Sci-Fi Sunday: Afrofuturism
Afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic that combines science-fiction, history and fantasy to explore the African-American experience and aims to connect those from the black diaspora with their forgotten African ancestry.
Well, that’s a complicated definition and I am not sure I agree with the word ‘aesthetic’ but we’ll go with it. What does all this mean? That is what I am going to talk about today. Afrofuturism also applies to music, art, and literature, but I am focusing on literature.
Afrofuturism is a form of speculative fiction where everyone is truly equal. White supremacy and white supremist ideas are gone. Black communities are no longer oppressed. It looks at the past and to the future to create better conditions, thus better a better life, for Black people through the use of technology. Think Black Panther and Wakanda. That is Afrofuturism.
Why look to the past? Diaspora has scattered Black people to all corners of the Earth. Each African tribe had their own culture. Through colonization and imperialism many people don’t know where they came from. They don’t know the stories of their people. Afrofuturism seeks to reclaim those stories and the culture they came from and make a place for it in the future.
The genre of Afrofuturism shows everyone a better world, how humans should live and work together. What it is like when everyone is valued for being a human being. A world void of discrimination and full of equality. Black authors have taken to science fiction to explore that kind of world. Why science fiction? Anything is possible in science fiction. Soft science fiction has also been traditionally used to explore society and culture through metaphor and allegory, while hard science fiction promotes technology. If we go far enough back in time we will find that many sci-fi authors used their stories to promote new technology. Ray Bradbury was notorious for that. Often, Afrofuturism combines hard and soft science fiction into one.
Afrofuturism books I have read:
Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. There was supposed to be a third book in this series but Butler died before it could be written. These books are frightening in their own way. They explore what life will be like when the current climate change and global warming problems are allowed to play out as they are. It’s about the survival of humanity as much as survival of the individual. It explores family, both blood family and the family you choose. It explores religion and politics. These books were published in the 1990’s. Parable of the Talents very much predicted the rise of a president very much like Donald Trump and the fanatical religious right running the show.
The third book was going to take place after society was rebuilt and another planet was colonized. There is an interesting write up on Butler’s struggles to write Parable of the Trickster on Electric Literature.
When I read The City We Became I didn’t recognize that it was Afrofuturism. I was more hung up on the Lovecraftian elements of the Eldritch horror attempting to bring R’lyeh to inhabit New York. I am eagerly awaiting the sequel to this book. Is it November yet?
The City We Became is classified as urban fantasy. I am going to go out on a limb, since The Cthulhu Mythos is considered weird fiction, mythopoeia, and it’s own genre of Lovecraftian horror, and say that The City We Became doesn’t easily fit in to one genre, much like The Cthulhu Mythos it uses as a base.
H.P. Lovecraft was an unabashed racist. Racism is plays a large part in much of his writing. The irony is he never put any copyrights on the Cthulhu stories because he wanted others to build on what he created. Now Black authors are taking what he created and are making it their own.
Three of the main characters are prominent Black people with special powers. The cast is rounded out by a Lenape woman, a Tamil immigrant, a Black/Portuguese woman and a white woman named Aislyn who lives in the bubble her racist police officer father created for her. While she is supposed to be one of them, she isn’t. Their job to stop the Eldritch horror is complicated by Aislyn’s racism, her refusal to help them, and her befriending of the horror.
I wasn’t sure I was going to like Who Fears Death. This is the book that convinced me that it’s okay for me to read the works of Black authors, that these works were just as much for me as they were for Black audiences, only for different reasons. That is a post on its own, but I do touch on it in my post on why we need queer literature.
This one takes place in a dystopian Africa where where the light-skinned Nuru oppress the dark-skinned Okeke. The main character is a girl with an Okeke mother and a Nuru father. She wasn’t conceived of love, but rape, when her sorcerer father sought to destroy her mothers people. Onyesonwu (Ibgo for ‘death’) is accepted by neither world. She comes of age and is joined by her only friends as she goes on a quest of revenge against her biological father.
This is both a very powerful and amazing book.
Another Octavia Butler book, Fledgling is a different kind of vampire novel. This is the story of Shori, a member of the Ina race. In most ways the Ina race are vampires. They, however, do not turn humans into vampires. They also form a symbiotic relationship with the humans they feed upon, creating a mutually beneficial family unit.
Shori is the only dark-skinned Ina. She was a genetic experiment in an attempt to make the Ina immune to sunlight. There is really a lot going on in this book in the way of commentary on race and racism, childhood, sex and sexuality, and the dichotomy between the innocence of childhood while the media sexualizes young girls, especially black girls. A lot of people find this book problematic, and maybe it is. I can see both sides of the argument. Shori is a 53 year old vampire, with the appearance of a 10 year old African-American girl. It is meant to make us squeamish and confront these topics.
Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson is the coming of age story of Tan-Tan. It incorporates characters and mythologies from Yoruba and the Caribbean. It is chocked full of cultural references. Many of them I had to look up because these were references to parts of history that I was never exposed to.
The story starts on a planet named after a famous Hattian general, Toussaint. It is inhabited by descendants of Caribbean immigrants from Earth. The story ends on New Half-Way Tree, named after a city in Jamaica. The planet is home to criminals and an alien race who takes in Tan-Tan after she kills her father. Throughout the story, Tan-Tan takes on the role of the Midnight Robber, a Robin Hood like character from Carnival season.
This is a really interesting story to read just for the mythologies that are incorporated into it. From my understanding, Hopkinson incorporates African mythologies into all of her stories.
I found the entire Broken Earth series for sale at the library’s used book sale. I picked all three of them up for $5 plus tax. I loved The City We Became and want to read more of N. K. Jemisin’s books.
In a prologue, an extraordinarily powerful orogene discusses the sad state of the world and laments the oppression of his race. He then uses his enormous power to fracture the entire continent across its length, threatening to cause the worst Fifth Season in recorded history. The story then follows three female orogenes (Essun, Damaya, and Syenite) across the Stillness from different time periods.
I picked up Lovecraft Country because I’m I am all about Lovecraft’s form of horror. I like to see what others have done with his ideas. I understand this has been made into a series from HBO. Maybe I will watch it when I am done with the book.
Lovecraft Country explores the intersection between the horror fiction of Lovecraft and racism in the United States during Jim Crow, as experienced by black science-fiction fan, Atticus Turner, and his family.
Children of Blood and Bone came out of the free book cabinet at university. Now that I have graduated, I am going to miss scrounging through it for books. This is another book that draws inspiration from Yoruba culture as well as West African mythology. More modern inspiration was taken from the Black Lives Matter movement.
I only have the first book in the Binti series by nnedi Okorafor. I want to get the complete trilogy in one book. I loved Who Fears Death and want to read more of Okorafor’s work.
This trilogy is about the first “Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.”
Do not mistake my interest in Afrofuturism as an exercise in performative wokeness. My masters degree concentration is in cultural studies through literature. Literature reflects culture as it interprets culture. This doesn’t mean just white American culture, this means all culture. If we are willing to listen, we can learn a lot from each other.