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.
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.
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.
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.