Afro-Futurisms: Speculative Visions Across the Black Diaspora

The University of California, Irvine, held a panel discussion on “Afro-futurism: Speculative Visions Across the Black Diaspora” on October 13th, raising a number of questions and issues that should be of interest to humanitarians working in Africa as well as students and practitioners of different religions. Questions of how the past is recounted, including the role and power of the ancestors, vis-à-vis how African futures are imagined, also relate to many of the issues debated at last week’s African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) Conference at the University of Ghana, Legon. Here, we recap some of the debates raised in the event and because these are issues that raise important questions about longstanding religious traditions and their place in future imaginings; issues that humanitarians, who often do not have a sense of the debates animating the places where they work, should take into account in reversing paternalistic practices of aid.


“Afro-Futurisms: Speculative Visions Across the Black Diaspora”

By: Emeizmi Mandagi, University of California – Irvine Intern

Afro-futurism is a means of closing the gap in an academic and social discourse that often portrays Africa and Africans in a backwards manner. Through this field of Afro-futurism, the African viewer can look back into the past and reimagine memories that make up either their individual past or the collective past of their country. With these reconstructions of the past they can then be used as a means of entering that reimagined memory as an envisioning of the future.

For example, during the Afro-Futurisms panel, Dr. Ainehi Edoro used a comparative case study of two works of literature by African authors to compare their efforts at implementing Afro-futuristic elements in their novels. She juxtaposed Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor. She begun by describing both novels as a first contact [with colonialism] narrative. Dr. Edoro posited that Things Fall Apart is self-contained and is therefore not a true representation of an empirical and chronological past. In this way, she argued, the novel is a dream that masquerades as a memory of the past. Things Fall Apart illustrates how colonialism led to the destruction of the African world order; Lagoon does the complete opposite — depicting how colonialism came to an end due to the reinstatement of an African world order. In this way, Lagoon effectively uses Afro-futurism as a tool to revision the past and recreate the memory in a positive manner, and in turn, this reconstructed memory can be used to envision the future and in this way “enter the future.”

While many artists utilize Afro-futurism within their work, Octavia Butler is widely considered by many scholars as the mother of Afrofuturism. In her talk, Dr. Moya Bailey explained that Butler’s multitude of contributions to literature as a science fiction writer paved the way for other African science fiction writers to see a place for them in a literary subsect where there are few African writers. Butler’s writings left a legacy, and Butler’s legacy continues to be remembered through the literary archive created to honor her at the Huntington Library.

Samuel R. Delany also made notable contributions to Afro-futurism as a science fiction writer. Dr. Tavia Nyong’o argued that queer theory has never been non-reflexive or normative, and within Delany’s works you can see him utilizing musicality as a symbol of queerness. Nyong’o argued that Delaney’s book, Einstein Intersection, is a post-modernist form and uses ‘music-ing’ and polymorphous sexuality as a technique for offering the discourse of queer theory a genealogy in music, sex, and alternative world-making. For example, the protagonist in Einstein Intersection, Loki, is a symbol of queerness as he has the ability to hear the music in the mind of others. Further, Nyong’o argued that the work of literature itself is an allegory of common heteronormative and social normative tropes. This is meant to illustrate the problem that throughout the 20th century, speculative fiction has continued to reproduce ideas of heteronormativity.

See below for more detailed notes on the talks:

The Future is African: Nnedi Okorafor’s New World Order

By Dr. Ainehi Edoro

  • Assemble counter memories, reimaginations and reconstructions of the past
    • Futurological analysis seen by some circles as an unethical dereliction of duty
      • Looked upon with suspicion, wariness, and hostility
    • Afro-futurism seen to close gap in an archive that is backwards discourse
      • Looking backwards can be a way of entering the future

Things Fall Apart v. Lagoon

  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is a good example of something that appears to be written in the past
    • First contact [with colonialism] narrative just like Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
    • Things Fall Apart is an imagined Africa, so self-contained
      • Not a representation of an empirical chronological past
      • A dream masquerading as a memory
    • Depicts how colonialism led to the destruction of the African world order
  • Lagoon depicts how colonialism comes to an end with the reinstatement of an African world order


  • Things Fall Apart :
    • Ancestors are tied to the history of the clan, represent principle of law and order in the clan
    • Constitute the center and power of an old world
    • Brings up visions of the past rather than the present, yet ancestors represent the future
    • What an ancestor fears the most is being caught between the ashes of old bygone days and a future void of content with only abandonment and longing
      • Stuck in a perpetual limbo
    • Lagoon:
      • Ancestors as model for a terrestrial space
      • Alien power constitutes itself as a planetary power
      • Ancestral power is animated by alien power
      • When we translate alien power into ancestral power, we’re making alien power less threatening by modeling it according to existing figures of power
        • It domesticates alien power
      • When you read the two together, alien and ancestral future have always been in relation
        • One is a utopian alternative to the other
      • Afro-futurism introduces new discussive practices
        • Means through which we can enter the future by going backward
        • Seeing multiple trajectories of the future by turning to the reimaginations of the future made by those from the past

Octavia Butler

By Moya Bailey

  • Octavia Butler regarded as the mother of Afrofuturism
  • Butler’s contribution to palimpsest speak to her marginalization
  • Passed away in 2006
    • Grave was overgrown 2 years past her death
    • Brings to question how do we honor her legacy?
  • What does she have to say to us as an artist? Not solely within the field of scholars
  • Butler addresses the question of whether putting ourselves in the shoes of another will invoke more empathy in us
    • Her findings concluded that it only makes us more prone to inflicting violence onto one another
  • Parable of the Sower:
    • Character who wants to make America great again
    • Butler predicted our current state (regarding politics and social justice)

Samuel R. Delany

By Tavia Nyong’o

  • Argues that queer theory has never been non-reflexive or normative
  • A more expansive genealogy of queer theory can show us its place in postcolonial or black theory
  • If we understand theory as shaped by Delaney, then we never had a queer theory innocent of politicization
  • Delaney’s work seen as critical in queer theory
    • differentiating power of gender norms
  • Afro-futurism listserv began in 1999
  • Delaney a black queer and feminist theory writer seen also as an Afro-futuristic writer
    • This is related to the field of imaginaries of both queer theory and Afro-futurism
  • Delaney presents Einstein Intersection in a post-modernist form
    • Characters themselves are palimpsest
    • Musicality as a symbol of queerness
      • Loki (protagonist) has ability to hear the music of other minds
        • Meant to illustrate his specialness
      • A human is a genre composed of rational and irrational elements
      • An ironic allegory of the common heteronormative and social normative tropes
      • fabulates anti genesis of emergent and enigmatic spaces themselves
    • Problem that book lays out for reader: over 20th century speculative fiction has reproduced ideas of heteronormativity
      • Need for problematizing norms without falling back on reflexive heteronormativity
  • What role can Afrofuturism play in social justice and organizing
    • Time not seen as linear in threads of Afrofuturism
      • Being aware of past while imaginings of the future
      • Ensuring it doesn’t replicate the past
    • Organizing ourselves around ideals, events, images and use to think of world beyond ourselves
      • Fidelity to a cause