas of people of color, but also to revise, interrogate, and re-examine the historical events of the past.”

The literary works of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany are Afrofuturistic. The musical works of SunRa and early Parliament-Funkadelic are Afrofuturistic. The visual works of Kehinde Wiley and Jean-Michel Basquiat are Afrofuturistic. (And as it relates to steampunk, even African-American cosplayers who focus on changing the narratives when it comes to black people in the genre could also be considered Afrofuturistic.) These and other works are important to African-Americans who are interested in the genres that fall under speculative fiction because they give black people a voice/place in the distant and not-so-distant futures. If no one looks or sounds like you, then you are not there, and if you are not there, your absence begs the question, “to whom does the future belong?”

ParliamentIn The Ships Landed Long Ago: Afrofuturism and Black SF,  writer Mark Bould postulates that “From the 1950s onwards, [science fiction] in the U.S. magazine and paperback tradition postulated and presumed a color-blind future…this shared assumption accounts for the relative absence of people of color from such [science fiction]: 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?”
In many circles, Bould’s analysis still holds true to this day. However, history didn’t happen in a vacuum and neither will the future. So the emergence of future-state narratives and visuals that tackle modern-day problems and those that re-imagine history with the knowledge of today are pertinent to discussions of how we, as a society, see black people and more importantly, how black people see themselves.
Interested in finding out more? Here’s a very short list of anthologies that examine blackness through the lens of speculative fiction:
  • Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stores From Social Justice Movements (edited by Adrienne Brown and Walidah Imarisha)
  • Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany (edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell)
  • Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (edited by Sheree Thomas)
  • Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond (edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall)
Ofeibea Loveless, co-founder of the Midwest Black Speculative Fiction Alliance, is a writer/editor who focuses on multicultural aspects of steampunk.
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Steampunk Character Building Workshop at Wordplay Creative Writing Center

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