Afrofuturism lets us see Black people at the centre of their own stories with all the vibrant shades of their humanity.
In the Spring of 2019, wanting to expand both my students’ and my own understanding of what the genres of science fiction and fantasy had to offer us in thinking about and making sense of our world, I developed and taught an undergraduate literature course titled "Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy". At one point in this course, my students and I discussed one of the most enduring and popular tropes of science fiction: time travel. Time travel narratives, where the protagonist either travels back to the past or forward into the future, with the aid of either technology or magic, are ubiquitous in mainstream sci-fi. And for good reason — there is something delightful and fun about time travel narratives. A childhood favourite of mine is Back to the Future, the 1980s’ blockbuster film which follows the teenaged protagonist, Marty McFly, and his scientist friend as they travel back in time to engineer the coming together of his parents so that he can ensure his own existence. But in class that day, we were about to discuss another text — one less often included in the time travel canon but which is, arguably, one of the best examples of the subgenre. In the text, the protagonist, Dana Franklin, also travels back to the past and has to work to ensure the circumstances that will lead to her own existence. The difference is that instead of a white young man traveling back to 1950s suburban America, the protagonist is a black woman who travels back to a slave plantation in a pre-Civil War America, where she meets her ancestors — an enslaved woman and the white slaveholder who will eventually rape and impregnate her.
The 1979 novel Kindred by Black sci-fi writer Octavia Butler, combines sci-fi with the genre of slave narratives, using the time travel trope to imagine and interrogate a violent and difficult part of American history. My students and I marvelled at how the time travel narrative changes completely when instead of a white perspective, a Black worldview and subjectivity is centred in a story; how the stakes and challenges of traveling back in time entirely transform when the character doing it occupies a Black, female body. For instance, unlike Marty McFly, whose biggest time-traveling challenges are escaping run-ins with the local teen bullies or fending off flirtations from the woman who will become his mother, Dana has to contend with being mistaken for a runaway slave and in fact faces the threat of physical violence and rape as soon as she travels back in time to 1815. Kindred, and the many other novels and short stories written by Octavia Butler are part of a rich literary tradition within the larger umbrella of sci-fi and fantasy known as Afrofuturism — speculative fiction that imagines possible futures through a black cultural lens, that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy and horror with Black and African belief systems and mythologies.
More on this: What South Asian sci-fi can tell us about our world
Before we turned our attention to Kindred and Afrofuturism, we had been discussing the ways in which the genre of science fiction has historically been intertwined with the ideology of imperialism and colonialism. After all, the two biggest myths in sci-fi and fantasy are that of the "Stranger" (the aliens on a distant planet or the savages on the far corner of the world waiting to be conquered) and the "Strange Land" (the far-away planets waiting to be "discovered" and tamed). These tropes of the genre lend themselves well to the ideology of Othering and marginalisation that undergirds all colonial projects. For instance, H. G. Wells’ 19th century sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds, which depicts a London invaded by aliens from Mars, was explicitly inspired by British colonisation and subjugation of indigenous Tasmanians. What would happen if Martians did to Britain what the British had done to the Tasmanians? Or to take a more recent example, one of HBO’s sprawling fantasy show Game of Thrones’ many larger plots hinged on Daenerys Targaryen, a light-skinned, princess from the "Western" part of the show’s universe bringing to her heel the dark-skinned, savage Dothraki from the "East" who eventually come to revere the princess as their conquering and civilising leader, and enthusiastically do her bidding. The themes of conquest and discovery which sci-fi and fantasy is replete with have their real-life counterparts in the ideology of empire. We had explored the subgenre called postcolonial sci-fi and fantasy, which turns these very tropes on their heads and uses them to critique and explore the different manifestations of colonialism on cultures, lands and peoples, and which centres colonised or non-Western perspectives instead of mainstream sci-fi’s default of white and Western perspectives. As we explored Vandana Singh’s steampunk Mughal-era India, for example, or Saad Hossain’s climate-ravaged dystopian Dhaka or Amitav Ghosh’s colonial Calcutta filled with cultists and cyborgs or Mary Anne Mohanraaj’s university-planet settled by South Asians, there was a delight in discovering familiar desi beliefs, histories and worldviews made new by situating them within the tropes of speculative fiction. It was remarkable to both my students and myself how sci-fi and fantasy could give us a new vocabulary with which to articulate and unpack everything from the anti-encroachment drive that was then sweeping through Karachi to drone attacks in North Waziristan to the gender and sexual politics of contemporary South Asia.
My students’ approach to Afrofuturism and novels such as Kindred was somewhat different than the aforementioned delight in the familiar made new — the process of studying these texts gave them the chance to learn more about the histories of Black Americans and Africans, of which most were not very familiar. I sensed that there was a vague idea amongst students that South Asia’s history of colonisation and the African American history of slavery were somehow equivalent, but without the specific understanding of what this history of slavery actually entailed, or the ways in which this history continues to live on in the marginalisation of Black people in contemporary America. The Pakistani education system does not equip students with an understanding of the history of the African continent, or of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which brought over 12 million African people to the Americas (comprising two-thirds of everyone who crossed the Atlantic during the formation of the "New World" colonies). This lack of historical understanding is despite the fact that the histories of colonialism in South Asia and the enslavement of Black people are overlapping and intertwined — for instance, after the slave trade was finally abolished in the early 19th century, over two million Indians were transported to European colonies in the Americas as indentured labourers as a substitute for slave labour, which gave birth to a large Indian diaspora in places like the Caribbean (in countries such as Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana). Also forgotten is the movement of people from Africa to the subcontinent before colonial times and the deep transcontinental trade ties between the two regions, resulting in, for example, the presence of the Sheedi community in contemporary India and Pakistan, who are descendants of East Africans that form a much marginalised minority in both countries (the word Sheedi itself literally means "black" and was historically used to refer to slaves, although the community has now reclaimed the term).
The absence of knowledge about the histories and cultures of Black people has combined with other factors to produce an enduring attitude of anti-blackness within South Asians, and an overall ignorance of Black people’s lives. I remember a bewildering conversation, in another classroom, with a couple of students who were passionately defending their right to use the n-word — a racial slur whose violent context they seemed to be either unaware of or indifferent to. As this turned into a larger classroom discussion, with some students chiming in to clarify the slur’s long violent history, while others digging in their heels about wanting to use the slur anyway, I realised that many more of such conversations are needed in classrooms and outside of them, so that we might be compelled to challenge our own unwillingness to view Black people in the full breadth of their humanity. As it is, in a context where contemporary South Asian people’s access to Black people’s humanities is filtered through the deeply and systemically racist Western media and popular culture to reinforce our own anti-black biases, teaching Afrofuturism in a Pakistani classroom provided my students with a unique point of entry into the rich and varied cultures, mythologies and worldviews of Blackness, all the while expanding and exploding their conception of what sci-fi and fantasy can do.
The term Afrofuturism was coined by scholar Mark Dery in his 1994 essay Black to the Future, but the concept existed for decades before the term — for instance, an early Afrofuturist short story was "The Comet" written by Black theorist and activist W. E. B. Dubois in 1920, in which a comet kills everyone in New York City except for a Black man and a wealthy white woman. In his essay, in which he interviews various black sci-fi writers of the time, Dery argues that the dearth of black writers in mainstream American sci-fi is "especially perplexing in light of the fact that African Americans, in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees: they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done; and technology is too often brought to bear on black bodies". The question that the tradition of Afrofuturism tries to answer is: Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose present continues to be mired by violence and oppression, imagine possible futures for themselves?
This question is answered through a wide variety of genres and media, apart from literature, film and television, including music and visual art and design (in contemporary music, singer-songwriter Janelle Monae’s style is decidedly Afrofuturist, for example, as can be seen by the references to androids, electric sheep, time travel, and a prophecy about a cyborg messiah who will unite the whole world that populate her lyrics as well as the visual landscape of her music videos). In her book, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (2013), Yatasha Womack argues that Afrofuturism’s "intrigue with sci-fi and fantasy itself inverts conventional thinking about black identity and holds the imagination supreme. Black identity does not have to be a negotiation with awful stereotypes, a dystopian view of the race, an abysmal sense of powerlessness, or a reckoning of hardened realities". Afrofuturism allows Black artists and writers to disregard the racist and reductive ways in which mainstream white, Western popular culture imagines them, and tell their own stories using their own metaphors and myths and languages; to interrogate and explore their own histories and to imagine their own possible futures.
At the time when I was teaching this course, the most well-known example of Afrofuturism that had recently burst onto the scene was Marvel’s film Black Panther. Somewhat of an aberration in Marvel’s pantheon of superhero adventures, Black Panther is the only film of the franchise to centre a Black superhero and a vast variety of Black characters. The film takes place in Wakanda, a fictional African nation that has a rich depository of an otherworldly metal that gives the country’s ruler superpowers and has allowed Wakanda to successfully fight off Western attempts to colonise it or enslave its people. The world of Black Panther is a joyful ode to Black cultural heritage combined with nuanced Afrocentric visions for the future, and it explores conversations of Pan-Africanism and Black liberation with surprising nuance, given Marvel’s overall aversion to articulating radical politics. I remember a student’s particularly well-thought-out presentation on the film’s radical vision of Black lives as embodied in the film’s villain, Killmonger’s revolutionary politics, and then the impassioned class discussion on whether or not Killmonger truly deserved the label of villain when the Black liberation he called for seemed quite reasonable.
My students and I also discussed the ways in which Afrofuturism manifests itself in the world-building of Wakanda. The film is a fascinating embodiment of a principle tenet of Afrofuturism, which is to reclaim Black people’s past by way of imagining their futures. Because of slavery, most Black people in the Americas were cut off from their heritage, culture and tradition back in Africa. As Black sci-fi writer and abolitionist Martin R. Delany explains in Mark Dery’s 1994 essay Black to the Future, "I have no idea where, in Africa, my ancestors came from because when they reached the slave markets of New Orleans, records of such things were systematically destroyed. If they spoke their own languages, they were beaten or killed. The slave pens in which they were stored were set up so that no two slaves from the same area were allowed to be together. Children were regularly sold away from their parents. And every effort conceivable was made to destroy all vestiges of what might endure as African social consciousness. When we say that this country was founded on slavery, we must remember that we mean, specifically, that it was founded on the systematic, conscientious and massive destruction of African cultural remnants." In such a context, Afrofuturist texts attempting to imagine a future by basing it on Black culture and traditions takes on an added poignancy.
There is also a radicalness in Black people imagining joyful, fantastical futures for themselves, in defiance of the violence that has scarred their past and continues to scar their presents. The images and stories of Black people that South Asians are most familiar with tend to be in the context of violence or suffering, because that is another way that a racist system can dehumanise a people — show them only in a particular way over and over again. And even though it is important to contend with the violent systems that continue to oppress Black people, only consuming stories of Black pain risks commodifying their collective traumas. Afrofuturism’s commitment to imagining better futures for Black people, filled with joy and liberation is then a way of reclaiming their humanity from these reductive stereotypes. As John Jennings, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California Riverside, who has taught Afrofuturism, says in an interview, "The future for black people in America was supposed to be connected to only three spaces: one, the hold of a slave ship; two, the plantation; and three, the grave. The construction of a space of agency, joy, and true freedom has always been the central focus of black speculative culture." Afrofuturism offers a vast variety of texts that revel in the delight of imagining fantastical possibilities: Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia is a middle grade fantasy novel that draws on West African and African American mythology to tell the story of a young boy who has to save a fantastical realm; the Binti series by Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor is a delight space opera about a young African girl who is invited to a prestigious intergalactic university, where ancient African cultures collide with the future; Jamaican-Canadian writer Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring draws on Afro-Caribbean folklore to imagine a post-apocalyptic Toronto filled with magic and gods.
Even when it does engage with a violent and painful past, Afrofuturism finds ways of exploring Black history in inventive ways. One way Afrofuturist texts do that is by combining elements of steampunk (a subgenre of sci-fi and fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery to explore alternate histories and the social and political conditions of the time) with African mythologies. For instance, my students and I had an exciting time dissecting Afro-Carribean writer P. Djeli Clark’s novella The Black God’s Drums, which imagines a steampunk New Orleans as a transnational port city inspired by the Haitian Revolution, filled with African spirituality and Caribbean folklore to weave a story of anti-slavery, resistance, airships, and Afro-Carribean spirits orishas. Similarly, Rivers Solomon’s novel An Unkindness of Ghosts transposes the conditions of a slave plantation to a generation ship in outer space, exploring the horrors of slavery in a unique context. Even one of the earliest works of Afrofuturism engaged in reworking history: Martin R. Delany’s 1859 novel Blake; Or the Huts of America is an alternative-history work about a successful slave revolt in the South during the American Civil War in which the black heroes form a new independent country in Cuba.
Of course, any work of science fiction worth its salt is interested in grappling with the role of science and technology — both in the past and in the future. Afrofuturism seeks to unearth the missing history of Black people’s roles in the development of science and technology, and to reintegrate Black people into discussions of modern science. Historically, new technologies have emerged with a double-edged sword, deepening as many divides as they build social bridges. Early forays into genetics were created to link ethnic physical traits with intelligence, thus falsely justifying dehumanisation, slavery, and holocausts across the globe. Black bodies have always been used as sites of experimentation in the West’s quest for enlightenment and scientific progress (for instance, the Tuskegee experiment, in which innocent black men were injected with syphilis for scientific study). Works of Afrofuturism, therefore, often grapple with the impact of science and technology on Black lives. For instance, another text in the course that proved very popular with students was Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out, which cleverly forces its audience to feel the horror Black people routinely feel while living under a white supremacist system, and uses classic horror tropes to engage with the history of the theft and sacrifice of black bodies at the altar of white people’s science.
As my students and I studied Afrofuturist texts with varying styles, themes and tones, there was an expansion in our collective understanding of what is possible with the sci-fi and fantasy genres. A true knowledge of these vast literary traditions is not possible if we only engage with texts that take as their inspiration and origin white and Western perspectives — a palate of only Star Wars and Lord of the Rings is bound to produce a bland and uninteresting view of the world. It is not enough for us to acknowledge that Black lives matter — Afrofuturism allows us to view Black people at the centre of their own fantastical stories, to get a glimpse of the infinite vibrant shades of their humanity.
Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature and writing at IBA, Karachi. She writes on literature, film and television, and culture for various publications. Her chapter titled "The Postcolonial Cyborg in Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome" was recently published in Palgrave Macmillan’s Ethical Futures and Global Science Fiction. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets @NudratKamal
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