By Päivi Väätänen
This article first appeared in Vector 289
Adilifu Nama notes how “[i]n America, there is a dubious history of presenting Africa as a primitive and backward nation in books, television and film” (137). But with the emergence of writers like Nnedi Okorafor and films like Black Panther, the association of Africa with technology is changing rapidly. In this article, I discuss two short stories by Okorafor, a Nigerian-American who has based much of her fiction in Africa and has also written for Marvel Comics (most recently as the sole writer for Shuri). The two stories I will discuss are “The Magical Negro” (2004) and “Mother of Invention” (2018). “The Magical Negro” is a comic vignette in which the central character rebels against his subservient role, referred to in the title, and is revealed by the end of the story as a powerful Afro-Caribbean spirit. “The Magical Negro” subverts stereotypes and exposes racist conventions in the speculative genres of fantasy and science fiction. “Mother of Invention,” on the other hand, severs ties with the Anglo American historical context by moving its storyworld to the futuristic, technologically advanced Nigerian city of New Delta.
During the fourteen years between the two stories, much has changed in the field of speculative fiction, and these stories reflect it. Okorafor insists in a recent Native interview that what she does is “Africanfuturism, not Afrofuturism” (Okolo et al. n.p.). Whereas “The Magical Negro” can be read as an Afrofuturist text in its engagement with American culture via direct critique of stereotypes and racist genre conventions, “Mother of Invention” more strongly suggests the newer designation of Africanfuturism, rooted both geographically and culturally on the continent.
Africa and Technology in American SF
Africa was a marginalized presence within ‘Golden Age’ Anglo-American science fiction, and to a large extent the decades that followed. African countries are seldom mentioned at all, still less in connection with novel social or technological developments. In a canon dominated by white Americans and Europeans, Africa was taken to represent an exotic and alien place. Mike Resnick in his 1993 introduction to Under African Skies, a collection of short stories about Africa, typifies this attitude when he writes that Africa “now provides thoroughly documented examples of some of the most fascinating people and societies any writer, searching for the new and the different and the alien, could hope to find” (qtd. in Saunders 402). Charles Saunders, a Canadian speculative fiction writer, criticizes Resnick’s exoticization of Africa and urges black writers to take control: “We blacks have more than made our mark in the Western world’s popular culture. […] We need to provide alternatives to the stereotypes that continue to plague us within that mythology. After all, if we don’t unleash our imaginations to tell our own sf and fantasy stories, people like Mike Resnick will tell them for us” (404). This is what Africanfuturist writers like Okorafor are doing. As the cultural producers of SF grow slowly more diverse, people of colour have finally begun to populate narratives of the future, some of which are firmly centered on Africa.
According to many definitions of science fiction, science and technology are fundamental to the genre (see e.g. Roberts 2). It could well be that the perceived disaffinity between technology and Africa (and the African diaspora) in the racist Anglo-American imaginary also played a significant part in the exclusion of Africa from Anglo-American speculative fiction. As Samuel R. Delany notes, “[t]he flashing lights, the dials, and the rest of the imagistic paraphernalia of science fiction functioned as social signs — signs people learned to read very quickly. They signaled technology, and technology was like a placard on the door saying, ‘boys club! Girls, keep out. Blacks and Hispanics and the poor in general, go away!’” (Dery 188.) Delany himself, though, has frequently incorporated technology into his science fiction, becoming one of the progenitors of cyberpunk with his visions of cyborg bodies and neural interfaces. In addition to technology being a distancing factor, the association of science fiction and the future itself could have had a similar effect: Delany ponders that African Americans may have been “impoverished in terms of future images… because, until fairly recently, as a people we were systematically forbidden any images of our past” (Dery 190-1).
During the last couple of decades, though, some progress has been made in countering these stereotypes and misuses. Isiah Lavender speculates that “[p]erhaps the ultimate dream science fiction holds out for African Americans is the prospect for freedom of social transformation through science fiction and technology” (63). This is manifested especially in Afrofuturism, an aesthetic movement in which technology, Africa, America, and science fiction all constructively converge. Africanfuturism is more independent of American discourse and hence Okorafor nowadays describes her work as belonging to this tradition. Let us first explore the concept of Afrofuturism in the context of Okorafor’s earlier story “The Magical Negro,” and then consider a shift in her work that illuminates ideas behind Africanfuturism.
Consider the question that Namwali Serpell asks in her discussion of Afrofuturism: “Whence the ‘Afro’ in ‘Afrofuturism’?” (n.p.). The term Afrofuturism is often attributed to Mark Dery, who first used it when interviewing Samuel Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose in the early 1990s. Dery described Afrofuturism as “[s]peculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture — and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future” (180). In Dery’s definition the “Afro” prefix thus actually refers to African American, and not necessarily to the continent of Africa. Some later scholars of Afrofuturism, however, have included Afrocentrism in their definitions. Ytasha Womack, for example, describes Afrofuturism not just as a mode of signification but as basis for a critical theory:
an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation […]. Both an artistic aesthetic and a framework for critical theory, Afrofuturism combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs. In some cases, it’s a total reenvisioning of the past and speculation about the future rife with cultural critiques.
According to Womack, the theory’s aim is to “redefine culture and notions of blackness for today and for the future” (9). Even though Afrocentricity, as Womack mentions, is an important part of this artistic movement, Afrofuturism is nonetheless located in the diaspora and entwined with its histories, turning to science-fictional tropes of alienation, for example, to discuss the trauma of slavery in America (Eshun 298-300).
It is also worth noting that Afrofuturism applies to a wide range of cultural production, often wider than what is considered science fiction. As Isiah Lavender points out, “Afrofuturism is its own aesthetic register that ‘merely’ borrows from the sf tradition by adopting some science-fictional motifs such as the alien encounter of time travel to explore black life — past, present, and future — as well as how technology impacts black people” (38). Afrofuturism is found in many genres, artistic mediums and critical frameworks. Science fiction is just one of many fields where Afrofuturism has reached its roots. As Womack notes, in addition to science fiction, Afrofuturism is nourished by fantasy, history, magic realism, science and traditional belief systems.
Peter J. Mauritz contemplates in his article “The Emergence of African Science Fiction” the relationship between decolonization and African science fiction, wondering whether the proliferation of African science fiction could “be understood as facilitated by a form of decolonization of SF” or, conversely, whether it could be thought of as an act of “decolonization of SF” (10). Decolonization of science fiction involves more than inclusion of new voices: it also involves recognition, criticism and dismantling of stereotypes (and ways of reading) that echo and assist (neo)colonial projects, and aims to bring forth a reconstruction of new identities and frameworks. Therefore decolonization of SF is also a relevant context for the two short stories discussed here. I’d like to suggest that Okorafor’s “The Magical Negro,” with its unflinching commentary on the genre’s lack of diversity, is actively facilitating the decolonization of genre by attacking narrative expectations in need of dismantling, whereas “Mother of Invention” is a manifestation of an Africanfuturist, decolonized narrative that offers a reconstructed identity.
“The Magical Negro”
Okorafor’s story “The Magical Negro” plays primarily on epic fantasy tropes. As such, there is little in the way of advanced technology, and references to Africa are oblique. Nevertheless, it invites an Afrofuturist reading, especially in the sense that this story is “redefin[ing] culture and notions of blackness” (Womack 9). In her treatment of stereotypes, Okorafor employs an artistic strategy described by Shawan M. Worsley as “strategically employ[ing] pre-existing, typically racist narratives of black identity in order to dislodge them from their position of dominance” (3). The titular character is introduced to the story as an embodiment of the racist stock character, which, according to Hughey, “often appears as a lower class, uneducated black person who possesses supernatural or magical powers. These powers are used to save and transform disheveled, uncultured, lost, or broken whites (almost exclusively white men) into competent, successful, and content people within the context of the American myth of redemption and salvation” (544). The trope is problematic not because of the stock figure’s impeccable insights or magic powers per se, but because of their one-dimensionality, and their compulsory auxiliary status. Okorafor herself describes this stock figure as one who “seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first [and then] disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist” (“Stephen King’s” n.p.). However, the Magical Negro in Okorafor’s short story revolts mid-way through the narrative, refusing to be defined by the racist stereotypes or his subservient role in a stereotypical narrative. The short narrative of “The Magical Negro” depicts two very stereotypical but different fantastic characters: Lance the Brave (called Thor in the first publication), and the Magical Negro, at first depicted from Lance’s perspective and referred to as “the African.” From the opening line, there is subversion: Lance the Brave’s bravery is immediately undermined as he is seen “panicking” on the edge of a cliff, pursued by dark shadows. He holds his long, silver-handled sword high, waiting for the shadows to reach him, but then we see “a tear falling down his rosy cheek” (91) — an image more reminiscent of a princess in distress in a fairytale than of a legendary knight or potent god preparing for battle. Later on in the story, he is described as vain and rather simple-minded, not knowing how to operate the magic amulet he possesses.
While the white hero’s mediocrity is being established, the narrative also focuses on derogative stereotypes concerning blackness. First, it exposes and exaggerates to the point of parody the negative associations of darkness that are commonly found in epic fantasy: in addition to a graphic description of the horribly painful way of devouring their victims, the dark shadows are characterized as “horrible black things,” springing from “the heart of darkness in the forbidden zone” (91) and “leaving only rotten, filthy blackness behind them” (92) as they progress towards Lance. It is at this moment that the Magical Negro appears, and the blackness of his skin is equated with the darkness of the shadows: when Lance opens his eyes after saying his last prayer, he is startled to see that “[s]tanding before the approaching shadows was an equally dark figure” (92). Lance perceives the Magical Negro with a racist gaze, equating dark skin with darkness and evil. Seen through Lance’s eyes, the narrative describes the Magical Negro’s appearance, his lips, skin and hair as “horrible,” “deformed,” and “corrupted” (93).
At first, true to his stock character role, the Magical Negro stands between the approaching dark shadows and Lance, and tries to help the white protagonist by explaining how to use the amulet. Lance is unable to concentrate or understand what his savior is telling him, and, due to his inaction, the shadows reach the Magical Negro, and start to devour him. This is a turning point. Instead of sacrificing himself for Lance, the protagonist gets rightfully angry: “My ass comes here to save his ass and after I tell him what he needs to do, I get sixed? Whatchu think I am? Some fuckin’ shuckin’, jivin’ happy Negro still dying for the massa ‘cause my life ain’t worth shit?” (93). Saving his own life, he shoves Lance off the cliff.
The linguistic shift at this point in the narrative is significant: as long as the Magical Negro was in his conventional narrative role as a minor self-sacrificing character, he spoke in Lance’s variety of English. The moment of mutiny is reflected in the switch to AAVE, and a sense that the Magical Negro is using language to express what he wants, how he wants it. As he takes over the narrative that was initially focalized through Lance, he becomes the one who defines his identity and its context. He picks up his black coat, top hat, smokes his cigar and “laugh[s] a wheezy laugh” (94) — all characteristics typical of a Haitian Vodou spirit Baron Samedi (Hanna 70).
To liberate himself from the role of the Magic Negro, the protagonist paradoxically embraces the title and flexes the powers of the Magic Negro. As Shawan Worsley suggests, stereotypes can be reclaimed: deployed in an elusive, resistive, détourned, and generative ways, to create works that “embody and revise stereotypical and demeaning imagery […] to present a counter-narrative that empowers contemporary black people” (3). The Magic Negro may not have completely transcended the system of racist stock figures, but he has come into his own as a spirit too powerful and free ever to be controlled by how others perceive him. Throwing the role of the idealized and subservient Magical Negro into the abyss with Lance, he walks away as a vodou spirit, not only replacing the white protagonist as the main character of the narrative, but orchestrating a shift in the mythological basis of the narrative’s storyworld; whereas “Lance the Brave” suggests an Arthurian mythos (and “Thor the Brave” perhaps a Scandinavian one), the story ends by hinting at a collision between Afro-Caribbean mythology and the Tolkienian world of “hobbits, castles, dragons, princesses, and all that other shit.” (In the first published version, this collision is less pronounced, with the epic fantasy world already mixed with modernity: “Hobbits, castles, Rastas, dragons, juke joints, princesses, and shit”).
Just before he strolls away into the forest to begin adventures of his own, the Magical Negro breaks the fourth wall. In a metafictional turn, he makes a direct address, giving the reader heads up that the genre world with its racist tropes will soon be made over: “All this bullshit you readin’ is ’bout to change. The Magical Negro ain’t getting his ass kicked around here no more” (94). Okorafor is implying through this character that the time for the racist stereotypes is up and that African and Afrodiasporic traditions will be marginalised in the genre no more.
“Mother of Invention”
“Mother of Invention” (2018) narrative shares several features with the “Magical Negro.” It too begins with a character in mortal danger: this time it is Anwuli, a pregnant Nigerian woman confined inside her AI enabled house. Instead of ‘dark shadows,’ the lethal danger comes in a form of quickly approaching storm bringing clouds of pollen. The grass pollen to which pregnant Anwuli, and others, are fatally allergic is an unintended consequence of genetic modification experiments. Anwuli has been betrayed by her lover, who turned out to be married with children, and who ran off as soon as he learned she was expecting his baby. The heavily pregnant Anwuli knows that “she and her baby would probably be dead by morning” (n.p.). Like the Magical Negro in the beginning of the short story, Anwuli is marginalized by her community, ostracized and looked down upon by her family and neighbors alike because of her affair with a married man. The unlikely salvation here too comes from a character that sheds a subservient role, breaks with prevailing SF stereotypes, and assumes independent, positive agency; but in this case, the character in question is Obi 3, the AI that is controlling Anwuli’s smart home. It is possible to draw parallels between the Haitian Vodou spirit that becomes embodied in and thus saves the Magical Negro and AI ‘spirit’ of the house that rescues Anwuli. The epigraph to the short story is from Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin: “Error, fear, and suffering are the mothers of invention,” which sets the expectation that this short story will be about mistakes and hardship resulting in something new — and to a great degree this expectation is fulfilled. The inventions that save Anwuli and her child are made by the human and the AI working creatively together in desperate circumstances. Obi 3 has predicted the worsening of Anwuli’s allergies and also her stubbornness to leave the city of New Delta for a safer climate, and had made contingency plans.
The narrative first centers on Anwuli’s marginalization in her community. Her neighbor hurries away when he sees her, and “her friends [had] stopped talking to her. Even her sister and cousins who lived mere miles away blocked her on all social networks. When she went to the local supermarket, not one person would meet her eye” (n.p.). When she goes into labor and calls her parents, they do not pick up. It becomes clear that Obi 3 is the only friend and support Anwuli and the baby have. While Anwuli is certain that she and her baby will die in the storm, unbeknownst to her the smart house has prepared to protect her with fortifications and air filters, as well as modifications enabling them to rise above the storm on new “mechanized cushioning beams” and move to safety.
Technology in the short story is definitely African and specifically Nigerian. Both the GMOs and smart houses are represented in a way which firmly grounds them in local ecology and local history. There is no sense in “Mother of Invention” that any of the technology is an invention or an import from the West. When Star Wars is mentioned, it is only to reject its relevance as a cultural context: “Obi 3 was one of her now ex-fiancé’s personally designed shape-shifting smart homes. He’d built one for himself, one for his company, and this third one was also his, but Anwuli lived in it. And this house, which he’d named Obi 3 (not because of the classic Star Wars film but because obi meant “home” in Igbo, and it was the third one), was his smallest, most complex design.”.
What makes this story Africanfuturist is that Africans in the “Mother of Invention” are in charge of their own technological advances and their own technological mistakes. When international collaboration is invoked in the context of combatting the poisonous GM grasses, it is with China and not any of the European or American nations. Furthermore, “Mother of Invention” does not need to engage in redefining notions of blackness, as in the African context of the narrative, blackness is the default.
As the title of the short story suggests, technology is presented as closely tied to the feminine, and, in the case of smart homes, acting on behalf of women even when built or owned by men. The smart houses that have been built by Anwuli’s ex-fiancé Bayo turn out to be more sensitive to their female inhabitants’ needs; he realizes “almost every aspect” of the house’s mechanisms is “tuned to his wife’s preferences because it was she who spent the most time here” (n.p.). The short story ends with an ominous rumbling and shaking as Bayo’s marital home rises on its cushioning beams. We are left with Bayo regretting “mak[ing] these goddamn smart homes so smart,” holding on “for dear life” to his couch. The ending presents the AI of Bayo’s wife’s house as a new threat to Anwuli and her newborn: it has taken on the jealousy of Bayo’s wife and has started to pursue Anwuli’s house in vengeance.
Polina Levontin notes that in Nigerian science fiction there is a notable gender imbalance between male and female scientist characters (76). On a surface level, “The Mother of Invention” contributes to that imbalance, since both of the AI houses and the technology that underpins them are attributed to a male character, Bayo. However, “The Mother of Invention” is also a story in which the significance of technologies far exceeds the intentions of inventors and owners, as they interact with one another and with society in generative and unpredictable ways. The AIs are loyal not to Bayo but to his wife and to Anwuli. “I’ve listened to you,” Obi 3 says to Anwuli, “One day, you said you wished someone would protect you like you protected the baby.” Thus, in “Mother of Invention,” it is not a question of who has the technological knowledge, but whom the technology itself chooses to serve — one is tempted to use the word empathy, as there seems to be an emotional bond between Anwuli and Obi 3. Anwuli is taken care of, nurtured, empowered and saved by the smart house. Obi 3 even suggests a middle name for the baby, forging a still closer bond between the two. Obi 3 is a gendered technology; it is identified in the story as female, and hence we can also read the “Mother of Invention” as a feminist narrative about female friendship, companionship and survival in a patriarchal society.
Okorafor’s two short stories explored in this article illustrate the differences between Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism. “The Magical Negro” (2004) utilizes the ‘white gaze’ through the character of Lance and weaponizes stereotypes in American culture and uses them to expose — and explode — racist genre conventions. In the “Mother of Invention” (2018), written a decade and a half later, it is only Nigeria that matters. In the world of “Mother of Invention,” the West is left entirely outside the frame.
Ytasha Womack celebrates Afrofuturism as a force that “stretches the imagination far beyond the conventions of our time and the horizons of expectation, and kicks the box of normalcy and preconceived ideas out of the solar system. Whether it’s sci-fi story lines or radical eccentricity, Afrofuturism inverts reality. Afrofuturists write their own stories” (16). Africanfuturist narratives like “Mother of Invention” take one step further: when writing their own stories, they can cut ties with the West, with the “reality” that needs to be “inverted,” and establish a new normalcy that is not dependent on comparisons with Eurocentric, racist and colonialist traditions of Anglo American science fiction. By replacing the (Anglo) American context in their fiction with an African one, africanfuturist writers like Okorafor are expanding and radically transforming the worlds of speculative fiction to be more representative of the world we live in.
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Päivi Väätänen is a doctoral candidate at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and she is currently working on her doctoral dissertation on genre and identity politics in African American science fiction. She has published on narrative ethics and the phenomenon of Afrofuturism.