What is Afrofuturism? The mixing of black culture with sci-fi has been explored for many, many decades, though the specific term was only coined back in 1993. In the midst of today’s political climate — with social justice campaigns seen thriving nationwide, many led by or supported by the African American community — the term has taken on a new urgency. So as we welcome Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower into The Paramount Center later this month, let’s examine the genre’s origins.
Afrofuturism is a literary and cultural aesthetic that combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, and Afrocentrism. It is a genre that is born out of wild imagination, but also a literal quest for sustainability of a culture and race. During a lecture at ArtsEmerson last year, African American novelist Walter Mosley told the assembled audience, “We write a future with black people in it, to assert our own survival.”
“As a young Black boy enthralled by various speculative fictions textual or visual,” Michael A. Gonzalez wrote in Ebony in 2013, “there were very few representations of folks like myself in these imagined landscapes. Logan’s Run featured no Black folks and, with the exception of Star Trek’s commutations expert Nyota Uhura (actress Nichelle Nichols), there were very few folks of color either as characters or as creators.” In critic Mark Dery’s 1994 essay “Black to the Future,” —the literal ground zero for the term—he too questioned why, at that time, there were so few Black science fiction writers given the genre’s parallelism to living a life on the margins. Two decades later, Ytasha Womack attempted to answer Dery and Gonzalez’s query. In Womack’s 2013 book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, she carefully unpacks the movement and its cultural aesthetic, noting that its often used to foster conversations around issues of black representation and the history of black culture in music, novels and visual media. An excerpt:
“Many found the parallels between sci-fi themes of alien abduction and the transatlantic slave trade to be both haunting and fascinating. Were stories about alienes really just metaphors for the experience of blacks in the Americas? Afrofuturists sought to unearth the missing history of African descent and their roles in science, technology, and science fiction.”
A new generation of artists have recently embodied Afrofuturism in their artistic aesthetic, including Solange Knowles, Rihanna, Willow and Jaden Smith and Beyonce. This tradition picks up where artists such as Basquiat, Missy Elliott, Sun Ra, and Janelle Monáe began—all of whom incorporated cyborg and metallic themes into their artistic style as a means to, as Vice’s Paul Lyons put it to envision, “a technologically superior future” for African Americans.
Audiences will be able to spot these recurring themes in “Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower.” After all, Butler has often recounted a story about the inevitable question she used to encounter at sci-fi conventions: “Just what does science fiction have to do with black people?” In Butler’s incredible novels, and here on stage with Toshi Reagon’s musical ensemble, audiences will undoubtedly encounter an answer to that question.
by Todd McNeel
Image credits (top to bottom: Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, cover art for Ytasha Womack’s book, Sun Ra illustrtion, “Reynaldo” by John Jennings, and Beyonce)
Coming to Boston MAR 23 – 26.
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References and light reading: