Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture – Ytasha L. Womack

“Just what does science fiction have to do with black people?” 

Throughout Ytasha Womack’s Afrofuturism the author recounts stories from different Black creators, and one from Octavia Butler stuck with me early on. Author Butler said it never failed that when she attended different conferences that at least one person would ask the above question, no matter where she went. (11)

There is a sad note of fatalism here, that due to history Black stories can only look a certain way. This is also reinforced when most sci-fi and fantasy is a sea of white, and the roles given to minorities are bleak, only highlighting that they don’t belong in the narrative nor have a role in our envisioned futures. 

At the root I believe this is why Afrofuturism grabbed my attention. In our society those in power are very quick to limit and box people based on the labels we see. It’s easy to internalize this social pressure, especially with the weight of colonialism and the bleak future it holds.

“An Afrofuturist is not ignorant of history, but they don’t let history restrain their creative impulses either.” (16)

The term Afrofuturism was coined in the ‘90s (with the beginnings stretching back to the late 1800’s) and saw a recent boost in popularity with the Black Panther movie in 2018. To have such a stark visual representation of what Afrofuturism looks like was stunning and the representation shown was vastly different from what most Americans see on the big screen.**

Imagination and creativity are pivotal mainstays of the subgenre, not only as a necessity, due to the constant erasure, but as a tool for change. “Creating stories with people of color in the future defies the norm.” (24) Representation might not equal liberation, but Black authors taking command of these spaces and putting their narratives at the center is crucial to forward progress. 

Just because Afrofuturism is not chained to historically typical roles doesn’t mean that that history is neglected or unimportant. To find answers to questions that can’t be answered in our present reality, sometimes a different world is needed. 

A way that Afrofuturism keeps connected to the past is by rediscovering what was lost. Western academia and culture has long neglected the contributions of Africa, and when it does it’s usually in terms of music and art. African myth and spirituality show that long before the term Afrofuturism was coined, there has been a weaving of “art, philosophy, and the realms of the sky.” (91) 

Womack does a great job of giving a sampling of different ways Western society has tried to discredit African achievement. Along with looking ahead, the creator also makes sure to weave the neglected and lost past back into the narrative. 

“Afrofuturist academics are looking at alien motifs as a progressive framework to examine how those who are alienated adopt modes of resistance and transformation.” (35)

I don’t find it surprising at all that Black authors are finding the tools in sci-fi and fantasy to “supersede limitations of history while restoring power to both the narrative and its readers.” (155)

While certain tropes are used frequently, like time travel or alternate dimensions, I think space is popular in Afrofuturism because of the role of the alien. This stand-in can be used in different capacities and can facilitate discussion of topics, whether the author is trying to get the reader to understand a certain perspective or is just trying to work out something themselves.

The alien metaphor can be used to explore many horrifying events throughout history; from the Atlantic Slave Trade and the Black disporia, to the abuse African Americans endure for the advancement of science (Henriatta Lacks!), to the isolation of being a stranger in a strange land. The alien metaphor is “one that explains the looming space of otherness perpetuated by the idea of race.” (34) Sadly the parallels are endless, and different authors can use this tool in many different ways. 

There’s also a flipside to this ‘alien framework’.

Last fall I read Octavia Butler’s Dawn, which is about the alien race Oanlaki rescuing humanity right before nuclear war, but not without a steep cost. The book is about the side of colonialism that doesn’t get talked about much, the benevolent caretaker. The “well these savages don’t know what they are doing, so I have to take care of them.”

The question is, why did Butler make this an analogy using sci-fi and aliens? She could’ve done a straight forward historical fiction that tackles the same themes. This is purely my guess, but going into an historical fiction novel, you would be tipped off from the beginning that white dudes are not in the right with the involvement of colonialism. 

With the Oankali, the slate is clean and the reader has more room to figure out the Oankali and decide for themselves if they believe what the alien race is doing is justified or not. The reader has to engage and acknowledge the damage that the Oankali are doing and the agency that they are stealing from humans.

“Valuing the divine feminine is one way that Afrofuturism differs from sci-fi and the futurist movements in the past.” (103) 

While reading Womack’s book I was more convinced that not only was Afrofuturism a place for women to create with freedom, but a feminist place where Black women can thrive and be celebrated. After I made my reading list for the month, I realized that all three authors were women and, not going to lie, I was ecstatic. 

The tide is turning in sci-fi and fantasy in general away from being aggressively male, but Afrofuturism is ahead of the curve. I wanted to note this because I think this femininity also is what makes the three series I read for this month unique, along with the importance of ecology in each one. 

Exploring ecology is another tenet of Afrofuturism, as tech isn’t seen as enough on its own to ensure a better tomorrow, but rather that “[a] well-crafted relationship with nature is intrinsic to a balanced future too.”(104) Having this relationship is not only good for the future but also reflects the roots of African spirituality, where nature was/is an integral part.

Before I end this discussion I wanted to talk briefly about the book that helped guide me through this beginning with a kind hand. Womack’s Afrofuturism is a great primer to help anyone wanting to learn more about this emerging subgenre. While my focus was on literature, the book actually discusses many areas of the humanities that Afrofuturism is influencing. Music, art, graphic novels, spiritualism, etc. 

There are also other topics that Womack touches on that I felt were  either not relevant to the literature side, or I didn’t feel adequately equipped to speak upon and would only pale in comparison to Womack’s words. 

I started this discussion with a heartbreaking question and I think there’s many answers. At the moment I think this is the best way to sum it up: 

“If you can control time and your place in it, you can control the course of history and your own history.” (154)

**I wanted to note that I had read a few Black Panther graphic novels prior to the movie and always found the character of T’Challa very interesting. Chadwick Boseman did an exceptional job embodying the character and his struggle with how Wakanda should interact with the outside world. I’m looking forward to the second movie, but the void Boseman left is immense and I wish the cast and crew luck with such a difficult task.

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