Afrofuturism is coming of Age.
I was a part of the Afrofuturism listserve in the early 2000s and there were many incredible discussions and perspectives shared – it was rich and profound forum. Actually, I am still very much part of the forum, which was founded by cultural theorist Alondra Nelson and includes many writers, artists, poets, geeks and nerds; but it has gone from almost daily discussions and lively banter on a vast array of subject areas, to virtual radio silence. The heyday of the forum was in the mid-2000s, but it seems that the election of Barack Obama – with all the attendant “birtherism,” racial backlash and the ironies of a black President’s PR and policy achievements and controversies – heralded an Afrofuturistic time warp that somehow muted our group discussion. To the country’s amazement a powerful historical line was met and crossed, and perhaps the Afrofuturism concepts we had been speculating on were happening all around us at a much faster rate than we felt like talking about or dealing with.
In the early days of the forum it seemed as if the group was a type of black intelligentsia with its own voices, dialogues and analysis using science fiction and cultural filters, a la Samuel Delaney, Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, George Clinton and Richard Pryor, as a visionary lens. Now the phrase “Afrofuturism” has itself become popularized and is commonly used in many references to film, music, technology fashion and art. For example, the Afropunk Festival seemingly came out of nowhere as a small event in Brooklyn and is now international and pan-African in its scope.
I learned all kinds of things from the early Afrofuturism community that presaged the broader dissemination of Afrofuturism as a growing concept in popular culture. Now Nnedi Okorafor’s “Who Fears Death” is coming to HBO, with “Game of Thrones” creator George RR Martin as a c0-producer and Reginald Hudlin is premiering his Black Panther feature film, based on the Marvel Panther comic book series – and what we are witnessing here is idea diffusion and propagation, culture moving and evolving, in real time.
There’s less than a week left until season 7 of Game of Thrones premieres on HBO, but the network might already be readying its next great fantasy adaptation. Author Nnedi Okorafor announced on Twitter Monday that HBO has optioned her award-winning novel Who Fears Death for a TV adaptation. Most interestingly of all, Okorafor added that Game of Thrones mastermind George R.R. Martin is also involved.
“My novel Who Fears Death has been optioned by HBO and is now in early development as a TV series with George RR Martin as executive producer,” Okorafor tweeted. As proof, she included in the tweet a selfie where she’s standing in front of the HBO logo — presumably at the cable net’s offices.
— Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) July 10, 2017
|Works by Octavia Butler remain central to Afrofuturist readings|
In a 2016 article, “Afrofuturism: The Next Generation,” published in the Fashion & Style section of The New York Times, Ruth La Ferla describes Afrofuturism as “a social, political and cultural genre that projects black space voyagers, warriors and their heroic like into a fantasy landscape, one that has long been the province of their mostly white counterparts.” La Ferla then observers that Solange, Beyonce, Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott, Janelle Monáe, and Rihanna “have given [Afrofuturism] not only a voice, but also a look.” Accordingly, she points out, “You will likely know it when you see it: a high-shine mash-up of cyborg themes, loosely tribal motifs, android imagery and gleaming metallics that might be appropriate for a voyage to Pluto’s outer reaches.”
Ytasha Womack’s 2013 book on Afrofuturism concentrates on “the World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture.” Womack and La Ferla, like several contemporary scholars and observers, focus on Afrofuturism (AF) as a kind of artistic production. However, AF takes on other modes as well, and it’s worth looking back on the emergence of the term to consider another understanding of how the concept was and is used.
Mark Dery coined the term in 1993, and in 1998, Alondra Nelson, who was then a graduate student at New York University, began organizing a Yahoo Group list serv entitled Afro-Futurism (and AfroFuturism). The group was comprised of a wide-range of people–graduate students, Djs, professors, novelists, poets, dancers, graphic designers, visual artists, and so forth.
In an early essay, Nelson explained that “AfroFuturism has emerged as a term of convenience to describe analysis, criticism and cultural production that addresses the intersections between race and technology. Neither a mantra nor a movement, AfroFuturism is a critical perspective that opens up inquiry into the many overlaps between technoculture and black diasporic histories.” What stands out to me now is the focus on “critical perspective” and “histories.” Nelson’s list serv and AF provided opportunities for thinking, talking, and raising inquiries about the intersections of black diaspora and technology and speculative fiction.
This early iteration envisioned AF as artistic and cultural production, but also as a kind of critical approach or framework for interpreting those productions. So AF as critical lens, not just an artistic projection. Nelson’s book The Social Life of DNA (2016) shows some traces of that thinking, as among other topics, she discusses the multiple scientific and technological approaches to genealogy undertaken by African Americans. What Nelson does in the book corresponds to an AF approach.
Between 2006 and 2013, I taught five different Afrofuturism courses. During and after that point though, I began presenting AF as a critical approach in various classes, alongside other approaches. In addition to prompting students to pursue New Critical, feminist, and Marxist readings of texts, I also encouraged them to consider Afrofuturist readings.
We’d be inclined to do AF readings of Octavia Butler, and at the same time, we’d view her as an Afrofuturist. Nearly 20 years after Alondra Nelson first organized the AF group, it’s useful to look back on how the term as evolved.