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Afrofuturism: An Aesthetic and Exploration of Identity
Ytasha L. Womack   Jan 4, 2012   Ethical Technology  

The world of science fiction is known for its absence of cultural diversity.  While history texts are still recovering from the conspicuous absence of the contributions of non-European cultures across the world and in America, there’s an equal need to claim the future as well.

The world of science fiction is known for its absence of cultural diversity.  While history texts are still recovering from the conspicuous absence of the contributions of non-European cultures across the world and in America, there’s an equal need to claim the future as well.

Hijacking the imagination and perpetuating limiting views on culture and humanity in the imaginative future just won’t do.

Enter Afrofuturism.

Afrofuturism is a term that emerged in the mid 90s, coined by cultural critic Mark Dery who affixed the term to the growing artistic movement and critiques that followed narratives of people of African descent in a sci-fi, futuristic treaties. 

Afrofuturists seek to inspire and forge a stronger self-identity and respect for humanity by encouraging enthusiasts to reexamine their environments and reimagine the future in a cross cultural context.

For example, one digital Afrofuturist painting of a young African American girl in the future depicted her in metallic space boots and pants; her hair was styled in an Afro and she wore an ankh, an ancient Kemetic symbol on her green-friendly T-shirt.  The image bound the future with the past, celebrated culture and universality, and positioned the teen smack dab in the latter part of the 21st century.  For many, simply placing a young African American girl in a futuristic context challenges the absence of such images and rearticulates the relevance of such cultures and world views in art depicting the future.

The aesthetic includes the music, visual art, literature, film, critical essays and other mediums dedicated to futuristic explorations primarily through the arts.  Works range in theme and story lines but they are typically characterized by compelling insights, both cosmetic and analytical into black identity in the Americas, Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa and beyond. 

From soul singer Erykah Badu’s “Next Lifetime” video which highlights West African traditions in a futuristic society to Nnedi Okorofor’s book “Who Fears Death” chronicling a mystical young girl in post-apocalyptic Africa, the depictions are culturally rich takes on the future through fiction that explore identity, too.

Artists like jazz composer Sun Ra, 70s funk pioneer George Clinton, science fiction writer Octavia Butler, or DJ/multimedia artist DJ Spooky are among the more popular purveyors of the genre (although Sun Ra, Clinton and Butler did work long before the term came into vogue). There are a bevy of new wave artists, musicians and filmmakers creating new works as well as a cadre of established professors now chronicling and teaching it. In fact, Afrofuturism is now taught in several universities as an artistic aesthetic, a tool for critical cultural analysis, a platform for rethinking the impact of modernization on cultural creations as well as an exploration of identity.

Pioneers created works largely to challenge color-based social structures, caste systems and the realities of second-class citizenship, which plagued the experience of black people, particularly in America and across the world for much of the modern era.  In many cases, particularly in music, they re-imagined technologies to create new artistic works or reinvented processes that created new sounds. The creations of avant-garde jazz, funk, dub, house, hip-hop and other genres are as innovative for their musicality as for their experimentations with electronic sounds and machinery. The use of a turntable needle in hip-hop to create music or the multi-layering of prerecorded noises in dub are as Afrofuturist as Motown Record’s Berry Gordy looking to Detroit’s car assembly lines as a basis for creating a new system in artist development. Each explores the impact of modernization and environment on the creation of artistic movements, identity and perspectives by people of color.

An extensive body of critical analysis using Afrofuturism as the prism currently exists. DJ Spooky, for one, is most known for reediting the film Birth of a Nation, a film which was technically advanced at the time but also reinforced horrific stereotypes of blacks during the Reconstruction period in the US and established ethnic stereotypes in films for years to come. DJ Spooky linked the images on the screen to his turntable and mixed and scratched along with the revisioning of the film.

Many Afrofuturist works are characterized by a synchronicity between the past and the future.  While many science fiction works heavily disavow the past, Afrofuturism has a great deal of reverence for ancestors and ancient societies as well as an active celebration of movements in history that countered the active dehumanization of people of color through power systems. This reverence is rearticulated in a futuristic context. References to Egyptian deities and other African Traditional Religions (Yoruba, etc), African Derived Religions (Santeria, Candomble, Hoodoo) and Native American folklore and spirituality are common as are references to Asian fighting arts and the civil rights movement in the US. Spirituality and mysticism are frequent threads. Humanity, freedom and self-determination are common themes.

While all works dubbed Afrofuturist aren’t created by people of African descent or don’t deal with black identity on the surface (the pop culture favorite “The Matrix” or the original “Night of the Living Dead” film for example) they share themes, symbolism or imagery that evokes cultural markers.

In essence, many Afrofuturists aim to challenge society’s limits to the imagination and this limitation includes a very narrow reflection on race, culture and ethnicity in fictional and artistic works on the future. Afrofuturism celebrates new takes on modernization and the histories that have facilitated social change.

Although some might argue that the term itself is as freeing as it is constricting, the growing body of work categorized in this genre is fascinating and enriching.




COMMENTS

@Ytasha
This is the quandary for the world, that modernity and humanism bring society forward, that the value inhered in society are not the differences in all the diaspora, but the breadth of all the ethnic and racial declensions of humanity itself. This is an expanding mindset that’s encountering a stiff headwind from opportunists and parochialists (the victors still want to write themselves in & the victims, out).

I live amongst a growing & broad black middle class here in Tallahassee, yet our workforce has been beggared by the politicians for the past decade. Why? Because they can! But the world is moving forward, and the reactionaries having found their voice anew (e.g. the John Birch Koch Bro’s & their nutterjob sockpuppets) appear to be accomplishing as many have hoped & discredited themselves worse (better?) than ever.

Hopefully this will be the trend the world ‘round ... the Arab Spring, the self-emancipation of the Dalits, the Tamil, Tibet. The pulse of history seeks both centralization, and decentralization, parity and diversity, it’s a history of struggle and long marches ... apocryphal as it may have been, Moses & his Red Sea Pedestrians are instructive to everyone.

The list seems endless of the penury afflicted upon blocs of humans whose only exception was being born different. So it’s crucial for all discernible and discerning minorities to not only find their voice, but seek each other’s, in an effort to establish equality and suffrage for all.

Hmm. Did I just write that? I’m not an activist. Or am I?

Isn’t Afrofuturism itself a racist or exclusionary stance?  How is it a step forwards to simply replace white characters with black ones?  The world has more shades than black and white.  What’s next, an AsiaFuturism or IndoFuturism?  The world has more shades than black and white.  Shouldn’t we be striving for a more universal outlook in our science fiction?

I suspect the main problem is a lack of African-American sci-fi storytellers.  While there is still an obvious lack of film directors, there is nothing stopping African-Americans from becoming sci-fi authors or comic book writers / illustrators.  The culture doesn’t promote that, instead idolizing sports or music stars.

In any case, science-fiction has typically been more inclusive than most other genres… Star Trek, in all its tv series, has always had a multitude of characters with diverse ethnic backgrounds for example.  And how many sci-fi movies have had Will Smith as the star?

@Anonymous You’re falling into the memes of ethno-cultural invidy. Afrofuturism would be no more racist or exclusionary than say Medieval Recreationists, Irish expat descendants celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, or Tibetan emigres banding together in pursuit of an autonomous Tibet.

Meanwhile the world is still playing divide and conquer games in Africa. That her diaspora abroad might want some sense of identity, or feel concern or fealty to their motherland, is the same as anyone’s right.

We really need everybody to be able to express the heritage and culture which they claim as their own. Trying to limit afrofuturism on the basis that it leaves out Asians lessens both afrofuturism and whatever the people of Asia wish to call their move to the future. The issue is not one of competition between excluded or marginalized people, but the overwhelming presence of pasty white culture.

Thanks Ytasha for this great article. I think Afrofuturism, as you describe it, is a very important trend in art, literature and society.

The George Clinton that you mention is the brother of the former U.S. president Bill Clinton, right?

I will now buy 2212:Book of Rayla (Hank, please correct the link above, the correct link is http://rayla2212.com/) and I look forward to reading it.

A great example of affirmative action.

No, seriously. If “equal opportunities” doctrines worked as some of would like to believe they can, there would be no need for such trends that, arguably, can indeed be “as freeing as they are constricting”. But they don’t, so we do need them. And very enriching they are too.

One quibble. It is clear that power systems dehumanised people of colour (including white), but is there a hint of the nobel savage myth there? As if dehumanising power systems didn’t exist before the whites arrived?

Still, I like this idea of getting in touch with those aspects of humanity’s past that have tended to be airbrushed out by traditional white, patriarchal Western culture. It also fits well with my idea of transhumanism becoming the focus for the progressive political left. The right is (or should be) there primarily to advocate and protect what is good about the familiar, still-dominant culture. The left must then focus on the alternatives, and by all means let’s plough the past for ideas.

Re “A great example of affirmative action.

OMG, what does this to do with affirmative action. It is a good article about an interesting trend, period.

Re “some might argue that the term itself is as freeing as it is constricting

I don’t think so, because Afrofuturism is not the only literary genre. If a writer thinks Afrofuturism is too constricting a genre for a specific work, (s)he can use another genre for that work. Like poetry: when the poem format is not suitable, a poet can switch to prose.

I read Afrofuturism as celebrating diversity, which is good.

@Giulio Well, sure, it’s not about affirmative action in the sense of quotas for public officials and that kind of thing, i.e. the thing that you virulently object to. And I wasn’t referring to the article, but to the trend, and the label that has been given to the trend.

I think we can go two ways here. We can take the expression “affirmative action” away from it’s limited “euphemism for positive discrimination” sense and affirm that celebrating diversity is itself a kind of affirmative action, which as you say you find nothing wrong with. This would be the more etymologically correct approach. It is action, and it’s affirmative. Or we can stay with the more usual meaning, the one that we’ve been arguing about, and discuss whether this trend (and the label) is an example of it. You say a resounding “no”, I am somewhat more circumspect.

I guess what really motivates me in this kind of debate is that I’m very much a grey thinker, and I love to explore and expose the fictions that we create in order to create boundaries between the “acceptable” and the “unacceptable”. So the kind of positive discrimination that we’ve been talking about is, for you, unacceptable, because it is inconsistent with the principle of equal opportunity, whereas this is something totally different, it’s just celebrating diversity, so it’s OK.

Well, nothing is ever quite that simple, is it? Now for sure there’s a time and place for making things simple (i.e. creating fictions in order to clarify the boundaries between what we choose to accept and what we choose not to accept), we couldn’t live, let alone define effective policy, without doing so. But those fictions can also be limiting, can’t they?

@Peter, of course we can redefine words to mean something different from their usual meaning (and I know I use many words in unconventional ways), but at the risk of losing the ability to communicate with others.

A language is not an abstract theory defined by a book, but a living thing defined that the persons who speak it. So if most speakers call cheese cheese, the simplest choice is calling it cheese.

The term “Affirmative Action” is almost always used to mean discrimination (not positive: discrimination is always negative in my book) by brainless PC nanny-state bureaucrats. So I prefer not using this term to indicate celebrating diversity, which I totally support.

Like everyone, I find some things acceptable and some other things not acceptable, but I don’t see the need to create, or clarify, abstract boundaries. I prefer accepting what is evidently good, rejecting what is evidently bad, and thinking harder about what is in the grey area in between, on a case by case basis.

@Giulio, yes but the difference between “affirmative action” and “cheese” is that there is no other meaning of “cheese” with which it’s usual meaning might be confused, whereas “affirmative action”, because of its starting point as a euphemism, does have a prior meaning. In fact it’s not even a question of etymology, it’s a question of plain English. The bureaucratic/political use of the word is admittedly quite widespread, but there must be quite a few innocents around who think it just means affirmative action. So I think there is something to be said for attempting to salvage the term.

Giulio, the reason you don’t see the need to create or clarify abstract boundaries is because you are already doing so, unconciously, not least by using expressions like “brainless PC nanny-state bureaucrats”. What I find interesting, whereas you seem to find it more annoying than anything else, is that we place these boundaries differently. Much of what is to you “evidently bad” is in my grey area. Aren’t you a little bit curious about that?

@Peter re “Much of what is to you “evidently bad” is in my grey area. Aren’t you a little bit curious about that?”

Curious yes, but I don’t consider this as a bad thing. Imagine how boring the world would be if everyone thought the same (like the brainless PC nanny-state bureaucrats want us to think:-)

Embrace diversity!

I guess I create unconscious abstract boundaries like everyone, but I try to ignore them and evaluate specific cases on their own merit. Though I am a theoretical physicist by training and I must admit to having a certain interest in metaphysics, when it comes to actual societal and policy issues I consider “abstract” almost as a dirty word.

I don’t. In fact I often get quite annoyed when people use the terms “abstract” and “philosophical” as synonyms for “irrelevant” or “pointless”. Oh yes, and “theoretical”, if I’ve heard people (often nanny-state bureaucrats in positions of authority come to think of it) dismiss things I say as “theoretical” once I’ve heard it a thousand times. And they usually mean “sounds good in theory but doesn’t work in practice”, but often they are insisting on remedies that we actually *know* don’t work in practice, at least not to deal with the problem that is ostensibly at hand. Whatever hidden agenda, of which they may or may not be consciously aware, may be being served by such “remedies” is another matter. Oh yes, I’ve had my problems with bureaucrats too.

Well back to the issue…....I actually think there’s a serious need for more grey thinking on societal and policy issues. As for abstraction, as any grey thinker worth his salt I must say there are pros and cons. The con is that it can lead to / be used for / come across as obfuscation (these are three different things by the way, easily confused), and can also lead to paralysis. The pro, and it is a big one, is that it is a vital defence against bigotry and, especially, groupthink.

With regard to affirmative action, respectable opinion currently lies on a spectrum between your insistence on equal opportunities applied absolutely, case by case, and variants of, “Of course we still need affirmative action you morons”. What is needed then is some grey thinking - and indeed abstraction - to try to discern where these differing attitudes are coming from and what kind of underlying logic seems to apply.

Bearing in mind, that ultimately and societal or policy issue is at root an issue of ethics, and therefore to be enlightened - if philosophy/metaphysics has any light to shed at all - by moral philosophy. Hence my insistence on defining carefully my positions on meta-ethics (moral subjectivist) and ethics (rule utilitarian with suitable caveats). So in my ethical framework, “equal opportunities” is a rule that makes sense because it seems conducive to overall welfare (not least by providing a sense of justice), but only to the extent that it works in practice. Where there are systemic obstacles preventing certain groups gaining access to certain professions or positions, which do not reflect genuine preferences or natural differences in aptitude, it seems to make sense to introduce some former other of compensatory (“affirmative”) action, i.e. measures that will necessarily be discriminatory in individual cases but at the societal level actually increases equality of opportunity. Not unlike redistribution of wealth in economics.

Of course such abstractions aren’t going to close down the debate - and as you say it’s good that we don’t all think alike. But it does seem to me advantageous to try to situate one’s political/policy intuitions within this kind of conceptual (and necessarily abstract) framework, to the extent that one is able. Once we all know where we stand in such a framework, we should be better able to design policies that are acceptable for everyone and actually do what we want them to do.

Peter, probably we are not using the term “abstract” in exactly the same sense, but I don’t see abstraction as “a vital defence against bigotry and, especially, groupthink”. On the contrary, I see abstraction as especially conductive to bigotry and groupthink.

In the sense that I have in mind when I use the word (perhaps there is a better word, I am not a native speaker you know), abstraction is thinking that books and regulations are more important than persons and their well-being. This leads to bigotry and groupthink.

If my political and philosophical stance could be summarized in one short sentence (of course it cannot), it would be “persons are more important than books”.

Well, abstraction certainly isn’t thinking that books and regulations are more important than people or well-being, but I guess there might be a correlation between the two. I like the following definition from Wikipedia: “the process or result of generalisation, or taking away, or where ideas are distanced from objects”.

What really fuels bigotry and groupthink? Surely, above all, an unwillingness to question one’s beliefs. In the case of bigotry this will generally be accompanied by a generally misanthropic sensibility, directed in particular at those outside one’s own group. In the case of groupthink, there is also a reluctance to question the beliefs of others in the group, but this will generally be driven by the reluctance of those others to question their own beliefs. And it’s all, ultimately, driven by fear, combined with an unwillingness to recognise and live with that fear. (As FDR might have said, a fear of fear itself.)

The reason why I think an inclination towards abstraction may be positively correlated with a tendency to think that books and regulations are more important than people and well-being is that those of us who like to generalise, and consider ideas in abstraction from the objects of those ideas (often people) are often seeking a kind of comfort there, a comfort that we don’t always find in the messy and annoying world of…people. L’enfer c’est les autres.

But it can’t be that abstraction, as so defined, automatically leads to bigotry and groupthink. Take utilitarianism itself: an in my view glorious attempt to generalise the different rules, regulations and principles that revolve around ethics, morality and policy into a logically coherent framework that explicitly sets the well-being of people on the highest pedestal.

Utilitarianism has got a bad rap, having been blamed for all sorts of things from the idiocies of naive cost-benefit analyses to the atrocities of the 20th century (just read the latter in Tolle’s Power of Now). But the lesson I draw from this is not that these criticisms are justified, but that such cerebral/conceptual - and indeed abstract - approaches need to be tempered with mindfulness (in the Buddhist sense) and empathy. I think this should help to prevent us getting our heads too firmly ensconced up our posteriors, and remind us that, indeed, people and well-being are the end, books and regulations the means.

Just thank whatever imaginary God one might worship that Obama defeated that old doofus McCain. Always be thankful for small favors.
And thank God for Lincoln, too- as without him Obama might not have made it.

“Artists like jazz composer Sun Ra, 70s funk pioneer George Clinton”

A couple more from that era:
Miles Davis
Herbie Hancock
Billy Cobham (drums)

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