The Future Is Divergent: On “Literary Afrofuturism in the Twenty-First Century”

September 12, 2021   •   By Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Literary Afrofuturism in the Twenty-First Century

Isiah Lavender III and Lisa Yaszek

I. WHAT’S IN A NAME?


Ahead of the forthcoming university academic year, I was tasked with creating a new fourth-year seminar at my department of English. I settled upon a course on African futurisms. My goal was simple and noble: offer as much insight as possible into how a people may shape their future through stories about themselves. I wanted my students to engage with how peoples descended from the African continent — however much removed from it by distance, time, and/or lineage — create ideas of themselves in the future. This seemed a simple and sturdy platform on which to stand, until I came to the very first point of ingress: what exactly was I to title the course?


This is the same conundrum faced by the editors of the critical collection Literary Afrofuturism in the Twenty-First Century, Isiah Lavender III and Lisa Yaszek. At first glance, it may be easier to assume Lavender and Yaszek have taken the easy route by claiming Afrofuturism in the title, therefore signaling to the reader where they stand on the nomenclature for describing futurisms created by peoples descended from the African continent. But right from the introduction, “Imagining Futures in Full Color,” it is clear that the stance of the editors is anything but. They soon engage various authors on how they posit “Afrofuturism” be defined. Though a decent portion of the voices selected end up being somewhat tied to the North American continent — a situation I was hoping would be otherwise — even they do not quite agree on what exactly “Afrofuturism” is or should be. The editors eventually decide that while the term will be employed throughout the book as a shorthand for everything in related discourse, it is by no means all-encompassing.


What, exactly, is Afrofuturism, then?


This is not the question the collection sets out to answer, and rightly so. But what do fellow connoisseurs of the field do when we simply need an expression to communicate this envelope of ideas and concepts? I found that other academics who had come before me opted for “Afrofuturism” or a variation of it for their courses. But I was determined to represent the global collage of ideas, concepts, and media that this term encompasses, a desire that came more from a personal than an administrative place. So I set out to find a way to do so.


II. The Future Is Divergent


When I, a born-and-raised Nigerian, first came upon the term Afrofuturism, it immediately read, to me, like a term specifically used to describe futuristic impressions of the Black experience in the African diasporas, especially in North America. This sentiment is echoed by the four non-American authors in the first chapter, “Author Roundtable on Afrofuturism,” which features the editors in conversation with seven authors from around the globe. Each goes on to point out that the matters of interest and import examined under the Afrofuturism label differ greatly depending on locale — between (and even within) the continent versus its diasporas.


Nalo Hopkinson, a Jamaican-born Canadian, for instance considers Afrofuturism “a filter, a lens” through which her work can be viewed, but prefers not to define herself as an Afrofuturist. “It can recognize work like mine, but can’t completely encompass it, nor should it have to,” she says. Nick Wood, a Zambian-born South African, considers it “an attempt to hang a conceptual umbrella over a range of cultural products.” Chinelo Onwualu, a Nigerian, believes the term “defines a particular type of literary, artistic, and musical aesthetic that is born out of the unique experiences of the African diaspora.” Minister Faust, a Kenyan Canadian, even considers the term of no significant analytical value due to its relative recency and believes that “we need a term of our own devising.”


Wildly differing views such as these are not a conceptual problem. Even American authors have similarly varying dispositions. N. K. Jemisin mentions barely applying the term to her own work, and insists Afrofuturism must not be a shorthand for science fiction and fantasy written by Black people. Nisi Shawl considers the term “a convenience for critics first, a marketing tool second, and third as a moment of attention in the stream of pop-culture consciousness.” Bill Campbell considers it “a movement,” but one that lacks a coherent doctrine or manifesto. Yet, all agree that their connections to the African continent — however far back — shape their experience of the world, and it is impossible to separate their work from this experience.


As an author, I feel the same frustration. I consider the global Black and African existences to be highly interconnected but too multifaceted to be grouped together under a single conceptual frame centering the outlooks of people of African descent. This is why other authors qualify Afrofuturism or reject it outright, like Nigerian American author Nnedi Okorafor, who reorients her work toward “Africanfuturism” and “Africanjujuism.”


Like Okorafor and the authors from the roundtable, I consider my longtime roots on the African continent an inextricable part of my contemporary existence. I also believe that whatever varied pathways storytellers descended from the African continent take to envision alternative existences for ourselves, our stories spring from that interconnected heritage. For us, the future is always the past is always the present — the embodiment of Afrofuturist consciousness — and telling our stories means we are always looking through this prism.


In this sense, I may be closer to Hopkinson’s school of thought: that Afrofuturism is more a “consciousness,” an acute awareness that this shared history — however long past — creates a lens through which not a single story is seen when peered through, but a divergence into a rainbow of futures.


III. The Afrofuturist Consciousness


In the 1994 essay collection Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (Duke University Press), editor Mark Dery published a series of interviews with Black futurist authors such as Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose. It is in this essay, titled “Black to the Future,” that the term “Afrofuturism” is understood to have been coined. Since then, Afrofuturism has oscillated in and out of the American cultural zeitgeist. But two notable incidents in recent times have nudged Afrofuturist consciousness onto a wider and more global platform.


The first, in 2018, was the massive global success of the Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole film Black Panther, which served as a wake-up call reminding Blackness, wherever it is situated in the globe, of its origins, riches, and prospects. The second was America’s reckoning with racial oppression in 2020, sparked by outcries following the murder of George Floyd and exacerbated by a global pandemic and economic crisis which highlighted the harsh realities of American inequality. This reckoning had far-reaching effects, offering many the courage and confidence to stand up to oppressive systems in their countries. Together, these events sparked a flurry of discussions about what the futures of Blackness may look like — both in America and the rest of the world — and what steps might be taken to achieve them.


With this consciousness came a rush to define what Afrofuturism actually is and who should be authorities on the discipline. And here, minefields rooted in the multiplicity of Afrofuturism were exposed. The questions asked were seemingly simple: Whose work do I read to get introduced to Afrofuturism? Who gets to be interviewed as an expert on the subject? Whose insights are most “true” to the spirit of the discipline? Each new question revealed the error of the approach: searching for a seminal authority on the concept in the first place.


Luckily, Literary Afrofuturism never quite sets out to do this. The collection mirrors how amorphous the discipline itself can be, moving across the spectra of gender, age, science, spirituality, language, geography and place, time and space, etc. For instance, Sheree Renée Thomas’s “Dangerous Muses” considers the role of feminist writers in Afrofuturist thought, including discussions of novelists Andrea Hairston, Hopkinson, Okorafor, Sofia Samatar, and other short fiction authors, such as Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Kiini Ibura Salaam, and Nisi Shawl. She discusses how their work helps “frame Black women’s agency and aesthetics in a world that often denies the existence of both.” I consider her focus on the intersectionality of Black futurism and other axes of identity — gender, sexuality, queerness, etc. — groundbreaking, as these are aspects often ignored under Afrofuturist discourse. She presents the characters in these authors’ works as conjurers and seers, ancestors and witnesses, immortals and muses, travelers and “jigganauts,” rightly engaging with Afrofuturistic thought as a spectrum of intersectionality.


Themes within the Afrofuturist consciousness also discussed include the colonial intrusions on indigenous storytelling and the science-myth-spirituality spectrum. Gina Wisker draws comparisons between postcolonial literature and speculative work, especially regarding African-descended history, in “Middle Age, Mer People, and the Middle Passage.” By examining work from Black artists such as Merle Collins and Hopkinson, Wisker figures speculation as a pathway to righting the false histories often prevalent in postcolonial spaces, particularly noting Hopkinson’s work as combining “the critical insights of postcolonial literature with the utopian bent of SF.” She concludes that embracing the liminality of postcolonial spaces offers speculative stories the opportunity to produce both new narrative perspectives and literary forms.


One aspect that doesn’t often see much engagement within Afrofuturist cultural production or critical discourse is the centering of younger generations’ concerns. Rebecca Holden attempts to rectify that with “Young Adult Afrofuturism,” where change is a principal theme. Holden posits that the ability of YA speculative fiction to break genre boundaries, “mixing fantasy, SF, horror, supernatural, and mystery with little fanfare,” makes it a fitting vessel to “break down our notions about how science, history, and technology might be defined.” There is a strong argument for how young Black protagonists best demonstrate the dual consciousness of the African-descended experience: they must exist in the present, which continues to be oppressive to them, and “cannot simply grow up and find their place in society.” With the lines of identity becoming increasingly blurred due to advancements in technology, the “future” may be much closer in their consciousness than in that of older generations.


An essay of import to the centering of Blackness in our present geological epoch of the Anthropocene is Lisa Dowdall’s “Black Futures Matter,” which engages with the geontology of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series. Dowdall posits that Jemisin’s series is a literary innovation that “uses geology to question widespread cultural assumptions about the ‘natural’ divisions between race, species and matter” and “promotes new ways of theorizing the human in connection to the mineral substance of our world.” By depicting ecosystems as “alive” and granting them personhood, Dowdall explains that Jemisin’s work “celebrates the relationships between all things, living and nonliving, by imagining a network of interconnected, mutual becoming.”


IV. Mess and Making


I ended up naming my fourth-year seminar “African-descended Futurisms,” each word selected with intent. The plurality of futures possible — as demonstrated by this collection and its myriad of voices, approaches, and matters of interest — was behind my choice of “futurisms” over “futurism” or even “futures.” Like the contributors, I am well aware of how Africa’s uniquely undervalued contribution to global development has forever welded its past to its future. “Futurisms” offers up space for the understanding that multiple paths exist for creators to take toward imagining possible existences for peoples descended from the African continent.


The collection closes out with similar tendencies, ranging from Jerome Winter’s “Global Afrofuturist Ecologies” to Marleen S. Barr’s musing on global interdependence “You Can’t Go Home Again” to Nadine Moonsamy’s reframing of Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard as “at home in the global lexicon of global SF.” It cements my personal joy with this collection: that each contributor gets to offer their distinct angle and approach to one piece of the pie that makes up the Afrofuturist consciousness. For a descriptive term that is still in its nascent stages, Literary Afrofuturism in the Twenty-First Century does the important work of paving the way for said agreements and disagreements, acceptance and reluctance, and stands firm in the messiness of it all, proclaiming that messiness as, in fact, a part of its making.


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Suyi Davies Okungbowa is a Nigerian author of fantasy, science fiction, and general speculative work. He is an assistant professor of Creative Writing at the University of Ottawa.