Black History Month: Afrofuturism and Black Panther

I went to see Black Panther last weekend, and it was every bit as good as everyone said.  One of its most striking aspects is the visual aesthetic and culture of Wakanda, a successful cross of organic and technological, traditional and futuristic.  It is one of the most stunning recent representations of a decades-long movement called “Afrofuturism.”  Although it may not have always been at the forefront of the genre, it has had a deep and lasting impact on science fiction.

Janelle Monáe’s album The ArchAndroid

Afrofuturism has its roots in the mid-20th century works of authors such as W.E.B. DuBois and Ralph Ellison.  The term itself was coined in the ’90s to describe the trend of “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture.”  Hugo- and Nebula-winning author Octavia Butler produced some of the most famous works of the movement.

Afrofuturism seems to be having a bit of a renaissance currently, being represented in the works of authors like Nnedi Okorafor, musicians like Janelle Monáe, and even in the video game Overwatch with the appearance of the fictional utopian city Numbani.  But the Black Panther movie is clearly destined to move Afrofuturism solidly into our collective consciousness and give it a lasting place in popular culture.

File:Numbani3.jpg
Overwatch’s Afrofuturist city Numbani

Wakanda’s Afrofuturistic aspects can be seen in many facets, from the visuals of its architecture and clothing to its transportation and medical care, and especially in its mirage that keeps its true advanced nature hidden from the rest of the world.  In many ways, the African culture blends seamlessly with technology powered by the fictional metal vibranium.  Traditional articles of clothing become advanced armor and shields.  A beaded bracelet is a remote control device for communications, healing, or other infrastructure systems.  Wakanda has metropolitan skyscrapers that are covered in living plants.

But Afrofuturism is more than the sum of its sci-fi tech gadgets. Note for example the difference between Black Panther and Falcon, another black MCU superhero with lots of tech.  While Falcon provides great representation for African-Americans, his MCU incarnation does not have a lot of qualities that speak specifically to that experience.  In general, Anthony Mackie could be replaced with a white actor with little change to the character.

But in the Afrofuturistic world of Black Panther, the dual nature of its African roots and forward-thinking ideas reflects the duality of the black experience.  (Interesting that even the word “African-American” itself showcases a duality.)  For a black perspective on this, I recommend this commentary on the different dichotomies of the movie; I think the Afrofuturistic vibe fits that motif as well.  The movie feels both African and (African-)American, and has a lot to say about black issues using science fiction as a background.

Related image
Wakanda

So what about Afrofuturism has given it such staying power over the years, and such draw now? Because Afrofuturist works are typically made by black creators, and frequently for a black audience, my personal speculations are largely irrelevant.  The one thing that rings true to me is that Wakanda is an empowering, optimistic view of a possible future, where, among other things, young black women can be the head scientists of a nation.

I recently read a quote from author Shomari Wills about why he wrote his book Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires.  He said, “So much today focuses on black folks and lack.”  He went on to say that while poverty and disparity are important issues to discuss, he wanted a more positive message to honor those successful businessmen and women and empower readers.  I think Afrofuturism serves a similar purpose.  By having their own space in speculative fiction to tell unique stories, Afrofuturists can empower us to envision a future where black culture and science are not at odds but blend seamlessly.

Further Reading:

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12 thoughts on “Black History Month: Afrofuturism and Black Panther

    • Mei-Mei February 28, 2018 / 3:47 pm

      Thanks, I really appreciate it! Your blog is great also, looking forward to learning more.

      Like

  1. saraletourneau February 28, 2018 / 8:44 pm

    Great post, Mei-Mei! I hadn’t actually heard of the term Afrofuturism until recently, thanks to Black Panther (which I’m planning to *finally* see this weekend – yay!). Now that I’ve read about it here and Googled for more examples, I know I’ve read a couple books that are considered Afrofuturism. But now that I’m aware of it, I think I’ll pick up on this more consciously when I watch Black Panther.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mei-Mei March 4, 2018 / 7:49 am

      Hope you enjoyed the movie this weekend! I know that you’ve read a lot of magical realism lately, and that’s another common component of Afrofuturism. I really haven’t read much in this genre–in Feb I started reading several black sci-fi authors because I think it’s a part of sci-fi that gets overlooked too often.

      Liked by 1 person

      • saraletourneau March 4, 2018 / 8:45 pm

        I FREAKING LOVED BLACK PANTHER. 😀 I don’t think I can speak or write about it coherently yet. But I noticed most everything you mentioned in this post: an empowering, optimistic vision of the future for blacks. I also loved how it was empowering for women overall, with fantastic female characters who excelled in combat, science, and activism.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mei-Mei March 4, 2018 / 9:08 pm

        YAY! You’re right, it had great intersectionality too. Way more impactful than any “comic book movie” has a right to be.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. NovEllaandBanannabelle March 1, 2018 / 8:11 pm

    I haven’t seen Black Panther yet, but I’m looking forward to it! I’m glad you’ve given me a chance to read up on the context first 🙂 .

    Liked by 1 person

  3. starwarsanon March 2, 2018 / 3:03 pm

    Great post! I love reading all about this as I don’t know much about this genre. I wonder if my sister does….she did her dissertation on post-colonial children’s literature so I wonder if Afrofuturism (i just typed that 5 times, I kept misspelling it) ever came up.

    I’m not sure if I’m planning on seeing the movie in theaters but I am planning on seeing it at some point!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mei-Mei March 4, 2018 / 7:44 am

      Hope you enjoy it when you do see it. I think you will. Your sister’s dissertation sounds awesome!

      Like

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