Afrofuturism, Black Panther, and Introducing Black Perspectives to the Science Fiction Genre

Abayomi Lowe

A young African girl accepts her admission into the galaxy’s most prestigious university. Without the permission of her parents, she leaves planet Earth and engages in an intergalactic adventure consisting of futuristic space travel and aliens. Along her journey, the girl discovers the clay she puts on her hair and skin as a part of her tribe’s tradition has special healing powers. Using her wits and the gifts of her heritage, she travels the galaxy, brokers peace between warring alien races and ultimately succeeds as the protagonist.

This is the plot of the first novella in Nnedi Okorafor’s award-winning afro-futurist series, Binti: The Complete Trilogy. “Binti”, doubling as the name of the young African girl and the name of Okorafor’s novella exemplifies the literary, social, artistic, and scientific movement that is Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism, a term first coined by American author Mark Dery in his essay, “Black to the Future”, represents the intersection of science fiction, fantasy, and Afrocentricity. 

In her novella, Okorafor uses a futuristic and an other-worldly context to employ themes of excellence, highlight African cultural traditions, and imagine a new narrative for Africa and the African diaspora. These are the fundamental aspects of Afrofuturism. Other traditions such as Black Joy, Black Nationalism, and Black Pride also promote Afrocentrism, pride, and excellence. However, Afrofuturism is unique in that it is relatively new, dating back to the 1960s and 1970s with jazz composer Sun Ra and has come into prominence more recently in 2018 with the release of the film Black Panther. And Afrofuturism is unique in how it has a direct connection to the realm of science fiction. Because of its uniqueness and for the following reasons, Afrofuturism’s contributions to the African diaspora and Africana Studies are significant. Afrofuturism provides black artists and writers with a means of introducing more black stories into the realm of science fiction and offers a mainstream portrayal of black existence that is not in resistance to whiteness.

Historically, the genre of science fiction has left non-white characters out of its depictions of advanced science and the future of humanity. Less than a third of the top 50 highest-grossing science fiction films since 1977 featured at least one black lead. The genre’s lack of non-white characters has important implications on the representation of Africans and African descendants. In an article by Dr. Helen Klus titled, “Imagining the future: Why society needs science fiction”, Dr. Klus explains the significance of science fiction in individuals’ perceptions of humanity. In summary, science fiction allows individuals to imagine an idealistic future, which is one of the first steps to building a more desirable future for humanity. Therefore, the visible lack of black stories in science fiction is problematic. Excluding blackness from popular science fiction films conveys the message that black stories are not important in the consideration of the future of humanity. While this may not be the explicit message of these films, imagining the future strictly through a white lens only perpetuates the marginalization of people who identify themselves as black.

Afrofuturism provides black directors with a means of bringing black stories to the forefront when imagining alternative realities. Most notably, the film Black Panther, by director Ryan Coogler, brought an Afro-futuristic depiction of Africa and Africans into the mainstream. For the first time, a utopian depiction of an African country led by a black superhero was at forefront of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a multibillion-dollar franchise. In the film, Coogler masterfully balanced the portrayal of a technologically advanced society with careful considerations toward Afrocentric stylistic choices. Coogler designed the country in which the protagonist, King T’Challa, originates from to pay homage to real African cultural traditions. A couple of the African influences in the film include the frequent appearance Bathoso blanket worn by Sotho people in Southern Africa. Additionally, actor Chadwick Boseman deliberately chose to adopt a Xhosa accent for his role of T’Challa despite Marvel’s request for the Wakandans to have British accents. While it may seem obvious that a film set in Africa would take inspiration from African cultures, Black Panther differs from traditional depictions of African culture by how it celebrates African cultures rather than portray them in a more backward, or “savage” way. 

Overall, Wakanda suggests that a non-white society could be technologically advanced and be founded upon Afrocentrism rather that Eurocentrism. In effect, this conveys a deeper message about the complexity and sophistication of African and Afrodiasporic people as well as the cultures and countries from which they originate. This is in stark contrast to traditional western depictions of Africa in popular media that tend to focus on its negative aspects like poverty, war, and hunger. The non-stereotypic image of an African country displayed in Black Panther plays an important role in eroding the negative racial stereotypes people around the world have about African and its descendants. 

Furthermore, Black Panther uses Afrofuturism as a means of portraying blackness in a way that it is not in resistance to whiteness. Unscathed by colonialism, Wakanda is not only technologically advanced and economically sound but Wakandan’s inhabitants were never the subjects of racism, white supremacy, or racial injustice. As explained by author Kevin Quashie in his book, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, in the politics of representation, blackness as an identity is meant to say something about race or offer resistance to racism. Understanding black existence through solely through a lens of resistance limits the frameworks for thinking about blackness and is dehumanizing for individuals who identify themselves as black. Coogler’s representation of Wakanda contributes to the positive expansion of the frameworks for thinking about blackness. Since the citizens of Wakanda are not directly affected by racism and therefore exist without the pretext of resistance. This demonstrates the significance that Afrofuturism has in Africana Studies. The genre makes seeing black existence through a black lense mainstream which ultimately helps to further public understanding of blackness.

The implications Afrofuturism has on science fiction, film, and Africana stretch beyond entertainment purposes and far fetched imaginations. Afrofuturism places a black perspective into the ever-important realm of science fiction and continues to bring that perspective to the forefront of attention in regards to film. As one of the goals of Africana is to explore identity and blackness as an identity, Afrofuturism as a mode of thought contributes to that exploration. In the words of writer Saffiyyah Muhummad in her article, “Blacks in the World of Sci-Fi”, “[Afrofuturism] captures the essence of Blackness and presents a positive futuristic view of what it means to be Black.” By nature, Afrofuturism is powerfully optimistic. This optimism, along with its many other contributions, might be one of Afrofuturism’s most important contributions to Africa and the African Diaspora.

Bibliography

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Dery, Mark. Flame Wars: the Discourse by Cyberculture. Duke University Press, 1994.

Klus, Helen. “Imagining the Future: Why Society Needs Science Fiction.” The Star Garden, 6 Aug. 2017, www.thestargarden.co.uk/Why-society-needs-science-fiction.html.

Lieu, Johnny. “Marvel Wanted Wakandans in ‘Black Panther’ to Have British Accents.” Mashable, Mashable, 4 Sept. 2018, mashable.com/article/black-panther-british-accent/.

“List of Highest-Grossing Science Fiction Films.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 2 Nov. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_highest-grossing_science_fiction_films.

Muhummad, Saffiyyah. “The Final Call.” Fi, 2014, www.finalcall.com/artman/publish/Features_10/article_101152.shtml.

Murray, Ruben. “’Black Panther’ and the Politics of Afrofuturism.” International Policy Digest, 9 Nov. 2018, intpolicydigest.org/2018/03/10/black-panther-and-the-politics-of-afrofuturism/.

MutemaStaff, Eric, and Eric Mutema. “The African Influences In The Black Panther.” Africa.com, 19 Apr. 2018, www.africa.com/the-african-influences-in-the-black-panther/.

Okorafor, Nnedi. “Binti Summary & Study Guide.” SuperSummary, www.supersummary.com/binti/summary/.

Okorafor, Nnedi. “Transcript of ‘Sci-Fi Stories That Imagine a Future Africa.’” TED, www.ted.com/talks/nnedi_okorafor_sci_fi_stories_that_imagine_a_future_africa/transcript?language=en.

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4 thoughts on “Afrofuturism, Black Panther, and Introducing Black Perspectives to the Science Fiction Genre”

  1. Abayomi Lowe closely read Afrofuturism in both historical and contemporary notions of science fiction. Lowe’s blog post also argued why it is important for the genre to be open to Black representation and the author specifically supported this claim with an analysis of director Ryan Coogler’s involvement in making Black Panther. Lowe Black Panther and Afrofuturism in conversation with Kevin Quashi’s “Quiet” and how the blockbuster hit did more than resist dominant narratives. It created a universe in which all the -isms did not exist.

    Question: How would Black Panther be different if someone non-white directed it, or a woman?

  2. I really appreciated your analysis on the historical and contemporary notions. Movies that are as impacting as Black Panther are often hard to come by, especially when it resists dominant ideals among the world we live in. Do you think Black Panther would have the same impact if it was written in as if it was a society that overcame Eurocentric ideals instead of stemming from ONLY Afrocentric ones?

  3. I thought this post very eloquently explained the value of Afrofuturism as a means of reimagining black narratives through science fiction. It is incredibly important to be able to envision a future which has space for blackness and black identities, and much of the science fiction genre does not do that. These Afrofuturist narratives that you referenced place blackness within the context of progress. I especially found interesting your analysis of the Black Panther film as an Afrofuturist film that deals not with the black diaspora but the African identity itself which has generally been relegated to the past and imagined as primitive compared to modern Western society. I wonder, does the envisioning of a Wakandan narrative exemplify a sort of outlier, a fictional society untouched by colonialism which can exist in this futuristic space whereas other, real African countries cannot, or does it work to empower the African identity and centralize it around a narrative of scientific progress?

    1. Sophia,

      Your last question really got me thinking about what further potential implications the portrayal of Wakanda might have on the perception of Africa. When writing this I assumed that the sole role of the Wakandan narrative was to empower the African identity, but I never considered that some might perceive Wakanda as somewhat of an untouchable dream that real African countries can only aspire towards. I guess that Wakanda might have either effect varying from person to person. What do you think about this idea? Is the idea behind Wakanda inherently good because it portrays African people in a regal and futuristic light, or could it be problematic in the sense that it makes other countries look “bad” in comparison?

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