Afrofuturism, Africanfuturism, and the Language of Black Speculative Literature
By Hope WabukeAugust 27, 2020
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 — might for want of a better term, be called “Afrofuturism.”
The term “Afrofuturism” was further explained in the late 1990s and early 2000s by Dr. Alondra Nelson, a seminal scholar on the intersections of race, technology, and health, and has continued to be pummeled into a shape that can hold a wider concept of Blackness by leading scholars. Others, however, have decided the genesis of the term is too flawed to be revivified, and that we need to move away from it and toward more accurate language altogether. “I started using the term Africanfuturism (a term I coined),” writes acclaimed Naijaamerican author Nnedi Okorafor, because “the term Afrofuturism had several definitions and some of the most prominent ones didn’t describe what I was doing.”
As is common with the white Western imagination, Dery’s conception of Blackness could only imagine a “one down” relationship to whiteness — a Blackness that begins with 1619 and is marked solely by the ensuing 400 years of violation by whiteness that Dery portrays as potentially irreparable. “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?” he writes.
Here, Dery’s operating question dismisses, firstly, the resilience, creativity, and imagination of the Black American diasporic imagination; secondly, it lacks room to conceive of Blackness outside of the Black American diaspora or a Blackness independent from any relationship to whiteness, erasing the long history of Blackness that existed before the centuries of violent oppression by whiteness — and how that history creates the possibility of imagining the free Black futures that Dery deems impossible.
Okorafor defines Africanfuturism as “a sub-category of science fiction” that is “similar to ‘Afrofuturism’” but more deeply “rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view as it then branches into the Black diaspora, and it does not privilege or center the West.” Africanjujuism, Okorafor continues, “is a subcategory of fantasy that respectfully acknowledges the seamless blend of true existing African spiritualties and cosmologies with the imaginative.”
In a definition that is created by a Black diasporic writer rather than a white American, Africanfuturism gets to a greater specificity of language, ridding itself of the othering of the white gaze and the de facto colonial Western mindset. Writes Okorafor: “Afrofuturism: Wakanda builds its first outpost in Oakland, CA, USA. Africanfuturism: Wakanda builds its first outpost in a neighboring African country.”
By not centering themelves around the concept of “American” in their definitions, Africanfuturism and Africanjujuism are freed from the white Western gaze. Indeed, this becomes the main defining difference between Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism. And while some texts can hold aspects of both Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism — an Afrofuturist text and an Africanfuturist text are quite different indeed.
Unlike Black Panther’s post-credit scenes that take us from the condescension of whiteness at the European UN to the dispensing of a particularly recognizable American style of billionaire philanthropy in an American city, in Okorafor’s Lagoon, the aliens land in Lagos, Nigeria — and Nigeria is where the narrative remains for the development of the plot. There is no move to undercut the Africanfuturist gaze with a location change to a city such as New York or Los Angeles, or any other place in the United States and the West that aliens are usually depicted as landing. Immediately and thoroughly, it is the Africanfuturist gaze, rather than the Afrofuturist — which would still privilege a Western and American locale — that is present.
Here, too, the philosophical and cultural framework depicted through Africanfuturism is different as well. The point of the alien arrival in Lagoon is not deception, colonization, and violence as it is in nearly all Western/American science fiction and alien encounters — Mars Attacks, War of the Worlds, Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Independence Day, Men in Black, etc. The alien in Lagoon has come to share enlightenment to help humanity stop violence, war, and colonization.
In Okorafor’s characterization, the figure of the alien or outsider is not a threat because of the Blackness has been othered and been made into the alien outsider in the real world. Thus, here in the text as well, the “alien other” is not portrayed as a threat, but as a visiting force for good, enlightenment, and social “change.” The alien, named Ayodele, is powerful, yes, and uses that power when necessary — but not out of a gleeful and omnipresent destruction. Her use of force is tied to a strong ethical code and defense of self and others.
It is worth noting here how the concept of “change” in the recent century and a half has opened up more positive developments relating to safety and opportunity for Black individuals, who started off the 20th century being denied basic rights all over the world. Conversely, the concept of “change” and social progress that has created some tenuous rights as well as tenuous safety for Black people around the world has also brought extreme anxiety to whiteness in fear of losing the long-held white privilege seen as an inalienable right. Equality does not put anyone on the back foot, it puts us all on equal footing. But fear of equality, we see very clearly, has now led to overt white supremacy and fascist leadership around the globe, beginning at home here in the United States with President Trump’s many actions to repress American freedoms, support white supremacy, and encourage anti-Black violence.
We see that Africanfuturism has a different philosophy and outlook on these ideas and life than mainstream Western and American science fiction and fantasy — and thus even Afrofuturism, which is still married to the white Western gaze. Consider the literary genius of Octavia Butler: it was not any of her prior and successive novels which were so thoroughly sunken in the Black American diasporic gaze that made her a national best-selling success, but 1979’s Kindred, her book tied closest to the white gaze, that is her best-selling novel. It is Kindred, the uncomfortable narrative of legacies of racial violence in America that makes the saving of one’s white rapist ancestor necessary in order to save one’s Black self. It is Kindred that provides the reader’s white gaze with Black forgiveness and the absolution of white guilt without holding whiteness culpable for its legacy of violence or demanding accountability and reparations. It was Kindred that was then most palatable to the white American audience and championed as Butler’s first, and still most visible, mainstream success.
One of the clearest examples of Africanjujuism is seen in Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, in which Onyesonwu, a young woman who is the product of violent rape, must come into her own spiritual leadership powers to defeat evil and fulfill her destiny. Here, the rhythmic percussive structure of the narrative mirrors the repetition of the heartbeat rhythm of the drum that is used to induce a spiritual invocation or communication with the ancestors in many African spiritual traditions. Often the figure who would be conducting or centering this experience would be the figure of the shaman. Fulfilling this structural expectation, the narrative plot and characterization of Onyesonwu leans into the figure of the shaman as characterized in many African and diasporic cultures: Onyesonwu’s ability as the seer, to travel between the real, spiritual, and ancestral planes, to use these energies as physical power to defend herself and others, are characterizations of the shamanic gifts often depicted in works of Africanjujuism.
While directly inspired by a story Okorafor read about rape in the Sudan, this concept of the rape of the Black woman’s body is an uncomfortable and troubling part of Black woman’s global history. It functions not just as an act of physical violence against the individual woman, but as a political act to decimate a culture and a people in the cycle of trauma and inherited trauma.
Thus, Who Fears Death also works as an Africanfuturist text not just in the creation of a sustained and specific south-Sudanese imaginative space for the novel's duration similar to Okorafor's imaginative Lagos in Lagoon, but also in how we see the representation of the rape of Black women as a political tool throughout history here in Africa by the African patriarchy and elsewhere in the global African diaspora by the white Western patriarchy — indeed, with the interjection of the Western white gaze this theme of sexual violence against Black women becomes a characteristic of Afrofuturism as well. (Again, see Kindred.) Even before the theft and shipping of Black bodies was outlawed by Great Britain in the 1807, the new white Americans had turned to raping Black women or forcing enslaved Black men to rape Black women to breed an unpaid labor class that built the economic and political power of the United States, Great Britain, and to a large degree the modern world. “By 1860, there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in his 2014 Atlantic article “Slavery Made America: The case for reparations: a narrative bibliography.” “In the same year, the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.”
Other happier Africanfuturist texts by Okorafor are Zahra the Windseeker, set in the fictional African kingdom of Ooni and deeply based in West African ecology, philosophy and hair culture and Binti, the story of an African girl, deeply set in Southwest African mythology, who goes to boarding school in space. The care with which Africanfuturism and Africanjujuism center Blackness, while engaging with the ability of science fiction and fantasy to speak about the oppression of marginalized individuals, makes the consistent erasure of Blackness in Western American- and European-authored science fiction and fantasy that much more glaring. For Okorafor, to center Blackness also means to center Black women because of the respect and space traditionally held for Black women as leaders and elders in a majority of African communities. Indeed, African local governments have long been known for the leadership of women elders in the community, a cultural tradition that is reflected in the presence — albeit still not large enough — of women in politics in African countries. In Rwanda alone, 61.3 percent of the seats in the lower house are held by women, making it the country with “the highest number of female parliamentarians worldwide” reports UN Women.
Okorafor’s work shows that if Africanfuturism and Africanjujuism are to center Blackness, they must also center Black womanhood and nonbinary LBGTQ identities. The figure of Ayodele, as the alien, is held within a female body, but Ayodele is in reality a nonbinary, androgynous figure whose queerness extends beyond the body and into the theoretical understanding of “queerness” as a destabilizing of fossilized norms. Ayodele “queers” the notion of an established individual identity and leans into the African concept of collective community, fluidly transforming into other forms of life, matter, and energy.
Another fascinating author in this space is Igbo and Tamil author Akwaeke Emezi; they work with a different balance of Africanfuturism and Africanjujuism in their work with a greater focus on concrete LGBTQ themes: one example is the figure of Jam, the young Black trans girl who is the main character of Emezi’s recent YA novel, Pet.
Although Nnedi Okorafor would not define the term until much later, when reading African literature through an Africanfuturist lens, The Rape of Shavi, published in 1983 by Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta, considered one of the most important African writers of the 20th century, becomes a seminal Africanfuturist work. Here, Emecheta constructs the fictional nation of Shavi, an idyllic, free Black African utopia that is irrevocably changed for the worse when stumbled upon by a band of European scientists and civilians fleeing the imminent nuclear destruction of the Western world that white Western nations have wrought.
Shavi was a utopia that “prided herself on being the only place in the whole of the Sahara, where a child was free to tell the king where it was that he had gone wrong,” writes Emecheta. “And the child knew that not only would he not be punished but also that he would be listened to and his suggestion might even be incorporated into the workings of the kingdom.” It is a place steeped in African cultural traditions of respect for the ancestors, hospitality, and community — where guests are offered the best house in the village and waited on by the future queen; a stark contrast to when the Shavian Crown prince visits Europe and is imprisoned as an illegal immigrant.
Set in 1983, The Rape of Shavi interrogates the nuclear destruction of the planet because of Western excess and violence, and how this then becomes yet another violence that whiteness inflicts upon Blackness; the novel positions itself within the dystopian science fiction literature that interrogates the nuclear anxiety of the 1980s. This centering of Blackness is unlike the usual representations of nuclear anxiety on the world that fills Western consciousness, and a unique and necessary representation to apocalyptic and dystopian science fiction.
Emecheta explores these ideas in a novel set in a fictional Black country from a Black perspective drawing from the Black experience in history: Black empires, Black agency, the sustainment of free Black communities, the targeted white violence against these free Black communities, exploitation, slavery, and colonialization, among others. But because Emecheta, writing from an Africanfuturist lens, is aware of the existence of Black empires before 1619, and of Blacks as global leaders in technology and science, she can envision Blackness before the violation of whiteness. Africanfuturism creates the possibility of imagining the Black futures that Dery’s Afrofuturism presents as impossible.
Thus, in The Rape of Shavi, we see the consistent centering of Blackness throughout — a representation of Africanfuturism which, like in Okorafor’s work, highlights the valuing of Black women lives as a cultural value of the Black African diaspora, to the point that an elder in the community says that to rape the Black woman is “to rape Shavi” itself.
The work Emecheta does here in this 1983 publication in the science fiction and fantasy space to imagine Black futures is vital to the field, and yet the work of this extremely important African voice was erased from Dery’s 1993 essay on Blackness and science fiction. This, however, should not be surprising given the fact male African authors are absent as well; there is no mention of South African author Thomas Mofolo’s 1920 fabulist novel Chaka nor Cameroonian author Jean-Louis Njemba Medou’s 1932 novel Nnanga Kon, the latter being the clear forerunner of Emecheta’s Rape of Shavi, in that Nnanga Kon details another first contact story between white colonists and indigenous Africans. It is the white male science fiction writers who are included in the canon of serious “classic” literature: Wells, Verne, Heinlein, Tolkien, Lewis. Emecheta, Jemisin, Hopkinson, Due, and Okorofor, however, are not.
It is very compelling that that The Rape of Shavi came at the end of Buchi Emecheta’s career, when Emecheta moved from writing realistic fiction to seeing that free Blackness could only be represented through a speculative imagining of a future Africa free of the contemporary ravages of colonialism. Emecheta, often cited by Okorafor as an influence upon her work, opens up the exciting possibility of reading earlier works of literature by African women through an Africanfuturist lens to explore the imagining of free Black futures within this rich literature that contemporary scholarship is beginning to unpack today — in large part because of the work done by many Black writers and scholars to insist that the value of this work no longer be erased.
The Africanfuturism written by Emecheta and Okorafor, like radical Black feminism, requires us to see fossilized systems of oppression and representation and reenvision the use of characters, narratives, themes, structures, forms, archetypes, mythos, languages, and perspective — and center Blackness in all of these ways. Just like we know it is not enough to invite one Black person into the boardroom and shut the door behind them, Africanfuturism tells us it is not just enough to plop one Black character down into a white world — or even a whole cast of Black characters — and end our work there after congratulating ourselves for embracing Afrofuturism and diversity in literature. This is tokenism, which we are past, both on and off the page.
As conversations about Blackness, science fiction, and fantasy push toward greater nuance and clarity, there is potential for the term “Black Speculative Literature” to become the language that encompasses Afrofuturism, Africanfuturism, and Africanjujuism for the ease of handling. This term grows out of the 1947 definition of “speculative literature” attributed to the problematic Robert Heinlein, whose racism in Farnham’s Freehold is backed by his assertion that “the lucky Negroes were the ones who were enslaved,” later articulated by Mark Dery in his 1983 essay, and now reenvisioned by contemporary critics, scholars, and writers.
Black Speculative Literature is literature that centers the lineage and myriad diversity of Black creative thought and culture, a literature deeply rooted in representations from Black perspectives from Africa and the Black diaspora, a literature that aims to imagine Black futures. Black Speculative Literature is science fiction, fantasy, horror, and alternate realities centering Black African and diasporic cultures, mythologies, and philosophies. It must not center the white Western gaze. However, if we widen the operative “must” to a continuum of degree on a timeline, then Black Speculative Literature has the room to hold Africanfuturism, which is defined by centering the non-Western Black gaze, and also Afrofuturism, which is defined by retaining space for the Western and/or the white gaze.
No matter what we call it, however, it is understood that the impetus of Afrofuturism, Africanfuturism, and Black Speculative Literature is to center African and African diasporic culture, thought, mythos, philosophy, and worldviews. Black Speculative Literature looks not to the past and its violent oppression of Blackness, but rather to the future, to imagine alternate possibilities of Blackness that can be lived in safety, creativity, and freedom.
Hope Wabuke is a poet, writer, and an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is the author of several collections of poetry and the forthcoming memoir Please Don’t Kill My Black Son Please.
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