By Eugen Bacon
‘On Afrofuturism’ was an important topic at the virtual 2020 WorldCon in New Zealand. The conversation paid attention to the term generally applied to embrace literary works that use the frame of science fiction, fantasy or horror to re-imagine the past and present experiences of the African diaspora, and to explore what black futures could look like.
On the panel were Suyi Davis Okungbowa—a renowned Nigerian author of fantasy, science fiction and horror inspired by his West-African origins, including David Mogo, God Hunter; Brandon O’Brien—a writer, performance poet and game designer from Trinidad and Tobago, also the editor of Fiyah Magazine; Ekpeki Oghenechovwe—a Nigerian writer with honourable mention (twice) by the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest, and an award-winning best story in the Nommo Awards for speculative fiction by Africans; myself; and skilfully moderated by Maquel A. Jacob—a multi-author and owner of MAJart Works—who propagated stimulating questions, many from the audience, across the panel.
The introduction to the session stated:
According to Yes! magazine, the concept of Afrofuturism may only go back to 1966, when the Black Panther first appeared in a Marvel comic and Lt. Uhura appeared first appeared on Star Trek. The recent MCU movie, Black Panther, shone a bright light onto this subgenre. Our panel explores its origins, what it encompasses and what works they recommend for getting more familiar worth the subgenre.
I was enthralled to enter this hearty dialogue, taking in the divergent views on the term ‘Afrofuturism’ from my fellow panellists.
Suyi Davis Okungbowa did not believe what he wrote was Afrofuturism. He agreed that the term considered the possibilities existent in a person of African descent living anywhere in the future. But blackness, he said, exists in various ways across the globe and it’s impossible to flatten into a single term—Afrofuturism—a projection of what blackness means today, what blackness means into the future.
Brandon O’Brien suggested that acceptance or understanding of the term depended on one’s relationship with the world. He found it problematic the attachment to the diaspora in a single word ‘given to us by a white man’. To him ‘Afrofuturism’ was a potential silo of black futuristic imagination, a word used to see the value of known works, rather than to find lesser known works that may not thrive in the prefigured space or fit the lens that the publishing and film industry has already applied to the term. It was important, he said, to see what the industry planned to do with the word, what could uplift rather than bludgeon the works that lesser known black people continue to create.
Ekpeki Oghenechovwe saw limitations in the ‘us’ (black people) within the ‘afro’, where the reach of the term was not clearly defined or satisfactory, especially if it mostly pertained to the broader diaspora to the exclusion of stories from within the African continent itself. He reminded the audience to be aware that there already existed lesser known works by writers and publishers like Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade (who coined the term Dieselfunk).
Other writers and scholars have come up with alternative workable terms such as:
‘Afropolitan’ that scholars (for example in the European Journal of English Studies) sometimes use to apply to diasporic African fiction, as in works by Taiye Selasi, Yvonne Owuor, Sefi Atta, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nalo Hopkinson and Teju Cole. The term went viral after Selasi’s essay ‘Bye-Bye’ that used it to define African artists with global and multicultural sensibilities. But it also extends to music, dance, food and fashion. Sometimes the term is more aligned with persons born in Africa, living in Africa, seeing Africa as their space, a place they invest their time, as defined in The Afropolitan.
‘Ethno-gothic’ that Professor John Jennings coins to embrace a sub-genre of fantastic cinema in a renaissance of horror and science fiction depicting the black experience in black speculative arts. It includes the black superhero and is a little aligned with Blacktastic—fantastical adventures featuring black hero/ines.
‘Africanfuturism’ that Nnedi Okorafor uses to connect ‘blacks on the continent and in the Black Diaspora… by blood, spirit, history and future’, rooting the term more towards ‘African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view as it then branches into the Black Diaspora, and it does not privilege or center the West’.
But rather than get hung up on definitions, perhaps what’s more important to us black writers is what Suyi Davis Okungbowa said: That we leverage on the valuable space we have in storytelling that helps in reckoning with our histories, and considering possibilities in social justice, healthcare, security, technology… Telling stories that give answers to questions on ‘how we can be better, how we can be more, how we can grow’.
My opinion was that there was no need for dichotomy—all terms lead to black people stories in speculative fiction, and embrace possibilities and probabilities, a new kind of storytelling.
We had consensus as panellists that the movie Black Panther (2018)—for all its global enthusiastic reception by black people—was not an accurate representation of Afrocentric cultures. As Brandon clearly said, to the laughter of the panellists, a lot in the film was not only ‘not true for some communities in the diaspora, it was definitively false’.
What Black Panther did do positively, suggested Ekpeki, was that it ‘made people look’—suddenly the world became curious about black people stories, about futuristic science fiction with elements of African culture.
There was also a clear position among the panellists on the concept of appropriation or misappropriation of African cultures by authors of non-African descent, exampled in Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys (2005)—an incarnation of the West African trickster god Anansi. The lived experience was important, as was motivation or intent. There were already other Anansi stories by black people from Ghana—what made Gaiman, a white person in a position of privilege with access to publishers—the right person to tell the Anansi story? Did the trickster in Gaiman’s story have to be Anansi? Would the commercialisation and visibility of Anansi Boys above those intrinsic stories by black people be a risk, where people might accept Gaiman’s Anansi as the most accurate representation of the West African god?
After WorldCon, I contemplated the important conversations I’d held with my esteemed colleagues, and thought I’d chart some reflections on Afrofuturism and scope, genesis, and other ‘futurisms’.
Afrofuturism and scope
The term—in the context of Mark Dery’s introduction of it—historically pertained to African American experience and the black diaspora, but has grown in scope since to embrace art, literature, music, style, etc, also from within the continent.
The African diaspora—as in the African Speculative Fiction Society (ASFS) definition—refers to people who are citizens of African countries, people born on the continent and raised there for substantial periods of time, citizens of people born on the continent who live abroad, people who have at least one African parent, Africans without papers, and some migrants to African countries. Where ‘African country’ is defined as being within the continent and including islands such as Zanzibar and Madagascar.
This term in a wider sense is inclusive of those whose ancestors migrated or were taken from the continent and anyone of African descent in Europe, North America, South America, Asia, the Antarctica, Australia, Oceania and Africa itself. Unified by a shared heritage, each has their unique languages, cultures and stories that render diversity to their critical imaginations of a re-imagined Africa.
If Afrofuturism is to reimagine Africa in all its diversity, to expand and extrapolate it through literature, beyond literature, to music, the visual arts, religion, even philosophy in its gaze at possibilities and probabilities… how is this limiting?
The problem, as Ekpeki Oghenechovwe pointed out, arises when stories from within the African continent are excluded from Afrofuturism by critics, academia or the industry, motivating some creators, for example Suyi or Ekpeki, to choose to exclude their works from the term’s coverage.
Afrofuturism and genesis
So a white man coined the term Afrofuturism. Think closely.
Dery did not create the term ‘afro’. Remember the Commodores? Boney M? Those were the 70s. Remember that hair? That’s afro, one definition you’ll find in a dictionary: a long, bushy hairstyle sometimes worn by people of the African diaspora.
But there’s another definition of ‘afro’: it’s a form, a meaning—‘of African’.
You may be familiar with moments in history—1930s, 40s, 50s—bearing themes of black power as a literary and artistic movement among black thinkers and artists. For example among French-speaking African and Caribbean writers living in Paris (French Négritude), the movement was a protest against French colonial rule and the policy of assimilation. Afro poetry and afro rhythms (Bob Marley and his music in the 60s onwards) were a thing. That was way before the 90s—Mark Dery didn’t come up with that.
He didn’t create the term ‘futurism’ either. It’s a derivative of the word ‘future’, pertaining to the future. So, in effect, what Mark Dery did was help himself to two terms already in use, each with its own inherent meaning, and marry them to coin a phrase that carried a sequence of those inherent meanings: of Africa / pertaining to the future.
What I’m saying is that there are many avenues of black people stories of social movement, technology, artistic expression, critical embodiment, postmodernism… that fall within the marriage of ‘afro’ and ‘future’.
We can write about Africa, see it in a new light, tell stories of diversity and hope, stories of social justice, possibilities, probabilities, engaging with difference, dealing with the ‘other’, hybridity, queering, origins stories about finding out who you are…
We can fight for freedom from discernible and concealed chains… in different kinds of Afrofuturistic writing, as Octavia Butler did in her works on the black experience.
So what if Mark Dery coined the phrase? He borrowed the terms that make it.
It’s ultimately up to our own sense of identity as black writers, the meaning, the weight and liberty we decide to assign to the words ‘afro’ and ‘futurism’. The stories we yearn to tell. There’s wealth in the diversity of our voices—we can sway power dynamics, illuminate hidden histories, give voice to those who cannot speak from the margins.
At WorldCon NZ, I gained an important insight into other ‘futurisms’.
One panel session moderated by Ian Nichols as part of the academic program covered ethnicities and perspectives on speculative fiction. There, I presented my joint paper with Milton Davis on the state of black speculative fiction, featuring as an essay in the collection Hadithi and the State of Black Speculative Fiction by Luna Press Publishing in October 2020.
My colleague Gina Cole presented a paper titled ‘Wayfinding Pasifikafuturism: An Indigenous Science Fiction Vision of the Ocean in Space’, where Pasifikafuturism is a theoretical construct inspired by Afrofuturism and its Indigenous Futurisms fictive kin, that situates Māori and Pasifika science fiction in the afterlife of colonisation.
This invited my curiosity on ‘futurisms’.
Pasifikafuturism—Gina Coles defined Pasifikafuturism as marking the intersection of multiple diasporas of Indigenous Pacific peoples who envision, dream, imagine, create, or are receptive to ideas that play with, and liquify the boundaries of technology and time and space. She gave examples in Walking the Clouds (2012) edited by Grace Dillon, an anthology of indigenous science fiction published by University of Arizona Press, Albert Wendt’s Black Rainbow (1995) by University of Hawaii Press, Chris Baker’s Kokopu Dreams (2000) by Huia Pub and The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (2013) by Ambelin Kwaymullina, published by Walker Books Australia and shortlisted for the Aurealis awards—a major speculative fiction award in Australia.
Amazofuturism—Inspired by different cultures and the varied art of indigenous peoples, Amazofuturism is about Brazilian Indigenous Futurism, and mostly appears to include artwork, for example featured in J. Queiroz’s illustrations on Artstation.
Arabfuturism—This appears to be science fiction and alternate realities in the Arab world, as discussed in Perwana Nazif’s The Quietus Essay. Arabfuturism as a sentiment rather than a literary movement borrows from Afrofuturism in its expanse across film, music, literature and more in a Pan-Arabist context that is also an expression of self and the collective identity. Arabfuturism is closely linked to Gulf-futurism, coined by author Sophia Al Maria to embrace architecture, literature and art in a cross-cultural alliance.
In a nutshell…
To conclude, terms and definitions may be fads or here to stay. Out of ‘Afrofuturism’ more terms will emerge, such as Sinofuturism—a radical technological vision of a futuristic China, as simulated by artist Lawrence Lek in his short film of the same name is one example of the genre. The term may also already be in use in the broader sense to infer futuristic speculative fiction from China.
Whichever iteration of futurism, the term should not be flat or monolithic but rather pregnant with possibility—the galaxy is your oyster. In the end, as an artist, it’s up to you and how you relate to the world, your past, present and future, to shape what whichever ‘futurism’ means to you. What story are you looking to tell?