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Afrofuturism is one of those terms that’s recently floated out of niche fandoms and entered into the mainstream, largely thanks to the mega-popularity of movies like Black Panther, artists like Janelle Monae, and events like Afropunk. These creations — most of them a product of African-American pop culture — are part of a defiant, creative generation of people from the African diaspora who mix sci-fi sensibilities with age-old traditions. As a fashion subculture, it’s easy enough to spot: powerful Black men and women dressed in Besotho blankets, Himba braids, Maasai collars, as well as Egyptian ankhs and crowns inspired by Yoruban deity Oshun — remixed with superhero textiles, gravity-defying jewelry, and technicolor hair.
But when it comes to defining this genre, it's a little more difficult.
To understand what it is, you first have to understand the bones of a satisfying sci-fi story. In them, a civilization is usually on the brink of destruction, in danger of extermination by evil overlords. But, a leader emerges who’s able to harness both technology and traditions to defeat evil. At the end, the same things that make civilizations vulnerable are also revealed to be the thing that makes them powerful.
Now, consider the story of many within the African diaspora. After being abducted from their homes, Black people were enslaved, murdered, and oppressed while being used as literal fuel. Languages, religions, and entire cultures were abolished and forbidden. Access to information and communication were destroyed.
Afrofuturism asks: If that’s Part I of the sci-fi story, what’s Part II?
This mash-up of ancestral and android reveals a very real and grounded truth: Many Black Americans don’t know their roots or ancestry, just that they’ve survived. So, imagining a future in which they’re present, thriving, and powerful is a way to heal and plot. Afrofuturism asks the questions that help people feel grounded in both unknowns. But is what they’re saying at the expense of what people have to say in present-day Africa?