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A History of Black Futures

From Benjamin Banneker’s Almanac to P. Funk’s Mothership, from Octavia Butler’s fiction to the Black Panther suit, Afrofuturism has provided a dynamic outlet for authors, thinkers, artists, and activists to understand and interpret the history of race and Black cultural identity.

Drawing from the past and present through a prism of technology and fantasy, Afrofuturism provides a powerful lens for imagining the African American experience. From artists to astronauts, the themes of Afrofuturism reflect the forward-facing possibilities of Black life—possibilities which stretch beyond contemporary reality.

Afrofuturism tells us about how the past thought about the future; and how African Americans dreamt of worlds they wished to occupy and soon brought into being.

Kevin Young, Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture

Cover of Octavia Butler’s 1977 science fiction novel Mind of My Mind

In 1993 cultural critic Mark Dery coined the term Afrofuturism. But even before the name Afrofuturism existed, the ideas of Afrofuturism were long present—for African Americans have always reimagined their pasts, sought a better present, and envisioned brighter futures.

Cover of Octavia Butler’s 1977 science fiction novel Mind of My Mind

Space Is the Place

Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura on the 1968 Star Trek: The Original Series episode ‘Assignment Earth’

Afrofuturism has an African past. From Ancient Egypt to the Setswana peoples, to the Malian empire, African art, philosophy, symbols, and cultural practices, though strikingly diverse, also emphasize connections—of people, places, and ideas throughout time and across the universe.

Afrofuturism’s conceptual roots as a platform for transformative ideas, expressions, and themes also trace back to America’s origins. Reimagining Black futures amid the backdrop of slavery and racism, proto-Afrofuturists utilized literacy as a new and essential “technology” to empower the enslaved. With the written word, the power of literacy and invention helped lay new tracks for the Underground Railroad and created spaces and pathways for Black people to re-imagine their futures as free individuals.

Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura on the 1968 Star Trek: The Original Series episode ‘Assignment Earth’

Benjamin Banneker’s Almanac

Afrofuturism has deep historic roots. Early Black Americans like Benjamin Banneker used their hard earned educations to study the skies and hypothesize new futures.

Infinite Possibilities

Still from the 2014 film Afronauts, by Ghanaian-born filmmaker Nuotama Frances Bodomo

Space is a dominant metaphor within Afrofuturist literature, music, and art. It serves as a broad canvas for the designs of the present and the possibilities of the future. Space is also the literal place where the exploratory dreams of Afrofuturists become a reality. In the hands of writers, musicians, and visual artists, Afrofuturism becomes a tool that helps tell the African American story. By harnessing themes of liberation, escape, transformation, and the cosmos, Afrofuturism provides a platform for unbound Black possibility.

Still from the 2014 film Afronauts, by Ghanaian-born filmmaker Nuotama Frances Bodomo

Musical Futures

Afrofuturist jazz harpist and composer Alice Coltrane

Since the advent of Sun Ra’s futuristic jazz in the mid-1950s, musical Afrofuturism, and its themes of innovation and liberation, have reached a global audience. Afrofuturist musicians have adapted and utilized new musical technologies with synthesizers, effects pedals, cutting-edge recording equipment, and more—to forge new musical grammars that liberate music from its traditional forms. In the process, artists have explored a wider range of sounds—and thematic meanings—in their music.

Afrofuturist jazz harpist and composer Alice Coltrane

Afrofuturist Flashpoints in Black Music

Through technological experimentation, lyrical speculation, and forward-looking design, Black artists have used Afrofuturistic ideals as a medium to liberate their artistry and create new musical futures. This timeline highlights where Afrofuturist expression can be seen in Black musical history, whether through experiments in composition, the design of new technologies, or the exploring of ideas.

At the top of the cover, Parliament is in yellow and pink font over a galaxy, above a UFO space ship.

Sonic Architects

Musician Solange Knowles performing

Afrofuturism is deeply rooted in collaboration – collaboration that leads to new sounds that utilize new technology to design new musical landscapes.

Yet while Afrofuturism exists as an intellectual platform for building imaginative worlds, it can also function as a practical platform for building real spaces. From the tightly-woven artistic communities of early jazz, to the urban Black Arts Movements of the ’60s and ’70s, and to the formation of the Black Rock Coalition, community-building is an essential element of Afrofuturism.

Musician Solange Knowles performing

The Mothership

Afrofuturism has inspired musicians in myriad ways—not just in sonic forms, but in costuming, set design, and performance. Parliament Funkadelic’s Mothership is a prime example of how Black music and visions of the future have joined together in unexpected ways.

Speculative Worlds

Cover of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire comic book

To imagine a new world is to define a need, a yearning, and African Americans have long sought new worlds beyond present realities. From enslaved Africans yearning for spiritual freedom to modern-day African Americans designing new worlds in print and on screen, envisioning better, freer futures has always been a part of the African American experience.

Utilizing fictional landscapes to explore subjects of rebellion and resistance has also been a key subject for black authors. Many writers have used fiction to reflect on shifting ideals concerning race and technology within a newly industrialized age. Black science fiction writers like Samuel Delany and Octavia E. Butler used the science fiction genre to explore issues of identity, exile, history, and purpose.

Cover of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire comic book

Octavia E. Butler’s Typewriter

Science fiction has long been a home for Afrofuturist authors. Black authors like Octavia Butler imagine new pasts and new futures in order to better understand the present.

ReAnimation and ReInvention

Groundbreaking science fiction writer Samuel Delany

Afrofuturism also found a home in the popular literature of comic books, where writers and illustrators created worlds where science fiction and the African diaspora intertwine. Beginning in the late 1940s, the number of African American comic books grew, though many struggled to find mainstream success. By the 1960s and 1970s, Black comic book heroes like Luke Cage and the Black Panther entered the mainstream. Strength, fearlessness, excellence, forthrightness, and even genius became the calling card of these new heroes.

Groundbreaking science fiction writer Samuel Delany

Visualizing Afrofuturism

Carl Hall and Stephanie Mills in the 1978 stage production The Wiz

Afrofuturism has influenced what we've seen and experienced on stage and screens for decades. Through depictions of Black characters and stories in futuristic and fantastical worlds, Afrofuturism provides the creative platform to incorporate larger stories that speak to themes of Black liberation, social equality, and a futuristic, utopian vision for an inclusive and diverse society.

On stage and screen, representation matters. Representation is important so that art and media can reflect the diversity of society. Afrofuturism provides a platform for reimagining Black characters in traditionally white roles.

The Broadway smash-hit The Wiz provides a clear example of this reimagination. Billed as a “supersoul musical,” The Wiz is an African American-led and performed adaptation of The Wizard of Oz that debuted on Broadway in 1975. The play’s narrative explores Afrofuturist themes, reimagining Black characters in white roles and incorporating mysticism, time traveling, and liberation in the story.

Carl Hall and Stephanie Mills in the 1978 stage production The Wiz

Black Panther Suit

When Chadwick Boseman first appeared on screen as Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, he was wearing the suit pictured below. The suit combines ancient cultural traditions with technology.

Building Black Worlds

Still from Black Panther (2018), with Lupita Nyong'o as Nakia, Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, and Danai Gurira as Okoye

Seeing heroes of color, or seeing Black villains who aren't one-dimensional stereotypes, or seeing powerful women in roles typically occupied by men—with the global reach of film and television—these aspects of representation become even more powerful.

The global success of Black Panther emphasizes this concept, presenting Wakanda, the fictional African kingdom, as a utopian Black society bridging the tribal traditions of African cultures with a futuristic vision. Portraying Black characters in the most technologically advanced civilization in the world, Wakanda is a symbol of the vision, influence, and potential of Afrofuturism.

Still from Black Panther (2018), with Lupita Nyong'o as Nakia, Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, and Danai Gurira as Okoye

Watch this digital space to continue a journey through reimagined pasts and galactic futures as Searchable Museum expands Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures throughout 2023.