Why Afrofuturism Matters

By Elizabeth Reich

You’re already a consumer of Afrofuturist art, though you may not know it.

On either television or YouTube, you’ve likely seen the transfixing commercial for Apple AirPods, featuring “Down” by Marian Hill, with acting by Lil Buck, who begins his footwork on the street but soon steps into the air, moving along invisible walls and waves of sound. His dance — and Hill’s music — envision a world in which Blackness floats free of the constraints and violence that so often weigh it down today. And this freedom, enabled by technology and the fundamental belief that black life matters, is one definition for what has become a big, encompassing, and increasingly important term: Afrofuturism.

Despite its sudden explosion in popular culture, with exhibits and events at the New York Public Library, the Harlem Studio Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, articles in the New York Times, Huffington Post and Ebony, and a plethora of recent books on the subject, Afrofuturism is not a new phenomenon, but arguably as old as black American culture itself. Speculative fictions of slaves traveling home and the technology of drums sounding out stories of freedom are its early manifestations. And more recently, its practitioners range widely, from writers like W.E.B. Du Bois, Samuel Delaney, Nalo Hopkinson and Octavia Butler, to musicians Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Erykah Badu, and Janelle Monáe.

But Afrofuturism is more than art, and even more than art that means something: it’s an expression of politics as well. It gives form in the present to black visions for the future, ones that often repair an unredressed past. So when Rihanna was cast as Tomorrow in W Magazine and MOMA’s PS1 had a big Afrofuturist party, when black Americans  find their ways into the world of science fiction in shows like Sense 8 and Luke Cage, we are witnessing not only a shift in popular aesthetics, but more importantly, of black Americans populating a future that New York Times fashion writer Ruth La Ferla claims “has long been the province of […] mostly white counterparts.” In other words, we are watching the future change in the present.

Indeed, seeing black Americans in the future or even the technologically-focused present of our daily lives matters.  In her co-edited book of short Afrofuturist stories by political organizers and activists, Walida Imarisha insists that just being black and alive is to be an Afrofiction, that “for those of us from communities with historic collective trauma, we must understand that each of us is already science fiction walking around on two legs. Our ancestors dreamed us up and then bent reality to create us.” And she is spot on. In a world in which African Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the 2.3 million prison population, 40 percent of African American males between the ages of 15-34 who died were murdered, and more than 26% of African Americans live below the poverty line, Afrofuturist art and politics become a conduit to another galaxy in which Blackness survives — and a way of articulating the urgency of real black freedom.

What would this freedom look like? Perhaps it’s in the Egyptian-inspired headpieces and clothing Sun Ra wore during his musical performances or his cult film, Space Is the Place; or, closer to home, we might find it in a bulletproof black male character like Luke Cage whose superpower is being immune to public will to end black lives. Or, perhaps it is insisting on a tomorrow for a people whose past has been written out.

Afrofuturist scholarship and art remind us that it’s all at once an issue of representation, access, and imagination. Blackness in the future is alive, with access to technology, knowledge, and power, they can make real what today is only a vision of a life-sustaining world for black peoples.

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