During a recent visit to my mum’s house, I found my old scrap book, tucked in a corner along with other cherished reads from my pre-teens. Nearly two decades later, I brushed through the worn-out pages taped together with Sellotape. Each turn revealed a layer of my early years’ fascination: Hannah Montana, chocolate ... one page glued my eyes to it for longer. Across one double page I had plastered printed out pictures of several successful Black people, from Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King and Oprah. The moment felt like a meeting with my younger self, present self, and the future I always dreamt of.
Growing up, Black History Month was exciting to me: a young Black nerd. The centering of Black people in our curriculum even just for a few weeks was thrilling for a young girl who would otherwise have been oblivious to the history and greatness that Black people contributed to. I sat still with intrigue as our class watched videos of Mary Seacole, Rosa Parks, and others. An introduction to Black excellence that will always stay with me. But now, 16 years later, the adult me feels the need for a new narrative.
Black History Month was always going to have its limitations. Using one month out of a whole year to celebrate something as nuanced as Black history commodifies it, making it reductive. Ample Black people helped in shaping civilization and the modern life we enjoy today, and we should be talking about celebrating those people all the time. Some even dared to imagine a world so different to their own that they are known as futurists. Seeing a world without prejudice, that challenged the ideas of their times. Through them we have proof that we can continue to imagine a progressive future for Black people, without hinging it onto the narrow constructs of the past.
We can look forward into a future that exists beyond black trauma. Black stories do not always have to revolve around pain.
Coined by the 1990’s culture critic Mark Dery, Afrofuturism was featured in his essay ‘Black To The Future,’ where he defined it as ‘speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century techno culture.’
And now reclaiming Black history has come to involve the revival of Afrofuturism, where looking back isn’t enough. Instead, we can look forward into a future that exists beyond black trauma. Black stories do not always have to revolve around pain. Instead, culture and notions of Blackness can be redefined for the future.
Afrofuturism also gives more space for beliefs that are not Western. It liberates Black people through a cultural lens that reimagines their identities. It is not ignorant of history, but it does not allow history to restrain its narrative, giving people of African descent more prominent roles in the fields of science technology, innovation, and science fiction.
A case in point is the 2018 film Black Panther, which popularised Afrofuturism by using the future to talk about the present. It brought together the cultural aesthetics that represent Afrofuturistic technology, innovation, and healing. At one point, T’challa King of Wakanda is treated with African medicine after his fight in the crown battle against Killmonger the villain.
Hollywood films typically have narratives of Black trauma, so focusing instead on African healing feels nothing short of revolutionary. It represents an antidote to Black suffering – using the past to heal the future, looking back to look forward while maintaining traditions.
Hollywood films typically have narratives of Black trauma, so focusing instead on African healing feels nothing short of revolutionary.
The Matrix and Avatar are earlier films that capture a glimpse into Afrofuturism - even though Avatar received backlash for having some white messiah undertones, it is an example of movies that start to incorporate elements of multi-ethnic casting that stood out from the predominantly white representation in science-fiction. The Book of Eli (2010) featuring Denzel Washington also takes a closer step towards representation; while Will Smith ushered in an era of representation in his sci-fiction roles such as After Earth, where he played Cypher Raige, Kitai’s father.
Beyond film, Afrofuturism is an aesthetic found in all aspects of creative mediums, including music. Pioneered by Sun Ra in the 1950s and ’60s when jazz and avant-garde work was in prominence, music with Afrofuture themes - produced by figures including Jimi Hendrix and Afrika Bambaataa - embodies culturally relevant issues of the time, defying it while centering Blackness.
Artists such as Michael Jackson also had aspects of Afrofuturism intertwined in their music. In the Scream music video (released with his sister Janet), Jackson featured in a hyper-modern spaceship in a futuristic squash room – influencing later musicians to come to terms with the image of Afrofuturism by creating an image of Black people literally in spaces that were as visually common. For a more recent example, check out Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer [Emotion Picture] , where she confidently portrays Afrofuturism.
In the world of literature, Octavia E Butler has become renowned for leading Afrofuture writing. Her books show what happens when you put Black people in authorities where they create alternate stories. In her book Wild Seed she uses the characters Doro – an immortal coloniser that breeds people for his seed villages – and Anyanwu – who represents the dual struggle that Black women have in fighting patriarchy as well as racism – to create a compelling science-fiction story of time travel, where themes of race and female identity are explored.
Butler’s work feels empowering and groundbreaking because she uses her own identity as a Black woman to create characters that mirror the struggles of Black women in society. Anyanwu’s dedication to her people through healing and humanity is something that I recognise as innate to many African societies. Butler’s characters exist within a timeless construct, but only a Black woman could have bought them to life, bringing onboard all her experiences of subjugation and those that came before her.
None of this is to say that Afrofuturism is without its limitations. Mark Dery, who coined the phrase in the first place, is white and hinges the phrase on the expression on whiteness. Continuing with that narrative means Afrofuturism exists only to counter white narratives. What it should do is allow us to appreciate the creativity and power of Black people to imagine a world for themselves as opposed to resistance and constant response to racism.
Seeing Afrofuturism as authentic Black expression provides black people with power. It allows Black people the opportunity to assert themselves in a real and imagined landscape where they can lay stake on their claim in the future and one that they want and not the one society created because of race. It’s a way of critiquing how the future looks today, while opening to what it could be tomorrow.
Quite like staring at the pages of my old childhood scrapbook, it brought me back to the nerdy child I was, bold enough to hold time by pitching together images of those who inspired me. Lessons from the past exist in the future. Drawing from the past can be used to reinvent the future. There are still more pages to write - and Black stories have shown the need for alternate views written by us.