The Afrofuture is Now

Afrofuturism is expanding boundaries and possibilities in academia, art, and society.

Afrofuturism—the cultural, political, and aesthetic movement that reimagines a future filled with arts, science, and technology seen through a Black lens—is thriving. From movies and TV to music and literature, there has been an explosion of science fiction–inspired works rooted in, and celebrating, the uniqueness and innovation of Black culture. We asked Walter Greason, Ph.D., creator of the popular “Wakanda Syllabus,” which was named after the fictional African country featured in the equally popular Black Panther movie and comic books, to explain what the Afrofuturism boom means for the broad academic discipline of cultural studies as well as for society as a whole.

What was the starting point for Afrofuturism?

In the early 20th century, African American scholars recognized that mainstream academic society assumed there was no history in Africa, and that the peoples of the African diaspora had no useful path to offer any kind of productive lesson. The corollary was that for two or three generations people then produced the work to demonstrate that history.

But by the early 1990s, a pernicious pattern had emerged within literature. When people wrote fantasy or science fiction, there were rarely people of African descent in those stories, the implication being that at some point, all people of African descent would somehow disappear. People who had no past were being imagined as having no future. Within that context, author Octavia E. Butler really emerged as the leading voice in challenging that assumption by centering science fiction stories on African American women characters. The second major figure that I talk a lot about is Dwayne McDuffie, who, within comics, created a company called Milestone Media that created a universe that was much more diverse.

It was that foundation with those literary and artistic influences in the 1990s that inspired work like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which featured an African American commander and had many stories that talked about the uniqueness of that heritage in the future. So that was a moment where people started to explore the possibility of a future that included people from Africa.

How has Afrofuturism grown since then?

What emerged in the last 15 or 20 years is that people like me, who grew up fascinated with that premise, became adults and produced a lot of new work. The big one for me is, of course, the Black Panther movie. I spent a lot of time from 2003 to 2016 talking about what should be in such a film. And then, when the concept of the character was launched in the Captain America: Civil War movie for Marvel, I wrote up a document called the “Wakanda Syllabus” that talked a lot about all the different influences that had developed and how to use them going forward.

You would also get more work like Watchmen with Regina King and Lovecraft Country with Aunjanue Ellis, both on HBO. You get this explosion of new work that would go on for decades to come.

What musical artists are embracing the idea of Afrofuturism in their work?

OutKast is probably the most aesthetically resonant, but also Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliott. There’s that whole thread of reimagining reality and expressing yourself in a way that breaks the boundaries of what we find to be the everyday, and that’s tremendously important in music, whether it’s funk, jazz, hip-hop, or R&B. I think most famously in the last decade is Janelle Monáe, who, on her first album, crafted herself as “The ArchAndroid,” a woman who could be an entire universe unto herself, and then constantly pressed the boundary of expressing and exploring new freedoms.

But all of that grows out of multiple generations of writers that go back before James Baldwin and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who are all playing with similar ideas, but largely in terms of politics and economics and culture. But within music, there’s an attempt to do things sonically that could change those boundaries.

How would you compare Afrofuturism to a genre like cyberpunk, which imagines a dystopian future?

Octavia E. Butler is definitely playing with the idea of dystopia and the basic symbols of cyberpunk as a genre. In particular I think of her Patternist series, where she deals a lot more with psychology at its core of where the distortions are and how we deal with them. But the most famous one is Parable of the Talents, her next-to-last novel written in the 1990s, where the main antagonist is a religious conservative who wins the presidency with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” and talked about how the country and the world was changed as a result of that ascendancy. Of course everybody looked at the Trump campaign and the Trump presidency to see these kinds of allegories in the writing that she had done.

Dystopia is very powerful for Butler, but there’s a deeper sense that what we left behind as primitive is much more valuable than we appreciate, and that is her critiquing nostalgia. A common theme for her work is that nostalgia is this kind of dangerous illusion, in that by longing for a romantic past we’re overlooking the really dangerous and pernicious aspects that made it a painful, even deadly reality for different people who are not included in that nostalgia. And so the kind of critique that comes out of Butler is very similar to the kinds of cyberpunk stories that you see in movies like Blade Runner: What is it that we’re really protecting? Do we really represent ourselves honestly? So Afrofuturism is very much about revealing truth and showing stories that had not been told.

How does Afrofuturism fit into cultural studies?

Cultural studies opens the door to interdisciplinarity, the idea that multiple disciplines can combine and overlap and create new forms of expression. It takes multiple approaches and explores experiences in new ways, ways that don’t marginalize different voices and different insights. The initial breakthrough was Black Studies, a demand made by students at San Francisco State in 1967. They said, “We want a curriculum that actually represents our experience.”

Afrofuturism is the natural fruit of interdisciplinary work, in that it requires that you’re familiar with multiple fields in order to enter the conversation. You can’t just be a historian or a political scientist or a musician and come to the table; in Afrofuturism, you have to have elements of all of those. And you have to have a desire, a fundamental commitment, to continue to explore. You have to have the humility that you know that you don’t know all of it, and you’re constantly trying to find a way to grow, because you’re seeking out a bigger and bigger universe of experience and ideas.

Has Afrofuturism had any impact on attitudes and beliefs around race in America?

If you look at a moment like 1920, the high point of the second Ku Klux Klan, there were dozens of deadly race riots across the country where white mobs were destroying Black communities and killing any family that showed signs of Black prosperity. It was an extraordinarily horrific time. But out of that, the folks who adapted and overcame it produced a gigantic artistic and musical renaissance that now we look back on with amazement in terms of jazz, poetry, fiction. A lot of the roots of what we’re talking about with Black Studies started in the 1920s in Harlem, Chicago, and Los Angeles. So that kind of renaissance is what we’re in right now.

Folks outside of the African American community—folks from Europe, folks from Asia—are really embracing this idea of anti-racism. They looked at the killing of George Floyd, the shooting of Breonna Taylor, the Capitol Hill riot, and they don’t want to return to a world where that is normal. Just on campus, we read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, and he spoke to campus via Zoom in January. We had another great speaker, Reginald Hudlin, who was one of the founders of Afrofuturism in the ’80s and ’90s. Those voices are opening up new doors for all people to build organizations and institutions, and a society as a whole, where everyone has a better chance to succeed, where equity and justice have a chance to prevail.

Read “Future Reference” to see what movies, novels, and TV shows Professor Greason recommends for those interested in diving deep into Afrofuturism.