Feb 14, 2021 - Science

Afrofuturism: The rise of Black science fiction and fantasy

Photo illustration of a Masaï woman juxtaposed with images of galaxies and colorful planets.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Gérard Sioen/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

More Black writers and artists are turning to science fiction — and an artistic movement known as Afrofuturism — to tackle issues around race and inequality and give fans an escape from the harsh realities on Earth.

The big picture: Afrofuturism was long an underground movement. Its roots date back to W.E.B. Du Bois, though its name wasn't coined til the 1990s. But it has been gaining a bigger mainstream profile in recent years with the blockbuster movie "Black Panther" and the HBO series "Lovecraft Country" and a national racial reckoning.  

Where it stands: Black writers, including Sheree Renée Thomas and Nikki Giovanni, next month will release a new anthology called "Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda" -- a collection of stories inspired by the first mainstream superhero of African descent.

  • HBO content boss Casey Bloys has expressed interest in a second season of "Lovecraft Country," a series set in midcentury, segregated America that blends racism, horror, and monsters.
  • Colson Whitehead's Afrofuturist novel "The Underground Railroad" — a story about a literal underground train system during slavery — won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Thomas said the art has gone from being enjoyed by a small number of "blerds" — Black nerds — to wide acceptance because of the questions it's posing about racism in the future.

The details: Afrofuturism describes an alternative place for Black people in space or a fantasy setting, or in relation to technology that allows one to escape slavery and discrimination.

  • Maurice Broaddus, the author of the "Knights of Breton Court" novel trilogy, said Afrofuturism can take an optimistic tone where outer space offers a racial utopia.
  • Or it can envision a dystopian future where racism can't be shaken, as seen in the 1995 film, "Welcome II the Terrordome."
  • "It's my community giving itself room and permission to dream about possibilities. We're moving from a space of surviving the day-to-day to imagining the futures we want to see, and then crafting maps and guides and taking steps to create that future...starting now," Broaddus told Axios.

Writer Victor LaValle attracted attention for his debut 1999 gritting, realistic short story collection, "Slapboxing with Jesus."

What they're saying: "Afrofuturism offers not only entertainment, but old stories in new ways, or new stories in old ways that we have never quite experienced before," said Thomas, editor of "Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora."

Yes, but: There is also fear among some writers that Afrofuturism could be co-opted like all other forms of Black art.

  • "You can't just make a TV show and throw Black people on a rocket and call it Afrofuturism. You have to pose questions," LaValle said.

Flashback: "No one was going to stop me from writing and no one had to really guide me towards science fiction. It was natural, really, that I would take that interest," writer Octavia E. Butler once said.

  • Butler, an African American woman born in Pasadena, Calif., was the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.
  • Her groundbreaking Patternist series covered a secret history from Ancient Egyptian to the far future that involves telepathic mind control.
  • Jazz musicians Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, and Miles Davis also explored Afrofuturism through music.
  • Ra starred in the 1974 film, "Space Is the Place," where he tries to recruit young African Americans in Oakland to join him on another planet.

Don't forget: Superheroes like Superman, Batman, Captain America, and Spider-Man were created by Jewish writers who saw themselves in their creations, and as a way to fight discrimination,

  • Latino artists have since embraced Superman and playfully call him the first "illegal alien" who lives among Americans undetected and in the shadows.

What's next: Black writers are set to announce this year Afrofuturist projects around gaming and virtual reality.

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