A person in an astronaut suit floats in space above the surface of the Earth

Afrofuturism: From a Lens to a Portal

Olu Niyi-Awosusi

I first discovered afrofuturism during one of my first years of university through the short film Afronauts, directed by Nuotama Bodomo; I was still a teenager. I can’t remember if I saw the film first or just a clip in a showreel, but I do remember this image clearly: an afro in an astronaut’s helmet, like a perfect fishbowl. This vision of an imagined future struck me. For the first time, I was seeing myself somewhere I hadn’t even realized was outside of my imagination. But it was just that — a vision. The way the piece looked and felt was the first and only thing that stuck with me; whether or not it looked cool, I knew a Black woman had never been to the moon. At the time, this encounter with afrofuturism as only aesthetic felt disappointing. Aesthetics were only for wishes, for hopes, and never crossed the barrier into reality. I felt that afrofuturism only depicted things that potentially would never be real. (Despite Afronauts, there still aren’t any Zambian astronauts.)

The film is inspired by Edward Makuka Nkloso’s attempts at starting a space agency in Zambia during the 1960s. Though he appointed himself as the agency’s head, he was not affiliated with the Zambian government; he was a teacher by trade. Documentary footage that I watched outlined the efforts of the group, clearly mocking what was portrayed as a misguided attempt. It was painful to see Nkloso reach for the stars, only to become a laughing stock. I couldn’t finish watching even a few minutes of footage. I’ve always been drawn to technology and am constantly reminded, including by this documentary, of what a powerful force it can be — and of how people are systematically excluded, undereducated, and denied access to this power. I couldn’t understand why, as an imagined space, afrofuturism didn’t tackle this more.

During university, I became a fan of Janelle Monáe. I loved her depictions of cybergirls being chased through space and dirty computers being coercively deprogrammed. But though I was pulled in by the incredible look and visceral feel of these media, I was still disappointed by the lack of stories to back them. Around this time, I also read Octavia Butler’s Kindred (an impressive book but so full of trauma that I’m not sure I could bear to read again). I read her work as afropessimistic, arguing that the exclusion and permanent othering of Black people can’t be addressed in our world as it currently stands, or possibly at all given the conditions of our world. Kindred was the first piece of Black “science fiction” I read. Science fiction and futurism have fuzzy boundaries for me, and this introduction to Octavia Butler’s work meant that I assumed a lot of the media flown under the afrofuturistic banner reinforced afropessimistic feelings, that we can dream of and create a better future only in our imaginations. Under this theory, nothing can be done in the real world, so we look to our stories. And yet, in some ways, this aligned with how I actually felt about the real world. When I watched Hidden Figures, I expected to feel uplifted. Instead, I left the theater feeling crushed, knowing that these Black women had walked the same paths I struggled on in the tech industry, innovated and fought against misogynoir, and barely got recognition within their lifetimes. It was desperately sad.

I would be remiss to omit that afrofuturism is not explicitly about me as a Black British person of Nigerian origin. As an aesthetic, it originated amongst and belongs to African American people. As a term, meanwhile, it was coined by Mark Dery, a white man, in a 1993 essay titled Black to the Future. This surprised me: a white man coining such an important term in Black aesthetics leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Can a concept coined by an outsider ever truly represent us? Dery begins his essay with a question: “Why do so few African Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounters with the Other — the stranger in a strange land — would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists?” A white man posing this question is disingenuous at best. The science fiction canon is famously white and male, as he well knows, and difficult to break into for those who don’t fit the look. Even the Black greats such as Octavia Butler had such a hard time breaking in. It’s difficult to reconcile his naming of the term with its apparent expansiveness now.

I sometimes felt traitorous for my ambivalence about afrofuturism. A non-Black friend told me how terrible they thought Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther was, and I felt viscerally defensive. It wasn’t their place to criticize something that had touched so many Black people. But for me, Black Panther as a film leaves me cold. It presents an interesting springboard and inspiration for children, and some of the portrayals of Wakanda and the technology are visually stunning, but I can’t forgive the opening sequence of a Boko Haram-esque bust being interrupted. I’m always unsure how to square the idea of Wakanda with the reality of the transatlantic slave trade, with hunger and disease from preventable causes in pockets of the continent, with conflict minerals and myriad other issues. I know that fiction doesn’t have to address every possible issue, but the ending of the film paints a strange picture of Wakandan politics that unsettled me. Opening an embassy in the United States as their first gesture towards international outreach was odd, and using the United Nations as a floor to reveal Wakanda to the world was even odder. It paints a picture of a world where many problems don’t exist. It felt like afrofuturistic portrayals always ignored the reality of the world we live in and the material conditions we face as Black people.

Afrofuturism allows us to see a world where Black people may have their needs and desires met or dashed, but it holds us in focus, us in the center, us as important, loved, cherished.

But my perspective on afrofuturism changed after I soaked up N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Her vision of this alternate reality, whilst dark, rendered her characters as fully fledged beings, and many were of color, something missing from earlier science fiction I had consumed. Though their world was grim, they tackled this head-on, controlling their destinies and the fates of those all over their planet, for good and bad. They faced the realities of their circumstances, made horrible but fully informed choices, and took into consideration the broader scope of their actions — everything that the characters in Black Panther didn’t. I wasn’t used to seeing characters like myself — trans, with locs, Black — in fantasy or science fiction novels, and it was a breath of fresh air. My enthusiasm for the genre returned. Janelle Monae’s cybergirls took on more meaning for me after she came out as non-binary, made me feel vindicated in my reading of her android persona, and I let the optimism of her visions encourage me. N. K. Jemisin’s novelette Emergency Skin follows a member of an off-Earth civilisation as he grapples with the discovery that his homeworld is not as idyllic as he was taught. It tackles racism and sexism in its few pages, imagining a future where we all have what we require and live well, because those who were stopping us had finally gotten out of the way.

Another reframing of afrofuturism came from the YouTube creator Andrewism. His videos follow a simple format, a cartoon version of Andrew’s face making a few select expressions, layered with commentary and illustrative images. His videos often take a solarpunk bent, an aesthetic and political view of the future not too far divorced from afrofuturism, and this drew me in further. I learned about anarchism and visions of the now and the future from other Black people fighting for these visions. The realistic optimism and focus on a better future showed me that consuming these kinds of media can help channel people towards better ideas. Andrewism’s channel focuses on the future, illustrating a path to post-ecological justice through a combination of theory, speculation, and potential solutions from both history and the present day. One video tackles ways we can live solarpunk now — by treating wastewater with fishes and pollarding and coppicing trees to maintain forests — wacky solutions that have been proven to work. A different video tackles international anarchist solidarity, and yet another reassures pessimistic environmentalists that humanity is not a parasitic presence on the earth. In his videos, we can imagine a future where people live in conjunction with nature and thrive. People are doing things with these ideas right now, and are creating stories on one hand whilst changing their environment on the other. It’s not a binary choice between imagining or doing. One begets the other.

I began to recognize that we had always been inventing and building and innovating, but our discoveries were crushed into the machinery of a white supremacist and capitalistic culture, obscuring those who didn’t look like the ones in power. This misfocus erases the people who have always existed in the background. They were working towards a better future for themselves and for us all, and getting no recognition for it. Despite this, Black people have always been at the forefront of technology. Even though the film Hidden Figures made me sad, the book and the history behind it connected me to Black people everywhere. They were scientists at a time when it was near impossible for Black people in the United States to thrive, let alone dream up science fiction. Afrofuturistic visions allow us to conjure forth futures where we are recognized for our work, where Black women plot the course to the moon and set foot on it, if they want to. Black history is not Black future, but it informs and nourishes it.

I see now that afrofuturism is a lens in some ways and a portal in others. I see that what I call aesthetics has a heft and power to it that allows us to imagine new futures, to build utopias and to usher in a new world. Aesthetics aren’t the dead end I imagined at all; they are a door to a new world. Afrofuturism allows us to see a world where Black people may have their needs and desires met or dashed, but it holds us in focus, us in the center, us as important, loved, cherished. Janelle Monae’s work may all be works of imagination, not tethered to a real occurrence, but it allows us to imagine ourselves as Black people into these worlds, and to feel that we belong. N. K. Jemisin’s work paints rich internal lives, and fantastic situations large, allowing Black people to see themselves at the center. Andrewism allowed me to see that these works of fiction can give us courage now to build better tomorrows. How we get free, how we ensure the freedoms of others, however they are bound, is central to the works that grab me the most.

Afrofuturism gives me courage and hope, that the world will improve, and that the world will have people that look, love, talk, and think like me in it.

I recently rewatched Afronauts. The end is left open to interpretation; it’s up to the viewer to decide if Matha, the protagonist and astronaut, lands on the moon or is “turned to fireworks,” in the words of her worried mother. The film is a snapshot, a vignette of the Space Race and its avid followers, of its possible consequences for those reaching for the stars and those left behind. It is beautiful. I also now know Octavia Butler did citizen science, often studying slime mold, inspiring many an essay, artist, and scientist in the present day. Their legacies long outlive them.

At its best, afrofuturism allows Black people to feel that the future is as much ours as anyone else’s, and that it is somewhere we belong. Oppression and the freedom from it interweaves itself in all of the works mentioned, and in the afrofuturist project as a whole. It is deeply present and planted in the now, with tendrils reaching through time and space and grasping for a better future. Afrofuturism gives me courage and hope, that the world will improve, and that the world will have people that look, love, talk, and think like me in it. We are all in the future. Though I couldn’t see it at first, all of this has always been true.

Olu Niyi-Awosusi (they/them) is a web developer and writer living in London. They love Javascript, plantain, web accessibility, exploring ideas, lists and run-on sentences.