The second coming has always been about Christendom, but what does it really mean? Afrofuturism is a key component. When black folks begin to think in first world terms, though it may seem like a return to the past, it’s the way of the Universe, it’s the recycling, not of repeated patterns, but a energy of learned lessons and return to greatness. Realizing Afrofuturism is not quite in the lexicon of most Black Americans, but it certainly is eventual of our lifetime.
How Afrofuturism Can Help the World Mend
In a year that’s broken the world and shattered reality, imagining Black futures can help plot a pathway to recovery.
A COMET STRIKES New York City, killing almost everyone in sight. A survivor named Jim Davis, a Black man, searches the rubble for others, eventually finding and rescuing a white woman named Julia. They share their shock and grief, soon realizing they might be two of the only remaining people on Earth. The circumstances force Julia to reconsider her pre-comet racism: “How foolish our human distinctions seem—now.” Jim and Julia quickly develop an intimate bond.
Soon after, they encounter a group of white men, Julia’s fiance among them. They tell her that only New York was destroyed, that the rest of the world remains intact. In an instant, Julia relapses into her pre-comet white life. She’s indifferent as her companions hurl racial slurs at Jim. Suddenly he is unimportant to her, and she never looks in his direction again.
So ends “The Comet,” a relatively obscure but profoundly consequential short story by W. E. B. DuBois. Though best-known for his searing analyses of history and sociology, DuBois’ foray into fantasy in 1920 is among his most reflective works, ruthlessly blunt in its stance on racism’s inevitability. Most importantly, “The Comet” helped lay the foundation for a paradigm known as Afrofuturism.
A century later, as a comet carrying disease and social unrest has upended the world, Afrofuturism may be more relevant than ever. Its vision can help guide us out of the rubble, and help us to consider universes of better alternatives.
When most people think of Afrofuturism today, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Wakanda comes to mind, an African country that hides advanced technology from the world. Within Wakanda, Afrofuturism manifests most explicitly in the award-winning fashion and set design, a hypnotic blend of African traditional art and dress, cyberpunk, and space opera.
While highly visible examples like Black Panther certainly qualify, Afrofuturism has more traditionally lived in subgenres of literature, philosophy, music, fashion, and other aesthetics. Dubbing something Afrofuturistic, says renowned sociologist Alondra Nelson, is “very much in the eye of the beholder and this is a good thing. Afrofuturism should be a big tent of expanding borders of the possibilities for Black life.” Expansive as it is, Nelson, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and pioneering scholar of Afrofuturism, offered a tidy yet illuminating definition: Afrofuturism describes “visions of the future—including science, technology and its cultures in the laboratory, in social theory, and in aesthetics—through the experience and perspective of African diasporic communities.” In all of Afrofuturism’s many forms, questions are projected about the Black experience into the future.
As technology is a cultural instrument through which we understand and build the future, Afrofuturistic ideas often involve imaginations or analyses of how technology intersects with Black politics or aesthetics. As Nelson notes, “A facet of Afrofuturism that should not get overshadowed is Black people’s longstanding, innovative, and critical engagement with science and technology.”
The most resonant and front-facing Afrofuturistic relics are in the arts, namely speculative fiction, music, and fashion. Like DuBois’ “The Comet,” Afrofuturistic sci-fi grapples with how race and difference manifest in future worlds. This is as true in the 20th-century works of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany as it is of the recent novels of N. K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor. Okorafor has said she didn’t read much traditional science fiction growing up because she “couldn’t relate to these stories preoccupied with xenophobia, colonization, and seeing aliens as ‘others.’” Her African mythology-inspired Binti trilogy and her other works are couched in a different understanding of history, which doubtlessly influences her conception of the future: “My science fiction has different ancestors—African ones.”
The most popular Afrofuturist authors write deftly at this margin, where they are just as future-obsessed as their peers, but with different takes on questions about who gets to play which roles in these futures. For example, Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010) is a story about empire and slavery that plays out in a supernatural realm of deities and monsters. Butler’s 1979 classic Kindred famously features an African-American writer who travels between modern Los Angeles and a Maryland plantation during the antebellum period.
In music, acts like Sun Ra and Parliament Funkadelic built their looks and sounds on a marriage between Black culture and futuristic iconography. For Afrofuturist artists, technology is an essential part of the sound. Play Parliament’s acid-infused take on the Motown sound in “I Bet You” and feel the future course through your veins. “These are masters of craft, originators of new sonic (and therefore social) worlds,” says Nelson. “They all break, deform, and remake standard uses of music technology, genre and even expectations of race, gender, and sexuality.”
Afrofuturism’s importance also transcends the arts, and insofar as it can be described as a political identity or ideology (Nelson and other scholars leave open this possibility), then it provides a lens through which we can view the present and future.
We could have asked the Afrofuturist of 1985 what they thought about the War on Drugs. We could ask those in 1995 about Sub-Saharan Africa’s experience with the HIV pandemic, and in 2005 about the War on Terror.
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Why do we care about what the Afrofuturist has to say? And why would we suspect that their answers would differ from that of an average futurist? It is because the Black experience is defined by a historical struggle for existence, the right to live, to be considered a person, to be afforded basic rights, in pursuit of (political, social, economic) equality. Because of this, the Afrofuturist can see the parts of the present and future that reside in the status quo’s blind spots.
6 numbers that prove the future is African
By 2030 one in five people will be African. Combine the continent’s soaring population with technology, improvements in infrastructure, health and education, and Africa could be the next century’s economic growth powerhouse.
Here are just a few of the surprising facts and figures about Africa and its emerging success story.
- Africa will account for more than half (54%) of the 2.4 billion global population growth in the coming decades. The United Nations predicts that between 2015 and 2050, Africa will add 1.3 billion people, more than doubling its current population of 1.2 billion.
As the above graph shows, Africa’s population will continue to grow even as Asia – currently the biggest regional driver of economic growth – begins to see its explosive population growth recede.
As part of the continent’s phenomenal population growth, UNICEF predicts that 2 billion babies will be born in Africa over the next 33 years.
High fertility and improving child survival rates mean that by 2050, 40% of under-fives and more than a third of all children under 18 will be African. In 1950, only about 10% of the world’s children were African.
The overwhelming majority of Africans today have access to a mobile phone service, but less than two thirds have access to piped water.
According to research by Afro Barometer, mobile phone networks have grown faster than any other area of core infrastructure over the past decade, increasing by nearly a quarter.
Sewerage, on the other hand, has remained relatively stagnant, with availability growing by just 8%. Less than one third of Africans currently have access to modern wastewater systems.
4. Improved availability of mobile services and increasing smartphone ownership have helped propel Samsung to become Africa’s number one most admired brand.
The South Korean electronics giant is joined by rival smartphone manufacturers Apple, LG and Nokia in the top 10 of Brand Africa’s 2016/17 list of Most Admired Brands in Africa. Only 16 African brands made the top 100, with just two in the top 20. Again, the top two most admired African brands are mobile-related: South Africa’s MTN and Nigeria’s Globacom (GLO). Both mobile service providers operate in multiple African nations.
In 11 African countries, women hold close to one-third of parliamentary seats. This is more than in Europe. Rwanda, where women have 64% of seats in the lower house, has the highest proportion of women parliamentarians worldwide.
Not only do African countries have governments with high female representation, they also have plenty of women entrepreneurs: African women own one third of all businesses across Africa.
6. $105 billion
While African women are entrepreneurial, the overwhelming majority are paid less than their male colleagues.
Research by the UN shows that African women hold two thirds of all jobs in the non-agricultural informal sector, and on average only make 70 cents for each dollar made by men.
The UN estimates that discriminatory gender policies in sub-Saharan Africa cost the region up to $105 billion each year, or 6% of its GDP.
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