When walking through the National Museum of African American History and Culture, you may stumble upon one of the museum’s newest, most vibrant and colorful special exhibitions: Afrofuturism: a history of black futures. This exhibit is host to familiar images such as T’Challa’s suit from “Black Panther,” along with many albums and literary works by afrofuturism’s most important historical figures such as musician Sun Ra, and novelist Octavia E. Butler. Futuristic themes from contemporary musician and author Janelle Monae’s novels and videos are also on display, highlighting the developments this concept has undergone in recent years.
While the exhibition beautifully displays black futuristic artwork, literature, fashion and cinema, afrofuturism can be a difficult concept to understand — which might be the point. We don’t know what the future holds, and that’s exactly what the wonder and excitement is for. We are invited to imagine these brilliant universes in which black people are space explorers, cyborgs, aliens and grand technological creations. Afrofuturism allows us to imagine and be creative when we have been so often told we have nothing to offer besides our bodies.
Afrofuturism is a general concept in the arts, including a literary genre. More importantly, though, it is a story. Stories have power. The power to form worlds beyond our present comprehension. Afrofuturism centers technology, science-fiction and other futuristic aspects into black art and literature, in a way telling us that technology can be our liberation in a world where technology has often been the root of our subjugation. A plaque describing the Black Lives Matter movement explains how the use of technology helped make BLM into the world’s largest social movement for Black liberation: “Using technology to organize, protest, and shape the public discourse about race, the movement challenges the nation to grapple with racism, police violence, and the value of Black lives in America.”
As I walked around the exhibit, I approached viewers on their understanding and experience with this idea and I stumbled upon Bay Area poet and author, Jazz Monique Hudson.
“Instead of telling young people ‘you are the future,’ afrofuturism says to them ‘you are the now,’ which I think is more powerful,” Hudson said. I came to fully understand this most clearly when I spoke with Ronald H Smith, Director of the KARSH STEM scholarship at nearby Howard University — a program that offers full scholarships to exceptional STEM students who are looking to pursue a graduate degree in their field. While our conversation did not touch on the exhibit, or the word “afrofuturism,” we talked at length about futures — mine and those of other young, black students across the country. We should talk about our futures as if they are our present, because that is the way to encourage them to exist.
While admiring an image from the 1974 film “Space is the Place,” I spoke with a man visiting from London (he chose to remain anonymous), and he described what he most appreciated about afrofuturism: “Afrofuturism does not only center the experience of black Americans or Africans, instead encompassing the whole of Africans and African descendants across the globe.” His experience of blackness outside of what we often think in our US-centric perspectives can so often be forgotten when discussing black liberation, but afrofuturism includes every black person as a requirement of its existence.
Because of the intentional erasure and removal of many African cultures and traditions over hundreds of years of oppression, many African descendants have experienced centuries-long struggles to understand themselves and who they belong to. The concept of Afrofuturism allows for each diaspora to come together under one umbrella — each with their own unique heritages — looking towards the future rather than the past in order to guide each person’s understanding of their identity.