The past decade has been surprisingly kind to Black creatives who traffic in the weird — but to make that case, I have to take you to prison.
Back in February, scheduled to perform poetry in the sterile cafeteria-ready chapel of a medium-security prison, I was approached by an inmate. Like most of my conversations with inmates, this one began with questions.
Having been in the prison off and on for several months doing workshops, I was used to questions; these exchanges can feel like interrogations at times, but you have to keep in mind that inmates don’t have newspapers left on their doorsteps (or have doorsteps). They don’t have regular access to the internet. Family visits are not a given. They hear about things in the world in snatches and bits, but rarely possess the access or freedom to dig deeper into the developments they hear about.
This time, the conversation started with the greatest hits: How places in the city have changed, what rappers they might be missing out on. The question that really got us going, however, was “What’s this Afrofuturism I keep hearing about?”
At the time, the world outside of the prison was coming up on the one-year anniversary of the movie Black Panther. Considering how many reviews and interpretations I had seen around the movie’s release, I shouldn’t have been surprised that some of it was bound to creep past even a prison wall, and the term “Afrofuturism” with it. But still.
I said to him, “Man, did you ask at the right time.”
As an aesthetic and philosophy that places the Black experience at the center of speculative art, Afrofuturism isn’t hard to find. In its current state, it is the creative evolution of late-’80s political and cultural Afrocentrism — the Public Enemy albums you like didn’t come out of nowhere — but it has been a lot of things in the past. So many, in fact, that it’s often easier to define it based on what it isn’t.
The contours of a burgeoning philosophy take time to come into focus, so some things thought to be Afrofuturist fit neatly into the category, while others have been stuffed in more clumsily by a curious but well-meaning audience. Almost any Black take on something remotely fantastic has been thrust under the banner of Afrofuturism. Does your television show about witches have a Black warlock (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina)? Must be Afrofuturism. Are there any references to the future in your rap song (A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Space Program”)? Got to be Afrofuturism. The buzzword has become a bona fide movement, with all the attendant cross-media hype the label implies.
While everything from the speculative fiction novels of Octavia Butler to the cosmic trappings of jazz composer Sun-Ra and funk music pioneers Parliament/Funkadelic have long been standard-bearers of the genre, they were always outliers, urgent dots of transgressive hope on the cultural radar screen. Now adherents can point to examples as recent as Marlon James’ series-inaugurating fantasy novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf; the dizzying, oft-anthologized work of Kai Ashanti Wilson; the pan-African writers of the Jalada Collective; Imagine Africa 500, which charged a swath of African writers with presenting what Africa might be like 500 years into the future; and Tomi Adeyemi’s bestselling debut young-adult novel, Children of Blood and Bone. And that’s just fiction! Afrofuturistic work is not merely alive; in the 2010s it has broken into the mainstream, and is genuinely thriving. Writers, artists, filmmakers, and more now set out expressly not only to answer the question “will Black people make it to the future?” but also “what will we be in that future?”
Few artists in recent memory have asked that question as earnestly, have gone as hard in the paint for the aesthetic, as Janelle Monáe. All three of her albums are unabashedly futurist, complete with genre-bending graphic design, music videos, and short films to go with them — not to mention her appearances on the science fiction streaming series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams (as a robot) and the forthcoming time-jumping horror film Antebellum. If mainstream Afrofuturism has a face, it is Monáe’s. Or, rather, it is Cindi Mayweather’s, Monáe’s alter ego visiting us from the year 2719.
Yet, perhaps the most potent sea change arising from an Afrofuturist aesthetic is the novelist N.K. Jemisin. In the 70-year existence of the Hugo Awards, science fiction’s Oscars, no one has ever threepeated — until Jemisin, whose Broken Earth trilogy ran the table starting in 2016. This is an award that sits on the shelves of legends like Isaac Asimov and Neil Gaiman. I have held a Hugo trophy. It is not light, and she has three of them. Jemisin’s wins are akin to a Tiger Slam in golf (a distinction that had to be created to match the talent of its titular winner) or Stevie Wonder’s run of albums in the 1970s that changed music forever. It is the kind of streak that makes a contest change its rules.
The sci-fi-industrial complex — which has expanded from pulp magazines and conventions to prestige television shows and billion-dollar movies — has traditionally been so White and misogynist as to be predictably boring, which makes her accomplishment even more phenomenal. Yet, Jemisin does all of this unapologetically, never resting on her literal laurels; she delivers poignant, probing work in her fiction, and runs fiction workshops all over the country that double as an unflinching seminar for White folks on what it’s like to move through the world in Black skin. She has Serena Williams-ed science fiction, and rather than contracting the field, she has expanded and matured it at the same time.
All this said, even applying the broadest possible definition to Afrofuturism, the work that falls under its banner still comprises a fraction of any industry in which you find it. Like most Black inventions, we have once again performed cultural alchemy: wringing gold from nothing, changing the properties of books, films, and music to bend to our presence in future-facing ways. Black Panther became one of the most profitable movies ever made — less on the strength of its chief protagonist and more on the shock and awe generated by a world in which Black audiences could see themselves as not only empowered, but free as a matter of course. Black audiences across the planet, so affected by mere glimpses of production designer Hannah Beachler’s Oscar-winning world-making, turned out in African and Panther-inspired garb as if the movie’s opening weekend was a new holiday. In such displays, many moviegoers were not only supporting a Black-led effort of quality, but taking on a particular superpower of our own: Shrugging off the White expectations and assumptions that consume so much of our existence.
Afrofuturism has not fixed the world — what could? — but that is not its aim. The mission of Afrofuturism isn’t to repair, but to broaden, to give its audience the information we need to determine if ours is indeed a world worth saving, and if so, how. Afrofuturism helps us to determine not only how to get free, but to consider what freedom is.
Are alternate histories Afrofuturism? What about the case for a Black Doctor Who? Does the election of Barack Obama qualify? It’s all still messy, as philosophies go. We have largely consigned it to science fiction, but that’s not how it plays out in the world. It is not a literary renaissance. It is not a cultural takeover. Afrofuturism is a hope engine. Its growing body of work hasn’t reshaped the world yet — just look at the world, and then consider the likelihood (or lack thereof) that the people who make it worse will encounter Afrofuturistic work at any point in their myopic lives.
And so, back to prison, where a man stands before me puzzled, and I stand before him, similarly puzzled. I give him what I think is a serviceable definition of Afrofuturism, complete with the ready examples — but when he follows up with the question “What can I do with that in prison?” I am left grasping for different answers, better anecdotes.
Then it occurs to me, the asked, that I don’t have to have all the answers here, that prison is its own university. I turn the question around and ask, “Do you see yourself in the future?”
What I am really asking is, “How do you see yourself in the future? Are you present? Are you gone, but have left something behind that someone like us can use?” For a movement with escapism at its core, Afrofuturism can be a tricky proposition. I do not even know the price of hope in a place like that. “I guess I got time to figure it out,” he says, and we both laugh at that.
We step back into our roles: me, the visitor; he, the rock. I give my poems one at a time to a parliament of rocks, all seated in that chapel, where we assume whatever gods exist can hear us best. In that moment we exchange words and ideas and realizations. In that short window of time together, at the end of which I get to go home and they do not, we create a reality, a forum within which we communicate as if we are either all imprisoned or we are all free, or maybe both at once.
I’d like to think that, for a couple of hours, we were all free. I hope that, right now, behind those walls, he can see the past we created one evening from a future I asked him about that he had yet to know might be his to command. And if he could not command it, he could at least hope to, and angle his efforts toward making that hope a reality. And I hoped, too — hoped to see him in a future that feels not like a superhero film or a work of science fiction, but a concrete world of all the possibilities of all our Black imaginations, brimming with agency and freedom.