Afrofuturism: Imagining an Afrocentric Future

Rejecting Eurocentric Dominance and Normalization

Octavia Butler beside bookcase
Octavia Butler. Patti Perret / The Huntington Art Library

What would the world look like if European colonialism, Western Enlightenment rational ideas, a Western universalism that is not inclusive of that which is not Western – if all of this were not the dominant culture? What would an Afrocentric view of humanity and of Africa and the people of the African diaspora look like, rather than a view from the Eurocentric gaze? 

Afrofuturism can be seen as a reaction to the dominance of white, European expression, and a reaction to the use of science and technology to justify racism and white or Western dominance and normativity. Art is used to imagine counter-futures free of Western, European dominance, but also as a tool to implicitly critique the status quo.

Afrofuturism implicitly recognizes that the status quo globally – not just in the United States or the West – is one of political, economic, social, and even technical inequality. As with much other speculative fiction, by creating a separation of time and space from current reality, a different kind of “objectivity” or ability to look at possibility arises.

Rather than grounding the imagination of counter-futures in Eurocentric philosophical and political arguments, Afrocentrism is grounded in a variety of inspirations: technology (including Black cyberculture), myth forms, indigenous ethical and social ideas, and historical reconstruction of the African past.

Afrofuturism is, in one aspect, a literary genre that includes speculative fiction imagining life and culture. Afrofuturism also appears in art, visual studies, and performance. Afrofuturism can apply to the study of philosophy, metaphysics, or religion. The literary realm of magic realism overlaps often with Afrofuturist art and literature.

Through this imagination and creativity, a kind of truth about potential for a different future is brought forward to consider. The power of imagination to not only envision the future, but to affect it, is at the core of the Afrofuturist project.

Topics in Afrofuturism include not only explorations of the social construction of race, but intersections of identity and power. Gender, sexuality, and class are also explored, as is oppression and resistance, colonialism and imperialism, capitalism and technology, militarism and personal violence, history and mythology, imagination and real life experience, utopias and dystopias, and sources for hope and transformation.

While many connect Afrofuturism with the lives of people of African descent in European or American diaspora, Afrofuturist work includes writings in African languages by African authors. In these works, as well as many of those of other Afrofuturists, Africa itself is the center of the projection of a future, either dystopian or utopian.

The movement has also been called the Black Speculative Arts Movement.

Origin of the Term

The term "Afrofuturism" comes from a 1994 essay by Mark Dery, an author, critic, and essayist. He wrote:

Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture—and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future—might, for want of a better term, be called Afrofuturism. The notion of Afrofuturism gives rise to a troubling antinomy: 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? Furthermore, don't the technocrats, SF writers, futurologists, set designers, and streamliners—white to a man—who have engineered our collective fantasies already have a lock on that unreal estate?

W.E.B. Du Bois

Although Afrofuturism per se is a direction begun explicitly in the 1990s, some threads or roots can be found in the work of the sociologist and writer, W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois suggests that the unique experience of Black folks has given them a unique perspective, metaphorical and philosophical ideas, and that this perspective can be applied to art including the artistic imagining of a future.

In the early 20th century, Du Bois wrote “The Princess Steel,” a story of speculative fiction that weaves together an exploration of science with a social and political exploration.

Key Afrofuturists

A key work in Afrocentrism was the 2000 anthology by Sheree Renée Thomas, titled Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora and then the followup Dark Matter: Reading the Bones in 2004. For her work she interviewed Octavia Butler (often considered one of the primary writers of Afrofuturist speculative fiction), the poet and writer Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amear Baraka), Sun Ra (composer and musician, proponent of a cosmic philosophy), Samuel Delany (an African American science fiction writer and literary critic who identified as gay), Marilyn Hacker (a Jewish poet and educator who identified as lesbian and who was married for a time to Delany), and others. 

Others sometimes included in Afrofuturism include Toni Morrison (novelist), Ishmael Reed (poet and essayist), and Janelle Monáe (songwriter, singer, actress, activist).

The 2018 movie, Black Panther, is an example of Afrofuturism. The story envisions a culture free of Eurocentric imperialism, a technologically advanced utopia.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Afrofuturism: Imagining an Afrocentric Future." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 27). Afrofuturism: Imagining an Afrocentric Future. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Afrofuturism: Imagining an Afrocentric Future." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).