A History of Afrofuturism: Looking Backward and Forward

Though a relatively new genre, Afrofuturism greatly impacted science-fiction. Let’s look at what Afrofuturism is and how it came to take over the sci-fi scene.

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Afrofuturism as a word has not been around for a long time, but afrofuturism as a concept has been around long enough to make a huge impact on the way science fiction is written today. But where did the term afrofuturism come from, and what kinds of themes does it as a genre use?


The exact description of what afrofuturism is as a genre is a difficult one to pin down. The term ‘afrofuturism’ itself was coined only somewhat recently in 1993 by Mark Dery in his essay “Black to the Future,” from his book Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture.

He defined the term as,

“speculative fiction that treats African American themes and addresses African American concerns in the context of the twentieth century technoculture.”

A bad oversimplification of this definition would be “putting Black people and their struggles in the future, in space,” but as Dery and the sci-fi authors whom he interviews for this essay–Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose–specify the genre of afrofuturism, and sci-fi in general, is so much more than that.

Book covers of Tricia Rose's Black Noise,  Greg Tate's Flyboy 2, and Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren

As Tate explains in his interview,

“I see science fiction as continuing a vein of philosophical inquiry and technological speculation…S(cience) F(iction) represents a kind of rationalist, positivist, scientific codification of that impulse, but it’s still coming from a basic human desire to know the unknowable.”

For African Americans and afrofuturism, this desire for the unknowable that sci-fi explores goes a step further and looks at not only the unknowable future but the unknowable past.

Samuel Delaney states that until fairly recently that African Americans as a people “were systematically forbidden any images of [their] past.” Therefore, afrofuturism in sci-fi mainly looks at the “what-if” scenarios of Black history and how the exploration of those scenarios can allow us to create a better future. In other words, it is a simultaneous “backward-looking and forward-looking” of Black past and future.

image from Black Panther

Marvel’s Black Panther

The most recognizable example of this would be, of course, Marvel’s Black Panther. The “what-if” scenario of Black Panther is, what if there was a part of Africa that was able to protect itself from the horrors of colonization and slavery through the means of harnessing a powerful energy? What would that civilization look like? What values would it have? How would African culture–stories, music, religion–thrive if it was allowed to grow into the future? This is the backward-looking of Black folks reclaiming lost culture and heritage through science fiction.

Of course, for it to be afrofuturism the backward-looking must be intertwined with the forward-looking as well. Some may think the forward-looking for Black Panther is the afropunk style of Wakanda and its inhabitants, but it’s actually what the people of Wakanda choose to do with their power and knowledge that truly makes it future-looking. They choose to create and to build not in order to survive, but because they can. And they choose to keep their traditions alive not because it is the only thing they have left but because that is everything they are. The cyberpunk technology and fashion are simply an extension of that.

Afrofuturism art by Tim Fielder

Themes of Afrofuturism

Looking at the themes of afrofuturism–alien or “otherness”, utopian ideologies, the digital divide, feminism, the grotesque, and reclamation of culture–we can see that, as a genre, afrofuturism has been around long before the term was coined in the 90s. Some have even cited Sojourner Truth as one of the earliest afro-futurists, because of her sermons on working toward a post-slavery utopia.

Though a relatively new genre, afrofuturism has been here since at least the early 1850s, yet has only recently become revitalized by the love of afrofuturistic movies and shows like Black Panther and the adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Books like Butler’s The Xenogenesis series and Kindred, or Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren are good places to start for those interested in this amazing subgenre of sci-fi.

Octavia Butler art

Of course, this only scratches the surface of the amazing sci-fi and afrofuturism books out there, for a longer list of sci-fi books written by Black authors check out ‘These 10 Black Sci-Fi Authors Are Out of This World‘.