Today, I continue last month’s reflections on Afrofuturism. If you haven’t already, I invite you to read that introduction before we delve into two of Afrofuturism’s compelling themes: the link between the past and the future and the power of belonging.

Our Past & Future

“Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out…imagine possible futures?”[1] Afrofuturism resoundingly answers “yes!” Yet it does not reach these imaginations through blind, triumphalist depictions of the future. Instead, this artistic movement takes time to recover the past and process the ramifications of a history only half-told. As one of Afrofuturism’s most prominent representatives, author Octavia Butler, made her first rule of science fiction writing, “learn from the past.” She knew people needed to understand their origins in order to foresee their role in the future.

Works associated with Afrofuturism highlight gifts from the past. When author Nnedi Okorafor’s protagonist Binti (of the eponymous book) departs home for a top university in another galaxy, she travels with high-tech teleportation tools. But it is otjize, a traditional mixture of red clay and oils for her skin and hair, that saves her life and forges a once-unthinkable alliance between warring groups.

The past also serves as a remote for change. In the mystical West African kingdom of Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, Zélie’s magical ability to access her ancestor’s forces empowers her revolt against a tyrant. Implicit in the tale is that readers too can channel the wisdom of foremothers and fathers to fortify themselves in the midst of struggle.

Through sound and image, Afrofuturism reshapes the past to affirm the divinity of people whom the world has not accepted as fully human. In his music, jazz musician and philosopher Sun Ra presented himself as an angel from Saturn on a mission to recruit Black youth for other galaxies. Other pieces take pride in documenting the rich existence of Africa’s communities beyond colonialism and slavery.

As it unveils the imagined and experienced histories of a people, Afrofuturism does not shy away from critiquing the power abuses that brought us to the present. It doesn’t need to create wild “what if?” scenarios to provoke us; observing our current reality and asking, “what if this goes on?” is enough. Nowhere is this clearer than in Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, where the author eerily paints the picture of a 2025 Southern California wracked with climate-change-fueled droughts, epidemics, and walled-off communities.

Sobering as the tale is, I found hope in the protagonist’s journey to a better future for herself and her people. Instead of confining herself to existing institutions, Lauren, a 15-year-old Black girl, creates a different model for interpreting and interacting with the chaotic world. It struck me that many of us find ourselves in a similar position as we discern whether to respond to our context with new-to-us ideas, like an “abundance mentality” in economics or an abolitionist approach to public safety. For our worries, Afrofuturism gives us examples of consulting the past and embarking on untrodden futures.

Identity & Belonging

Afrofuturism also offers a way to explore identity with belonging and work towards liberation. It speaks for all those who find themselves outside the boundaries of current kingdoms and sing along with Jamila Woods: “Just cause I’m born here, don’t mean I’m from here.”  Those relegated to the sidelines—whether because of their ethnicity, ability, gender, or sexuality—are portrayed as full persons with agency. Take one of my college favorites, Janelle Monáe’s 2010 album The ArchAndroid, as an example. In an elaborately concocted world, the artist’s alter ego, queer cyborg Cindi Mayweather, discovers she can save humanity and leads her community in rising up against discrimination.

Those held back from full belonging in society now have an opportunity to craft it on their own terms. Still, this newfound freedom is not packaged individually; it is meant to be shared. As Afrofuturism shows us a myriad of political and social environments, it models how to belong and get free in our own. Authors depict a time when sub-Saharan Africa becomes a refuge for European climate refugees and get us to think critically about our responsibilities beyond national citizenship. Engineers recognize the way limited belonging brought segregation to our spaces and are inspired to build inclusive cities. Poets envision jail cell doors being hammered into bicycle chains and dancing revolutionaries christening broken systems, sparking our hope in transformed technologies.

Ultimately, this is why Afrofuturism holds power for everyone. In a world where one group’s dehumanization legitimizes injustices against anyone, art that replaces lies with new visions gives us all a fuller understanding of humanity.

 

[1] Mark Dery, “Black to the Future.” 1994.

2 Comments

  1. Kyric Koning

    I love the idea of connecting the past to the future. That where people have come from will shape their footsteps. Having examples lends a comfort, a possibility, a new way of thinking. And certainly, this deserves much more consideration. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    I keep thinking about this piece: how Afrofuturism looks into the past and see a way forward, the dystopian not being that things get worse but that things continue, how inclusive it is in terms of identity. You’re right: we all need those ways to get free that you highlighted at the end.

    Reply

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