Beyond the Surface | "Deconstructing Afrofuturism(s)"

Still from artist Missy Elliott's She's a bxxxx music video. She is dressed in all black, futuristic gear

Towards the beginning of the early 20th century, sociologist, historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois authored a short story titled "Princess Steel", in which a Black scientist invents a device equipping him with the ability to look back into the past and also take a glimpse into the future. [1] By transcending the confines of spatial and temporal linearity, the protagonist is able to find a kidnapped African princess made from steel. Du Bois’ short story not only explores themes of otherness and alienation by using science fiction tropes, but also alludes to practices that conceptualise ancestral presences.

In fact, Du Bois’ short story plays into cultural theorist Mark Dery’s definition of “Afrofuturism”, which he describes as “…speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture – and more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future” [2].

To all appearances, much of Dery’s definition presumes that Afrofuturism is only limited to the field of literary speculative fiction, but as (a) complex and diverse genre(s), it includes a large variety of people who are specialized in different forms of cultural production and spans across various creative disciplines.

According to self-proclaimed Afrofuturist theorist, scholar and artist Ytasha Womack, “Afrofuturism” is “…both an artistic aesthetic and a framework for critical theory, [it] combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, Afrocentricity and magic realism with non-Western beliefs…it’s a total re-envisioning of the past and speculation, about the future rife with cultural critiques”. [3]

The innovative, visionary and mythological richness of Black and African diaspora(s), as well as of the continent is particularly visible in Afrofuturist art, allowing for a wide variety of nuances within Black futurist and speculative imagination. Black artists, writers, musicians and cultural theorists – from RAMM:ELL:ZEE, Drexciya, Octavia Butler to Greg Tate, for example – create ways to tap into a space devoid of the constraints that force Black people to a rather pessimistic and bleak reality.

While Afrofuturist art provides a creative outlet that empowers and inspires members of the Black and African diaspora, it is worth noting that critiques of certain conceptualisations of Afrofuturism are also significant. These critiques offer alternative perspectives and challenge us to think critically about the implications of more well-known, Sci-Fi inspired Afrofuturist ideas.

Martine Syms is a video performance artist and programmer who critiques popular notions of Afrofuturism, which focus too heavily on unexamined archetypes, references to Egyptology and characters from popular culture. In her opinion, there needs to be a new evolution of the movement with an emphasis on the humanity of Black people. She advocates for a Black futurist imagination that is firmly rooted in reality. [4] Most Black and African (diasporic) liberation movements, for instance, have been focused  on demanding radically different realities and consequently, future(s), from the current status quo (cf. Combahee River Collective Statement or The Ten Point Program of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense). Looking back, Black people have always been concerned with futures, long before terms like “Afrofuturism” emerged. This is largely because of the inhumane treatment that Black people have experienced in the past and present, which has sparked a deep desire for a better tomorrow – a future that breaks free from the constraints of the present. [5],[6]

Following artist Martine Syms’ “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto”, as well as Ytasha Womack’s perspectives on Afrofuturism(s), we must recognise that the way we imagine futures is shaped by our current social and cultural context, which can either reinforce or challenge existing power structures. It is vital to acknowledge that optimistic discussions about a technologically “advanced” future can not be neutral. Afrofuturist movements seek to reshape our collective imagination(s) by subverting and highlighting dominant narratives that exclude or marginalize certain groups. Afrofuturism(s) recognise the potential of science fiction and speculative fiction to envision a more just and equitable future for all by creating alternative realities.

After taking into account the various theoretical conceptualisations, it becomes apparent that there is no singular definition of Afrofuturism(s) since Black and African (diasporic) imaginations encompass a multitude of past(s), future(s), and present(s). Therefore, it is impossible to confine it to a monolithic notion – that is the reason why we prefer to use the term “Afrofuturisms” instead of Afrofuturism, the same way we at SUPERRR Lab talk about “futures” instead of the singular “future”.

Structural racism and other forms of discrimination, such as discrimination against gender identity, sexual orientation, class, among others, have been a pervasive problem in society and consequently, also in digital spaces. The oppression of Black people and other racialised people is directly translated from the physical to the digital. In the age of Social Media, it is often times Black people that set trends in the way we communicate online (cf. Black Twitter, Memes, Digital Blackface). However, Black people in digital spaces are often under- and misrepresented. Unsurprisingly, it is often times Black and racialised people who are targets of hate speech and misinformation on Social Media, further perpetuating harmful attitudes and behaviours against them. [7][8]

But the structural discrimination in digital spaces is not “only” confined to the realms of Social Media, but can also be found in all kinds of technology. Algorithms used in facial recognition technology, for example, have been shown to be less accurate for people with darker skin tones, leading to biased outcomes and perpetuating racial disparities. [9]

Afrofuturism(s), for example, can help in offering a counter-narrative to these issues by creating alternative visions of futures that centre Black people and their experiences. By imagining and creating alternative worlds, Afrofuturism(s) challenge the hegemony of Western cultural and political systems and foreground the perspectives of people who have been marginalised by them. By highlighting the possibilities of technology and innovation, Afrofuturism(s) provide an alternative to the often-negative portrayals of Black people in all kinds of cultural production – from popular media, to literature to art – on- and offline. As a result, it can be argued that Afrofuturism(s) form a tool for addressing issues caused by the historical and ongoing impacts of colonialism and imperialism.

Similarly, our research group at SUPERRR Lab is concerned with critically examining the idea of positive future(s)-thinking, as we are committed to envision futures devoid of the limitations set by the omnipresence of white supremacist patriarchy and are sharpened by an intersectional lens. Not only is this mirrored in our upcoming and on-going research, but also in projects like Muslim Futures, for instance, which is also inspired by the tradition and abundance of Afrofuturism(s). Along these different lines, we work towards a shared goal: imagining, shaping and contributing to futures that are not only desirable but also feasible, just and empowering for all.


[1] In 2015, Britt Rusert, an assistant professor of African-American literature and culture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, discovered a short story that plays a vital role in the evolution of Afrofuturism(s).

Read more here

[2] Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose. From: Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyber Culture.

[3] Ytasha Womack, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi & Culture (2013)

[4] Martine Syms: The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto

[5] Combahee River Collective Statement

[6] Ten Point Program, Black Panther Party for Self-Defense

[7] Black Twitter?: Racial Hashtags, Networks and Contagion

[8] Digital Blackface: How 21st Century Internet Language Reinforces Racism

[9] Racial Discrimination in Face Recognition Technology

Image credit: The image featured in this content is a still from the music video "She's A B****" (1998) by Missy Elliott. All rights for the image belong to the creators of the music video and song, including Melissa Elliott, Timothy Mosley, and Hype Williams, as well as Goldmind and Elektra Records.