From flying cars to smart houses, shining utopias to interstellar worlds, there are many ways to imagine the future. Science fiction and fantasy genres have long been used to explore the different ways humanity could exist, whether it be an alteration of the present day, a couple of years from now, or centuries ahead. When we speculate about the future, it’s not just a matter of what we imagine, but who we imagine.
Afrofuturism combines science fiction and fantasy with African mythologies. The term was coined in 1993 in Mark Dery’s essay “Black to the Future,” but the style existed before then.
Ytasha L. Womack, author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, elaborates that the genre “combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs. In some cases, it’s a total re-envisioning of the past and speculation about the future rife with cultural critiques.”
The art that comes out of this genre not only conceptualizes the world through fiction and fantasy but challenges the world as it exists now. Being able to see yourself at the center of a story has great power, according to Womack: “Empowering people to see themselves and their ideas in the future gives rise to innovators and freethinkers, all of whom can pull from the best of the past while navigating the sea of possibilities to create communities, culture, and a new, balanced world.”
Fikayo Adeola, founder of the afrofuturist forum Kugali, argues that the style stands as a symbol of hope, in both the past and present.
“Afrofuturism was a tool that they could use to imagine a better future,” Adeola told CNN, “and the movement continued into the contemporary era.”
Afrofuturist stories, and the power they create, are coming to the forefront of popular culture. The high-tech, utopian world of Wakanda in Black Panther has introduced many people to the genre. Though the film is set in the present, it makes speculations that bring futuristic elements and social critique together.
“T’Challa represents … an African that hasn’t been affected by colonization,” Ryan Coogler, the film’s director, told The Washington Post. “So what we wanted to do was contrast that with a reflection of the diaspora … You get the African that’s not only a product of colonization, but also a product of the worst form of colonization, which is slavery. It was about that clash.”
The clash described by Coogler is not the only commentary made by the film. Black Panther makes audiences wonder: What if everyone in a nation had equal access to technology? What if women were equal members of society? What role does a powerful nation play in helping others? When storytellers venture to ask these questions, they also provide answers that can be applied to how we live now.
Afrofuturism is not just another way of telling stories. It challenges people to imagine a greater world than the one that currently exists. If the stories we tell are ones that allow everyone to exist in the world of tomorrow, perhaps we will be more inspired to make that world a reality.