When we dream and theorize, we are often building an alternate reality in our minds. A world for us to exist safely and as we see fit. For many BIPOC navigating an imperialist society, it’s not uncommon to cultivate and adopt alternative modalities to move through. Afrofuturism explores the ways in which Black thinkers imagine an existence radically different from the one we inhabit corporeally. The term, first coined by Mark Dery in 1993, encompasses a wide range of imaginative art, music, and culture from Black creators.
The study of Afrofuturism also allows us to confront certain aspects of our reality through a fantastical lens, a concept often explored through literature and science fiction. The following Afrofuturistic readings from Black women and non-binary writers inhabit the expansive world of speculative fiction while exploring themes of identity, intersectionality, mortality, magical realism, and surrealism.
Kindred b y Octavia Butler
Considered by many to be the “grand dame” of speculative fiction, Octavia Butler was known for reimagining the public’s perception of time and space by writing about the possibilities of Black people moving through these concepts. Kindred explores the moral and personal tribulations faced by the protagonist Dana, as she awakens from an accident she can’t recall. The story follows her time traveling journeys between the bicentennial of America’s founding to a plantation in colonial Maryland and back again, while navigating an interracial relationship in a post-Civil Rights era California. Published in 1979, the book notably defies genres and was even adapted to a graphic novel format in 2013. Other texts to explore: Butler’s Earthseed series, which includes the ever-referential novels Parables of the Sower and Parables of the Talents.
Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture by Ytasha Womack
The multi-hyphenate writer and futurist Ytasha Womack released this quintessential analysis of Afrofuturism in 2013. Womack explores the ways in which artists have always moved through mediums and modalities. She highlights different aspects and standouts of fantasy culture, from mermaids to mysticism, Star Trek c osplay to Sun Ra. The author ties together a narrative that defies the chronological, exploring how the blueprint for dreaming and imagination has been laid by the legions of creatives who make up the African diaspora. Throughout the anthology, Womack also meaningfully recalls the work of Butler and Okorafor, mentioned above. Fans of this book should also turn their attention to Womack’s Rayla 2212 s eries.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel Freshwater melds autobiography and fiction to craft a story that explores gender identity and spirituality outside of a narrowly Western context. In Freshwater, their storytelling moves between various perspectives, known collectively as “the We”, as inhabited by the body of main character Ada. The story, much of which is set in Nigeria, follows the protagonist through travels across continents and through the experiences of human and divine consciousness, while exploring the fluidity of gender and the integration of all these experiences. Emezi has a knack for telling stories that tap into the expansiveness of identity, while prompting readers to explore these concepts within themselves. Their third novel, “Death of Vivek Oji” was released August 4th.
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Similar to Butler’s Kindred, Rivers Solomon explores the racial hierarchies of a modern society within the evolution of different generations and eras in their debut novel. The work revolves around the character Aster, a healer who inhabits a spaceship plagued by a tendency to repeat history. Colorism is reflected in the layout of the ship; fairer folks live towards the top with abundant privileges, while people with darker skin tones face scrutiny and harm at the bottom. Gender fluidity and neurodiversity are themes presented throughout the text in a way that centers the character Aster, not just the differences faced by others’ perception of these attributes. The story also invokes generational trauma and the necessity of healing from it. Recently, Solomon released a book titled The Deep, inspired by a song from experimental rap group clipping.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Who Fears Death portrays the coming-of-age redemption story of someone born of conflict. Onyesonwu, the protagonist whose Igbo name translates to the title of the book, seeks to rise above the reality of a post-apocalyptic existence following a devastating civil war. The novel also speaks to the pain inflicted by cultural and physical domination, as well as colorism. Okorafor has authored Afrofuturist YA novels and comics, including a series surrounding Black Panther’s Shuri for the Marvel Universe. Who Fears Death i s currently in early development by HBO for TV adaptation.