How Black women are reshaping Afrofuturism
After the movie Black Panther became a cultural landmark in 2018, it’s appeared as if Black people have been an integral and natural presence in science fiction. That hasn’t always been the case. Science fiction as a genre has been around since the 1920s, when the namesake of the field’s prestigious Hugo Awards, Hugo Gernsback, coined the term. However, the first widely notable Black sci-fi characters in U.S. popular culture wouldn’t appear until 1966, with the first the Black Panther character appearing in Marvel comics, and Lt. Uhura appeared on the bridge of the starship Enterprise in the first season of Star Trek.
The Black characters, stories, and even the creators in the genre have had to struggle to gain a foothold. So, when scholar Mark Dery coined the term “Afrofuturism” in 1993, it seemed like a chance for Black creators to thrive. Some did, but like science fiction as a whole, Afrofuturism was largely represented by Black men.
It would take nine decades after the science fiction genre was created and about 25 years after this subgenre was coined before Black women started finding their place and voices in the genre.
Now, the most popular names in Afrofuturism are women, and they seem to be reshaping the entire genre. Janelle Monae’s genre-transcending music tops the charts. Writers N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor and may soon be getting screen adaptations. Even the TV reimagining of the modern classic comic, Watchmen, had a plot cemented in racial justice, with Regina King’s portrayal anchoring the series.
What is Afrofuturism?
Afrofuturism has been defined by scholar Mark Dery in his 1993 essay, “Black to the Future,” as “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and, more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.”
This subgenre of science fiction is one where Black artists can tell stories of their limited past, intertwined their complex present to see a different future. That future is often more hopeful or at least one wherein we exist as more than junkies, thugs, or the help.
Thus, it’s no coincidence that work labeled “Afrofuturist” includes themes of utopianism and liberation in their depictions of the future. As such, it transcends categories, from literature to music to film and visual arts.
The term “Afrofuturism” was more of a retroactive naming. When Dery coined the term, it was already some 40 years after Sun Ra dazzled jazz audiences with bebop tunes performed to flashing lights and costumes. His music built on Swing Era big-band styles to create a sound that was faster, with experimental harmonies, and which was largely undanceable, but still found a wide audience that enjoyed its futuristic themes and virtuoso musicianship. This was around the time of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, published in 1952, which includes elements of sci-fi in the torture of a gifted man who is targeted by and becomes disillusioned with the racist country he had come to trust.
Dery and scholars of Afrofuturism had to dig back into the history of literature, music, and art to find other examples—Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic collective, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the artwork of William Henderson “Billy” Graham, the first Black comic artist who is known for work on the Afrofuturist series Luke Cage, Hero for Hire as well as Black Panther. Save for Butler, the most well-known names of the early creators were largely men. Women have entered the genre over the years, but their entrance seemed to come after the term was established, and after space was created and deemed fitting of their work.
For Black women, more was at stake than participation in the subgenre. It’s more than about telling their stories—it’s about making the space one that will accommodate the Black woman’s experience.
In one of the interviews Mark Dery conducted for “Black to the Future,” Brown University scholar Tricia Rose said that Black women would change the patriarchal look of a cyborg if given the opportunity. “If we had hordes and hordes of women who were paid to sit around and reimagine the science fiction genre, they might treat technology differently, placing it in a different relationship to the organism, and then what would cyborgs look like?”
It’s a question that could have been answered by recording artist Janelle Monae in her ongoing musical saga. She started with her debut album “The ArchAndroid,” in which she adopted the alter ego of Cindi Mayweather, an android that looks softer, with smoother lines and curves than the androids that sci-fi audiences are used to. But hers is just one example.
At the 2019 Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, Eisner-award winning comics artist and illustrator Afua Richardson said in an interview that Afrofuturism lets her write and create what she wants without needing permission or having parameters.
“Now [I’m in] a position where I can make [anything] and I don’t have to wait on anybody,” Richardson said. “People will listen. They will care because I’ve worked on popular [science fiction] stories. So now, I’m writing. I am writing so I can say, ‘I can complain all day, but what am I going to do to change it?’” For Richardson, Afrofuturist creation is also about using art for change—something more than just entertaining through science fiction.
Afrofuturism and the Feminine Wave
In the early 2000s, the list of Afrofuturist names become more feminine. Blade was a popular Black male sci-fi comic and film character in the ‘90s, but he was quickly replaced in favor by Storm of the X-Men film series. Writers Steven Barnes, Ishmael Reed, and Octavia Butler held the door open for Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Karen Lord, and N.K. Jemisin, who in 2016 was the first Black female writer to win the “Best Novel” Hugo Award, and then went on to win it again in 2017 and 2018, the first time any writer had won it three years in a row.
Comics long have been a major artistic outlet for Afrofuturism. Writers like Jim Owsley (who later changed his name to Christopher Priest) broke through in the 1980s and ’90s to breathe life into classic Black characters like Luke Cage and Black Panther. Meanwhile, Milestone Media broke new ground with Icon, published by DC Comics in 1993, which was a story about an alien sent to Earth and raised during the period of slavery in the American South in the guise of a Black man.
These male-dominated stories held the door for Eve Ewing’s recent work on the Marvel series Ironheart, the story of Riri, a genius Black girl who dons Iron Man’s suit after he retires, and for Nnedi Okorafor in 2018 to pick up the story of Shuri, the Black Panther’s sister, in Wakanda Forever. Even Octavia Butler had a posthumous debut in comics with a contemporary adaptation of her 1979 novel Kindred.
In music, Sun Ra and George Clinton spawned several acts starting in the 1950s that tapped into the Afrofuturist aesthetic, and which continue today (posthumously in the case of The Sun Ra Arkestra). A few women like Grace Jones and Janet Jackson also explored Afrofuturist themes, standing out next to male groups like Wu-Tang Clan. In time, more women artists came to dominate Afrofuturist music, such as Missy Elliot, Erykah Badu, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, and Janelle Monae, even as some male artists like Outkast and RZA continued to explore the subgenre.
A closer look at this time through the eyes of Afrofuturist creators show that the change was not necessarily a revolution. Instead, it seems to be a matter of opportunity meeting possibility.
When these characters and their stories came along, they inspired young Black kids who would later become creators themselves.
Ashley Woods, the artist who illustrated the Afrofuturist comic series Niobe (written by actress Amandla Stenberg and Sebastian A. Jones)said that her early influences came from science fiction, and named Xena: Warrior Princess, Hercules, and stories from Greek mythology as her childhood favorites, which led to her work today. “I just draw upon the movies and animation, just everything that I was into growing up,” she said.
Stephanie Banks, a professional cosplayer at conventions, said that the Afrofuturism on television was what inspired her and her work today. “Well, I always liked to play dress-up since I was a kid,” Banks said. “It’s just as I got older, that I started learning more about cons [comic conventions] and seeing that there are people out there like me who dress up in experiences. So, I kind of found my groove, my people.”
Banks said that the men dominated the field of cosplayers in the early years, but that’s not the state today, and women are certainly growing in number at the conventions.
New Creators Means New Stories
With women taking more a prominent presence in the subgenre, the stories get to come from a perspective that hasn’t been explored. The 2018 film Fast Color featured three generations of women (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, and Saniyya Sidney) and who have been hiding supernatural powers. In addition to the tension of running from the government, the film explores poverty, motherhood, and survival when living in U.S. society as a Black woman with a power strong enough to change the weather and the compositional makeup of matter.
Actor Laz Alonso, from Amazon Prime’s The Boys and the film Avatar, believes that leading role women now play in the Afrofuturism genre has resulted in the generation of a lot of new ideas and directions.
“I love the fact that Afrofuturism is now that next level of storytelling where we see ourselves in a different context,” Alonso said. “Where we can lead the saving of worlds—whether it’s this world or another world, where women are empowered, and they’re not created under the guise of patriarchy. So, they’re not fetishized or limited under some man’s opinion.”
From these stories, we get androids like Cindi Mayweather, or the protagonists of Nalo Hopkinson’s 1998 book Brown Girl in the Ring, a dystopian novel that deconstructs the “urban” experience in a story about home, bodies, and real Black girl magic.
A Fresh Look and the Sci-fi Universe
This fresh look is key, said Darrell May, an art director and artist for Stranger Comics, the publisher of Niobe. “I love Luke Skywalker,” May said. “I don’t need to see that again. I need to see a young woman playing a half-elven Black woman like Niobe.”
He said that Afrofuturism stories created by Black women are so in demand became they are telling stories in a new way.
Rita Woods, author of the recent Afrofuturist novel Remembrance, believes that this new way comes from taking back and rewriting that history. “What do I think when I think fantasy? I actually see it as a reworking of our own history,” Woods said. “And, in many ways, our history has been co-opted. And so, when I hear Afrofuturism, what comes to my mind is we’ve taken [history] back, and we’re rewriting it. Not only are we writing our past, but also a lot of those stories that are steeped in our tradition, our storytelling tradition, our myths, our gods, our religion.”
“We are the protagonists,” she adds. “We are the stars of our own show, not killed off before the ending.”
Each foray into creating a new world, no matter what the medium maybe—pen and paper, music, art, film, or design—is a personal endeavor for the writer. It’s a journey inward. Those inner lives and experiences of Black women are still largely uncharted for the entertainment public. For this reason, the popularity of Afrofuturist works by Black women are considered new and fresh stories.
For Black women in the audience, it’s an opportunity to finally be seen and represented in mediums the way we feel inside. For others, it’s a new perspective on some staid tales that are long overdue. It was bound to break through whether Black Panther happened or not. Women are reshaping the genre, but it’s all for the best.
Jonita Davis is an Indiana writer who works regularly on social and cultural topics. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Fix, People’s World and more. You can read her work at www.jonitadavis.com or contact her via Twitter.
Featured image: cover art for the album The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) by the artist Janelle Monáe