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Afrofuturism and its Revolutionary Impact


In his essay, Black to the Future, Mark Dery coined the term ‘Afrofuturism’ and defined it as follows:

“Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future…”

Speculative fiction combines magic and technology to present alternate realities and visions of the future. For example the novel, The Man in the High Castle, is based on an alternative ending to World War II. Afrofuturism often takes advantage of science fiction tropes and devices, applying them to African culture. I recently read The Wormwood Trilogy which is a fantastic Afrofuturist series where Nigeria is invaded with aliens. The author, Tade Thompson, combined the traditional sci-fi device of alien invasions with a unique setting, Africa. The reason this created a series unlike any other I have read was because alien invasions are conventionally used as allegories for colonialism, occurring in Western countries. It creates a weird effect where the colonists are being colonised and (in my opinion) that's a very overdone trope at this point. So to shift the setting to Nigeria, changes the messaging of the story.

“The media can be an instrument of change, it can maintain the status quo and reflect the views of the society or it can, hopefully, awaken people and change minds. I think it depends on who’s piloting the plane.”

– Katie Couric

One mainstream example of Afrofuturism is the film Black Panther. Afrofuturism is a movement where the audience can view African people through a context often separate from colonialism. In Black Panther, the fictional African nation of Wakanda is far more advanced than the rest of the world, with its immense technological and scientific advantages being part of the main plot. Part of what made Black Panther the highest grossing film in North America (unseating Titanic) was the fact that it portrayed black culture in a positive light, which provided incredibly valuable representation for young people. Science fiction has historically been dominated by white men, despite the contributions of black authors such as Octavia Butler ​​– often considered the godmother of Afrofuturism – and this limits narratives to being eurocentric. Representation matters, and Afrofuturism has given black creators the ability to represent their own stories and challenge conventional portrayals of African culture, and people.

Octavia Butler was a revolutionary figure and the first black woman to write in the science fiction genre. In her book Dawn, the first part of the Lilith’s Brood series, the protagonist wakes up in the future after a ‘humancide.’ The series explores race, sexuality, gender, and the idea that humanity is inherently bad and destructive. It also speaks to politics, imperialism, eugenics, and a ton of other issues. The amount of meaning packed into her work is truly astonishing and as a writer deeply worried about the future of humanity, Butler laid the groundwork for science fiction as a genre and also inspired other black creators like producer and actor Viola Davis. If you are a sci-fi fan, you should absolutely read Butler’s work. If you aren't a sci-fi fan, you should still absolutely read her work as she is a literary giant.

Up until last year, I have never made any real effort to decolonise my bookshelf or to consume more diverse literature. African literature is not a monolith; the continent comprises 1.26 billion people in about 60 countries which makes up 16% of the world’s population. Most people I have spoken to don’t read many African authors which is actually insane when you consider how big Africa is. Afrofuturism is a fantastic gateway into a broad range of books which express so many varying cultures and ideas. In case you cannot tell, I am a big fan of African literature because everytime I read it, I learn new things about the world and that is pretty neat.

If Afrofuturism sounds like a movement you would be interested in, I would thoroughly recommend looking into the winners of the Nommo Award. It is presented by the African Speculative Fiction Society who award books which encompass a variety of ideas such as “science fiction, fantasy, stories of magic and traditional belief, alternative histories, horror and strange stuff that might not fit in anywhere else.” I would also recommend reading the Wormwood Trilogyby Tade Thompson and the Lilith's Brood Collection by Octavia Butler (and honestly all of her writing).


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