What do the works of Octavia E. Butler, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Marvel’s “Luke Cage” and the music of Janelle Monáe and George Clinton have in common? They’re all in the realm of Afrofuturism, an arts movement sweeping the world and firing up imaginations of people from all backgrounds.
Afrofuturism – also known as the Black Speculative Arts Movement – centers black characters and innovative voices in comics, music, science fiction, fantasy and horror. Whether it’s the prophetic dystopia of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, an android slave auction in Janelle Monáe’s “Many Moons” video, or racism as a kind of demon in Get Out, Afrofuturism explores voices that traditionally have been erased to provide a map through the past and present with an eye toward a better future.
I teach Afrofuturism at UCLA, and for the first time I’ll be co-teaching a 10-week public webinar with pioneering science fiction writer Steven Barnes (“The Outer Limits,” Lion’s Blood) starting Saturday, March 25th : “Afrofuturism: Dreams to Banish Nightmares.” Lectures will be broadcast live online, but if you miss one, you can watch the video feed at your leisure.
This overview course is designed for artists, fans and activists who want to explore Afrofuturistic themes in their own art or simply gain a better understanding the power of Afrofuturism to help drive social change. The course is perfect for writers, filmmakers, musicians and artists of all types who want to explore Afrofuturism and be more inclusive in their works – but you don’t need to be an artist to take the course. (Most of my students aren’t.)
You’ll get a syllabus of works to explore in your own time, live lectures online, and access to the slew of interviews we’re conducting for the course: interviews include “Luke Cage” writer/showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, Oscar-winning producer Reggie Hudlin, Hugo Award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor, pioneer Samuel R. Delany, author M.R. Carey (author/screenwriter of The Girl With all the Gifts), activist Bree Newsome (who took down the South Carolina Confederate flag), Jamie Broadnax of Black Girl Nerds, artist John Jennings – and more! These guests will share craft secrets and their views on Afrofuturism’s power. Steve and I will also share an interview we conducted with Octavia E. Butler in 2000.
From Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu’s short film Pumzi
Why is Afrofuturism so powerful?
Imagine: Fifty years ago, in the 1960s, when young black and white activists were being murdered and attacked for trying to register blacks to vote—how awe-inspiring was Lt. Uhura on “Star Trek”? Lt. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, was a validation on the deepest level that blacks would not only survive—we would thrive. Her impact was so powerfully felt that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked her not to quit the series when Nichols was ready to leave.
And if you’ve read Octavia E. Butler’s work, you know how strongly she was guided by a principled social vision that decried hierarchy and subjugation – themes that could not be more relevant in our current political times. What qualities provide great leadership? What is the path through hardship? How can we imagine the future we want to avoid – or the one we want to build? Whether it’s the utopian escapism of jazz pioneer Sun Ra or the heroic feats of Black Panther, Afrofuturism helps give us tools to both cope with and subvert harmful social trends.
At an event I attended in West Palm Beach Saturday called Black Women Rise, activist icon Angela Davis discussed the impact of Afrofuturism on real-life world-building.
“It’s not that I’m optimistic because I see the world through rose-colored glasses,” Davis said. “It’s that if the work that you’ve done for so many decades and years would make a difference in the future, we have to be able to imagine a different future. Even though there are no guarantees, but in order to do the work we do, however we do it – whether as artists or activists – we have to believe a different kind of world is possible…
“And thank you so much for your work, Tananarive, in Afrofuturism – we need to be able to imagine the future as accessible, as spiritually accessible, to us. We’re doing this work not just for what will happen in our lifetimes, we’re doing it for the worlds that will be ushered into being a hundred years from now, two-hundred years from now, and we have to learn now how to feel ourselves a part of that in a collective meditation.”
Whether it’s by magic, alternate history, horror or projections in the future itself, Afrofuturism is a powerful tool in real-life worldbuilding.
Tananarive Due has won an American Book Award, an NAACP Image Award and a British Fantasy Award. She teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA. Steven Barnes has won an NAACP Image Award and an Endeavor Award for his alternate history, Lion’s Blood.