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My Unlikely Path to Afrofuturism

Afrofuturism is everywhere these days. From the staggering success of Black Panther to the revival of Octavia Butler’s works, especially the prescient Parable of the Sower written in 1993, to the award-winning novels by N. K. Jemisin, these books have ushered in a new moment. We’re not just talking about literature or film, but music, fashion design, visual arts, and social activism as well. What often gets lost or flattened, however, when a phenomenon enters the mainstream, is the nuance, history, and multiple viewpoints on said phenomenon. Afrofuturism is an umbrella term, elastic, expansive, and at times contested. Mark Dery introduced the term in an edited collection titled Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. He defined it as “speculative fiction that treats African American themes and addresses African American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.”1 A scholarly mouthful, indeed.

What’s interesting and paradoxical is that despite futurism being in the description, as an aesthetic Afrofuturism is interested as much in memory and representation of the past as it is in the future. Ingrid Fleuer, a mayoral candidate in Detroit, ran on an Afrofuturist platform and defined it as “imagining a healthier present and future and recontextualizing the past so that it is empowering rather than victimizing. It is a way of healing within the moment.” My definition puts people of the African diaspora in the center (as characters, creators, and agents of inquiry) and aligns with the definition offered by Grace D. Gipson as a mode or genre that “allows artists to present new and innovative perspectives and pose questions that are not typically addressed in canonical works.”2

In addition to being a professor, I write speculative fiction, particularly what is now being called “dark fiction,” also known as horror. Speculative fiction concerns itself with ideas that can’t operate by the physical laws of the universe as we currently know them, encompassing magical realism, fantasy, weird and slipstream fiction, science fiction, horror, and so on. Over the past few years some of my work has been labeled “Afrofuturist.” People are often surprised when they learn that when I began writing in the 1990s, I had no idea that I was working within the aesthetics of Afrofuturism. Sometimes I feel as if I have emerged from a time capsule and have stepped into an alternate reality where Afrofuturism has always existed, fully formed and validated. This alternate reality is much more pleasant and yielding than the one that I have known to be true. To understand why I didn’t know about Afrofuturism is to understand the importance of its current visibility and power.

Initially, speculative fiction and media allowed me to escape a racialized and gendered reality that I found oppressive, even though I didn’t yet possess sophisticated words like “intersecting axes of identity” to describe it. When I tired of escaping in imagined worlds but never seeing myself in these places of escape, I slowly started writing. These patterns were formed early in my childhood.

Culturally, like many Gen-Xers, I was influenced at an early age by television shows like The Bionic Woman and Lost in Space (when I was around six years old, I believed and acted as if Will Robinson was my brother), and the film Star Wars. To see Star Wars, my mother, my sister, and I stood in the rain and waited in line for what seemed like forever. My mother wasn’t a Star Trek fan, or that much of a lover of science fiction, and I still am unclear why she made the effort to take us. Maybe, like everyone else, she wanted to see what the buzz was about. I remember that it was being shown in one of the stately old theaters in lower Manhattan with plush carpeted floors, grand staircases, and bathrooms with attendants. I loved the film, though upon reflection, and as others have noted, there are no people of color in it (maybe there’s an extra hiding somewhere). As a Black girl viewer, nothing of myself was reflected back to me. Although Princess Leia was a role model and a source of girl power for many, she wasn’t for me. Despite this, while watching Star Wars, I sensed I was both a witness and an heir to an exciting new mythology that inspired possibility.

The Empire Strikes Back was an important film for me because it was the first movie that my friends and I got to see on our own, unescorted (as a present for graduating from the sixth grade), and Billy Dee Williams was in it. And although he was more well known to my mother’s generation than to mine, there was an anticipatory buzz among us that there was a Black person in this space film, and we wanted to see him. And, even though Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian begins as a morally ambiguous character, just seeing him onscreen was empowering—Black people existed in the future! And he was loved by us despite the fact that his character had no discernible connection to African American culture; he was there on the big screen, and for me at the age of twelve, that was enough.

Besides consuming speculative media, by the time I was in my tweens, I began reading fantasy. One of my favorites was the Damiano series (Damino, Damiano’s Lute, and Raphael) by R. A. MacAvoy that chronicled the adventures of a wizard’s young son and was set during an alternate history of the Italian Renaissance. On some level, it really didn’t trouble me that there were never any Black people on the covers of any of the fantasy books I read, or that none of the protagonists mirrored my experiences as young Black girl growing up in the Bronx. So while speculative fiction and media served as a fantastic conduit to imagine different realities, it didn’t give me the conceptual tools or language to understand the inequities that I experienced as a young Black girl and that were features of my everyday life. On some level, I noted that absence.

At the same time I was absorbing fantasy and sci-fi when I was young, I was also deeply into horror. My mother was a serious horror fan, and I think my younger sister can quote most of Steven King’s work. Typical of my generation, I watched and read material that was definitely age inappropriate. I credit my early horror interests for giving me an alternate way of looking at the world, one that is grittier and less idealistic. I’ve gravitated more toward horror tropes in my writing as they provide a powerful way to dig into the complexities and contradictions of race and gender.

Everything changed in college. Not only did I get  introduced by friends to the works of explicitly feminist speculative fiction writers (e.g., Elizabeth Lynn, Tanith Lee, Ursula K. Le Guin), but I also discovered the African American literary canon, and during the late 1980s the explosion of writing by Black women (e.g., Ntozoke Shange, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker). I began exploring how women authors had been displaced and excluded in both literary and popular canons—and how in both of these arenas authors were remaking questions of love, sex, and power. This work felt like revolutionary excavation.

By high school I was writing my own (bad) epic fantasies. In all my creative writing classes in college, whenever there was an assignment given, my professors were less than thrilled when I turned in something not grounded in realism. Still I wrote, and I looked for reflections of myself both in mainstream speculative media and popular sci-fi and found little. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when I was in graduate school pursuing a doctorate in political science that I began to write seriously. I felt I was the only Black person who loved and wrote science fiction. It wouldn’t be until the late nineties that I got introduced to the work of Samuel Delaney and Octavia Butler. Luckily I met Nisi Shawl, who worked at the Dawn Trader, a used bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She was the first person of color I had serious conversations with about Black speculative fiction and ideas that eventually would be known as “Afrofuturism.” This was probably more than twenty-five years ago. She was a mentor and friend, and I have followed her career with great joy. If you don’t know her, you should. Her recent steampunk novel Everfair received critical acclaim. It reimagines the Belgian Congo and asks what would have happened if African peoples had developed steam technology first. She is active in sci-fi circles and is a cultural critic. She also co-facilitates a workshop for writers called “Writing the Other” that has become a standard for writers both in- and outside of sci-fi and for developing deeply human and grounded characters that are unlike us.

Afrofuturism has created a space, especially for Black women and women of color, to tell different kinds of stories that reflect on the conditions of our lives. When I look back on several of my works, I see themes and patterns that speak to aspects of Afrofuturism and also to my interest in the African American literary tradition. There is a type of psychological horror to living as a racialized person that fuels my stories, and I am fascinated by how coping with “otherness” shapes the worldview of many of my characters. I am generally interested in themes of paranoia, obsession, conspiracy theories, and the intricacies of race and gender. My recently published novella, Reenu-You, takes up questions about race, gender, the politics of beauty, and corporate conspiracy as it ruminates on what would happen if a virus was transmitted through an all-natural hair relaxer sold in communities of color.

My novelette “Nussia” deals with extraterrestrials and toggles between ideas of the future, though it is set in the 1970s. In this sci-fi psychological dark story, Lindsay Fields, an African American girl, “wins” an extraterrestrial in a national contest only to find her family’s life upended as a result. I think of it as E.T. meets Fatal Attraction. I didn’t intentionally set out to write an anti-E.T. story. I was probably the same age as Lindsay when I saw E.T., around twelve or thirteen. Like many, I enjoyed the movie despite its saccharine feel. In my story, I loved that I got a chance to do some sci-fi world-building by developing humanoid aliens known as the “Fike” and identifying the challenges Lindsay faces as a representative for her people at such a critical time in her life. The kernel of this story was inspired a long time ago by the biting, incisive comedy of Paul Mooney. He did a famous bit on racism, sci-fi movies, and how some white people would rather embrace an alien living as a neighbor, next door to them, than an African American family. His routine challenged me to reflect on the absolute irrational nature of racism and explore that irrationality through storytelling. The structure allows me to play with the external challenges that the Fields family faces as they host Nussia and the way each family member responds to that pressure.

In my story, “Family Line” a modern-day young man from the North travels to the South to visit his cousins and discovers that one of their enslaved ancestors made a deal with a demon in exchange for his freedom. Consequently, in every generation and a half, a young man is sacrificed to keep the family free. On the surface, it’s partly a monster story and a coming-of-age story, but it’s also a rumination about the cost of freedom (pre- and postslavery).

While I was in college, I met the brilliant law professor Randall L. Kennedy. In his public talk on the campus, he reminded the audience that power and hegemony à la Gramsci is not just about the ability of one group to disadvantage others by force. Hegemony is about how individuals make sense of what can be imagined. I’ve thought about that talk for years. Through my twenties, thirties, and mid-forties, despite my creativity and perseverance, I couldn’t imagine a publishing and media world that made Afrofuturism legible. This is how imaginations are colonized. In the end, it’s not as important to me to debate what Afrofuturism is. I can see what it is doing in the world. It is unleashing creativity in a profound way. It is waking up editors, publishers, and media companies and pushing them to read more widely and address the question of who has been doing the gatekeeping all these years. Young writers and creators of color will never imagine themselves alone in the ways that I did pre-internet, pre–Black geekdom communities, and pre­–Black Panther. One of the things that cheers me the most about Afrofuturism as a movement is that we, as creators, are finding each other and finding audiences who are hungry for imaginative works that we’ve been wanting to share for a very long time.



  1. Mark Dery, “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 180.
  2. Grace D. Gipson, “Afrofuturism’s Musical Princess Janelle Monáe: Psychedelic Soul Message Music Infused with a Sci-Fi Twist,” in Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016), 92.