Afrofuturism - Black to the Future.

Here's something to consider: "Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?"

Janelle Monae as an android posing for the artwork of her second album - 'archandroid'.

Janelle Monae as an android posing for the artwork of her second album - 'archandroid'.

Cultural critic Mark Dery posited that difficult question in his 1994 essay "Black to the Future" which examined why there were so few black science fiction writers at the time, given the genre's inextricable links to otherness and life on the margins. Within Dery's text, he also coined the term Afrofuturism, an ongoing and ever changing movement over the years that has drawn adherents from a whole spectrum of various arts, all while using techno-utopian thinking of the space age to re-imagine black history, culture, and life in the United States.

The term is familiar to some yet exotic to others, loosely referring to a fusion of ideas ranging from Egyptian and other non-Western mythologies to mysticism, magical realism, modern technology, science fiction, and of course, Afrocentricity. It's been deemed a "freighted concept in more ways than one" having gained much traction in the past several years by muscling its way into mainstream pop culture through the intertwined worlds of entertainment, art, fashion, and literature.

Just last year, Rihanna channeled an Afrofuturistic vibe as an otherworldly warrior queen don in the splendor of diamonds and foil galore on the September issue of W magazine. Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Beyoncé have similarly adopted futuristic themes in their works, with the latter most recently going all-out astral fantastic with her "Lemonade" album by leading a phalanx of women within an all-female utopia all draped extravagantly in white dresses evoking both ancient and space-age societies.

The very idea of Afrofuturism isn't something entirely new, however. Even before Dery officially gave the aesthetic a name, there were Afrofuturist proponents everywhere to be found across the country, mainly among young African Americans searching for their role in a constructed narrative and trying to cement a black perspective on "the politics, aesthetics and cultural aspects" of science, science fiction, and technology. Among them were musicians like Sun Ra and George Clinton, authors such as Octavia E. Butler and Samuel R. Delany, and even cultural critics Greg Tate and Alondra Nelson.

Afrofuturism, to say the least, is not merely black sci-fi, nor is it just black fantasy. It is not at all an easily definable artistic genre but, instead, a large and sweeping cultural phenomenon that examines important issues surrounding black representation, the black future, and black agency to create something else entirely novel. And given the current political climate faced by racial and ethnic minorities, not to mention the frequency in which black people in the United States are being attacked or killed, Afrofuturism's resurgence is not just inevitable, it could not be timelier.

(credit: Blair Ryan photography)

(credit: Blair Ryan photography)

"With the diversity of the nation and world increasingly standing in stark contrast to the diversity in futuristic works, it's no surprise that Afrofuturism emerged" writes Ytasha L. Womack, who chronicled and popularized the evolution of the genre in her 2013 book, 'Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture.' Womack argues that as "the intersection between black culture, technology, liberation and the imagination, with some mysticism thrown in," it is a "way of bridging the future and the past and essentially helping to reimagine the experience of people of color."

So though not entirely definable per se, what, then, is Afrofuturism essentially? For Womack, one of Afrofuturism's central functions is to explore "race as a technology." For others like anthropologist Niama Safia Sandy or Rachel Dolezel, the president of the Spokane branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, it is a way to point out that the pains and effects of racism are real, painful, and at times, make it difficult for African Americans to imagine their lives outside some presently hellish circumstances-- it offers a way out through the black imagination.

On top of that, it seems furthermore to be not just an escapist form of literature, music, and art. In some shape or form, Afrofuturism is a form of activism that uniquely raises awareness, brings different issues to light, and has the ability to address other similar concerns relating to Black representation and the body. As a movement carrying forth with a pacifist, non-intrusive spirit, it is an all new type of revolution that has potential to make lasting change without interfering with anyone else's reality.

The ideas and theories of Afrofuturism are still ever growing and steadily morphing with every new artistic creation, but it can no doubt be used as a tool of empowerment to embrace black culture and push past limitations. The future of African Americans is indeed now.

 

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