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 aabout 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.
Futurists ask what tomorrow’s hoverboards and flying cars are made of. Afrofuturists ask who will build them? And does their commercial use fall out of their utility in military or law enforcement?
Futurists labor over questions about the nature of Android consciousness and empathy. Afrofuturists ask how race might be wired into Android consciousness, whether the android world might be as divided as ours is.
These are simple but nontrivial questions. Their answers contain the necessary details for building science fiction worlds that are truly convincing (which is one of the sole charges of good science fiction), or real worlds that science fiction makes us aspire to.
We can ask analogous questions of modern society, speculating what our world will look like after experiencing a triad of world-changing current events: the largest pandemic in a century, a social movement that challenges the institutions of policing and criminal justice, and an upcoming presidential election that almost certainly serves as a referendum on democracy in the United States (and the legitimacy of white nationalism-driven fascism globally).
We should ask Afrofuturism what it thinks of these events. While the specific answers might enlighten, real insights are found in the act of answering, as it forces us to reconsider and augment our predictions with layers that were missing.
The Covid-19 Comet
Covid-19 is the curse that keeps on cursing, already taking more than half a million lives globally and nearly 140,000 in the US. The curve’s dark bend, however, is not simply in how the virus continues to spread and kill, but in how the pandemic slithers along an insidious path, feeding on misinformation rich in credentialism, charlatanism, pseudoscience, conspiracy, and political propaganda.
The resulting cosmic slop looks more grotesque in July than it was in March. The world is so full of bad messages that make-believe conspiracies go to war with each other on our social media timelines; carpetbaggers storm in with reckless abandon, attacking the public’s basic trust in science and information; epidemiologists debate with Silicon Valley technologists, or other scientists, about whether things are getting better or worse; the science of mask-wearing regresses into hapless debates about the definition of “freedom.” Amid the torrent, fact-makers and science-defenders struggle to climb from the rubble and stay motivated and engaged.
The race and racism narrative manifested early in the United States leg of the epidemic. The signature is clear: Black and Latino people in the United States are three times as likely to be infected, and twice as likely to die as their white counterparts. The numbers alone still hide the fact that it is racism and structural violence that drive these disparities. Of the pandemic, the Afrofuturist would be of two minds:
- They may hope, as with DuBois’ naive Jim and Julia, that a disaster may unify us. That is, insofar as SARS-CoV-2 can infect us across whatever groupings, we may conclude that we’re all humans, all of us affected by a disease.
- The pessimistic part of the Afrofuturist would, however, understand that in-demand technology, including medical technology, will always be relatively unavailable to Black people (unless that technology is for criminal justice purposes). Reports about biases in how ventilators are distributed fits this narrative: When technology is in limited supply, and is tied to survival, Black lives are the last ones spared.
Even worse, a popular interpretation reads that the racial narrative of the early US epidemic fueled the nation’s negligent response. That is, excess Black deaths are no call to action. And because the racial divide became the subject of so much early coverage in the American epidemic, it served to calm the nerves of the American majority: If the Black people and Latinos are dying from it, so be it. This notion is, of course, unscientific and a losing strategy for everyone (racism always is), but reality supports the idea that this model is at work.
In that sense, Covid-19 is even more tragic than “The Comet.” In DuBois’ imagined world, the reader is at least offered a glimpse at the possibility that the disaster unifies us. Covid-19, however, was racialized from the outset, with anti-Asian scapegoating that persists. That it took on a Black and Brown face in the United States immediately left no time for us to even dream of a utopian scenario. In the end, Covid-19 hasn’t unified a damn thing.
Black Lives and Cybernetic Cops
While Covid-19 has offered no consistently good news, the Black Lives Matter movement, which reemerged internationally following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, has laid the groundwork for productive, practical conversations about policing and the purpose of criminal justice. Some of the loudest voices have focused on defunding the police, a concept that isn’t a slogan, but rather, a set of policy proposals for reconsidering how police departments are organized and financed.
Other criminal-justice related considerations have come along for the ride. In response to the protests, a groundswell of support has grown for limiting the use of facial recognition software. Mathematicians have even urged their colleagues to boycott work on policing algorithms.
While the state of the world may have changed little in the month-plus since the Black Lives Matters protests began, the discourse around the just use of technology is encouraging. Here, we can point to Afrofuturist works like poet and scholar Jackie Wang’s “The Cybernetic Cop,” a 2018 multimedia performance and essay that uses imagery from 1987’s Robocop to articulate the perils of technology-driven policing. As racism is a character in the story, the essay highlights the interaction between modern technology and the unethical trappings of modern policing. It might only have been artful or symbolic, but her essay became much more prescient following the January 2020 arrest of Julian-Borchak Williams, in the first high-profile instance of a mistaken arrest resulting from an error in an algorithm.
Technology-as-instrument-of-control is one of sci-fi’s oldest tropes. But it is in how this manifests in policing that the Afrofuturist finds its voice: The technology that we use simply reinforces the lines that humans have already drawn. As America’s defining line has always been a racial one, technology often acts to redouble them.
A Pessimist and a Futurist Walk into 2020
While Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests are well underway, the 2020 election season is just rounding into shape. Thinking about events that haven’t yet happened is the truest test of any futurist philosophy. The point is not to predict the events exactly, but to ask of our futurism: What possibilities does it offer?
Purely pessimistic takes on the future are unsatisfying because of their poverty. That the racists will win in the long run is a reasonable prediction, but we need more. How will this happen? What will the resistance actually look like? History works like science fiction: We want to know who did what and why they did it, even if we know who wins in the end.
Nelson says that an Afrofuturist lens on today tells us that “dystopia can be an enduring state for Black communities, but that utopia is also always being imagined, embodied, dreamed, and constituted in everyday acts of thriving.” The Afrofuturist cannot tell you about the trajectory of an epidemic, predict the future of policing, or an election’s outcome. But it can say that, whatever our plights, a better world is possible. And more specifically, that an interaction with technology offers us a route to resistance.
In Covid-19, the Afrofuturist calls on us to think about the use of technology to ameliorate the effects of the pandemic. Yes, a vaccine is the best public health hope. But what other organic innovations may allow us to subvert the worst consequences? Might the rise of the remote DJ dance party be more than another form of entertainment but also a means of recreating Black spaces in our newly isolated society? Similarly, the emergence of the mask as a defining piece of personal protective equipment presents an opportunity for Afrofuturist fashion designers to fuse their inspiration and creativity with responsible public health behavior. Only months ago, few things sparked fear like a masked Black person. Now it is a symbol of safety, and support of science.
With regards to our efforts to rethink criminal justice and policing, the Afrofuturist says that we should rewire technological devices of control (literally and figuratively) to work in our favor. After all, Black Lives Matter and related hashtag activist movements are strikingly Afrofuturist: They utilize existing technology to amplify their signal and build coalitions. Even more, the use of cameras on mobile phones to record acts of violence is also Afrofuturist. Even though the cameras weren’t designed to fuel civil disobedience, we wouldn’t be having discussions about how to dismantle corrupt systems in law enforcement without them.
Similar things apply to the global fight against fascism. The Afrofuturist points to Generation Zoom’s recent use of TikTok to embarrass a political campaign, as an example of the possibility for technology to facilitate creative protest.
These are radical notions, as technology is often weaponized at the expense of the disenfranchised. But Afrofuturism reminds us that Black culture in much of the world is a remix culture, and liberation emerges from the recombination between our artistic and political ambitions, and whatever tools are at our disposal. When we consider this, Afrofuturism predicts that the events of 2020 will breed new techno-political movements (as it already has), new artistic forms, means of expression, discoveries, and philosophies.
When considered in this light, Afrofuturism can even rescue the Afropessimists from their despair: Yes, some people will always suffer disproportionately from political ineptitude, negligence, and malevolence. But our imagination can offer a pathway for recovery in a post-comet world, and craft realities that are more just and colorful than the ones in your standard fictional utopias.
Photographs: Bettmann/Getty Images; Marvel Studios
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