Now that fanfare over the Black Panther film has subsided and the Disney corporation has profited over $1.08 billion, I would like to examine if Afrofuturistic concepts should be this closely associated with the Black Panther film in this collaboratively written article with one of my mentors, Denise Campbell, who I often have lengthy conversations with about popular culture and creativity, among other things. Black Panther has been hailed by some critics as one of the purest expressions of Afrofuturism depicted on film to date. However not too many people understand what Afrofuturism is exactly. I personally feel protective about understanding Afrofuturism as a device for manifesting futures because the education system that I grew up in spoon fed me a particular consciousness about American History and it’s only now that I’m discovering influential non-white people in our story that have deliberately been left out of the classrooms. I find it unsettling to accept the Black Panther movie under the umbrella of Afrofuturism because its origins as a Marvel comic was written by non-black people; and Wakanda doesn’t offer a full enough picture of what the world can do if you’re not too careful as a black person navigating through it. For me, Afrofuturism is about making yourself as a black person invulnerable to forces that want to do to you some version of what happened to our ancestors. I see this craze over the Black Panther as a distraction from the real narratives and real histories that we could be absorbing and using to round out a sense of self and the world that we live in.
Let’s talk about the reception of this film, and why it did extremely well in the box office. The broad paint brushing of Black Panther as an Afrofuturist project undermines the potency of the concept. My mentor, Denise cites communications professor Jarad Ball who would suggest that this is intentional: On a podcast, he showed how popular culture was “crushing the potential for radicalism.” This is done by giving Black people the representations that they desire, but only symbolically with no real redress of the issues they are being confronted with. He went on to warn that Black people should always be skeptical with what is being delivered by way of pop culture because there is always an agenda behind it. Thus we must ask, is the popularization of Afrofuturism a good thing?
Denise goes on to points out that the term Afrofuturism is encapsulated in the wave of popular culture, and is being attached to any creative endeavor that speaks to Black culture and speculative imaginings. Artists like Janelle Monáe, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jimi Hendrix, Earth Wind & Fire, Erykah Badu, and Willow Smith are now being held up as Afrofuturistic exemplars. This is to be expected under capitalism where the success of any one enterprise brings a charge of other ventures looking to catch and ride the wave of that success. Black Panther itself road on the wave of the revival of Marvel Comic superheroes and rehashed Star Wars adventures. Hence there are as many perspectives on Afrofuturism as there are art forms now claiming the label. Genre literature, visual arts, film, music and even dance are finding a place under what is becoming the Afrofuturism brand.
For me, Afrofuturism is in some ways a prophecy that can be self fulfilling. It’s a lot about self preservation and self defense, offering a preview of something that doesn’t exist yet. Afrofuturism can be a tool for survival. I see Afrofuturism as a way of remapping or reprogramming or re-patterning our own relationship to our history and metabolizing some of the trauma or pain we experience. Afrofuturism gives black people a sense of independence and agency for asserting ourselves and seeing healing possibilities in manifesting our own futures.
Mark Dery takes credit for coining the word Afrofuturism in 1992. He makes an attempt at theorizing the term in his seminal 1994 essay, “Black to the Future” where he poses the question as to why so few African Americans wrote science fiction. Since the publication of Dery’s essay, Afrofuturism has had multiple iterations and theoretical framings. While many in the forefront of the Afrofuturism movement acknowledge that Dery coined the term, they are quick to point out that Afrofuturism has had a life in Black culture from our first landing in America as captives. How else would we have survived captivity if we could not have imagined possible futures outside of bondage? They then go on to point to Afrofuturist ideas and aesthetics, across a variety of art forms, that long predated the term’s coinage.
In its present iteration they are several prominent Afrofuturists carrying the baton forward in this new millennium. Included among them are sci-fi and speculative fiction writers Yatasha Womack, Nnedi Okorafor, and Rasheeda Phillips. While each speaks about Afrofuturism from the perspective of their own creative work, they agree that Afrofuturism is more than science fiction. In their view there are many dimensions to the concept worthy of further examination and exploration. In interviews they weighed in on what some are calling a renaissance for Afrofuturism.
While Womack grounds Afrofuturism firmly in the world of black sci-fi and fantasy culture, she widens her perspective to define Afrofuturism as “the intersection between black culture, technology, liberation and the imagination, with some mysticism thrown in.” Okorafor is a writer of speculative fiction and enters Afrofuturism through African culture and traditional spiritualties. Phillips appreciates the artistic renderings of Afrofuturism, but at the same time questions the principles of Afrofuturism asking, How far does it extend? Is it into every part of our lives, or is it only in the cultural space? These are valid questions particularly in light of the unsteadiness of Afrofuturism as both a concept and movement. One result of this lack of solid grounding is its increasing appropriation by popular culture resulting in decreasing aptitude in its use as a liberatory notion.
At this point in time we can generally agree that Afrofuturism is a cultural phenomenon that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentrism, and magic realism. It uses these elements to examine historical events, analyze present-day dilemmas of Black people, and imagine an ideal future utopia. Nevertheless, as Rasheeda Phillips alludes to, Afrofuturism could be more than a matter of seeing ourselves in the future, or making the impossible possible. She doesn’t think we’re done exploring Afrofuturism, and believes that through exploration, something else will be birthed.