December 20, 2020, 11:55 p.m.

As the minutes dwindled down to the long-awaited date, I anxiously waited with Black people across the diaspora for the grand reveal: Our superpowers were due to arrive on December 21.

Black people on Twitter had once again fueled a serendipitous collective running joke that took on a life of its own. From reading shared tips (“Make sure to keep your windows open to not miss the arrival!”) to pondering common questions (“Are the powers being rolled out by time zones?”), the whole experience made my day. My friends discussed the gifts we desired, and while some wished for invisibility and persuasion, I had my heart set on being able to speak any language and identify plants by sight.

The hours of much-needed laughter reminded me of how adept my community has always been at envisioning ourselves in the future. In fact, there is a whole universe, Afrofuturism, which explores this very question: “What does it looks like when Black people exist in the future?” For a people whose survival was never guaranteed, this question is a radical call to evaluate where we are and experiment with what could be. While most popularly associated with science fiction and works like Black Panther, Afrofuturism extends beyond a specific genre as an “artistic movement” that manifests itself in literature, cuisine, fashion, music, video games, and fine and visual arts.

The themes often present in our imaginations of the future—outsiders/aliens, fighting the system, and saving one’s community—would appear to be natural fits for interpretations by people who have lived as “strangers in a strange land.” Yet our favorite fantasies don’t always incorporate these experiences. Black people and other groups targeted for marginalization in our current world are either absent or the first to be killed off in our future one. Aside from the matter of presence, narratives commonly portray future thriving communities as European/white American. These groups navigate and master technologies and contend with the existential threat of unknown, less-human outsiders.

What happens when we flip that script with Afrofuturism? Maybe the outsiders save society, those subjected to violent manipulations (forced sterilization, medical experimentation, etc.) create their own technologies, and advanced realms resemble a transformed power dynamic. Afrofuturism also doles out equal portions of delight as it weaves together psychedelic beats with West African dances and stuns with otherworldly textiles.

Our visions of the future can unveil who we believe belongs in the world, who has the agency to mold the future, and what cruelties are worth tackling. And they humble us when we realize it is often easier to imagine visiting other planets than it is to envision embracing the full dignity of our neighbors.

While the term Afrofuturism was only adopted in the 1990s, for generations we have participated in Afrofuturism by defending our equal birthright to survival, legacy, and creation. As we step over the threshold into a year that once seemed the unimaginable future, I’d like to share two compelling themes in Afrofuturism and memorable examples across disciplines. Join me next month as I delve into Afrofuturism’s exploration of the tenuous link between the past and the future, and its reflections on belonging and liberation.

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I really enjoyed reading this, and I look forward to part two! (And part three I hope!) Thank you for introducing me to a new word and for inviting us to engage with Afrofuturism.

    Reply
  2. Geneva Langeland

    Wonderful! I love reading science fiction and fantasy by Black authors (N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor are two recent favorites) for some excellent and thought-provoking flipped scripts.

    Reply
    • Gwyneth Findlay

      Okorafor is a super interesting example in this regard. I don’t tend to read much SFF, but I’ve read some of her writing on her work and her own genre definitions of “Africanfuturism” and “Africanjujuism.” Hope Wabuke did a story on it in LARB a couple of months ago!

      Reply
  3. Kyric Koning

    “For a people whose survival was never guaranteed” hits hard. The fact that “survival” is the word choice too is heartbreaking. It shouldn’t have to be the bare minimum for anyone, and yet, here we are. May we be more gracious to our “neighbors,” whoever and wherever they are.

    Reply

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