Image courtesy Marvel Studios

everything you need to know about afrofuturism

The arrival of Black Panther on big screen has reignited interest in the genre that dreamed a more hopeful, space-age future for black people.

by Niellah Arboine
13 February 2018, 3:21pm

Image courtesy Marvel Studios

Finally, black people have firmly found their feet within the cannon of sci-fi in recent popular culture. In television Charlie Brooker’s eerie TV show Black Mirror stars a plethora of black actors from Black Panther’s Daniel Kaluuya and Letitia Wright to Michaela Coel and Anthony Welsh in a dystopian technological future. There is even a black lesbian superhero on TV, in Black Lightning.

Solange’s captivating futuristic aesthetics and Janelle Monae’s alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, both exemplify this moment. In the comic world, Iron Man is now a young black girl. The concept of black people having a tangible home within science fiction and all things futuristic begins with afrofuturism.

The term was first coined by the critic Mark Dery in 1994, but the concept has been around since the 50s. A mixture of blackness and sci-fi, it takes in art, music, fiction, envisions a better future, one of hope and possibilities and freedom. It’s about taking ownership of our own futures and imagining better ones when we often don’t have any control of the present.

One of the genre’s most notable early proponents was Sun Ra, a celebrated jazz musician who also claimed to be from Saturn. Though his work is usually instrumental, Sun Ra’s ideas touched on race, politics, religion, and the future alongside psychedelic aesthetics that mixed the space-age with Ancient Egypt.

Octavia E Butler is Sun Ra’s literary equivalent, the genre’s novelist godmother. Working in a predominantly white male industry, Butler excelled within science fiction. In her novel Kindred, for example, the protagonist travels back in time to the days of slavery. Science-fiction often draws from the past and the future to tell stories about the present; afrofuturism does the same, only the stories explore blackness.

Afrofuturism has long been relegated to the fringes of the mainstream, but the long anticipated release of Marvel's Black Panther has brought a renewed interest in the genre and brought it into popular culture. First created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, Black Panther displayed to a whole generation that black people could be superheroes and find a home within established science fiction tropes. The release of the new film -- with a predominantly black cast -- has been a cultural moment to rival that of the comic’s debut in the 60s.

There’s a reason why mythical lands like Black Panther’s Wakanda have so much appeal. Situated in eastern Africa, Wakanda is the paradise that the African diaspora yearns for. It gives black people hope and escapism from brutal everyday realities. Afrofuturism has the power to take you out of your own experience and into a world where you have the power and control; a place with all the wealth and beauty that Africa has to offer.

In the news, black pain and suffering sells. In the age where police brutality and social media, we’re being forced to watch the slaughtering of innocent uncensored black bodies on the news and across our timelines. For black people, it can feel like there is no future at all. Especially as all we ever learned in school, or watched on television about black history, concerned suffering and struggling. Yes, it does prove the resilience of the African diaspora but having that as the only narrative is an act of violence in itself. The contemporary images we’re fed of African countries are ones of war, famine and poverty. It’s no surprise that black people yearn for escapism, for a world fuelled with hope and possibility. A world like Wakanda where the future is clear and we are firmly situated in it.

Afrofuturism gives black people a future when often our futures are erased. The world of sci-fi is historically white and non-inclusive. Yet science fiction pulls so much from struggles black folks have actually faced but frustratingly we are rarely represented within the genre. The whole point of sci-fi is that you have authorisation over what happens, you can let your imagination run free. But it appears white imaginations often don’t have any space for black bodies.

"Afrofuturism gives black people a future when often our futures are erased. The world of sci-fi is historically white and non-inclusive. Yet science fiction pulls so much from struggles black folks have actually faced but frustratingly we are rarely represented within the genre."

This is one of the main reasons why we need afrofuturism right now, the lack of inclusion. If we want to see ourselves we have to write our own futures. In Ytasha Womack’s book, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture she states, whilst reflecting on her own childhood, “Whilst it was fun to be a chick from outer space in my imagination, the quest to see myself or browner people in this space age, galactic epic was important.” And that’s why Black Panther is so monumental, seeing dark-skinned black women with natural hair as the protagonists, as the love interest and as the warriors is enormous. Representation matters.

One of the best examples of reframing fantasy through a black lens is in the 1978 film The Wiz, a remake of the classic The Wizard Of Oz. Dorothy was played by Diana Ross sporting a tiny fro whilst the scarecrow was played by Michael Jackson. They “ease on down” the yellow brick road in a film stuffed full of jazz, funk, dance and a most notably, a fully black cast. Instead of begging for scraps from an industry that doesn’t want to open the door, afrofuturism fly kicks through it.

Black Panther’s cultural significance will resonate for generations to come. Wakanda envisions the “what if” that black people have yearned to see. It recontextualises the way the west views African countries and portrays what Africa could have been if it was left to flourish and never colonised. Most importantly Black Panther allows black people to take up space and shows little black children that they too have a place in the future.

Marvel Studios’ Black Panther will be released in UK cinemas on 13 February, 2018

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